Ishmael Summary and Analysis of Parts Four and Five


Part Four

The next day, the narrator continues telling the story of how things came to be this way. During his first three million years of existence, man did not figure out how to master his environment, and so survived like any other animal would, living at its mercy and living nomadically. It was not until man employed agriculture (in the Neolithic Revolution) that he could settle in one place to master his environment. When the narrator provides the Fertile Crescent as the birthplace of agriculture, Ishmael counters that agriculture actually arose in more than one place during a similar time period.

Ishmael then asks why he thinks civilization believes the universe needed man. The narrator posits that without man, the world was simply a vast, untamed jungle. It needed a ruler – man - to put it in order. Realizing the arrogance of the assertion, the narrator feels as though he should jump from his chair in rage, but instead simply sits there, frozen in shock.

Ishmael continues to explore the ramifications and truth of this story. Man did not begin to play the role of ruler until about 10,000 years ago, and the Earth did not meekly submit. Instead, man was foiled by natural occurrences and disasters, but persisted to conquer not only farming territory, but also outer space, atoms, deserts, oceans and more, believing that to be his destiny. The narrator reasons that this second part of the story, in which man believes he must conquer and rule the world, is another sneaky way of blaming the gods.

Part Five

Ishmael and the narrator decide that man’s conquest of the world has actually devastated it, but that man progresses as though increasing "mastery" is the only solution to this devastation (80). Continuing this conquest will yield one of two results: the Earth will either be destroyed or become the paradise man believes it was meant to be. If the latter, man might progress to conquer the entire universe.

They contemplate the reasons man will not likely find paradise, including warfare, brutality, poverty, injustice, corruption and tyranny. The narrator concludes that man's inherent flaws - stupidity, greed, destructiveness, and shortsightedness - were bound to foil the paradise that the world was meant to be.

Ishmael, however, claims that Taker history is very different than the broader history of humans, and is hence a poor sample from which to assume that humans are fundamentally flawed. Humans could certainly live harmoniously with the world, if they were given a story that encouraged that. However, the current Taker story - which pits the world as a foe to be conquered - encourages man to treat the world that way, to attack the foe until it is nearly destroyed.

Ishmael next raises the question of why Takers are so fascinated by prophets, while Leaver culture does not seem to rely on similar figures. He asks the narrator why Takers are dependent on prophets to deliver rules by which to live, and the narrator suggests that for the most difficult issues - like abortion, for instance - there is no objectively satisfying answer unless a prophet or similar authority provides one. In short, Mother Culture does not provide any definitive way to live, and neither does science provide a method to determine one.

Ishmael then suggests that Taker mythology implies two conclusions. One: there is something fundamentally wrong with humans. Two: there is no certain knowledge about how to live. For a people who believe these things, prophets are then attractive for providing definitive solutions. Ishmael suggests, then, that if man could figure out how he should live, then he might stop destroying the world. By extension, this thought suggests that man's fundamental flaw is simply that he does not know how he ought to live.

Finally, Ishmael summarizes Mother Culture's explanation for how things came to be this way. The world was given to man to be paradise, but man has destroyed it because he is fundamentally flawed. If he knew how to live, he might be able to correct this course, but the lack of such knowledges makes such a correction unlikely. Because there is nothing to be done, we continue to head towards catastrophe. This sense of despair, Ishmael claims, is why many rely so heavily on drugs, alcohol, and television, or suffer insanity and suicidal thoughts.

And most dangerously of all, the Takers are simultaneously destroying the Leavers, the only population that can provide a different alternative.


In this section of the novel, Ishmael shows an interest in challenging not just philosophy, but history. For instance, though the Fertile Crescent is widely considered the birthplace of agriculture, Ishmael calls such a theory "old hat" (69). Agriculture instead appeared in several places all at once, but shared one central result: it led man to believe he must grow and spread.

The idea of Earth as a victim to man's arrogance is further explored in this section. Quinn works to dismantle the idea that the world was lost without man. What is most interesting, though, is that the ideas are not presented as some sort of new information. Instead, Quinn implies through the narrator that we all understand these truths already. Consider the narrator's reaction when he articulates the premise of Mother Culture's story. He knows that it should make him irate, but he instead feels frozen. The implication is that we already know these things - we just simply refuse to look at them from a different angle than the one Mother Culture suggests. Like him, we blindly accept the version of history that has been fed to us.

One point of contention that can be raised in this section concerns Quinn's view on technology. His many examples of man's technological accomplishments - including atom theory or sea travel - could reflect a luddite's skepticism, but it is important to note that Ishmael relies on definitions to make his point. What is dangerous is not what we have accomplished, but how we speak about and understand those accomplishments. What matters is not that we can travel the sea, but that we speak of "conquering" the ocean.

Now, man is essentially involved in a game of chicken. Essentially, most of humanity believes that if we continue to conquer the world, we will overcome all obstacles and the world will be perfect. It is a vicious circle and a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, if we don't reach this "paradise" soon, then the world will be devastated beyond repair. Quinn highlights the fact that there is one sure-fire way to save the world, and that is to return to the way we used to live. For him, the world was paradise before mankind began to conquer it.

A major theme that Quinn accentuates in this sections is the question of man's fundamental flaw. Much as Mother Culture's story allows man to blame the gods for his own sins, the idea of a fundamental flaw allows man to absolve himself of personal responsibility. Ishmael works to counter this assumption, citing the fact that many human flaws (insanity, injustice, poverty, etc...) were largely absent from ancient cultures and even from Leaver cultures of the present day. Humans have created these flaws, and assumed that they are natural. The key here, as elsewhere for Ishmael, is in awareness. We must first acknowledge a truth if we are then to change anything.

The main point in these two sections is that Takers despair over not having a definitive answer to how to live. Ishmael believes that if we try to approach this problem on an individual basis, rather than seeking an answer objectively true for everybody, then we could progress. In the same way that agriculturalists erred not by using agriculture but by forcing it on others, we err in assuming that any one answer to this large question should or could apply to everyone.