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Ishmael begins with a newspaper ad: "Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person." The nameless narrator and protagonist begins his story, telling how he first reacted to this ad with scorn because of the absurdity of "wanting to save the world," a notion he feels that once he foolishly embraced himself as an adolescent during the counterculture movement of the 1960s. However, he responds to the ad anyway and, upon arriving at the address, finds himself in a room with a gorilla. He notices a polysemous sign that reads "With man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?"
To the narrator's surprise, he finds that the gorilla, calling himself Ishmael, can communicate telepathically. At first baffled by this, the man learns the story of how the gorilla came to be here and soon accepts Ishmael as his teacher, regularly returning to Ishmael's office throughout the plot. The novel continues from this point mainly as a Socratic dialogue between Ishmael and his new student as they hash out what Ishmael refers to as "how things came to be this way" for mankind.
Ishmael's life, which began in the African wilderness, was spent mostly in a zoo and a menagerie, and since had been spent in the gazebo of a man that extricated him from physical captivity. He tells his student that it was at the menagerie that he learned about human language and culture and began to think about things that he never would have pondered in the wild. Subsequently, Ishmael tells his student that the subject for this learning experience will be captivity, primarily the captivity of man under a distorted civilizational system. The narrator claims to Ishmael that he has a vague notion of living in some sort of cultural captivity and being lied to in some way but he can not explain his feelings.
Before proceeding Ishmael lays some ground definitions for his student. He defines:
- Takers as people often referred to as "civilized." Particularly, the culture born in an Agricultural Revolution that began about 10,000 years ago in the Near East; this is the culture of Ishmael's pupil and, presumably, the reader.
- Leavers as people of all other cultures; often derogatorily referred to by Takers as "primitive."
- A story as an interrelation between the gods, man, and the earth, with a beginning, middle, and end.
- To enact is to strive to make a story come true.
- A culture is a people who are enacting a story.
Ishmael proceeds to tease from his pupil the premises of the story (i.e. myth) being enacted by the Takers: that they are the pinnacle of evolution, that the world was made for man, and that man is here to conquer and rule the world. This rule is meant to bring about a paradise, as man increases his mastery of the world, however, he is always failing because he is flawed. Man doesn't know how to live and never will because that knowledge is unobtainable. So, however hard he labors to save the world, he is just going to go on defiling and spoiling it.
Ishmael points out to his student that when the Takers decided there is something fundamentally wrong with humans, they took as evidence only their own culture's history- "They were looking at a half of one-percent of the evidence taken from a single culture-- Not a reasonable sample on which to base such a sweeping conclusion."
"There's nothing fundamentally wrong with people. Given a story to enact that puts them in accord with the world, they will live in accord with the world. But given a story to enact that puts them at odds with the world, as yours does, they will live at odds with the world. Given a story to enact in which they are the lords of the world, they will act as the lords of the world. And, given a story to enact in which the world is a foe to be conquered, they will conquer it like a foe, and one day, inevitably, their foe will lie bleeding to death at their feet, as the world is now."
Ishmael goes on to help his student discover that, contrary to what the Takers think, there are immutable laws that life is subject to and it is possible to discern them by studying the biological community. Together, Ishmael and his student identify one set of survival strategies which appear to be evolutionarily stable for all species (later dubbed the "Law of Limited Competition"): In short, "you may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war." All species inevitably follow this law, or as a consequence go extinct. The Takers believe themselves to be exempt from this Law and flout it at every point.
He explains how the Takers rendered themselves above the laws governing life, using the story of The Fall of Man as an example. Ishmael's version of why the fruit was forbidden to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is: eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil provides the gods with the knowledge of who shall live and who shall die—knowledge which they need to rule the world. The fruit nourishes only the gods, though. If Adam ("man") were to eat from this tree, he might think that he gained the gods' wisdom (without this actually happening) and consequently destroy the world and himself through his arrogance. "And so they said to him, you may eat of every tree in the garden, save the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for on the day you eat of that tree, you will certainly die."
Ishmael makes the point that this story of the Fall of Man, which the Takers have adopted as their own, was in fact developed by Leavers to explain the origin of the Takers. If it were of Taker origin, the story would be of liberating ascent instead of a sinful fall.
Ishmael and his student go on to discuss how, for the ancient Semitic herders among whom the tale originated, the story of Cain killing Abel symbolizes the Leaver being killed off and their lands taken so that it could be put under cultivation. These ancient herders realized that the Takers were acting as if they were gods themselves, with all the wisdom of what is good and evil and how to rule the world. And as a result the gods banished these people from the Garden and they were brought from a life of bounty in the hands of the gods to one of being the accursed tillers of the soil.
To begin discerning the Leavers' story, Ishmael proposes to his student a hypothesis: the Takers' Agricultural Revolution was a revolution against the Leavers' story.
The Leavers take what they need from the world and leave the rest alone. Living in this manner ("in the hands of the gods"), Leavers thrive in times of abundance and dwindle in times of scarcity. The Takers however, practicing their uniquely envisioned form of agriculture (dubbed by Quinn "totalitarian agriculture" in a later book) produce enormous food surpluses, which allows them to thwart the gods when they decide it's the Takers' time to go hungry. "When you have more food than you need, then the gods have no power over you." Thus, Ishmael points out that the Takers revolution was not just a technological change, but also serves a mythological function.
"So we have a new pair of names for you: The Takers are 'those who know good and evil' and the Leavers are 'those who live in the hands of the gods'."
Ishmael goes on to point out that by living in the hands of the gods, man is subject to the conditions under which evolution takes place. Australopithecus became Homo by living in the hands of the gods—Man became man by living in the hands of the gods-- "by living the way the bushmen of Africa live; by living the way the Krenakarore of Brazil live... Not the way the Chicagoans live, not the way Londoners live." "In the hands of the gods is where evolution happens." According to the Takers' story, creation came to an end with man. "In order to make their story come true, the Takers have to put an end to creation itself-- and they're doing a damn good job of it!"
Ishmael brings together his synopsis on human culture by examining the story enacted by Leaver cultures, which provides a model of how to live—an alternative story for the Takers to enact.
"The premise of the Takers' story is 'The world belongs to man.' ...The premise of the Leavers' story is 'Man belongs to the world.'"
"For three million years, man belonged to the world and because he belonged to the world, he grew and developed and became brighter and more dexterous until one day, he was so bright and so dexterous that we had to call him Homo sapiens sapiens-- which means he was us."
"The Leavers' story is 'the gods made man for the world, the same way they made salmon and sparrows for the world. This seems to have worked well so far so we can take it easy and leave the running of the world to the gods'."
Ishmael emphasizes that "not in any sense is the Takers story 'chapter two' of the story which was being enacted here during the first three million years of human life. The Leavers' story has its own 'chapter two'." In evolution, observes Ishmael's student, there seems to be a tendency toward complexity, and towards self-awareness and intelligence. Perhaps the gods intend the world to be filled with intelligent, self-aware creatures and man's destiny following the Leavers' story is "to be the first- without being the last"; to learn and then to be a role-model and teacher for all those capable of becoming what he's become.
Ishmael finishes with a summary of what his student can do if he earnestly desires to save the world:
"The story of Genesis must be undone. First, Cain must stop murdering Abel. This is essential if you're to survive. The Leavers are the endangered species most critical to the world - not because they're humans but because they alone can show the destroyers of the world that there is more than one right way to live. And then, of course, you must spit out the fruit of the forbidden tree. You must absolutely and forever relinquish the idea that you know who should live and who should die on this planet."
"Teach a hundred what I've taught you, and inspire each of them to teach a hundred."
The student loses track of Ishmael's whereabouts and in his search for the gorilla ultimately discovers that he was secretly falling ill and has since died of pneumonia. The student collects Ishmael's belongings and among them he finds the sign that he saw before ("With man gone, will there be hope for gorilla?") has a backside with another message: "With gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?"
- Plot summary
- Major themes
- Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
- References in popular culture
- New tribalism
- Chronology of events in the Ishmael trilogy