My Magic Island

People will sometimes accuse me of being in love with tribalism, and I often hear them say, “If you love it so much, why don’t you just go leave everything and go to your magical island?”

Those who understand me in this way totally misunderstand what I’m saying.

The tribal lifestyle isn’t precious because it’s beautiful or lovable or because it’s “close to nature.” It isn’t even precious because it’s “the natural way for people to live.” That’s just nonsense. This is like saying that bird migration is good because it’s the natural way for birds to live, or like saying that bear hibernation is good because it’s the natural way for bears to live.

The tribal life is precious because it tested out. For three million years it worked for people. It worked for people the way nests work for birds, the way webs work for spiders, the way burrows work for moles, the way hibernation works for bears. That doesn’t make it lovable, that makes it viable.

People will also say to me, “Well, if it was so wonderful, why didn’t it last?”

The answer is that it did last—it has lasted right up to the present moment. It continues to work, but the fact that something works, doesn’t make it invulnerable. Burrows and nests and webs can all be destroyed, but that doesn’t change the fact that they work. Tribalism can be destroyed and indeed has largely been destroyed, but that doesn’t change the fact that it worked for three million years and still works today as well as it ever did.


Chat With Daniel Quinn

Transcript of Lycos Live Chat With Daniel Quinn: 11/21/01

Moderator: Howdy folks. For those of you just joining us…tonight we will be chatting with Mr. Controversy himself, author Daniel Quinn. Hi Daniel, welcome to Lycos Live Events! How’s it going?

Quinn: Oh, it’s going very well!

seigelord: Mr. Quinn, in The Story of B, you say that the world will be saved by new minds with no concrete plans at all. What do you mean by this, and how can we save this planet if we don’t have a plan for doing so?

Quinn: What I said was that if the world is saved, it will be saved not by old minds with new programs, but by new minds with no programs at all. An example of a great world change that took place is the Renaissance. The Renaissance transformed Europe, but there was absolutely no plan there, no program. This was the beginning of the scientific revolution, for example. The industrial revolution has virtually taken over the world, and it too came about without any plan. If the world is saved, it will be saved because people begin to think in a different way about the world and humanity’s place in it. No one has EVER been able to make long-terms plans on a global scale. Even the Soviet “five-year plans” were a joke.

zpiel: Are homeless people really beyond civilization if they still depend on civilization’s spillover for their survival?

Quinn: They’re beyond civilization in the sense that they’ve been pushed out. Many of them would very much like to get back in. But at the moment, there’s just no place for them in the system.

vilovian: How easy or difficult do you think it would be to implement a mass change of culture in the west?

Quinn: Changing minds is something that happens basically without effort. Unless minds change, change in general will be not difficult, but impossible. One of the chief programmatic approaches to change is to pass tens of thousands of new laws every year to try to stop people from doing things that are harmful to the world, but this doesn’t work and doesn’t produce any change. As I’ve pointed out in Ishmael, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was ultimately not difficult because people of the Soviet Union changed their minds about how they wanted to live, and they simply wouldn’t put up with communist rule anymore.

Moderator: In case you missed it …right now we are chatting with author Daniel Quinn. Over the years his books have brought much controversy. In “Ishmael” Quinn discusses mankind’s mistreatment of the environment and the repercussions it will have on our future.

koska_1: Daniel, do you believe that the world is headed toward destruction because we, human beings, have not planned any new civilization development?

Quinn: Civilization has never been planned. History does not proceed by being planned. Hitler’s vaunted Thousand Year Reich lasted about a decade, and he had all the resources of a very powerful nation at his disposal to implement his plans. Our civilization is headed for catastrophe because we simply keep on thinking the same way generation after generation, and therefore living the same way generation after generation. But, that can change! As I said earlier, the mind change that took place during the Renaissance completely revolutionized life in Europe.

shredhed17: Back to the homeless issue…, isnt it true however that most of them have pushed themselves out through drug/alcohol abuse?

Quinn: Yes. And so…? They have definitely marginalized themselves by choice. But it should be noted that I am not recommending homelessness as a way for people to go beyond civilization.

koska_1: Is not stumbling upon new ideas and implementing them part of the human condition how can we change this?

Quinn: I’m not sure I understand the question, because I’ve never said that this should be changed. Why would you want to change it? I certainly don’t. Ishmael said, “You consider yourselves inventive, don’t you? Well, be inventive.”

zpiel: While I myself have a changed mind, and try to change the minds of others, I find it difficult to apply my attitudes to everyday life. How did your everyday actions change after you realized the things you have written about?

Quinn: The changes that are going to be critical for us in the next fifty years can’t begin to be made until people stop thinking that humans belong to an order of being that is separate from and higher than the rest of the living community. This prevents us, for example, from facing the reality of the impact we’re having on the world. To go back to my example of the Renaissance, the Renaissance didn’t come about because people made adjustments to their daily lives, and so that’s not quite the way to measure it. Having lived through the 60s, and seeing the changes in attitudes that that brought about, I can see that those changes were not expressed in the way people conducted their lives on a daily basis, but the changes were nevertheless profound. A concrete example is the catastrophic race between food production and population growth. It’s almost universally believed that food production can “win” this race, but that’s nonsense, because every “win” on the side of food production stimulates a “win” on the side of population growth. It’s just like the Cold War arms race in this respect: every “win” on our side stimulated a “win” on the Soviet side. There was no way to achieve a FINAL win, but luckily for the world, the Soviets finally just walked away from the race. There’s no adjustment we can make in our daily lives that will end the food race. The food race will not be ended until people IN GENERAL finally understand that it’s a race that CAN’T BE WON. But this is not to say that there are no useful changes people can make in their own lives on a daily basis. Those must be chosen on an individual basis. I’ve never offered a list of changes people SHOULD make (and I never will).

dark_angel_0000: Do you believe in evolution?

Quinn: I don’t think of evolution as a subject for “belief.” Anymore than, let’s say, the fact that the sun is the center of the solar system is a subject for belief. The reality of evolution has been established to the satisfaction of 99% of the scientific community–and to my own satisfaction. I don’t “believe” in it. I’m as confident that it occurred as I am that the sun is the center of the solar system.

henriquevedana: How do you relate Buddhist ideas to your own?

Quinn: I don’t see any relation between Buddhist ideas and my own, I’m afraid, but you may have something specific in mind. If so, please tell me what it is. 🙂


dark_angel_0000: Mr.Quinn do you believe in God?

Quinn: To me, this is a bit like asking if I believe that there’s an old Model T Ford, complete down to the last nut and bolt, sitting in the very deepest part of the Marianas Trench. It’s possible, it’s thinkable, but I just don’t see the point in believing such a thing. It’s either there or it isn’t, but I have no way of finding out. But the fact that I can’t find out, doesn’t mean I have to choose between believing it or disbelieving it. It’s just a fact I don’t have and probably never will have. Another fact I don’t have is whether God exists. Either he does or he doesn’t, but, like the Ford in the Marianas Trench, there’s no way to find out. Maybe we’ll find out about the Ford someday–and maybe we’ll find out about God someday–but meanwhile, I’m not much interested in believing things that can’t be established one way or the other.

vilovian: When people ask me why the population is growing at a slower rate in the first world than in the third-world, is it safe to say that it is because the social norm in our culture is to spend our money on things other than food? That is, we buy the new gadget or toy on the market instead of food.

Quinn: We certainly buy plenty of food, of course, but having large families is not as attractive to first-world peoples as it once was–and as it still is in second- and third-world countries.

seigelord: Part of the problem in today’s society is that Mother Culture’s voice is hideously strong. Being a student, I want to make my peers aware of the issue, but how can I do that? And what do you see as being the ideal way to do that?

Quinn: If you yourself are seeing things a different way, this will affect the people around you. And it’ll affect them without their even realizing it. Teachers have told me, for example, that even though they’re not using my books in their classrooms, their WAY OF TEACHING has changed. And this is really almost beyond their control, because once you’re thinking differently, you must speak differently and teach differently and relate to the people around you differently.

seigelord: In light of recent political events, how much do you feel that “revealed” religions have played a role in today’s society?

Quinn: Well, revealed religions have had a tremendously important role in the history of our culture for the last 3000 years, and people have been killing each other over these religions for nearly this long. So what’s happening right now is not something new.

hdelbruk: What do the current events in Afghanistan say about our ability to change the way humans behave?

Quinn: We have no such thing as an ability to change the way humans behave, and we never have. We have NEVER succeeded in changing the way people behave. We’ve reasoned with them, we’ve inspired, we’ve educated, we’ve pleaded, we’ve exhorted, we’ve passed a million laws, we’ve punished billions of lawbreakers, but none of these things has changed the way humans behave. People’s behavior DOES change, however, when they begin to think a different way, as they did during the Renaissance. But you can’t MAKE people change the way they think. When powerful new ideas present themselves and begin to spread, people begin to think a different way–and to make changes in what they DO. Unfortunately, no one can predict what people who think a different way will DO. For example, one result of the Renaissance was ultimately the Industrial Revolution–but none of the foundation thinkers of the Renaissance could have predicted that. Moderator: I hate to say it, but we have to wrap this up in a few minutes. We’ll take a few more questions & comments.

shredhed17: Back to evolution… 99% of the scientific community may agree with evolution, but Im sure that at least 80% haven’t bothered to question it. Did you come make this decision by choice or by simply “stumbling” onto it as many as the others have?

Quinn: I never made a “decision” about it. I’ve always assumed that life evolved on this planet. There’s really nothing else that makes sense to me.

waltriddle: Why do you think that dialogues with God or gods continue to figure so prominently in our thinking?

Quinn: If you go among aboriginal tribal peoples, you will find that they’re completely confident about the way they live. This is because their tribal law goes back to the beginning of time for them, and it WORKS for them, generation after generation. They KNOW how to live, and we’re painfully aware that we DON’T know how to live–and that things are constantly going badly for us. And so we’re constantly looking for someone to TELL us how to live. This is either a god or a prophet in communication with a god. Or it might be an angel or perhaps a kind hearted alien from outer space. But no matter how many messages we get from the sky, we STILL feel that we don’t know how to live. And this is why this dialogue with the gods never stops. crow365: With all of the things you sell at New Tribal Ventures, would you ever consider producing those “Ten Thousand Year Reich” bumper stickers from the alternate end to Ishmael? Cuz’ that’d be really cool…:)

Quinn: {laughs} Oh, my goodness! We have given thought from time to time to producing bumper stickers, and certainly this would be a candidate for one. But it seems to me that, with the disappearance of bumpers, bumper stickers are soon going to become extinct!

Moderator: Well folks, it time to wrap up the chat. Thanks Daniel we had a really good time chatting with you!! We’ll have to do this again sometime.

Quinn: Yes, I’d be glad to do it again, and I have to say that this has been the best chat I have ever been a part of! Excellent questions, all. Thank you very much!


Daniel Quinn is an award winning author of Ishmael, a novel translated in 25+ languages and many other works. Read how Ishmael has inspired some of its readers.

The B Attitude – Blessed are those…

Blessed are they…

The B Attitude

  • Blessed are those who refrain from exalting themselves above their neighbors in the community of life, for their children shall have a world to live in..

  • Blessed are those who listen to their neighbors in the community of life, for they shall escape extinction. 

  • Blessed are those who refrain from imposing on others their “one right way to live,” for cultural diversity shall be restored among them.

  • Blessed are those who refrain from imposing on others their “one right way to live,” for cultural diversity shall be restored among them.

  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the survival of Leaver cultures, for they shall preserve a legacy of wisdom accumulated from the beginning of time.

  • Blessed are those who do not fancy themselves rulers or managers or stewards of the earth, for the earth managed to thrive for three billion years without any of us.

  • Blessed are those who do whatever they can wherever they are, for no one is devoid of resources or opportunities.

the B Attitude PDFDownload

Has human evolution stopped

Has human evolution stopped?

Human evolution stopping? Wrong, wrong, wrong.

An essay Daniel wrote relating some content in Ishmael to information
in this headlined article by another author. (5/8/2012)

Paleoanthropologist John Hawks has plenty of qualifications for his statement that human evolution is not stopping–or has stopped (as I asserted in Ishmael). He is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is also Associate Chair of Anthropology, a Faculty Fellow of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and an associate member of both the Department of Zoology and the J. F. Crow Institute for the Study of Evolution. Read what he has to say here: Human Evolution Stopping?

Jonathan Pritchard, a population geneticist at the University of Chicago, would agree with Hawks: “There is ample evidence that selection has been a major driving point in our evolution during the last 10,000 years, and there is no reason to suppose that it has stopped,” he has said. Still Evolving, Human Genes Tell New Story

In Ishmael I wrote:

(Alan:) How did man become man? I don’t know. He just did it. He did it the way birds became birds and the way that horses became horses.”

(Ishmael:) “Exactly so.”

“Don’t do that to me,” I told him.

“Evidently you don’t understand what you just said.”“Probably not.”

“I’ll try to clarify it for you. Before you were Homo you were what?”


“Good. And how did Australopithecus become Homo?”

“By waiting.”

“Please. You’re here to think.”


“Did Australopithecus become Homo by saying, ‘We know good and evil as well as the gods, so there’s no need for us to live in their hands the way rabbits and lizards do. From now on we will decide who lives and who dies on this planet, not the gods.’”


“Could they have become man by saying that?”


“Why not?”

“Because they would have ceased to be subject to the conditions under which evolution takes place.”

“Exactly. Now you can answer the question: What happens to people—to creatures in general—who live in the hands of the gods?”

“Ah. Yes, I see. They evolve.”

“And now you can answer the question I posed this morning: How did man become man?”

“Man became man by living in the hands of the gods.”

“By living the way the Bushmen of Africa live.”

“That’s right.”

“By living the way the Kreen-Akrore of Brazil live.”

“Right again.”

“Not the way Chicagoans live?”


“Or Londoners?”


“So now you know what happens to people who live in the hands of the gods.”

“Yes. They evolve.”

“Why do they evolve?”

“Because they’re in a position to evolve. Because that’s where evolution takes place. Pre-man evolved into early man because he was out there competing with all the rest. Pre-man evolved into early man because he didn’t take himself out of the competition, because he was still in the place where natural selection is going on.”

“You mean he was still a part of the general community of life.”

“That’s right.”

“And that’s why it all happened—why Australopithecus became Homo habilis and why Homo habilis became Homo erectus and why Homo erectus became Homo sapiens and why Homo sapiens became Homo sapiens sapiens.”


“And then what happened?”

“And then the Takers said, ‘We’ve had enough of living in the hands of the gods. No more natural selection for us, thanks very much.’”

“And that was that.”

“And that was that.”

“You remember I said that to enact a story is to live so as to make it come true.”


“According to the Taker story, creation came to an end with man.”

“Yes. So?”

“How would you live so as to make that come true? How would you live so as to make creation come to an end with man?”

“Oof. I see what you mean. You would live the way the Takers live. We’re definitely living in a way that’s going to put an end to creation. If we go on, there will be no successor to man, no successor to chimpanzees, no successor to orangutans, no successor to gorillas—no successor to anything alive now. The whole thing is going to come to an end with us. In order to make their story come true, the Takers have to put an end to creation itself—and they’re doing a damned good job of it.”

Where Dr. Hawks and I differ is in our definition of evolution. It’s clear from the selection above that I equate it with speciation–strictly speaking an error, I’m sure. To take an example that I believe Dr. Hawks would agree with: the branch of Homo sapiens that settled the circumpolar region from eastern Siberia (Russia), across Alaska (United States), Canada, and Greenland most certainly evolved in ways that facilitated life in that region, but they did not become a new species. All people today are classified as Homo sapiens, which made its appearance some 200,000 years ago. I believe neither Dr. Hawks nor Dr. Pritchard would disagree with the statement that (even if we grant that evolution has continued (in the sense that it continued with the inhabitants of the circumpolar region), it has not produced a new species of Homo. (In the selection from Ishmael above, Ishmael says that “Homo sapiens became Homo sapiens sapiens.” If I were writing it today, I would not make this assertion. It is sometimes said that “fully modern” Homo sapiens made their appearance about 50,000 years ago; but I see no reference that suggests that “fully modern” Homo sapiens constitutes a separate species.)

Reaching for the Future

In their “Warning to Humanity,” they say: “We must stabilize population,”

Reaching for the Future with All Three Hands

Address by Daniel Quinn, Kent State University, Earth Day, 1998

A few days ago I was feeling depressed and said to my wife, Rennie,

“I don’t see why I should give THIS speech at Kent State University. Why can’t I talk about something that will send everyone home with warm, fuzzy feelings and smiles on their faces?”
“Well, why don’t you then?” Rennie said. “Why did you decide to speak on this subject in the first place?”
“Because it’s the most important subject in the world right now,” I told her.
“But why do YOU have to tackle it?”
“Because no one ELSE is tackling it, at least not for the general public.”
“Then I guess you’re pretty well stuck, aren’t you?” Rennie said.

    • I thought I’d start with this little story, just to let you know what I’m doing here.

The Phrygian sage Epictetus said: Everything has two handles, one by which it can be carried and a second by which it cannot. The sage who stands before you here today says: There’s a third handle on the other side, but it can only be reached by people who realize they’ve got a third hand to reach with.

I think the reason people invite me to speak at events like this is that they vaguely sense, from reading my books, that I have a third hand I use to grab at things that most people only use two hands on.

They want to see what a three-handed man will make of whatever theme they’re exploring—whether it’s social investment, health care reform, or the future of business in the 21st century.

Ours is an obsessively two-valued culture. For example, we have all sorts of two-sided games—chess, checkers, tennis, boxing, pool, and so on—all sorts of two-sided team games—bridge, football, baseball, soccer, basketball, and so on. And we have all sorts of any-sided games (poker, baccarat, track events, skiing events, and so on). But we have no three-sided games of any kind. You will never see three teams take any court or field anywhere.

Our justice system is intrinsically two-valued. There must be prosecution and defence, plaintiff and respondent—one winner and one loser, always. Everyone HATES a hung jury.

Everyone takes it for granted that there are exactly two sides to every argument. When it comes to abortion, for example, there’s the pro-choice side and the pro-life side, and people who haven’t chosen one of these two sides don’t represent a third side, they just don’t represent any side at all. The same is true of issues like animal rights, capital punishment, and drug legalization.

The media play an important role in shaping reality into two-sided events. Very often two-sidedness isn’t clearly evident in developing situations. The fundamental news-gathering process helps to clarify—or manufacture—that desired two-sidedness. If one expert says that X is wonderful, the reporter is expected to find another expert who will say that X is terrible—or that Y is much more wonderful than X. This is, to a large extent, what makes the story NEWS.

When it comes to “the environment,” it hasn’t been so easy to polarize the community. Where do you send a reporter to get a quote AGAINST clean water? Or AGAINST clean air? Obviously, EVERYBODY wants clean water and clean air. The issue had to be recast into one that doesn’t put everyone on the same side—and so it was. After a lot of pushing and pulling, a lot of tweaking, a way was found to represent the interests of the environment as being opposed to the interests of PEOPLE. This is kind of mind-boggling but that’s how it’s shaken out. You can’t be for people and for the environment—you’ve got to “choose sides.” This is an interesting example of taking a thing that originally presented only one handle and rotating it so as to expose two handles—thereby putting the third handle completely out of sight.

The arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union started when I was ten years old, so I watched the whole race from beginning to end. I’m sure you all know how it went. We made an atomic bomb, they made one. We made a hydrogen bomb, they made one. We made an intercontinental ballistic missile, they made one. We pointed twenty missiles at them, they pointed thirty at us. We pointed a hundred at them, they pointed two hundred at us, and so on. It was a race with no finish line (except catastrophe). Apparently, it was a race no one could either win or quit.

As you’d expect, the arms race presented two handles. You could take one of two positions. If you were a Hawk, you said Better dead than red, and if you were a Dove, you said Better red than dead, and every presidential candidate had to talk tough enough to placate the Hawks but also nice enough to placate the Doves.

Then in the mid-sixties there appeared a generation of children who didn’t value either of these two handles. They were sick of the arms race, and they began groping for a third handle on this whole thing. In fact, they began to look like regular three-handed monsters. During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Chicago police waged war on them, and the mayor gave out orders to “Shoot to Kill.” A couple years, as I’m sure you all know, more of the three-handed monsters staged a protest against the invasion of Cambodia right here at Kent State University. After National Guardsmen killed four of them, people began to understand just how dangerous these monsters were. It was time to start shooting on sight when you saw people exhibiting signs of three-handedness.

But the youngsters of that generation ultimately failed to find the third handle they were seeking. It was found—and it probably had to be found—by a Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, who said to us, “I’m going to do something really nasty to you. I’m going to deprive you of an enemy.” He ended the arms race the only way such a race CAN be ended—by pulling out of it.

Everyone in the world knew the arms race was dangerous—globally dangerous, mortally dangerous—to the entire human race and to the planet itself. I’m here to talk to you today about another race, no less globally dangerous, no less mortally dangerous—to the entire human race and to the planet itself. In some ways, it’s even more dangerous than the arms race—first because almost no one is aware of it, and second because almost no one wants it to stop.

I’m talking about the food race—the race to produce enough food to feed our growing population.

There are people in the world—calm, intelligent, reasoning people—who believe that we’ve already gone over the limit, that even our present population of six billion can’t be fed sustainably on this planet. I have no evidence that they’re right—and I certainly hope they’re wrong. But the six billion is not nearly as alarming as the twelve billion that we will be in your lifetime if we go on growing at this rate.

Now—of course!—there are two handles to this thing. I recently read an Associated Press story that reported that food scientists are confident that they can WIN the food race. By the time there are twelve billion of us, they’ll be able to FEED twelve billion. That constitutes a win. SO: Not to worry, folks. The scientists are confident that food will ultimately triumph overpopulation. That’s one handle.

The other handle is the one the Union of Concerned Scientists has grabbed. In their “Warning to Humanity,” they say: “We must stabilize population,” which is of course unarguable. But then they go on to say, “This will be possible only if all nations recognize that it requires improved social and economic conditions, and the adoption of effective, voluntary family planning.” I’m afraid that grabbing this handle is an act of faith that has virtually nothing to do with science, but it’s easy to do, because it means that, really, nobody has to do anything but pray that someday, through some magical, unknown process all nations of the world will improve social and economic conditions and adopt effective, voluntary family planning.

It has been my misfortune to saddle myself with the really thankless task of bringing into view the third handle on this issue. This is a simple and well-known biological fact—well known at least to biologists and ecologists—that a food race like the one I’ve just described can no more be won than the arms race could be won—and for the same reason. Because neither race has a finish line—except catastrophe. You can’t win an arms race with your enemy because every advance you make in your weaponry will be answered by an advance in your enemy’s weaponry, which of course must be answered by an advance in YOUR weaponry, which stimulates an advance in THEIR weaponry, and so on in a never-ending escalation.

And in the same way, food cannot win any race with population, because every advance in food production is answered by an advance in population. This isn’t a statement that is happily or readily accepted by most members of the public, because, I’m afraid, most members of the public don’t really understand the connection between food and populations. I’m therefore going to take a minute to explain that connection.

If you fence off a shopping mall parking lot, put a bull and a cow inside, along with a bale of hay every day, you will soon have three or four cows. But no matter how long you wait, you will NOT have thirty or forty cows—not on one bale of hay a day. If you want to have thirty or forty cows, then you’re going to have to throw ten bales of hay over the fence. Of course, they also need water and air—but all the water and air in the world will not turn three or four cows into thirty or forty cows in the absence of those ten bales of hay. You can’t make cows out of sunshine or rainbows or moonbeams. It takes hay.

Now when you have your forty cows, you don’t have to start throwing eleven bales of hay over the fence. If you just want forty, then ten bales are plenty. There isn’t going to be a famine among these cows just because you stop at ten bales—there just isn’t going to be any population growth. On those ten bales a day, those forty cows are NEVER going to turn into four hundred. But if you WANT four hundred cows, then you’ve got to provide more hay, and you’re going to end up buying a hundred bales a day to feed those four hundred cows.

Now the exact same thing is true of humans. Fence off the parking lot, toss in a man and a woman and a couple bags of groceries every day, and before long you’ll have a family of four. But those four will NEVER turn into forty if all you’re throwing over the fence is a couple bags of groceries a day. Can’t happen. Because people are just like cows—you can’t make them out of sunshine or rainbows or moonbeams. It takes corn flakes and bananas and hot dogs and split pea soup and raisin bread and broccoli.

If you want these four to turn into forty, then you’re going to have to throw twenty bags of groceries over the fence instead of two. And when you get those forty people, if you decide that’s ALL you want living in this parking lot, all you have to do is keep throwing twenty bags of groceries over the fence. There’s not going to be a famine. Twenty bags of groceries fed these forty people yesterday and they’ll feed them today. On these twenty bags of groceries, the population is going to be stable at around forty people. But if you change your mind and decide you want 400 people living in this parking lot, then all you have to do is start throwing a couple hundred bags of groceries over the fence instead of twenty—and by golly, eventually, there WILL be 400 people living in that parking lot.

There WILL be, but our cultural mythology says there doesn’t HAVE to be. According to our cultural mythology, forty people COULD make up their minds to remain forty. It could of course happen. It’s imaginable. But on this big parking lot, we call the earth it HAS never happened.

It didn’t happen last year, obviously. Last year we increased food production, gave ourselves two percent more groceries, and our population grew by two percent. The year before that we increased food production by two percent, and our population grew by two percent.

The year before that we increased food production by two percent, and our population grew by two percent. The year before that we increased food production by two percent, and our population grew by two percent. The year before that we increased food production by two percent, and our population grew by two percent. I could stand here all day repeating that sentence 10,000 times—because that’s how long we’ve been increasing food production, starting back there in the Fertile Crescent. Last year we increased food production by two percent, and our population grew by two percent. This year we’ll increase food production by two percent, and our population will grow by two percent—there’s no doubt at all that this will happen. NEXT year we’ll increase food production by two percent, and our population will grow by two percent—and there’s no doubt at all that this will happen. And the year after that we’ll increase food production by two percent, and our population will grow by two percent—and there’s no doubt at all that this will happen. But ONE OF THESE YEARS we’ll increase food production by two percent—and our population will NOT grow. That’s what our cultural mythology says.

For ten thousand years we’ve been increasing food production to feed an increasing population—and for ten thousand years our population has grown. Every single “win” in food production has been answered by a “win” in population growth. Every single one. But, according to our cultural mythology, this doesn’t have to happen—and one of these years, magically, it will not happen. The magic will presumably be that all nations will achieve improved social and economic conditions and adopt effective, voluntary family planning, just like the Union of Concerned Scientists recommends. This magic didn’t happen last year or the year before that or the year before that or the year before that or the year before that—but one of these years, by God, every guy on earth will put on a condom and super-glue it in place and it WILL work. One way or another, there will come a year when we increase food production—and miraculously there won’t be an answering increase in population to consume it.

Our cultural mythology explains why it was vitally important for us to increase food production last year. We HAD to, in order to feed the starving millions. Everyone knows that. But, oddly enough, we increased food production to feed the starving millions, and guess what? The starving millions went on starving. The population went up—but the starving millions didn’t get fed. And of course, we know why it’s vitally important to increase food production THIS year. We’ve got to do that in order to feed the starving millions. We WILL increase food production this year—there’s no doubt of that—but is there anyone in this room who believes that the starving millions will be fed, this year, for the first time in living memory? I guarantee you, my friends, that by year’s end this year, the starving millions will still be starving—and I guarantee that our population will have grown by two percent.

But of course, our cultural mythology tells us it doesn’t HAVE to be this way. It was this way last year and the year before that and the year before that and the year before that and the year before that—and it will be this way this year and next year and the year after that and the year after that. But one of these years, according to our cultural mythology, we’ll increase food production and by God, those starving millions will get fed and our population won’t grow a bit.

Let me explain why those starving millions are not getting fed. Every year here on this parking lot we call earth, the human population grows by about two percent—all segments of it grow by two percent. This means that there are more blue-eyed people here this year than last year—and more brown-eyed people. It means there are more red-haired people here this year than last year—and more brown-haired people. It means there are more people here growing up well fed—and more people here growing up hungry. The starving population goes up just like all other populations, and producing more food can do NOTHING BUT produce more starving millions. We’re not making hunger go away by increasing food production, we’re just creating more and more people to go hungry. Increasing food production actually INCREASES the number of hungry people, the same way it increases the number of rich people, poor people, tall people, short people, smart people, and dumb people.

The most horrific element of cultural mythology that has to be dealt with on this topic is the notion that if we DIDN’T continue to increase food production—year after year after year—we would face mass starvation. I think at the base of this notion is the strange idea that our population explosion would continue to run on—even if there was no food to fuel it. This is rather like thinking that the engine in your car might continue to run even if the gas tank was empty or like thinking that the lights in this room might keep on burning even if the electricity was turned off.

But though I say this, I know from experience that very few of you believe it. Let me give you an example that I hope will convince you.

There are about 50 people in the Quinn clan, counting myself and my wife, all my siblings and all my wife’s siblings, all their children and grandchildren, and all my children and grandchildren. Last year the Quinn clan consumed a certain amount of food, and let’s say that they’re going to have to subsist on the same amount of food this year—and next year and all the years after that, forever.

Just as in any representative sample of the population, quite a few of the clan are past the age where they can or want to have more children and quite a few haven’t yet reached the age where they can or want to have children. But of course, there are a few who are of an age to want to have children. This doesn’t mean they’re all pregnant at once, of course. In any given year, what you’d expect is that about two percent of the clan would be pregnant—in this case, that means one woman. But let’s not make it too easy for me. Let’s say she has twins. Now we have to feed fifty assorted people and two infants on the same amount of food that last year we fed fifty assorted people. Of course, the same odds that apply to birth apply to death, but again I don’t want to make it too easy for me. I’m going to say that two are born to the Quinn clan but none die. Of course, these infants don’t need the same amount of calories per day as a longshoreman. Let’s say, just to keep the numbers round, that the fifty of us have to come up with about 2000 calories for the two infants every day. That means each of us is going to be short about forty calories a day—three ounces of orange juice.

Now, this is what I want to know. Does this sound like mass starvation to anyone here? Are there people here who feel they’d be starving if they missed a couple of swallows of orange juice a day? I know I certainly don’t.

But what about next year? Let’s say that the same damn thing happens. A new pair of twins, no deaths. Wow, we’re really in trouble now. With last year’s twins to support and this year’s twins to support, each of us is going to be giving up a whole glass of orange juice a day! Now, once again, does this sound like mass starvation to anyone here? Are there people here who feel they’d be starving if they missed a glass of orange juice a day? I know I certainly don’t.

But of course, I can’t go on weighting the statistics against me forever. Birth isn’t the only fact of life. The population of the Quinn clan isn’t going to go on growing forever. There are going to be deaths as well as births.

But the point I want to make is that in two years of even abnormally high births, offset by no deaths, there has been no onset of famine. Not even a hint of starvation anywhere. But let’s continue to weigh things against the Quinn clan and see what happens. Five years pass, twins every year, no deaths at all. Now, instead of 50 mouths to feed there are 60. Let’s say that when we started out at 50, each of us was receiving, on the average, 2500 calories a day. At a population of 60, we’re now down to about 2100 calories a day. That piece of double fudge chocolate cake is out of our lives as a daily treat—but of course, we’re still nowhere near starvation. Even so, it may be time to have a clan conference where we go over the basics of family planning. I’m missing that piece of double fudge chocolate cake and don’t want to have to follow it up next year by giving up a spoonful of jam every day.

What I’m trying to point out here is that capping the Quinn clan food supply does not produce instant famine. It doesn’t produce famine at all, and its instant effect is negligible. We have plenty of time to begin talking about family planning. We’re not—simply NOT—plunged into a food crisis.

There are just no grounds for thinking that a failure to increase food production would result in global mass starvation. But people who are deeply invested in the food race will continue to make this claim, just the way that people who were deeply invested in the arms race were forever claiming that the Commies would surely overrun the world if we relaxed our militancy for even one minute.

We’re in the midst of a food race that is as deadly to us and to the world around us as the arms race was. In some ways, it’s even more deadly, because, after all, we and the Soviets never actually unleashed all the weapons we created. The catastrophe didn’t come to pass.

And as far as I know, not a single species became extinct as a result of the arms race. It’s quite different with the food race. It’s estimated that upwards of two hundred species a day are being forced into extinction by the inexorable expansion of our population.

Right now—and I want to leave you with this clear picture—our food race is converting our planet’s biomass into HUMAN mass. This is what happens when we clear a piece of land of wildlife and replant it with human crops. This land was supporting a biomass comprising hundreds of thousands of species and tens of millions of individuals. Now all the productivity of that land is being turned into human mass, literally into human flesh. Every day all over the world diversity is disappearing as more and more of our planet’s biomass is being turned into human mass. This is what the food race is about. This is EXACTLY what the food race is about: Every year turning more of our planet’s biomass into human mass.

The arms race could only be ended in two ways. It could be ended by a catastrophe, a nuclear holocaust. Or the participants could walk away from it.

Luckily, that’s what happened: The Soviets called it quits—and there was no catastrophe.

The race between food and population is the same. It can be ended by catastrophe when simply too much of our planet’s biomass is tied up in humans, and fundamental ecological systems collapse. And if we refuse to abandon the race, it will end that way—probably not in my lifetime, but very probably in the lifetime of many of you. But the race doesn’t have to end that way. It can end the way the arms race ended, with people simply walking away from it. We can say, “We understand now that there can be no final triumph of food overpopulation. This is because every single win made on the side of food is answered by a win on the side of the population. It has to be that way, it always HAS been that way, and we can see that it’s never going to STOP being that way.”

The strange thing is that many people HATE hearing all this—yet I’m clearly pointing out a path of possibility and hope. I’m not a doom merchant, my compass is set firmly on success. Our population explosion is a problem we CAN get a handle on, provided we all start reaching for it with that third hand.


The Human Future: A Problem in Design

Everyone nowadays is more or less aware that what we see around us in the world of nature is the result of a design process called evolution

People who invite me to speak on occasions like this one are usually in for a surprise, because instead of delivering whatever happens to be my current lecture (or some modification thereof), they get an altogether new creation. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they don’t get the kind of highly finished product that has been refined though a hundred repetitions.

The first thing one is asked to supply is of course a title. The speech hasn’t been written–hasn’t even been pondered–but the organizers of the event have announcements to make, brochures to put together, and so on. So the title comes first. The title in this case is a grand one: The Human Future: A Problem in Design. Having THAT all taken care of, one must then begin to wonder what one is actually going to say–and hope that, in the end, the result will sounds like it has something to do with the title. Sometimes one succeeds in this, sometimes not. You’ll be the judge.

Among the preoccupations of my work are anthropology, history, archeology, evolutionary biology, and sociology. This is of interest because, although I’m not a professional in any of these fields, I nonetheless seem to have succeeded in saying something useful to professionals in these fields. Design is also a preoccupation of my work, and we’ll see if I have anything useful to say to YOU about it.

Everyone nowadays is more or less aware that what we see around us in the world of nature is the result of a design process called evolution. This was not always the case of course. For thousands of years in our culture, it was imagined that what we see around us was the work of a divine designer who delivered the finished product in its eternally final form in a single stroke. God not only got everything right the first time, he got it so right that it couldn’t possibly be improved on by any means.

Since the nineteenth century, this antiquated perception of the world has largely disappeared. Most people now realize that the marvelous designs we see around us in the living community came about through an exacting process called natural selection. Human design–and by this I mean design BY humans, not design OF humans–is similar to evolutionary design in some ways and different in other ways.

Human design is always directed toward IMPROVEMENT. Evolutionary design, on the other hand, only APPEARS to be directed toward improvement, and this confuses a lot of people. It leads them to imagine that evolution is HEADING somewhere, presumably toward the eternally final forms that God created in a single stroke. Evolutionary design in fact merely tends to eliminate the less workable and perpetuate the more workable. When we look at a seagull or a giraffe or a cheetah or a spider, we see a version of the product that’s working beautifully–because all the dysfunctional versions have been eliminated from the gene pool of that species through natural selection. If conditions change, however–and we had the leisure to watch– we’d see these apparently perfect forms begin to change in subtle ways or dramatic ways as natural selection eliminates the less workable adaptations to the new conditions and perpetuates the more workable.

Design change is a reaction to pressure–and this is true of both evolutionary design and human design.

In a completely stable system, there is no pressure to make design changes. Evolutionary design has nothing to do. But of course in reality there is no such thing as a completely stable system.

The same is true of human design. If I were to show you a paleolithic handaxe and a mesolithic handaxe, you’d be hard put to know one from the other. In a million years, there was virtually no pressure on people to improve their stone tools–and they didn’t, at least not intentionally. During the period between the paleolithic and the mesolithic, minute, unnoticed improvements were being made, imitated, and unconsciously handed down in every generation, accumulating over the millennia to produce tools that an expert would immediately recognize as mesolithic.

Click on the image to see a larger version Here we see three products of evolutionary design–three beetles, in fact. One useful way to see these three products is as answering three distinct but related market demands. The beetles at the right and left are both longhorns–so called, of course, because of their long antennae. Although they’re very close genetic relatives, the longhorn at the left has been shaped by natural selection to meet slightly different demands than the one at the right. The beetle in the middle (called, for obvious reasons, Plusiotis resplendens), has been shaped to meet very different needs than its relatives to right and left. The longhorn at the right would not do badly in the niche of the longhorn at the left, and vice versa, but they would probably fail in the niche of the P. resplendens.

Here we see four more products of evolutionary design–four different beaks. It hardly needs to be pointed out that these beaks answer to very different market needs. The macaw doesn’t need (and couldn’t use) the beak of the waterbird at the bottom right. Nor could the vulture or the parrot. There is no one right way to shape a beak for birds. One beak for all is a concept that literally will not fly.

Click on the image to see a larger version Here we see three products of human design–three different types of paper clip. Clearly these also answer distinct but related market needs. People need the clips at left for small jobs, two to ten sheets of paper. The clip at right can also be used for small jobs, but it wouldn’t be one’s first choice. It’s designed for medium size jobs, ten to thirty pages. The clip in the middle, of course, is for large jobs.

Here are three more products of human design, again answering very different, though related, market needs. As we all know by now, there is no one right way to save data. One disk for all purposes is not a viable idea. . . . The response time to pressure for design change differs very significantly between evolutionary design and human design. Click on the image to see a larger version

Click on the image to see a larger version For obvious reasons, I’m not able to show you photos of these beaks at various stages of evolution.

Nor am I able to show you photos of these beetles at various stages of evolution. The period of time over which they developed their distinctive shapes is just too long. But because human design is capable of responding to pressure much more quickly, I can show you . . . Click on the image to see a larger version

Click on the image to see a larger version Two stages in the evolution of the clothespin. The wooden clothespin at the bottom has been around for a long time, and is not extinct even today–because, in fact, it’s cheap, it’s simple, and it works as well as it ever did. Where, then, did the clothespin at the top come from? It isn’t notably cheaper, and it’s notably more complex. It does possibly WORK a bit better, at least for certain jobs. If you’re hanging something out to dry that’s very thick, the pin at the bottom is likely to pop off–or break, if you try to push it down too far. But of course the pin at the top didn’t come into being because the public was screaming for a better clothespin. It came into being because it enabled some business to increase its market share.

The pressure to increase market share is the driving force of human design at this time. The question for anyone who wants to enter a new market or to increase share of market is going to be, “What can I come up with that is more attractive, cheaper, more interesting, or more efficient than what’s currently available?”

Click on the image to see a larger version This slide shows how four makers of cigarette lighters tried to answer that question.

Here are four more. A very early model can be seen at the right. It’s not entirely clear to me how it was supposed to work. Presumably the flint is presented to the wheel through the shaft beneath it. Thumbing the wheel would produce sparks, but most of those sparks would be directed to an area well below the wick. The lighter at the left, the Ronson, represents a clear improvement, and deserved the success it enjoyed in the nineteen thirties and forties. Then a much superior design emerged, the Zippo, to the right of the Ronson. It carried more fuel, provided a wind-guard for the flame, and had a simpler and more reliable mechanism. It drove the Ronson out of the mass market–but was ultimately driven out of the mass market itself by the familiar disposable of today. Click on the image to see a larger version

When I was a boy, you could buy a ruler like this at any hardware store. It’s a fairly laughable relic when compared to what is available in any hardware store today. The spring-retracted tape measure represented such an enormous design improvement that it drove the folding ruler into extinction, so that if you should want one today, you’d have to visit an antique store.

When I was boy, chairs of this design could be found in almost every yard in middle America.

Today you can find them only in antique stores, because they’ve been driven into extinction by a far superior design.

The molded plastic chair is more comfortable, lighter, cheaper, maintenance free–and stackable. It’s no surprise that it’s supplanted every other all-purpose chair in the mass market.

In Ishmael I made the statement that we have a civilizational system that is COMPELLING us to destroy the world. This is something people understand very quickly. It seems almost self-evident. I make an additional point, that our civilizational system works very well for PRODUCTS but very poorly for PEOPLE, but I don’t really go into this very deeply in Ishmael. I’d like to use this opportunity to do so here.

We’ve just had a look at why our system works well for products. In fact, it works superbly well. In just a hundred years we’ve gone from Kitty Hawk to the Moon, from the telegraph to satellite television, from clunky calculators to computers capable of billions of operations a second.

Our system for products works well because it’s well understood and accepted by all that there is no one right way to make a cigarette lighter, no one right way to make a camera, no one right way to make a chair, no one right way to make ANYTHING. Products are EXPECTED to evolve and ALLOWED to evolve in much the same way that beetles and butterflies and bananas evolved, by a form of natural selection in the marketplace.

The social organizations we see around us in the community of life. . .

The school . . .
The troop . . . Click on the image to see a larger version
The flock . . .
The tribe . . .

are also products of evolution. They’ve each survived millions of years of testing by natural selection. It’s no wonder they work well for their members. They work as well as eyes work, as well as beaks work, as well as nests work, as well as hands work.

But our social organization isn’t the product of natural selection. It’s a product of the Rube Goldberg school of design, a contraption cobbled together out of spare parts. In Ishmael I compared it to an early flying machine–of the type that could GET into the air (if you pushed them off a cliff) but that couldn’t STAY in the air, because they were not built in accordance with the laws of aerodynamics.

The school, the troop, the flock, the tribe (to mention just a few of the social organizations that have emerged through natural selection) are stable organizations because they work well for their members.

Our organizations are fairly stable, not because they work well but because we FORBID them to change. They’re stable . . .

By decree. The Constitution is the rock upon which our society is built in the United States. As we all know, that which is built on a rock is stable, because rocks are stable–unchanging, not subject to natural selection. Of course our Constitution can be changed, but you know how difficult THAT is. It’s difficult BY DESIGN. There’s that word again.
Because we desire stability, we cobble together an organization DESIGNED to resist change.
Law . . .
Justice . . .

Order, maintained by a standing army of police. People like these English workers in the General Strike of 1925 were perceived to be the enemies of order and stability–and are still so perceived today. As designers, however, we should see the matter differently. The very fact that these workers are striking should tell us that there’s something wrong with the design of their organizational system. But IN that organizational system, we don’t change the DESIGN.
Click on the image to see a larger version

Click on the image to see a larger version
We hire more troops.

We enlist and train right-thinking civilians to combat the malcontents. When I say “we,” I don’t mean to suggest that this is a 20th century phenomenon. Every age had people who threatened the stability of the organization. As today, these trouble-makers weren’t examined as signs of a design problem.
They were burned at the stake.
Or put in the stocks.
Or hanged. Nowadays, of course, there are far too many trouble-makers to be handled in these relatively primitive ways.
We have to build vast warehouses to hold all the malcontents, misfits, and criminals that are produced in our system. But we don’t perceive this to be signaling profound design flaws in the system. In general, we don’t ask ourselves, “What’s wrong with the design here?” We ask ourselves . . . Click on the image to see a larger version

“What’s wrong with these boys? What’s wrong with these boys who, enjoying the highest standard of living the world has ever known, go to school one day ready to murder. Having gunned down as many as their schoolmates as possible, they then hoped to steal a plane and crash it into New York City. What kind of FIENDS are they?

When our children start becoming murderers, we typically don’t wonder what’s wrong with the system that’s turning them INTO murderers, we wonder what’s wrong with THEM. Imagine an assembly line that out of every hundred vehicles turns out one that is horribly defective. Then imagine–instead of examining the assembly line–taking the defective vehicle out and shooting it. Then, when the next one comes along–instead of examining the assembly line–taking THAT one and shooting it. And when the next one comes along–instead of examining the assembly line–taking THAT one out and shooting it.

I was amused last year when, after the Jonesboro massacre, the prosecutor of THOSE boys vowed to go after them so fiercely that he was going to SEND A MESSAGE to the youth of America. And what was the message? WE’RE NOT GOING TO PUT UP WITH THIS SORT OF THING. Understand that? We’re not just going to put up with it!

We’re not going to CHANGE anything–no no, everything’s perfect the way it is. We’re just going to punish the hell out of you. And that’ll send a message. So the NEXT bunch of boys who think of massacring their schoolmates will stop and say, “Wait a second! Hey! What was that message about massacring your schoolmates? Oh, I remember now. If you massacre your schoolmates, they’re going to send you to jail for a thousand years. Or is it two thousand years? Well, I guess if it’s going to be a thousand years, we’d better not massacre our schoolmates. If it were only twenty years or fifty years, then we could go ahead. But a thousand years, wow. I can’t do a thousand years.”

Was that the problem in Columbine–that these boys just had failed to get this message? Were they under the impression that they were just going to get slapped on the wrist for gunning down their classmates and blowing up a school and crashing an airplane into a city block? Did they do all that–or plan to do all that–because they had the mistaken idea that no one would mind?

No, it’s perfectly clear that they were not under any illusion about the consequences of their actions. They expected NOT to survive their adventure.

The question I want to leave with you as designers is this. How have we gone about nurturing children who have so little to live for and so much to hate that they’ll happily throw their lives away if they can murder 500 classmates, blow up a school, and crash an airplane into a city block? Please don’t tell me about violent video games and violent music. Instead, tell me how we’ve gone about nurturing children who WANT violent video games and violent music, who THRIVE on violent video games and violent music.

In general (it can be said with reasonable justification) natural selection works on this principle, “If it doesn’t work, do it LESS.” Any gene that works against reproductive success tends to be eliminated from the gene pool–is found less and less in the gene pool until it finally disappears. Doing less of what doesn’t work is a principle that is practically instinctive to the human designer. But when it comes to our social organizations, the people of our culture follow a very different principle: If it doesn’t work, do it MORE.

I almost always get a laugh with this statement. I’m not sure whether it’s the shock of recognition or if people just think I’m kidding. I’m certainly not kidding. The principle is best seen at work in the institutions dedicated to maintaining the stability of our structures and systems. It’s an anti-evolutionary principle, a principle that keeps anything new from happening. Here are some examples.

If spending a billion dollars doesn’t win the war on drugs, spend two billion. If spending two billion doesn’t work, spend four. Sound familiar?

If hiring a thousand cops doesn’t stop crime in your city, hire 2000. If hiring 2000 doesn’t work, hire 4000.

If sentencing criminals to 10 years doesn’t work, sentence them to 20 years. If 20 years doesn’t work, sentence them to 50–to 500, a thousand!

If building a thousand prisons doesn’t work, build 2000. If building 2000 doesn’t work, build 4000.

If assigning two hours of homework doesn’t work, assign three. If assigning three doesn’t work, assign four.

I became aware of this principle when I was the head of the mathematics department at the Encyclopaedia Britannica Educational Corporation. Someone gave me a white paper that had been put together by the National Association of Teachers of English examining the state of teaching and objectives for the future. In spite of all the themes we give them to write, they said, kids aren’t learning to how to write. So what we have to do is–guess what?–give them MORE THEMES to write. Writing 20 themes a year doesn’t work, so give them 30. And if 30 doesn’t work, give them 40.

If you’re taxpayers, you’ve seen your tax bills for education escalate steadily, year after year, decade after decade, as every year the schools struggle to do more of what doesn’t work. Everyone connected to the system is completely convinced that if spending nine trillion doesn’t work, then you just need to spend ten.

Naturally there were counselors at Columbine High School. But after the massacre, Janet Reno stood up and said, guess what, that we need to push for MORE COUNSELORS. Having counselors didn’t work, so NATURALLY we should have MORE of them, and if one for every hundred kids doesn’t work, then we should have two, and if two doesn’t work, then we should have three.

We have an organizational system that works wonderfully well for products. But we don’t have a system that works wonderfully well for people. That’s the lesson to be learned at Jonesboro and Columbine–and at the places that are going to follow, because these two aren’t the last two, they’re just the first two.

We have a system that works fabulously well for products. But the one we have for people stinks. This is the lesson we’ve got to learn–or the human future on this planet is going to be a very bleak one indeed.

So this is the message I’d like to leave with you. For the sake of the human future, don’t take your designer’s hat off when you leave the office. Don’t limit your work or your thinking to the objects and physical structures that people need and want. Look at everything that’s going on here with designer’s eyes. For the sake of the human future, go after it all like designers.

Technology, the Other War

Technology, the Other War

Address by Daniel Quinn at Student Pugwash “Technologies of Peace” Conference, Carnegie Mellon University, 1997

I’m not going to talk long here because it’s been my experience that people who’ve read my books always come loaded with questions that are always much more relevant to them than anything I could dream up to say in advance.

Four years ago one of the organizers of the Minnesota Social Investment Forum called to ask if I would come address their annual meeting. This was, in fact, one of the very first invitations I’d ever received to speak, and I must say that it puzzled me a lot. Why would a bunch of investors–social or otherwise–think I had something to say to them? I know nothing whatever about investing, have never written a single word about investing.

The following year I received an invitation to address a sort of executive committee made up of representatives from every department of a regional hospital system centred in Albuquerque New Mexico–each of whom had read my work. Needless to say, I was even more puzzled. I’m a regular mine of information about investing–compared to what I know about hospitals and healthcare.

Last winter I was contacted by someone connected with The Woodlands Group, an informal gathering of human resource professionals and organizational development specialists who have been meeting four times a year for something like twenty years. Each meeting has as its focus a book that has a unique contribution to make to them and their work. The focus of this spring’s meeting was going to be on two books of mine, Ishmael and The Story of B. The question for me was, would I care to come and interact with them for the three days of their meeting? I have only the vaguest idea what human resource professionals and organizational development specialists actually DO, but of course, I said yes.

And then, of course, there was the invitation to address this group here, meeting to consider something called “Technologies of Peace.” I’m very far from being an expert on the subject of social investment, health care, human resources, organizational development, OR technology–but there I was and here I am. Why? Not “Why am I here?” but rather “Why was I invited?”

I’ll share this answer with you because I think it may, in fact, be more important and more useful to you than anything I have to say on the subject of technology. If you were to ask all those people WHY they invited me to speak on subjects I’m apparently unqualified to address, I think you’d work hard to get a single, coherent explanation out of them. But here it is. The characteristic of my work that appeals to all these different points of view is this: I follow a strange rule that can be applied usefully to any subject whatever, whether it’s social investment, health care, human resources, or the technologies of peace. Here it is: IF THEY GIVE YOU LINED PAPER, WRITE SIDEWAYS.

We are perpetually being presented with lined paper on which we are expected to write our thoughts, our lives, and indeed our futures. Nicholas Copernicus received a full sheaf of lined paper at the end of the fifteenth century, and some of those lines represented the physical arrangement of the universe as it was understood at that time. It was perfectly possible for him to be a respected astronomer so long as he did his work within the lines of the Ptolemaic system. But because he eventually saw that he had to write sideways against those lines, he knew that his most important work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543), could not be published until after his death. Albert Einstein similarly received a full set of lined paper as a young man, but his was a different sort of age. When he turned the paper sideways and began to work out his theory of relativity, this was very quickly recognized as an important contribution. Darwin, Freud, and Marx are other well-known examples of people who took the lined paper they were given and turned it sideways to do important work that changed the world.

Let me give you an example of some of the lines found on the paper you’ve received so far–you, I–everyone who grows up in this culture. “Because we have a growing population, we must find ways to increase food production. Increasing food production is essential and undoubtedly beneficial work.” These are the lines on the paper we’ve been given. But when I turn the paper sideways and write, “Food production is the fuel of our population explosion, and the more we increase it, the more fuel we supply that explosion,” everyone goes crazy. I’m not writing inside the lines!

The paper we receive provides lines not only for single opinions in our culture but for opposing opinions as well. For example, there’s a set of lines for writing in favour of capital punishment and a set of lines for writing in opposition to capital punishment, and we’re all familiar with them. When writing in favour, you say, “Some crimes deserve this ultimate punishment, and it acts as a deterrent.” When writing in opposition, you say, “No crime deserves this ultimate punishment, and it DOESN’T act as a deterrent.” You can use either set–but only an original thinker turns the paper sideways and says, “Punishment isn’t a value for me, and deterrence can never be demonstrated in any definitive way. So where do we go from here?”

There is a set of lines for writing in favour of abortion and a set of lines for writing in opposition to abortion, and if you turn that paper sideways and write the wrong way against those lines, you’d better do it anonymously–or move to the moon. There is even a set of lines for writing in favour of technology and a set of lines for writing in opposition to technology. Here is someone writing within the lines in opposition to it: “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in ‘advanced’ countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in ‘advanced’ countries.” The media has elevated the author of these commonplace ideas to the level of a genius because a madman is always more interesting if he’s a genius. He is Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, who seems to have imagined that he was saying something terribly original in his ponderous diatribe, called “Industrial Society and its Future.”

You might be surprised to know how many people go along with the line of thinking taken by the Unabomber–or perhaps you wouldn’t, I have no way of knowing. Some heavy lines have grown up in recent decades around the concept of “natural.” Natural foods are good foods, foods that come to us, as it were, directly from nature, without the addition of artificial colours or preservatives. This notion has been extended in all sorts of directions. Clothes made from “natural” fibres contribute to a more “natural” lifestyle. Shampoos made from “natural” ingredients are presumably better for your hair than shampoos made from ingredients synthesized in a laboratory. Thinking along these lines has produced, by a kind of sympathetic magic, the notion that everything manmade is unnatural, and therefore unhealthy and quite possibly evil. If something comes to us from bees or sheep or flowers, it’s natural and okay, but if it comes to us from humans it’s unnatural and noxious. Humanity has gradually come to be perceived as ITSELF unnatural–as somehow no longer belonging to nature. When a beaver fells a tree, this is a “natural” event. When a man fells a tree, this is an unnatural event–perverted, unholy.

Technology, in this context–to use Kaczynski’s words–has made life unfulfilling, has subjected human beings to indignities, has led to widespread psychological and physical suffering and has inflicted severe damage on the “natural” world–the natural world being that world where humans don’t belong at all.

Writing across these heavily drawn lines has been hard work. Those of you who have read Ishmael or any of my other books know that it’s been my particular business to re-imagine the life story of our species as a member of the general community of life on this planet–not as the ruler or steward of that community or as the most important member of that community or as the single culminating high point that the universe has been straining to reach for the past fifteen billion years or so.

When humanity is scaled down to the size of the rest of the community, distinctions between “natural” and “unnatural” become very hazy indeed. For example, why exactly is the trail system of a white-tailed deer “natural” but an expressway system “unnatural”? Why is a bird’s nest “natural” but this building we’re in here “unnatural”?
An easy answer might be that the bird builds from “natural” materials and we don’t. But then you might ask why wire, cotton, string, paper, fibreglass, and even cement are often found in birds’ nests. Someone in Texas recently found a raven’s nest constructed entirely of barbed wire. Workers in an office building in California once found a canyon wren’s nest built entirely of office supplies–things like pins, thumbtacks, paper clips, rubber bands, and so on–not a shred of so-called natural materials.

The ancestors of birds didn’t fly–and neither did ours. The creatures we call birds eventually FOUND a way to fly–as did we. It’s not easy to explain why this transition was “natural” for birds but NOT natural for us. If we conceptually restore humanity to its place in the community of life, it becomes a little difficult to figure out how ANYTHING we do is “unnatural.” In fact (I suggest), this distinction between natural and unnatural that we hear so often made–especially in reference to technology–is as little reality-based as the distinction between approved and unapproved recreational drugs.

Speakers at events like these always receive lined paper at the outset. This isn’t meant in any sense as a criticism. The theme of any event (as stated in its title) is specifically INTENDED to provide lines. I recently gave a keynote address at the annual convention of the North American Association for Environmental Education, and the theme of this meeting was “Weaving Connections: Cultures and Environments.” Now, these were hazy lines indeed, so faint that, for all practical purposes, they could be ignored. The result was, I didn’t have to turn the paper sideways, I just talked about what was currently on my mind, and this is basically what they wanted me to do anyway.

The theme of THIS event, “Technologies of Peace,” presents a different sort of challenge entirely. There are some clear lines drawn here, and I’d like to spend a few minutes examining them.

What is understood instantly is: Technologies of peace–versus technologies of war. It’s not, for example, technologies of peace versus technologies of commerce or technologies of peace versus technologies of communications. The dichotomy to be focused on is the one between peace and war.

For any culturally literate Westerner, a foundation piece of wisdom found in the bible will spring to mind on the subject of technologies of war versus technologies of peace. Here it is, from the second chapter of Isaiah:

The Lord shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.
This is a great and famous image of people turning from war to peace–unless you happen to be in the habit of following my rule. If you turn this lined paper sideways, what you see in this business of beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks is not people turning from war to peace but rather people turning from one war to another war–from an inTRAspecies war to an inTERspecies war. From the conquest of nations to the conquest of nature–the mythological war that the people of our particular culture have been waging here for the past ten thousand years.
The ploughshare has always been understood by the people of our culture as the sword they follow across the face of the earth. They followed it out of the Fertile Crescent eastward to India and China, they followed it northward into Europe, and finally, they followed it westward into the New World.

The first great addition to the “technologies of peace” in the New World may have been the cotton gin, but the second was the more important. This was the John Deere plough, called “the plough that won the West.” Everyone in nineteenth-century America understood the military reference in this nickname. Guns and swords didn’t win us the West, though we had to have them to drive off the Indians. It took a plough to win us the West–a plough that could penetrate the intransigent, never-before cultivated soil of the Great Plains.

I bring all this up because it’s important that you not be deceived into thinking that any technology we don’t use as a weapon against each other is automatically a technology for peace. There are not two kinds of technology in this domain, there are three. There are technologies for peace, technologies we use to conquer each other, and technologies we use to conquer the world–technologies for what I’ve called “the other war.”

Technologies for the Other War need special attention, because I’m afraid most people WILL take them to be technologies of peace, and that’s a very hazardous mistake. This is because, oddly enough, the wars we wage against other species are actually no less dangerous TO US than the wars we wage against each other.

Two examples will show you why this is so. Two examples will be sufficient because there are basically two kinds of species we go to war against Those species we can easily destroy right down to the last member and those species we cannot easily destroy down to the last member. I’m afraid that many of our current crop of “technologies for peace” are devoted to these wars.

It’s relatively easy for us to destroy large, slow-breeding species like elephants, giraffes, gorillas, bison, wolves, coyotes, passenger pigeons, Siberian tigers, whales, California condors, and so on. Some of these are already extinct, and probably most of the ones I’ve named will become extinct during your lifetime. These large, slow-breeding species are not, for the most part, being killed off directly by technology. They’re being obliterated by our population explosion–which receives essential support from technologies that are perceived in our culture to be technologies not just of peace but of godliness itself. A famous recent example is the well-known “Green Revolution,” a technology that made it possible for us to grow our population from three billion to six billion in just 35 years. The sacred work continues, of course, in every school of agriculture in the world, where every researcher is diligently working to give us the tools that will enable us to grow our population from 6 billion to 12 billion in ANOTHER 35 years.

Upwards of two hundred species–mostly of the large, slow-breeding variety–are becoming extinct here every day because more and more of the earth’s carrying capacity is systematically being converted into HUMAN carrying capacity. These species are being burnt out, starved out, and squeezed out of existence–thanks to technologies that most people, I’m afraid, think of as technologies of peace. I hope it will not be too long before the technologies that support our population explosion begin to be perceived as no less hazardous to the future of life on this planet than the endless production of radioactive wastes.

We’re very like people living on the top floor of a high rise who every day set off two or three explosions in the lower floors of the building, weakening and even demolishing walls. Still–so far–the building stands, and the top floor where we live continues to sit on top. But if we continue to set off two or three explosions a day in the lower floors, then eventually and inevitably, one of these explosions is going to create a critical weakness–a weakness that combines dynamically with all the other weaknesses to bring the building crashing down.

We can say, “Yes, it’s true that we drive a couple hundred species to extinction every day, but there are tens of millions–hundreds of millions–between us and catastrophe.” We can SAY this, but the sheer number is no guarantee, because like the random bombers in the high rise, there’s no way of telling which extinction will be the one that suddenly combines dynamically with thousands of others to bring the whole structure down.

This brings me to the other kind of species we’re are war with–the small, rapidly-breeding species. Species of this type become our enemies for one of three reasons: they invade our fields and eat our food, they invade our houses and make us nervous, or they invade our bodies and make us ill. These are all pretty obvious. The first type are all the various insects and funguses that feed on our crops. The second type are creatures like cockroaches, fleas, and termites. The third type are bacteria and viruses.

The technological strategy we’ve pursued in our dealings with these small, fast-breeding creatures has been remarkably obtuse. Very simply, all too often we’ve acted as though we could make these creatures extinct down to the very last member, the way we might do with elephants or pandas. All too often we’ve acted as though the more we killed, the closer we came to making them extinct. But of course, this constitutes a fundamental misunderstanding of biological realities.

What we’ve done in actual fact is make ourselves the chief agent of natural selection in these enemy species. Our insecticide hasn’t killed off every last member of the targeted species in a given field. It’s killed off the 80% that are most susceptible to the deadly effect of the insecticide, leaving alive as breeding stock for the next generation the 20% that was less susceptible. Generation after generation, we are in effect PRODUCING a population of insects more and more resistant to our insecticides. If we WANTED to produce such insects, this would be exactly the way to go about it!

In the same way, I’m afraid, we’re systematically developing household pests that are more and more resistant to the insecticides we use against them.

The misguidedness of our technological strategy toward the small and fast-breeding is even more evident–and more disturbing!–when it comes to human disease organisms. In areas of the world where antibiotics are used more freely and are often available without prescription, resistant “super-bugs” are turning up with alarming frequency. Bacteria resistant to penicillin have emerged in Africa. In France and Britain, Enterococcus, a bacterium that causes blood infections, became resistant to vancomycin in the late 1980s. Atlanta hospitals recently came across a deadly staph germ that is only one step away from becoming completely immune to what is now the last-resort antibiotic against it. A strain of plague has appeared in Madagascar that is immune to standard antibiotics.

It must be kept in mind that this is nothing remotely like “nature fighting back.” This is merely nature operating exactly the way we know it operates, the way it has been operating here for some three and a half billion years. As I say, if we WANTED to produce a bacterium resistant to an antibiotic, this is exactly how we would proceed. We would kill off as many as we could from a population of bacteria and let the survivors produce a next generation. Then we’d kill off as many of that generation as we could and then let the survivors produce a next generation. And so on. Eventually, sure enough, we would produce a generation that was totally impervious to our antibiotic–and that’s what we’re doing globally.

Not that I’m trying to alarm you. [Kidding.] I’d better end here by saying that I’m definitely FOR technologies of peace. At the same time, we’d better be aware that SOME technologies of peace are actually more hazardous than ANY technology of war.

Tribal Law

Tribal Law

You find yourself in the unhappy circumstance of being attracted to your second cousin’s wife, Gurtina—and of knowing that she is attracted to you. Now, your second cousin is a fine fellow, and you wouldn’t intentionally hurt him, but these things happen: You and his wife are possessed by the love madness.

It’s really very touching and pathetic. Living in the same camp, you can’t help but see each other daily. You circle each other like binary stars, drawn together by one force, thrust apart by another. What you read in each other’s eyes is plain but untested. You yearn to test it, but . . . you know what the testing will inevitably cost.

No matter. Soon you can endure it no longer. The fire of love is burning you alive. One day in passing at the outskirts of camp, you confront her.She lowers her eyes modestly, as always, but your determination is fixed.

“Tonight,” you whisper, “past the saltbush on the other side of the stream.” She hesitates a moment to consult her own heart, but she too knows that the time has come. “At the setting of the moon?” she asks. “At the setting of the moon.” She nods and hurries away, her heart bursting with joy and dread.

That night you’re there a little beforehand, of course, to prepare your bower of love, your nest of passion. Gurtina comes to you at last.

Your hands touch. You embrace. Ah!

A few hours later, exhausted with delight, you sit by a tiny fire and watch it grow pale in the burgeoning dawn. You exchange a glance, and more is written in that glance than in all your night’s endearments and caresses. You have tested your passion. Now, this glance says, it’s time to test your love. With a sigh, you smother the fire and head back to camp, trying not to let your feet drag. Your faces are a careful display. Exultation would be childish and insolent. Shame would be a denial of your love. Instead, what’s seen there is something like repose, acceptance, fortitude.

You both know what you’re going to see, and without fail you see it. At one side of the camp the men are arrayed, already hopping with fury. At the other side wait the women, smouldering. You and Gurtina exchange another glance—this one briefer than the beat of a gnat’s wing—and then you’re engulfed in a wave of wrath.

The men descend on you, the women on her. Rocks and spears and boomerangs are flying through the air, clubs and digging sticks are being wielded with abandon. But you don’t just stand there and take it—far from it. You both battle back in defense of your love, answering screams with screams, rocks with rocks, spears with spears, blows with blows, until all weapons and combatants are finally exhausted.

Gurtina, bleeding and battered, is returned to her husband, and you’re told to roll your swag and get the hell out if you know what’s good for you. For a while the men’s bodies are exhausted, their fury isn’t, and when they revive, you’ll be fair game again. So you roll your swag, thinking. Thinking very hard. The test of your love isn’t over, it’s just begun. The next few hours will be the true test, and this test will be in your head and heart alone.

You leave camp, knowing that as yet you have a choice. . . .

The question is: Do you really want this woman? Do you want her more than anything you hold dear in the world? If you don’t, if there’s the slightest doubt . . . you will just keep going—go on walkabout for a few weeks. When you come back, the men’s fury will have abated. They’ll jeer at you for a few weeks and then forget all about it. Gurtina . . . ah, Gurtina will know you for what you are, a craven seducer, a hollow man, and she’ll never forget. And of course there’ll be a price to be paid to your cousin. But all these are bearable. The alternative, on the other hand . . . You circle the camp all day, staying out of sight and out of reach, thinking. But by dusk you know that your doubts have vanished. In the gathering darkness, you approach camp stealthily, to the spot where your loved one is being guarded. Lightly guarded.

Lightly guarded—to keep her from running away with you. Ah, the exquisiteness of that guard! Do you see its effect?

Gurtina has her own choice to make, you see—the same terrible choice as yours. And the restraint provided by those guards defines and delimits her choice. For she’s guarded. You’re not. You have to prove your courage by coming for her. She doesn’t need to prove her courage by coming for you. And in fact, she can’t. She’s guarded, you see. So that, should you not come for her, she will not be shamed. Rather it will be you who is shamed.

But this is only half of it. The guards are there to protect you as well, because Gurtina too has her choice to make. Does she really want you?

Does she want you more than anything she holds dear in the world? If not—if there’s the slightest doubt—when your signal comes at dusk, she need only shrug helplessly, as if to say, “See? I can’t get away, my love. I’m being too well guarded.” Thus the presence of the guards enables her to express her choice in a way that does not crush your self-esteem. The presence of the guards makes it possible for her to end the whole episode in a moment, without a single word, as painlessly as possible.

Now note very well that none of this is or was worked our rationally or consciously, of course. Nevertheless, the guard on Gurtina is in fact curiously inefficient. Efficient enough to serve all the purposes I’ve just mentioned—but inefficient enough to allow her to escape at your signal, if that is her will. Because of course the Alawa are sensible enough to know that if she wants you this much, it would be foolish to make escape impossible.

The testing is over now. You and she have made your decision. Now the price must be paid. The price for disrupting the life of the tribe, for cheapening marriage in the eyes of the children. And thai price is, next to death itself, the heaviest that can be paid: detribalization, lifelong exile.

At your signal, Gurtina slips away from her guard and, together at last and forever, the two of you hurry away into the night, never to return. You are journeying into the land of the dead now. Detribalized, you are dead to all you left behind and to all you shall ever meet for the rest of your lives.

Now you are truly homeless, by your own choice, alone and adrift in a vast, empty world. Your home is now each other, which you chose above the tribe. There will be no comradeship for you forever except what you find in each other: no friends, no father and mother, no aunts and uncles, no cousins, no nieces and nephews. You have thrown it all away—to have each other.

And you know that this is truly a price you’ve paid of your own choice, not a punishment. To have each other and go on living with the tribe would be unthinkable, disgraceful, even worse than exile. It would in fact destroy the tribe, because once the children saw that there was no price to be paid for adultery, marriage would become a laughingstock, and the basis of the family and of the tribe itself would disintegrate.

What you see at work here in this example is the stupendous efficacy of tribal law. Nothing like invented law, which just spells out crimes and punishments, tribal law is something that works. It works well for all concerned. A man and woman whose love is as great as this must of course have each other. But for the sake of the tribe, they must be gone—out of sight, out of mind forever. The children of the tribe have seen with their own eyes that marriage and love are not the trifling matters they have become among “advanced” peoples like us. The husband’s dishonor has been avenged—and there will be no snickering among his comrades about it, for they stood side by side with him to lambaste the adulterer.

But perhaps you had a question at this point in the story: Why would the lovers return to the camp at all?

Oh, that’s exactly the crux of the law. It wouldn’t work at all without that. Suppose, after your night of lovemaking, you were to suggest to Gurtina: “Oh, why should we wait another day to be together? Let’s run away now!”

What would she think? She would think, “Uh-oh, what have I gotten myself into here? What kind of a man is this? A coward, obviously, who would have us slink off into the night rather than go back to face the others and say, ‘Well, here we are! Do your worst!’ ”

And if she made the suggestion instead of you, you’d think the same of her. So the two of you must go back. . . .

Every part of this process is the law, and every actor in it is a participant in the law. The law for these people isn’t a separate statute written in a book. It’s the very fabric of their lives—it’s what makes the Alawa the Alawa and what distinguishes them from the Mara and the Malanugganugga—who have their own ways of handling adultery, which are the best for them. It can’t possibly be said too often that there is no one right way for people to live; that’s only the delusion of the most murderous and destructive culture that history has ever produced.

I’m sure it’s all but self-evident to you that this law of adultery could not have been the invention of any committee whatever. It’s not an improvisation or a contrivance, and because it’s not an improvisation or a contrivance, it has weight with the Alawa. It might not occur to any of them to analyze it as I’ve done here tonight, but that doesn’t matter in the least.

They don’t obey the law of the Alawa because it checks out under analysis.

They obey the law of the Alawa because they’re the Alawa, and to give up the law would be to give up their identity—would be to become detribalised.

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A Path of Hope for the Future

 Hope for the Future

Keynote address delivered at the 2000 Houston Youth Environmental Leadership Conference, 1/26/00

Yesterday a teenager sent me an email letter in which he said, “I feel cheated that it’s all UP TO ME. By being in the younger generation, I have to save the world before I can even begin to think of building a life for myself, or there will be nothing to build my life on.”

I think this is a profound statement and a statement of profound importance to this particular audience. I’ve known several generations of kids your age, and I can tell you that feeling cheated is something NEW, and something new is always worth paying attention to.

The kids of my own generation didn’t feel cheated, we felt terrified. We grew up in the coldest part of the Cold War, cowering in the shadow of the H-bomb, expecting at any moment to see the world come to an end in a nuclear holocaust. All we knew was that we had to get down to the business of getting as much of the good life as we could before the end came. We were the Silent Generation, and all we wanted was to get out there and get a job, a career, a marriage, a family, a house in the suburbs, squeezing in as much as we could before it all went up in smoke.

The kids of the sixties and seventies didn’t feel cheated. They were just fed up with their parents’ idea that the best life was the one the Silent Generation was struggling to get–the job, the career, the marriage, the family, the house in the suburbs. They wanted to LIVE, to have a little fun, and to hell with the goddamned H-bomb. Who could blame them?

Michael feels cheated, he says, because it’s all up to him. If you haven’t yet been told that it’s “all up to you,” believe me, you will be. Of course, this business of it all being up to you is pretty standard commencement day rhetoric. Every commencement day speaker worth his or her salt has got to say, one way or another, “The future is in your hands. Today the torch passes from one generation to the next,” blah, blah, blah. This in itself is not new. I heard the same thing when I was your age.

But it meant something different when I heard it. It really was just commencement day rhetoric back then. Nowadays it means something different.

Nowadays it means something like this. My generation and my parents’ generation and their parents’ have really screwed things up here, and that’s no joke. I can’t even bring myself to look at the latest WorldWatch Institute estimate of how much time we have left to turn this around before we head down a slide from which no recovery is possible. It was 40 years the last time I DID have the nerve to look, and that was about ten years ago.

What does this figure mean? It doesn’t mean human extinction in forty years. It means we have 40 years to find a new path for ourselves, and if we let those 40 years go to waste and just go on the way we are, the momentum that is carrying us forward to extinction will be too great to overcome. So that date is not the end of it all, it’s just the point of no return. Irreversible.

So when people tell you now that it’s all up to you, they really mean “If you can’t find what we were unable to find and our parents were unable to find and their parents were unable to find (which is another way for us to go), then you may very well live to see the extinction of the human race.”
I’m sure you haven’t failed to notice what a monstrous copout this is.


Oh yes, we–your parents and their parents and their parents–have screwed up the world royally, and we admit it!! But if YOU don’t find a way to FIX what WE’VE done, then it will be YOUR fault! Not OUR fault, because we have an excuse. We were just dumb and greedy. And because WE’VE been dumb and greedy, YOU’RE going to have to be smart and self-sacrificing. Got that?

Michael puts it in a nutshell: “By being in the younger generation, I have to save the world before I can even begin to think of building a life for myself, or there will be nothing to build my life on.”

Your parents didn’t have to save the world before building a life for themselves. Maybe it would’ve have been a good idea–but they didn’t HAVE to. So they didn’t.
You HAVE to, because if you don’t, as Michael says, there will be nothing LEFT to build your life ON.

So that’s the deal. Forget about having fun. Forget about taking up some career just because it happens to appeal to you. Forget about getting the good things in life that your parents have. Forget about the six-figure salary. Forget about the BMW. Forget about the 8000 square foot house. Those things are okay for people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Donald Trump and Steve Case, because they belong to the same old, unregenerate generation as your parents. They can AFFORD to be dumb and greedy. They don’t HAVE to save the world first. YOU DO.

Is it any wonder that Michael feels cheated?

When he speaks of being cheated, Michael unconsciously brings into play the language of games. I mean that Michael dimly recognizes that a game IS being played with him, and I’d like to take a few minutes to examine the game that’s being played with him–and with you when people tell you that “It’s all up to you.”

In his book, The Book: or, The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts examines the notion of the “double-bind.” “A person,” he writes, “is put in a double-bind by a command or request that contains a concealed contradiction. ‘Stop being self-conscious!’ ‘Try to relax.’ . . . Society, as we now have it, pulls this trick on every child from earliest infancy. In the first place, the child is taught that he is responsible, that he is a free agent, an independent origin of thoughts and actions. He accepts this make-believe for the very reason that it is not true. He can’t help accepting it, just as he can’t help accepting membership in the community where he was born. He has no way of resisting this kind of social indoctrination. It is constantly reinforced with reward and punishments. It is built into the basic structure of the language he is learning. . . . we befuddle our children hopelessly because we–as adults–were once so befuddled, and, remaining so, do not understand the game we are playing.”

I hope you’ll leave here today with a better understanding of the game that is being played with you. “The child,” Watts says, “is taught that he is responsible, that he is a free agent, an independent origin of thoughts and actions.” This is what you’re hearing when people of an older generation say, “It’s all up to you.” You might say that this is HALF of the game. They themselves were told, “It’s all up to you,” when they were your age. But if you watch them in action, you’ll see very clearly that they don’t act as if it were all up to them. They act as if it were all up to SOMEONE ELSE. They were taught, just as you were, that they are responsible, that they are free agents, but they know perfectly well that this is make-believe. SOMEONE ELSE is responsible for saving the world. SOMEONE ELSE is a free agent CAPABLE of saving the world. It may not come to mind immediately who this SOMEONE ELSE is, but you’ll certainly recognize it when you hear it.

Who is everyone WAITING for to save the world? Who is EVERYONE waiting for to save the world?

They are waiting for our LEADERS, of course. This is the other half of the game. The first half of the game is: It’s all up to you. The second half of the game is: they don’t have to do anything because they’re waiting for the President to save the world. They’re waiting for the Secretary General of the United Nations to save the world. They’re waiting for some unthinkable industrial giant to save the world. They’re waiting for some great thinker to save the world. They’re waiting for Mikhail Gorbachev to save the world. They’re even waiting for Daniel Quinn to save the world!

Someone UP THERE, someone in AUTHORITY!

Well, guess what, folks. There is NO ONE “up there” who is remotely CAPABLE of saving the world. Most of the people I’ve just mentioned aren’t even THINKING about saving the world. Trust me, you will never hear Al Gore or Bill Bradley or George Bush utter one word about saving the world*. And whichever one of them is elected our next President, he will not spend a single minute of his administration thinking about saving the world. This is not something they should be blamed for, in all honesty. We don’t ELECT presidents to save the world, and any candidate that campaigned on that basis would be laughed off the stage. We elect ALL our political leaders to address SHORT-TERM goals.

The kids of your grandparents’ generation were told, “It’s all up to you”–and they waited for SOMEONE ELSE to save the world.

The kids of your parents’ generation were told, “It’s all up to you”–and they waited for SOMEONE ELSE to save the world.

Now the people of your parents’ and grandparents’ generation are continuing the game by pointing at you and saying, “It’s all up to YOU.”

I’d like to try to persuade you to REFUSE to play the game. Don’t let anyone get away with saying, “It’s all up to you.” No. It’s all up to EVERYBODY. Refuse to accept your parents’ and grandparents’ copout. It’s not good enough to say, “We’ve failed, so it’s all up to you.”

Tell them, “STOP failing!” Which means stop WAITING!

Tell them, “There’s nothing to wait for. There’s no ONE to wait for. No one is going to save the world but the PEOPLE of the world, and you can’t make it the sole responsibility of MY generation. We are the ones with no experience, no clout, no connections, no power, no money–and it’s all supposed to be up to US??? What are YOU going to be doing while WE save the world?”

Obviously in the few minutes I have here I can’t give you a blueprint for saving the world. But I can give you a couple of fundamental notions that I think you can follow with complete confidence. The first of these might be called Quinn’s First Law. It won’t surprise you. It may even strike you as obvious. Here it is. No undesirable behavior has ever been eliminated by passing a law against it.

The second is Buckminster Fuller’s Law, which is this: You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Most of the time when people write to me to ask what they should be doing to save the world, there is in the back of their minds two general notions of how change takes place. One is the notion that passing laws makes things change. The other is that fighting makes things change. We’re trained to think that you really are DOING something if you’re out there fighting and getting laws passed.

But if you heed these two laws, you may think differently about this. Once again they are Quinn’s First Law, No undesirable behavior has ever been eliminated by passing a law against it, and Fuller’s Law, You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Here is Quinn’s Second Law: What people think is what they do. And its corollary: To change what people do, change what they think.

At the present time, there are six billion people on this planet pursuing a vision that is devouring the earth. That’s our problem. Our problem is not pollution. Our problem is not consumerism. Our problem is not capitalist greed. Our problem is not conservative selfishness or liberal utopianism. Our problem is not lack of leadership. Our problem is a world-devouring vision that six billion people are pursuing.

Now what can we do about this vision? We can’t legislate it away or vote it away or organize it away or even shoot it away. We can only teach it away.

If the world is saved, it will be saved by people with changed minds, people with a new vision. It will not be saved by old minds with new programs.

Vision is a flowing river. Programs are sticks set in the riverbed to impede the flow of the river. But I don’t want to impede its flow, I want to change its direction.

Is it so easy to change a cultural vision? Ease and difficulty are not the relevant measures. Here are the relevant measures: Readiness and unreadiness. If people aren’t ready for it, then no power on earth can make a new idea catch on.

But if people are ready for it (and I think they are), then a new idea will sweep the world like wildfire.

In our culture at the present moment, the flow of the river is toward catastrophe, and programs are sticks set in the riverbed to impede its flow. Our path of hope is not to add more sticks to impede the flow. Our path of hope is to change the direction of the flow–away from catastrophe.

I think people are ready for this new idea.

Don’t pay attention to people who talk as if saving the world is someone else’s business–bigshots in international politics or bigshots in international commerce. I say again: If the world is saved, it will be saved by people with changed minds, and anyone can change a mind. I mean that. Back in the seventies, a lot of eight-year-olds came home and told their parents, “By God, you’re going to stop smoking!”–and they made it stick. Back in the eighties, a lot of eight-year-olds came home and told their parents, “By God, we’re going to start recycling aluminum cans!”–and they made it stick.

I’ve changed lots of minds, through my books–but the absolute fact is that my readers have changed more minds than my books have. A lot more.

One by one, readers did the work. Not me–people like you. Having done this work, having carried the word to parents, to children, to teachers, to friends, to relatives, even to strangers, they would then sit down and write me to say, but how can I help save the world? And I’d write back and say, “Look, you’re already doing it!”

If the time is right, a new idea will sweep the world like wildfire.

Let me share with you the most inspirational story I’ve heard in a long time. This story comes to me from a high school teacher in Alaska who was using Ishmael in a third-year science course. One of the students in his class was recognized as a probable drop-out. She was a lukewarm student at best–indifferent and uninterested. But instead of dropping out, after reading Ishmael, this young woman did the strangest thing anyone had ever heard of, including me. She took it upon herself to buy copies of Ishmael for her parents and to organize a week-long seminar in her own living room that her parents were commanded to attend in order to engage in a Socratic dialogue on Ishmaels themes. From that point on, she never looked back, and no one thinks of her as a probable dropout any more.
Let me make it clear that I’m not telling this story to because I’m proud of what Ishmael did. I’m proud of what this seventeen-year-old girl did! She found a path of hope for the future–all on her own. She didn’t ask me, she didn’t ask her parents, she didn’t ask her teachers, she didn’t ask her friends, she didn’t ask anyone.

If the time is right, a new idea will sweep the world like wildfire–because of people like this seventeen-year-old girl.

Because of people like you.

Because of this seventeen-year-old girl, there are two more people in the world with changed minds. That’s no small thing, believe me. Because where there are two with changed minds, there can be four. And where there are four, there can be eight. And where there are eight, there can be sixteen. All because of that one that started the whole thing by saying, “I’ve got to change these two minds.”

That’s exactly how new ideas sweep the world like wildfire–and that’s how I see it.

That’s our path of hope for the future.

*At the time this was written Al Gore was one of the folks “up there,” where it was best to keep one’s mouth closed about “saving the world.” Being no longer “up there” Mr. Gore is now free to express his concern about the future of the world (and this speech, if it were being written today, would not include his name in this list).

Our Religions: Are they the Religions of Humanity Itself

The beginning of our story isn’t difficult to find. Every schoolchild learns that our story began about 10,000 years ago with the Agricultural Revolution.

Our Religions: Are they the Religions of Humanity Itself?

Delivered October 18, 2000, as a Fleming Lecture in Religion, Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas

Contrary to popular opinion, Charles Darwin did not originate the idea of evolution. By the middle of the 19th century, the mere fact of evolution had been around for a long time, and most thinkers of the time were perfectly content to leave it at that. The absence of a theory to explain evolutionary change didn’t trouble them, wasn’t experienced as a pressure, as it was by Darwin. He knew there had to be some intelligible mechanism or dynamic that would account for it, and this is what he went looking for–with well-known results. In his Origin of Species, he wasn’t announcing the fact of evolution, he was trying to make sense of the fact.

In my mid-twenties I began to feel a similar sort of pressure. The modern Age of Anxiety was just being born under the shadows of rampant population growth, global environmental destruction, and the ever-present possibility of nuclear holocaust. I was surprised that most people seemed perfectly reconciled to these things, as if to say, Well, what else would you expect?

Ted Kaczynski , the Unabomber, seemed to think he was saying something terribly original in his 1995 diatribe blaming it all on the Industrial Revolution, but this was just the conventional wisdom of 1962. To my mind, blaming all our problems on the Industrial Revolution is like blaming Hamlet’s downfall on his fencing match with Laertes. To understand why Hamlet ended up badly, you can’t just look at the last ten minutes of his story, you have to go right back to the beginning of it, and I felt a pressure to do the same with us.

The beginning of our story isn’t difficult to find. Every schoolchild learns that our story began about 10,000 years ago with the Agricultural Revolution. This isn’t the beginning of the human story, but it’s certainly the beginning of our story, for it was from this beginning that all the wonders and horrors of our civilisation grew.

Everyone is vaguely aware that there have been two ways of looking at the Agricultural Revolution within our culture, two contradictory stories about its significance. According to the standard version–the version taught in our schools–humans had been around for a long time, three or four million years , living a miserable and shiftless sort of life for most of that time, accomplishing nothing and getting nowhere. But then about 10,000 years ago it finally dawned on folks living in the Fertile Crescent that they didn’t have to live like beavers and buzzards, making do with whatever food happened to come along; they could cultivate their own food and thus control their own destiny and well being. Agriculture made it possible for them to give up the nomadic life for the life of farming villagers. Village life encouraged occupational specialization and the advancement of technology on all fronts. Before long, villages became towns, and towns became cities, kingdoms, and empires. Trade connections, elaborate social and economic systems, and literacy soon followed, and there we went. All these advances were based on–and impossible without–agriculture, manifestly humanity’s greatest blessing.

The other story, a much older one, is tucked away in a different corner of our cultural heritage. It too is set in the Fertile Crescent and tells a tale of the birth of agriculture, but in this telling agriculture isn’t represented as a blessing but rather as a terrible punishment for a crime whose exact nature has always profoundly puzzled us. I’m referring, of course, to the story told in the third chapter of Genesis, the Fall of Adam.

Both these stories are known to virtually everyone who grows up in our culture, including every historian, philosopher, theologian, and anthropologist. But like most thinkers of the mid-19th century, who were content with the mere fact of evolution and felt no pressure to explain it, our historians, philosophers, theologians, and anthropologists seem perfectly content to live with these two contradictory stories. The conflict is manifest but, for them, demands no explanation.

For me, it did. As evolution demanded of Darwin a theory that would make sense of it, the story in Genesis demanded of me a theory that would make sense of it.

There have traditionally been two approaches to Adam’s crime and punishment . The text tells us Adam was invited to partake of every tree in the garden of Eden except one, mysteriously called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As we know, Adam succumbed to the temptation to sample this fruit. In one approach, the crime is viewed as simple disobedience, in which case the interdiction of the knowledge of good and evil seems entirely arbitrary. God might just as well have interdicted the knowledge of war and peace or the knowledge of pride and prejudice. The point was simply to forbid Adam something in order to test his loyalty. Under this approach, Adam’s punishment–banishment from Eden to live by the sweat of his brow as a farmer–was just a spanking; it doesn’t “fit the crime” in any particular way. He would have received this punishment no matter what test he had failed.

The second approach tries to make some connection between Adam’s crime and his punishment. Under this approach, Eden is viewed as a metaphor for the state of innocence, which is lost when Adam gains the knowledge of good and evil. This makes sense, but only if the knowledge of good and evil is understood as a metaphor for knowledge that destroys innocence. So, with roughly equivalent metaphors at either end, the story is reduced to a banal tautology: Adam lost his innocence by gaining knowledge that destroyed his innocence.

The story of the Fall is coupled with a second that is equally famous and equally baffling, that of Cain and Abel. As conventionally understood, these two brothers were literal individuals, the elder, Cain, a tiller of the soil, and the younger, Abel, a herder. The improbability that two members of the same family would embrace antithetical lifestyles should tip us off to the fact that these were not individuals but emblematic figures, just as Adam was (Adam merely being the Hebrew word for Man).

If we understand these as emblematic figures, then the story begins to make sense. The firstborn of agriculture was indeed the tiller of the soil, as Cain was said to be the firstborn of Adam. This is an undoubted historical fact. The domestication of plants is a process that begins the day you plant your first seed, but the domestication of animals takes generations. So the herder Abel was indeed the second-born–by centuries, if not millennia (another reason to be sceptical of the notion that Cain and Abel were literally second-generation brothers).

A further reason for scepticism on this point is the fact that the ancient farmers and herders of the Near East occupied adjacent but distinctly different regions. Farming was the occupation of the Caucasian inhabitants of the Fertile Crescent. Herding was the occupation of the Semitic inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula to the south.

Another piece of background that needs to be understood is that in very ancient times farmers and herders had radically different lifestyles. Farmers were by the very nature of their work settled villagers; but herders (by the very nature of their work) were nomads, just as many present-day herding peoples are. The herding lifestyle was, in fact, closer to the hunting-gathering lifestyle than it was to the farming lifestyle.

As the farming peoples of the north expanded, it was inevitable that they would confront their Semitic herding neighbours to the south, perhaps below what is now Iraq–with the predictable result. As they have done from the beginning to the present moment, the tillers of the soil needed more land to put to the plough, and as they’ve done from the beginning to the present moment, they took it.

As the Semites saw it (and it is, of course, their version of the story that we have), the tiller of the soil Cain was watering his fields with the blood of Abel the herder.

The fact that the version we have is the Semitic version explains the central mystery of the story, which is why God rejected Cain’s gift but accepted Abel’s. Naturally, this is the way the Semites would see it. In essence, the story says, “God is on our side. God loves us and the way we live but hates the tillers of the soil and the way they live.”

With these provisional understandings in place, I was ready to offer a theory about the first part of the story, the Fall of Adam. What the Semitic authors knew was only the present fact that their brothers from the north were encroaching on them in a murderous way. They hadn’t been physically present in the Fertile Crescent to witness the actual birth of agriculture, and in fact this was an event that had occurred hundreds of years earlier. In their story of the Fall, they were reconstructing an ancient event, not reporting a recent one. All that was clear to them was that some strange development had saddled their brothers to the north with a laborious lifestyle and had turned them into murderers, and this had to be a moral or spiritual catastrophe of some kind.

What they observed about their brothers to the north was this peculiarity. They seemed to have the strange idea that they knew how to run the world as well as God. This is what marks them as our cultural ancestors. As we go about our business of running the world, we have no doubt that we’re doing as good a job as God, if not better. Obviously God put a lot of creatures in the world that are quite superfluous and even pernicious, and we’re quite at liberty to get rid of them. We know where the rivers should run, where the swamps should be drained, where the forests should be razed, where the mountains should be leveled, where the plains should be scoured, where the rain should fall. To us, it’s perfectly obvious that we have this knowledge.

In fact, to the authors of the stories in Genesis, it looked as if their brothers to the north had the bizarre idea that they had eaten at God’s own tree of wisdom and had gained the very knowledge God uses to rule the world. And what knowledge is this? It’s a knowledge that only God is competent to use, the knowledge that every single action God might take–no matter what it is, no matter how large or small–is good for one but evil for another. If a fox is stalking a pheasant, it’s in the hands of God whether she will catch the pheasant or the pheasant will escape. If God gives the fox the pheasant, then this is good for the fox but evil for the pheasant. If God allows the pheasant to escape, then this is good for the pheasant but evil for the fox. There’s no outcome that can be good for both. The same is true in every area of the world’s governance. If God allows the valley to be flooded, then this is good for some but evil for others. If God holds back the flood then this too will be good for some but evil for others.

Decisions of this kind are clearly at the very root of what it means to rule the world, and the wisdom to make them cannot possibly belong to any mere creature, for any creature making such decisions would inevitably say, “I will make every choice so that it’s good for me but evil for all others.” And of course, this is precisely how the agriculturalist operates, saying, “If I scour this plain to plant food for myself, then this will be evil for all the creatures that inhabit the plain, but it’ll be good for me. If I raze this forest to plant food for myself, then this will be evil for all the creatures that inhabit the forest, but it’ll be good for me.”

What the authors of the stories in Genesis perceived was that their brothers to the north had taken into their own hands the rule of the world; they had usurped the role of God. Those who let God run the world and take the food that he’s planted for them have an easy life. But those who want to run the world themselves must necessarily plant their own food, must necessarily make their living by the sweat of the brow. As this makes plain, agriculture was not the crime itself but rather the result of the crime, the punishment that must inevitably follow such a crime. It was wielding the knowledge of good and evil that had turned their brothers in the north into farmers–and into murderers.

But these were not the only consequences to be expected from Adam’s act. The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is harmless to God but poison to Man. It seemed to these authors that usurping God’s role in the world would be the very death of Man.

And so it seemed to me when I finally worked all this out in the late 1970s. This investigation of the stories in Genesis was not, for me, an exercise in biblical exegesis. I’d gone looking for a way to understand how in the world we’d brought ourselves face to face with death in such a relatively short period of time–10,000 years, a mere eyeblink in the lifespan of our species–and had found it in an ancient story that we long ago adopted as our own and that remained stubbornly mysterious to us as long as we insisted on reading it as if it were our own. When examined from a point of view not our own, however, it ceased to be mysterious and delivered up a meaning that not only would have made sense to a beleaguered herding people 8,000 years ago but that would also make sense to the beleaguered people of the late twentieth century.

As far as I was concerned, the authors of this story had gotten it right. In spite of the terrible mess we’ve made of it, we do think we can run the world, and if we continue to think this, it is going to be the death of us.

In case it isn’t evident, I should add that, of course, my reading of Genesis is only a theory. This is what creationists say of evolution, that it’s “only a theory, it hasn’t been proved,” as though this in itself is grounds for dismissal. This misrepresents the point of formulating a theory, which is to make sense of the evidence. So far, Darwin’s theory remains the very best way we’ve found to make sense of the evidence, and my own theory has to be evaluated in the same way. Does it make sense of the evidence–the stories themselves–and does it make more sense than any other theory?

But solving this particular riddle only began to alleviate the pressure I felt for answers that were not being looked for at any level of our culture. The philosophical and theological foundations of our culture had been laid down by people who confidently believed that Man had been born an agriculturalist and civilisation builder. These things were as instinctive to him as predation is to lions or hiving is to bees. This meant that to find and date Man’s birth, they had only to look for the beginnings of agriculture and civilisation, which were obviously not that far back in time.

When in 1650 Irish theologian James Ussher announced the date of creation as October 23, 4004 B.C., no one laughed, or if they did, it was because of the absurd exactitude of the date, not because the date was absurdly recent. In fact, 4004 B.C. is quite a serviceable date for the beginning of what we would recognise as civilisation. This being the case, it’s hardly surprising that, for people who took it for granted that Man began building civilisation as soon as he was created, 4004 B.C. would seem like a perfectly reasonable date for his creation.

But all this soon changed. By the middle of the 19th century the accumulated evidence of many new sciences had pushed almost all dates back by many orders of magnitude. The universe and the earth were not thousands of years old but billions. The human past extended millions of years back beyond the appearance of agriculture and civilization.Only those who clung to a very literal reading of the biblical creation story rejected the evidence; they saw it as a hoax perpetrated on us either by the devil (to confound us) or by God (to test our faith)–take your pick. The notion that Man had been born an agriculturalist and civilization builder had been rendered totally untenable. He had very definitely not been born either one.

This meant that the philosophical and theological foundations of our culture had been laid by people with a profoundly erroneous understanding of our origins and history. It was therefore urgently important to reexamine these foundations and if necessary to rebuild them from the ground up.

Except, of course, that no one at all thought this was urgently important–or even slightly important. So human life began millions of years before the birth of agriculture. Who cares? Nothing of any importance happened during those millions of years. They were merely a fact, something to be accepted, just as the fact of evolution had been accepted by naturalists long before Darwin.

In the last century, we’d gained an understanding of the human story that made nonsense of everything we’d been telling ourselves for 3,000 years, but our settled understandings remained completely unshaken. So what, that Man had not in fact been born an agriculturalist and a civilisation builder? He was certainly born to become an agriculturalist and a civilisation builder. It was beyond question that this was our foreordained destiny. The way we live is the way humans were meant to live from the beginning of time. And indeed we must go on living this way–even if it kills us.

Facts that were indisputable to all but biblical literalists had radically repositioned us not only in the physical universe but in the history of our own species. The fact that we had been repositioned was all but universally acknowledged, but no one felt any pressure to develop a theory that would make sense of the fact, the way Darwin had made sense of the fact of evolution.

Except me, and I have to tell you that it gave me no joy. I had to have answers, and I went looking for them not because I wanted to write a book someday but because I personally couldn’t live without them.

In Ishmael, I made the point that the conflict between the emblematic figures Cain and Abel didn’t end six or eight thousand years ago in the Near East. Cain the tiller of the soil has carried his knife with him to every corner of the world, watering his fields with the blood of tribal peoples wherever he found them. He arrived here in 1492 and over the next three centuries watered his fields with the blood of millions of Native Americans. Today, he’s down there in Brazil, knife poised over the few remaining aboriginals in the heart of that country.

The tribe among aboriginal peoples is as universal as the flock of geese, and no anthropologist seriously doubts that it was humanity’s original social organisation. We didn’t evolve in troops or hordes or pods. Rather, we evolved in a social organisation was peculiarly human, that was uniquely successful forculture-bearers. The tribe was successful for humans, which is why it was still universally in place throughout the world three million years later. The tribal organisation was natural selection’s gift to humanity in the same way that the flock was natural selection’s gift to geese.

The elemental glue that holds any tribe together is tribal law. This is easy to say but less easy to understand because the operation of tribal law is entirely different from the operation of our law. Prohibition is the essence of our law, but the essence of tribal law is the remedy. Misbehaviour isn’t outlawed in any tribe. Rather, tribal law prescribes what must happen in order to minimise the effect of misbehaviour and to produce a situation in which everyone feels that they’ve been made as whole again as it’s possible to be.

In The Story of B I described how adultery is handled among the Alawa of Australia. If you have the misfortune to fall in love with another man’s wife or another woman’s husband, the law doesn’t say, “This is prohibited and may not go forward.” It says, “If you want your love to go forward, here’s what you must do to make things right with all parties and to see to it that marriage isn’t cheapened in the eyes of our children.” It’s a remarkably successful process. What makes it even more remarkable is the fact that it wasn’t worked out in any legislature or by any committee. It’s another gift of natural selection. Over countless generations of testing, no better way of handling adultery has been found or even conceivably could be found, because–behold!–it works! It does just what the Alawa want it to do, and absolutely no one tries to evade it. Even adulterers don’t try to evade it–that’s how well it works.

But this is just the law of the Alawa, and it would never occur to them to say, “Everyone in the world should do it this way.” They know perfectly well that their tribal neighbours’ laws work just as well for them–and for the same reason, that they’ve been tested from the beginning of time.

One of the virtues of tribal law is that it presupposes that people are just the way we know they are: generally wise, kind, generous, and well-intentioned but perfectly capable of being foolish, unruly, moody, cantankerous, selfish, greedy, violent, stupid, bad-tempered, sneaky, lustful, treacherous, careless, vindictive, neglectful, petty, and all sorts of other unpleasant things. Tribal law doesn’t punish people for their shortcomings, as our law does. Rather, it makes the management of their shortcomings an easy and ordinary part of life.

But during the developmental period of our culture, all this changed very dramatically. Tribal peoples began to come together in larger and larger associations, and one of the casualties of this process was tribal law. If you take the Alawa of Australia and put them together with Gebusi of New Guinea, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and the Yanomami of Brazil, they are very literally not going to know how to live. Not any of these tribes are going to embrace the laws of the others, which may not only be unknown to them but incomprehensible to them. How then are they going to handle mischief that occurs among them? The Gebusi way or the Yanomami way? The Alawa way or the Bushman way? Multiply this by a hundred, and you’ll have a fair approximation of where people stood in the early millennia of our own cultural development in the Near East.

When you gather up a hundred tribes and expect them to work and live together, tribal law becomes inapplicable and useless. But of course the people in this amalgam are the same as they always were: capable of being foolish, moody, cantankerous, selfish, greedy, violent, stupid, bad-tempered, and all the rest. In the tribal situation, this was no problem, because tribal law was designed for people like this. But all the tribal ways of handling these ordinary human tendencies had been expunged in our burgeoning civilization. A new way of handling them had to be invented–and I stress the word invented. There was no received, tested way of handling the mischief people were capable of. Our cultural ancestors had to make something up, and what they made up were lists of prohibited behavior.

Very understandably, they began with the big ones. They weren’t going to prohibit moodiness or selfishness. They prohibited things like murder, assault, and theft. Of course, we don’t know what the lists were like until the dawn of literacy, but you can be sure they were in place because it’s hardly plausible that we murdered, robbed, and thieved with impunity for five or six thousand years until Hammurabi finally noticed that these were rather disruptive activities.

When the Israelites escaped from Egypt in the 13th century B.C., they were literally a lawless horde, because they’d left the Egyptian list of prohibitions behind. They needed their own list of prohibitions, which God provided–the famous ten. But of course, ten didn’t do it. Hundreds more followed, but they didn’t do it either.

No number has ever done it for us. Not a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand. Even millions don’t do it, and so every single year we pay our legislators to come up with more. But no matter how many prohibitions we come up with, they never do the trick, because no prohibited behaviour has ever been eliminated by passing a law against it. Every time someone is sent to prison or executed, this is said to be “sending a message” to miscreants, but for some strange reason the message never arrives, year after year, generation after generation, century after century.

Naturally, we consider this to be a very advanced system.

No tribal people has ever been found that claimed not to know how to live. On the contrary, they’re all completely confident that they know how to live. But with the disappearance of tribal law among us, people began to be acutely aware of not knowing how to live. A new class of specialists came to be in demand, their speciality being the annunciation of how people are supposed to live. These specialists we call prophets.

Naturally, it takes special qualifications to be a prophet. You must by definition know something the rest of us don’t know, something the rest of us are clearly unable to know. This means you must have a source of information that is beyond normal reach–or else what good would it be? A transcendent vision will do, as in the case of Siddhartha Gautama. A dream will do, provided it comes from God. But best of all, of course, is direct, personal, unmediated communication with God. The most persuasive and most highly valued prophets, the ones that are worth dying for and killing for, have the word directly from God.

The appearance of religions based on prophetic revelations is unique to our culture. We alone in the history of all humanity needed such religions. We still need them (and new ones are being created every day), because we still profoundly feel that we don’t know how to live. Our religions are the peculiar creation of a bereft people. Yet we don’t doubt for a moment that they are the religions of humanity itself.

This belief was not an unreasonable one when it first took root among us. Having long since forgotten that humanity was here long before we came along, we assumed that we were humanity itself and that our history was human history itself. We imagined that humanity had been in existence for just a few thousand years–and that God had been talking to us from the beginning. So why wouldn’t our religions be the religions of humanity itself?

When it became known that humanity was millions of years older than we, no one thought it odd that God had remained aloof from the thousands of generations that had come before us. Why would God bother to talk to Homo habilis or Homo erectus? Why would he bother to talk even to Homo sapiens–until we came along? God wanted to talk to civilised folks, not savages, so it’s no wonder he remained disdainfully silent.

The philosophers and theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries weren’t troubled by God’s long silence. The fact alone was enough for them, and they felt no pressure to develop a theory to make sense of it. For Christians, it had long been accepted that Christianity was humanity’s religion (which is why all of humanity had to be converted to it, of course). It was an effortless step for thinkers like Teilhard de Chardin and Matthew Fox to promote Christ from humanity’s Christ to the Cosmic Christ.

Very strangely, it remained to me to recognise that there once was a religion that could plausibly be called the religion of humanity. It was humanity’s first religion and its only universal religion, found wherever humans were found, in place for tens of thousands of years. Christian missionaries encountered it wherever they went and piously set about destroying it. By now it has been all but stamped out either by missionary efforts or more simply by exterminating its adherents. I certainly take no pride in its discovery, since it’s been in plain sight to us for hundreds of years.

Of course, it isn’t accounted a “real” religion since it isn’t one of ours. It’s just a sort of half-baked “pre-religion.” How could it be anything else, since it emerged long before God decided humans were worth talking to? It wasn’t revealed by any accredited prophet, has no dogma, no evident theology or doctrine, no liturgy, and produces no interesting heresies or schisms. Worst of all, as far as I know, no one has ever killed for it or died for it–and what sort of religion is that? Considering all this, it’s actually quite remarkable that we even have a name for it.

The religion I’m talking about is, of course, animism. This name was cut to fit the general missionary impression that these childlike savages believe that things like rocks, trees, and rivers have spirits in them, and it hasn’t lost this coloration since the middle of the nineteenth century.

Needless to say, I wasn’t prepared to settle for this trivialization of a religion that flourished for tens of thousands of years among people exactly as smart as we are. After decades of trying to understand what these people were telling us about their lives and their vision of humanity’s place in the world, I concluded that a very simple (but far from trivial) worldview was at the foundation of what they were saying: The world is a sacred place, and humanity belongs in such a world.

It’s simple but also deceptively simple. This can best be seen if we contrast it with the worldview at the foundation of our own religions. In the worldview of our religions, the world is anything but a sacred place. For Christians, it’s merely a place of testing and has no intrinsic value. For Buddhists, it’s a place where suffering is inevitable. If I oversimplify, my object is not to misrepresent but only to clarify the general difference between these two worldviews in the few minutes that are left to me.

For Christians, the world is not where humans belong; it’s not our true home, it’s just a sort of waiting room where we pass the time before moving on to our true home, which is heaven. For Buddhists, the world is another kind of waiting room, which we visit again and again in a repeating cycle of death and rebirth until we finally attain liberation in nirvana.

For Christians, if the world were a sacred place, we wouldn’t belong in it, because we’re all sinners; God didn’t send his only-begotten son to make us worthy of living in a sacred world but to make us worthy of living with God in heaven. For Buddhists, if the world were a sacred place, then why would we hope to escape it? If the world were a sacred place, then would we not rather welcome the repeating cycle of death and rebirth?

From the animist point of view, humans belong in a sacred place because they themselves are sacred. Not sacred in a special way, not more sacred than anything else, but merely as sacred as anything else–as sacred as bison or salmon or crows or crickets or bears or sunflowers.

This is by no means all there is to say about animism. It’s explored more fully in The Story of B, but this too is just a beginning. I’m not an authority on animism. I doubt there could ever be such a thing as an authority on animism.

Simple ideas are not always easy to understand. The very simplest idea I’ve articulated in my work is probably the least understood: There is no one right way for people to live–never has been and never will be. This idea was at the foundation of tribal life everywhere. The Navajo never imagined that they had the right way to live (and that all others were wrong). All they had was a way that suited them. With tribal peoples on all sides of them–all living in different ways–it would have been ridiculous for them to imagine that theirs was the one right way for people to live. It would be like us imagining that there is one right way to orchestrate a Cole Porter song or one right way to make a bicycle.

In the tribal world, because there was complete agreement that no one had the right way to live, there was a staggering glory of cultural diversity, which the people of our culture have been tirelessly eradicating for 10,000 years. For us, it will be paradise when everyone on earth lives exactly the same way.

Almost no one blinks at the statement that there is no one right way for people to live. In one of his denunciations of scribes and Pharisees, Jesus said, “You gag on the gnat but swallow down the camel.” People find many gnats in my books to gag on, but this great hairy camel goes down as easily as a teaspoon of honey.

May the forests be with you and with your children.