Ishmael and the narrator begin by discussing Nazi Germany. Ishmael asserts that Hitler kept not only Jews captive, but the German people as well. To ensure this captivity, he told his people a story, about how their Aryan race had been deprived of its rightful place in the world, and must reclaim it.
Ishmael compares those German citizens to people in contemporary society the world over. Like the Germans, mankind today is living out a "story" that they know by the time they are "six or seven," a story that covers all areas of life including race, politics, and nationality (36). The story is so ingrained in culture that it operates like background noise; nobody actually hears it, even though it continues to play. Confused, the narrator is skeptical of these abstract claims, but Ishmael is not deterred.
Instead, Ishmael suggests that the narrator's sense of being lied to results from a vague awareness of this story, and the pressure to conform to that story. Whereas a German during the Nazi era had the option to leave the country, the narrator cannot simply abandon the story, since it is being enacted throughout the entire world. People must conform to it in order to survive; the only way out is through death.
The lesson Ishmael wishes to teach involves identifying this story and its effect. He warns the narrator that once he learns to discern the voice of "Mother Culture" humming this story in the background, he will remain always conscious of it, and be thereby alienated from the people around him (37). The narrator is ready to proceed nevertheless.
First, Ishmael establishes the vocabulary that they must use in order to avoid abstraction. He suggests calling the world's 'civilized' people the "Takers," and the 'primitive' people the "Leavers" (38). No matter where they live, Takers are united by their desire for and embrace of civilization, while Leavers are united in their eschewal of civilization.
Second, Ishmael establishes a general “map” of where their journey is heading (39). Mother Culture provides a general explanation of how the world came to be as it is, beginning ten or fifteen billions years ago to the present day. Each person has assembled this story for himself through various sources, like parents, textbooks, teachers, newspapers and so on, and accepts it as fact. Ishmael claims that the journey they take will change the narrator's perspective; he will develop a new understanding of how things came to be as they are.
Third, Ishmael defines certain words that will have a special meaning in their discourse. A "story" is a scenario that connects and explains the relationship between man, the world, and the gods. "To enact" means to live so as to make the story a reality. "Culture" involves a people enacting a particular story (41).
Ishmael asserts that two different stories have been enacted over the lifetime of man. The Leavers began enacting their story two or three million years ago, and continue to do so. The Takers story, on the other hand, began merely ten or twelve thousand years ago, and is yet apparently about to end in catastrophe.
Mother Culture teaches that the Leavers story was chapter one of human history, while the Takers ushered in a new, superior chapter. Ishmael, however, does not believe the stories are chronological in this way. Instead, he believes that the two groups are enacting two separate stories based on contradictory premises.
Ishmael challenges the narrator to identify the story that Mother Culture tells, a story that explains "how things came to be this way" (44), a story that allows humans to remain calm even as they watch themselves slowly devastate the world.
When the narrator is unable to think of such a story, Ishmael introduces the idea of a living mythology (a story that a civilization enacts). He then tells the narrator to return the next day, prepared to start at the beginning, by telling him a creation myth.
The next day, the narrator arrives at Ishmael’s office, to find a tape recorder set by his chair. Ishmael asks him to speak of the Taker creation myth, and to record himself as he does so.
The narrator asserts that there is no creation myth in contemporary civilization. Ishmael counters that no creation story is considered a myth by those who tell it, but they exist nevertheless.
Somewhat convinced, the narrator recounts the generally accepted history of the universe, beginning with the Big Bang theory, progressing through the theory of evolution, and ending with the appearance of man. However, he insists that this story involves facts and can hence not be considered a myth. Ishmael agrees that the story contains facts, but argues that the way the facts are arranged are what make it a myth, and that the narrator has accepted this arrangement from Mother Culture. The narrator is confused, so Ishmael tells a story of his own.
In Ishmael's story, an anthropologist roams the Earth alone, half a billion years ago. Eventually, the anthropologist discovers a jellyfish floating in the waves, and asks it to tell him its culture’s creation myth. Indignant, the jellyfish replies that there is no creation myth (much in the same way that the narrator refused to acknowledge such a myth). Instead, the jellyfish tells the anthropologist a factual account similar to the narrator's, except that its version ends with the appearance of jellyfish.
Though initially indignant, the narrator quickly realizes Ishmael's point: human culture operates under a creation myth in which man is considered the climax of evolution. Even though the universe continues to develop and evolution occur, humans implicitly assume that the Earth was made for them, since they were its finest and ultimate creation.
Ishmael asserts that Takers regard the Earth as a life support system - since they consider themselves the universe's central event, they expect it is be subservient to them. Ishmael asks the narrator to interject the gods into the story, and the latter pieces together that Mother Culture's creation myth assumes that the gods created the Earth solely to engender and support man.
The narrator then concludes that the premise of the Taker’s story is that "the world was made for man" (61). Ishmael suggests the dangerous extension of this premise: man is entitled to treat the Earth however he wants. In short, this story allows man to blame everything on the gods, since it was they who gave man dominance. If the Earth is being destroyed, that must be what the gods wanted.
This ends the first part of the story of "how things came to be this way" (62). Ishmael dismisses the narrator, and says they will continue with the "middle of the story" on the next day (63).
Mythology becomes quite significant in the second part of Ishmael, as the gorilla establishes a vocabulary to guide the rest of the conversation. First, he effectively splits humans into two categories, the Leavers and the Takers. This is probably the novel's most important and enduring distinction for many readers, and is certainly its most controversial. In explaining how the world has reached such a potentially destructive era, Ishmael largely blames the civilized people whom we usually assume are superior to the more primitive Leavers.
The sense of a myth or a "story" being enacted is central to Quinn's ultimate thesis. First, it is important to acknowledge that he does not necessarily criticize the existence of such a cultural story. On the contrary, he approves of the story that the Leavers enact. That the Leavers cannot necessarily articulate their story does not compromise its virtue or effectiveness. However, by comparing the story that the Takers tell to that of Nazi Germany, he makes an unambiguous point: some stories ensure death and destruction. In cases like this, the intangible existence of the story is particularly dangerous, since it must first be identified if it is going to change instead of dooming those who believe in it.
Further, the Takers story is dangerous because it requires everyone to accept it if they are to "get fed." And yet it is interesting that despite this implication of a power dynamic, there is no particular person perpetuating the story's power. Essentially, Taker culture has tricked itself into accepting this story as fact. Because there is no clear antagonist, it is difficult to identify the story as a lie. Civilization would have to blame itself, which is less likely to happen than in a case where a figure, like Hitler in the earlier example, exists to oppose. One of Ishmael's tactics is to identify an antagonist, to thereby make the story easier to counter. He calls the perpetuator "Mother Culture."
Ishmael’s jellyfish allegory provides one of the novel's most important ideas. Though the narrator is initially angry over the comparison between humans and jellyfish, he ultimately gains perspective from it, realizing that humans do not typically consider their place in time. At any particular point in history, the most evolved species (like jellyfish in Ishmael's story) could presume they were the pinnacle of evolution - but time would eventually prove them wrong. Similarly, despite having been on the Earth for a relatively short amount of time, humans assume that they are that very pinnacle. They have removed themselves from the otherwise irrefutable superiority of time, and by extension, evolution.
Quinn and Ishmael's relationship to the gods is also intriguing. On one hand, Quinn is careful to speak of the gods almost hypothetically, distancing himself from any one religion or creed. He generalizes them as well as possible. However, he still assumes the existence of a divine force that was instrumental in shaping the universe and the Earth. Despite their ambiguous identities, the gods are central to Ishmael's message. Another effect of this approach is that they then become scapegoats for the destruction humans cause on the Earth. In the same way that Mother Culture becomes an antagonist for the Earth, the gods become something of a victim to human arrogance.
One interesting symbol that Quinn incorporates in this section of the book is the tape recorder. On several occasions throughout the novel, the narrator listens to himself to discover that his voice sounds ridiculous to him. Certainly, this reflects a common experience, in which people find their own voices troublesome to hear played back. However, it is also a comment on the importance of transcending our solipsism. In the same way that we do not sound to others are we sound to ourselves, humans must consider themselves objectively, as part of a bigger world than Mother Culture suggests. The narrator realizes how fully Mother Culture has programmed him when he hears his words played back, which mirrors Ishmael's hope that mankind might one day realize how truly they have been misled if they can only think of themselves as the gods and the Earth might see them.