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FOR TEACHERS
The Ishmael Companion
Beyond Civilization
 Study Guide


 

From My Ishmael:
Excerpt 2

The meaning of the story

Julie. I’m not sure what I’m suppose to make out of your story about
the Awks, Bawks, and Cawks. Shall I tell you what I think I’m
supposed to make out of it?

Ishmael. Please do.

Julie. The Cawks are a model of humans as they were living here ten
thousand years ago.

Ishmael. And as they’re living still, where the people of your culture
haven’t gotten around to destroying them. The competitive strategy
followed among tribal peoples as we know them today is roughly
the one of erratic retaliation I attributed to the Cawks: “Give as good
as you get, but don’t be too predictable.” What is observed among
them is exactly what I described as observed among the Cawks:
Every tribe lives in a state of perpetual readiness—and in a state
of more or less constant but very low-level warfare with their
neighbors. When Taker peoples—people of your culture—encounter
them, they naturally aren’t curious to know why they live this way
or whether it makes sense in any frame of reference or whether it
works for them. They simply say, “This is not a nice way to live and
we won’t tolerate it.” It would never occur to them to try to stop
white-footed mice from living the way they live or to stop mountain
goats from living the way they live or to stop elephant seals from
living the way they live, but they naturally consider themselves
experts on the way humans ought to live.

Julie. That’s right.

Ishmael. The next question to be considered is, how long have tribal
peoples been living this way? Here is the answer. There’s no reason
to suppose that this way of living is a novelty for tribal peoples—
any more than there is to suppose that hibernation is a novelty for
bears or that migration is a novelty for birds or that dam-building
is a novelty for beavers. On the contrary, what we see in the
competitive strategy of tribal peoples is an evolutionarily stable
strategy that developed over hundreds of thousands of years and
perhaps even millions of years. I don’t know how this strategy
developed in fact. I offer instead a theoretical narrative about how
it might have developed. The final state of the strategy is not in
doubt, but how it became the final state may never be more than
a conjecture.

 

 


More excerpts from
THE TEACHINGS

 

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