Ishmael is a 500 pound silverback gorilla. He is a student of ecology, life, freedom, and the human condition. He is also a teacher. He teaches that which all humans need to learn -- must learn -- if our species, and the rest of life on Earth as we know it, is to survive.
In 1989 Ted Turner created a $500,000 fellowship to be awarded to a work of fiction offering positive solutions to global problems. The winner, chosen from 2500 entries worldwide, was a work of startling clarity and depth: Daniel Quinn's Ishmael, a Socratic journey that explores the most challenging problem humankind has ever faced: How to save the world from ourselves.
The book opens with a deceptively ordinary personals ad: "Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world." Seeking a direction for his life, a young man answers the ad and is startled to find that the teacher is a lowland gorilla named Ishmael, a creature uniquely placed to vision anew the human story.
Ishmael's paradigm of history is startlingly different from the one wired into our cultural consciousness. For Ishmael, our agricultural revolution was not a technological event but a moral one, a rebellion against an ethical structure inherent in the community of life since its foundation four billion years ago. Having escaped the restraints of this ethical structure, humankind made itself a global tyrant, wielding deadly force over all other species while lacking the wisdom to make its tyranny a beneficial one or even a sustainable one.
That tyranny is now hurtling us toward a planetary disaster of pollution and overpopulation. If we want to avoid that catastrophe, we need to work our way back to some fundamental truths: that we weren't born a menace to the world and that no irresistible fate compels us to go on being a menace to the world.
Working our way back to fundamental truths is what Quinn has done, masterfully, in a book that is both urgent and accessible.