Ishmael Summary and Analysis of Part Nine


When the narrator returns the next day, Ishmael has moved from behind the glass and is sprawled out next to the narrator’s chair. The narrator is naturally a bit uncomfortable, but prepares to continue.

Ishmael first shows the narrator a chart that indicates the timeline of the Leavers and the Takers. The Leavers date back to 3,000,000 B.C. The Takers, on the other hand, came into being around 8000 B.C., starting with the agricultural revolution, which continues to the present day. The agricultural revolution provided the foundation of the vast Takers civilizations that spread throughout the world - its manifesto is that “revolution was necessary” for progress, and hence must continue at all costs (154).

Ishmael then draws the narrator's attention to a story that the Takers adopted 2000 years before, believing it was “pregnant with meaning and mystery” (154). (It is the Biblical origin story, though Ishmael does not identify it yet). Ironically, the Takers took this story as their own even though it was the Leavers who initially told it, in order to explain the appearance and danger of the Takers.

Before identifying the story, Ishmael notes that Takers believe they they possess the most fundamental knowledge of all, knowledge indispensable to those who want to rule the world. Accordingly, the Takers believe that the Leavers lack this “knowledge” (155). Ishmael asks the narrator who else might possess this knowledge, besides the Takers, and the narrator guesses “the gods would have it” (156). Pleased, Ishmael defines the story he is about to tell as the story of “how the gods acquired the knowledge they needed to rule the world” (156).

He then tells a story about a debate between the gods, over whether to send a flock of locusts to the savannah to sustain the birds and lizards. One god points out that the locusts would strip the land bare, depriving deer and gazelles of food, and in turn lions and wolves and foxes of food. Eventually, the gods realize that any decision they might make would upset some species, while pleasing others. Their final recognition is that they "are criminals who send good and evil by turns," even if they do not ever know what they ought to do (158).

They then remember that they had created a tree whose fruit brings the knowledge of good and evil. They eat the fruit, and thereby gain the knowledge they need to “tend the garden without becoming criminals and without earning the curses of all who live in our hands.” In essence, this knowledge is “the knowledge of who shall live and who shall die” (160).

When the gods realize Adam - the first man - is awaking, they recognize his specialness and decide to give him a goal for life: to find the Tree of Life. However, they worry that he might grow impatient in his quest and choose to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Though the tree would never give him the same knowledge it gave them (since he was just a man), it would dangerously create the delusion that he did have that knowledge. Operating under that delusion, he would be able to justify anything that pleased him as "good" and anything that impeded him as "evil" (162). They worry that such a predicament would cause destruction, since he would see any limitations as evil and thus expand until he devours the world. Considering himself equal to the gods, Adam would exempt himself from the law that governs all other species, believing that any suffering he caused must have been ordained by the gods. Realizing all of this, the gods chose to prohibit Adam from eating of the tree of knowledge.

Ishmael notes that Takers have always been confused as to why the tree of knowledge was forbidden to Adam. Since they believe such knowledge is of great benefit to man, allowing him to rule the world, it seemed natural and expected that they would granted it. The disaster came when Takers decided 8,000 years ago that they were "as wise as the gods and can rule the world as well as they" (164).

The narrator then asks why Ishmael believes this story was devised by the Leavers. Ishmael reasons that the Takers would never have forbidden Adam the knowledge of good and evil, but would have had the gods grant it to him. The story would be of man's ascent, not his fall. Takers have always believed their way of life to be superior and essential, and hence forced everyone else in the world to conform to it. Leavers, on the other hand, might practice agriculture, but only in moderation and never as an imperative to others. Takers can never admit that their way of life is problematic, since such an admission would require them to “relinquish their pretensions to godhood” (168).

Ishmael then provides some historical context to help the narrator identify the story's authors as the Semites, who were ancestors to the Hebrews. Using some maps of Europe and the Near East in 8500 B.C., Ishmael indicates how relatively minor the existence of Takers were. They were mostly centered in the Fertile Crescent (between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers), with the Leavers everywhere else. Identifying the Fertile Crescent as the "land of the fall," he then shows a map from 4,000 years later, in which Takers have expanded to the edge of the Arabian Peninsula (170). The Semites - who were Leavers - inhabited the Arabian Peninsula, and were hence in a position to counter the expansion of the Takers. Ishmael then asks the narrator to read the Biblical story of Cain and Abel to determine what happened.

The narrator uses the story - in which God is more pleased with Abel's sacrifice of animals than with Cain's sacrifice of agriculture, and so Cain murders his brother - to realize that the Takers (as agriculturalists) were massacring the Semite herders so they could put more land under cultivation. The "mark of Cain," meant to warn others from working against Cain, must have represented the white skin of the Caucasian Takers (175). From this perspective, the story is an allegory for what was actually happening to the Semites (Leavers). If viewed from a Taker perspective, the story makes no sense.

The narrator posits that many of the Leavers either assimilated into Taker culture or took up agriculture to emulate them. Ishmael believes that the stories about the Fall of Adam and the slaughter of Abel survived because the Takers never entirely overran the Semites. The Hebrews, Ishmael claims, refused to take up the agricultural lifestyle, and preserved the story of the Takers through the generations as a warning. However, Ishmael says, “with the spread of Christianity and the Old Testament, the Takers came to adopt as their own a story an enemy once told to denounce them” (175-176).

Ishmael then asks the narrator why the Semites would believe the Takers of the Fertile Crescent had eaten of the tree of knowledge. In response, the narrator suggests that the Semites did not understand why the Takers were so insistent on forcing their agricultural way of life on others. Their wanton murderous aggression must have suggested to the Semites that these Takers believed they were equal to the gods, killing as they pleased. Further, the pressures of working so hard to produce agriculture - as opposed to living off of the Earth's natural bounty - suggested to the Semites that they had been punished for living this way. This explains why Adam is expelled from the garden. Ishmael is pleased by the narrator’s explanation.

Ishmael follows this point to suggest what he considers the strongest evidence that the Leavers wrote the story. The Takers would never posit a life of agriculture (in which man must survive by the sweat of his brow) as a punishment. Instead, the Takers see the adoption of agriculture was a prelude to ascent.

The narrator questions why the story describes Cain as Adam’s firstborn, and Abel as his second born, if Abel represented the authors. Ishmael explains the mythological significance of a second son; in many old stories involving two sons, the unworthy son is almost always first. He also explains that Adam simply means 'man' in Hebrew, meaning he represents the human race, which was split into two (the Takers and Leavers) much as Adam had two sons.

The narrator then asks where Eve figures into Ishmael's interpretation. Ishmael answers that Eve means 'life' in Hebrew, meaning that 'man' was tempted by 'life.' The Takers were aggressive in forcing agriculture so that they could enable population growth through increased food production. Hence, the Semites understand the Takers as being too obsessed with generating life.

Ishmael then provides a second explanation for Eve, noting that Adam and Eve lived in the garden for three millions years with modest growth, and without feeling they needed to decide who lived or died. Then, Adam eats of the tree, and realizes that he can create a bounty for themselves alone. He succumbed to the temptation to live without limit, so the person who offered him the fruit is called Life.

Ishmael expands this idea to contemporary life, noting how large families are prized in Taker culture, in imitation of what happened between Adam and Eve. To expand to our heart's content is an expression of our power over the world.

Ishmael believes that the story of Adam’s Fall is the world's best-known story, having been carried into its every corner by Christian missionaries. And yet it is still understood nonsensically, as a test of Adam's obedience and the subsequent fall from innocence. However, seen from the Leaver perspective, the story warns against assuming we have the knowledge of the gods, that of life and death. The cost of such a transgression is banishment and eventual death. Adam is not all men - he is simply the first Taker.


In this section of the novel, Quinn delves into the issue of presumed divinity. It is a big shift because Ishmael and the narrator discuss not science, but religion. And yet the section ultimately coheres in the overall work because Ishmael insists we view these Biblical origin stories through the context of science (evolution) and history.

Though Quinn expressly calls the creators "gods," he presents them as fallible and subject to influence. They too are limited by the truth of competition. No matter what they choose, one species will lose, while another wins. Obviously, this does not align with most religious ideals - it is more a representation of fate than of omnipotent beings. What they do have that humans lack is perspective. They see history and the world in its entirety, rather than being limited to a single perspective as humans are.

Ultimately, Quinn presents the forces of life and death as little more than luck. The gods might have the power to make a change in the world, but eventually, the laws of competition will triumph. In many ways, the gods do not represent fate, but are instead subject to it. Eventually, what happens between the species will occur whether the gods act or not. In this way, Quinn both acknowledges a belief in divinity while stressing the power of natural laws over anything else.

One of the novel's most interesting sections is the interpretation of the Biblical origin stories. The importance of perspective is crucial towards understanding Quinn's approach. While the Takers work overtime to make a sense of the story that does not contradict their way of life, the Leavers see the story as a quite straight-forward allegory. And yet the distinction is immense - the Leavers see Adam's decision as the introduction of doom into the world, while the Takers see it as his glorious fate.

Just as interesting is the perspective on the Cain and Abel story. Ishmael's interpretation stresses several important points. The first is that Leavers and Takers are born of the same past; the Takers merely split off. The second is that the Leavers saw a need to warn the rest of the world against the Takers, explained by the existence of the 'mark of Cain.' And finally, this perspective reminds us that agriculture is not necessarily supreme. Instead, it requires work and anxiety, which leads to the problems (like depression) Ishmael earlier stressed that Taker culture alone suffers. In other words, the Takers doomed not only the Leavers by forcing their way of life on everyone, but also made life much more difficult for themselves as well.