Thoughts on "Ishmael"

The Ishmael web site stimulated me to re-read the book, this time commenting. I've bought several extra copies and given them out to friends.

Possible elaboration on Chapter 3-4:

The jellyfish, talking to the anthropologist, sees jellyfish as the final result of evolution, and the human sees humanity the same way.

Ishmael: "Why is it you are able to see that evolution goes beyond the jellyfish?"

Human: "Because I, through science, have observed the evolution of the jellyfish, and other beings that evolved after it. I've seen the bigger picture."

"And how might another being a million years in the future see the evolution of humans? Will he see that they stopped evolving, stayed the same for the next million years? Would that seem to be the best possible outcome of the human story?"

Thoughts on Chapter 5:

How to split the atom is specific knowledge. "How to live" is a general question, requiring every bit of knowledge in our world. The answer is just as complex. We can turn to prophets, especially if they're no longer with us to display their uncertainty. Or we can make do with what we have.

Chapter 6-5

Our world IS at the center of "our universe" ("our" doesn't always signify possession, as in "my prison"). The fact that it isn't at the center of "local" mass is insignificant. We can see equally well and distant in all directions, at least as the Earth turns, and as we orbit the sun and the galactic center with it's dust clouds and such. In fact not being at the center of mass results in such orbits, giving us parallax, or lack of same, indicating the universe is vast.

Chapter 6-7

A falling body, such as a poorly designed aircraft, isn't in free fall. It reaches a "terminal" velocity, which may change with changes in orientation or design while falling. Likewise, the "Taker Thunderbolt" can change its falling speed with change in orientation or design. Therefore, perhaps it can even reduce it's speed to zero before it reaches the ground, though we're beginning to be scraped by some branches of tall trees along the way.

A person doesn't usually step off a cliff without first building a gadget that he can imagine will at least slow his final descent sufficiently for him to survive. The Taker Thunderbolt is like a gambler creating a "system" that will allow him to beat the house, while ignoring inherent factors that make it unlikely.

Chapter 8-1

The general law of "the wild" says compete the best you can. Being animals, Takers follow this law also, sometimes in the form of "The best defense is a good offense". It's just that we do it too well and don't look at the long term consequences. We're not "at war with [the world]", just competing very efficiently. As animals, we probably can't go back to being just animals, competing less efficiently, without (or until) a collapse of civilization. Then we'll simply evolve from leavers to takers once again. We must go on to something more than animals, which live by instincts.

"I mean simply that, with his very first bite, Homo Habilis was in competition with something. And not with one thing, with a thousand things - which all had to be diminished in some small degree if Homo Habilis was going to live. This is true of every single species that ever came into being on this planet."

This seems a little strong to me. Evolution is a matter of using the available energy in more efficient ways to enhance and increase life, consciousness, the (continuing) search for Truth or you name it. This is what we mean by "progress. A "managed" system, including a system of evolution, is potentially more efficient than a "natural" system. A new species could _potentially_ enhance life for "every" other species.

Chapter 8-8

"It won't tell you whether mood-altering drugs should be legalized or not [etc.]. It will tell you how you have to live if you want to avoid extermination."

You're saying the law will give you the general rule but not specific rules? Then what good is it? I say specific rules are then derived from the general rule.

Richard Bolles' book, What Color is your Parachute, has an exercise for finding your ultimate principle, your "God" in my terms. Think of an activity that's very important to you and ask yourself "Why". Ask Why about each answer until you can't find an answer. Then you have your ultimate principle, for "now", the God which you worship above all else. (My version includes using many other starting points, such as "What would I do if I inherited $10,000,000, or found I had six months to live? Why?" If you end up with more than one "God", compare them to find a still higher one.)

The next step is to find other ways to worship that God. Create another ladder going back down to specific rules for living.

Chapter 9

The Leavers created the story of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel, but the reality was that the farmers out-competed the herders. The herders were more primitive, and nomadic. They didn't lay claim to land, but went where the grass was plentiful. The farmers probably didn't have to fight much. They just settled, planted the crops they wanted and destroyed the "weeds" and the herders would go elsewhere, individuals or families vs. a settled community. I'm not sure this applies, but any vegetarian will tell you, it takes much less land to feed a vegetarian than to feed a meat-eater, therefore more people per acre. Any culture that learns to out-compete others becomes a Taker culture.

How about writing a more elaborate history of the middle east based on these factors?

Perhaps he's saying solutions to the basic problem of history have been over-emphasis on various forms of insurance, exchanging excitement of "the wild" for the security of civilization. I've never been enthusiastic about insurance, or rules to protect me from myself.

The Leavers worry less because living in the hands of the gods (chance, unpredictability) means not being able to affect one's future. Worry comes from seeing possibilities of bettering one's self or one's descendants, but so does "progress".

I once had a game, I think actually called "Environment". Each player represented a species. It talked about habitats and other environmental factors, but to "win", you had to exterminate all other species. Now I'm wondering if the idea was to learn to not follow the rules and instead create a long term win-win survival environment. But as a game, this needs a climax so we can go back to reality games. It should end instead with a view to continued "progress".

Like with human evolution, perhaps every destructive conflict has been the result of an excessive gap between rich and poor (in one form or another) in close proximity. In the case of human vs. animal, the wealth was in terms of ability to kill.

It would be interesting to know how many readers see the book as overly obvious, how many are "astonished" by the conclusions, how many are hostile to it and how many miss the whole point. It would be difficult to get an accurate count. I put myself between the first and second categories, as would probably most who respond.

Here's a bit that I liked from "Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series, maybe "Restaurant at the end of the Universe": The ultimate punishment was a machine that gave one the ability to observe the whole infinite universe in every detail, and one's infinitely insignificant part in it.

What's a good response to people who say that affluence brings about reduction in population growth? I say yes, but it's probably only temporary, and it can never stop growth.

I've argued for a welfare system that would not give money for doing nothing, but would give the "necessities" of life - food, shelter, medical care... with no questions asked. If I had my way, when it's medically possible, *the free food would contain a contraceptive, affecting both men and women.* Perhaps there'd be an easily available antidote. In any case, to conceive, one could get a job to avoid the free food for a month or so. The more people on such a system, the better, at least if there's still any correlation at all between wealth and long term ecological viability.


Send me your thoughts.
Dan Robinson, danrob@efn.org, Eugene, Oregon
My home page: http://www.efn.org/~danrob/