9837Re: [ishmael_discussion] DQ controversy
- Apr 8, 2010Janos,
I am a materialist (in the philosophical sense of the term.) I realize that scientific materialism is only a metaphysical assumption, but it is a tremendously useful one. It is also the most parsimonious explanation of the universe. (FWIW, I once spent several weeks on a thought experiment in which I tried to devise a form of monistic idealism based upon the idea that consciousness is logically prior to matter, but decided that I lacked the specialized knowledge of physics necessary to finally make it work. I tend to spend time on such flights of fancy every now and again.) As a materialist, I believe that human cultures are emergent phenomena based in biology, and, thus, are products of natural selection.
Culture is one of our species' primary evolutionary advantages. Culture is what gives us the ability to survive in so many ecological niches. The variety found in human cultures, present and past, is truly astonishing, but all cultures are subject to selection pressure, and there is thus a limit on the breadth of variety.
As for the significance of human life--its significance is something that we determine ourselves. One of the things that I believe makes life significant is to try to figure out how things work, along with family, friendship, art, music, literature, and so forth.
Nature is a physical system. There is no compelling evidence that it has a purpose, and the question of where thta purpose might come from opens up several fragrant cans of worms. Albert Einstein is reputed to have said once that one of the most important questions that we need to address is whether the Universe is friendly. (The quote is probably apocryphal.) I think the evidence show us that the Universe is neither hostile or friendly to human existence. On the one hand, it allows us to think some amazing thoughts, and it has allowed us to do some amazing things. On the other hand, an asteroid could hit the earth next week. Furthere, there is evidence that life itself tends to create its own executioner...hundreds of millions of years ago, a critical threshold in oxygen concentration in the atmosphere and the ocean was reached, resulting in a die-off of 95% of the species on the earth. The problem was directly caused by the metabolic processes of plants. Other extinction events may have biological causes, too. In that sense, the current problems being caused by humanity are not terribly different from what's happened in the past. Eventually, in each of those earlier cases, a new set point for the critical system in question evolved, resulting in some degree of oscillation around the critical number. If current models of stellar evolution are correct, the Sun's brightness will double over the next two billion years or so, eventually overwhelming the homeostatic systems which exist on the Earth. After about two billion years, the oceans will start boiling off, and all eukaryotic life will probably come to an end. Two billion years is an awfully long time from the perspective of a human life, but in cosmic terms, it's a blink of an eye.
I am neither comforted nor disturbed by this fact. I would be lying if I said that my own death causes me no fear, and I'd rather not be around if and when an extinction event happens. All the same, it is important to think about stuff like this, and study it. I once saw the Dalai Llama on television saying that by spending a few minutes meditating on our eventual death, we bring our lives into greater focus, and paradoxically, can give our lives more meaning. Similarly, I think by coming to terms with our species' eventual extinction, and contemplating that fact, we may be able to invest more meaning into our collective lives. How much we can actually *do* about it remains an open question.
From: Janos Biro <janosbirozero@...>
Sent: Thu, Apr 8, 2010 11:43 am
Subject: Re: [ishmael_discussion] DQ controversy
You are right about technology, I was just clarifying what I mean when I use
About Lorenz, sure, again, I did not said Lorenz originated this idea, only
hat he states it in a very, very similar way as it is stated in Ishmael.
ut it could be just coincidence, no big deal.
"Or are you arguing that the products of human intellect are somehow
ivorced from physics or biology?"
You are arguing that human cultures are products of natural selection. That
ould only be truth if biological laws could be applied as they are to
on-biological phenomenons. Social sciences are not completely separated
rom natural sciences, but they are still very different things, with very
ifferent approaches. The tendency to treat cultures as living beings is no
onger suported by today anthropology, for example. Comparisions can be
ade, however, in a limited context. One have to believe in universal
volution theory to believe in what you are affirming.
Does "cursing and blessing" imply moral judgment? If so, Daniel Quinn has a
oral judgment of civilization, since he calls it a blessing, and I guess
shmael states that the fall of Adam is a moral explanation of a observed
Does the realization that human life is meaningless to the universe comforts
ou? Really, what's the point in making anything of Quinn's ideas, if the
nly real thing we can have is a like enjoyment while we are still alive? I
ean, if happiness is all that matters, then we go back to humanism. Then
verything Ishmael said was thinking in human happiness... Does that makes
ense to you?
From: Janos Biro <janosbirozero@... <janosbirozero%40gmail.com>>
Sent: Wed, Apr 7, 2010 11:58 am
Subject: Re: [ishmael_discussion] DQ controversy
>>In Konrad Lorenz book you can find the idea of Cain and Abel in almostthe
same terms that we find in Ishmael. This could a coincidence, right. But
Quinn not only never cited Lorenz, he claimed to be saying something
I don't know that he claimed anything of the sort. And as I mentioned
earlier, the idea didn't originate
with Lorenz either. It doesn't necessarily mean that anybody stole it from
>>Civilization is not simply a physical fact! Techno-logy is the logos oftechnique. It is not simply any use of tools, because other primates also
And so do crows. That's beside the point. In my field, we generally define
technology as the use of
knowledge, skill or tools to solve problems. By that definition, Folsom
points and atlatls are technology.
The etymology of the word is interesting but also beside the point.
>>Civilization can't change itself radically, in the same manner that yourwife can't change who you truly are, but your problem will never be who you
truly are. The same cannot be affirmed of civilization.<<
>>The terms "curse" and "bless" do not indicate a moral judgment. On thecontrary, denying any kind of moral position is already a absolutist moral
judgment: "it is absolutely WRONG to make moral judgments about
civilization". Great, that's all we need to be perceive something as
unequivocal. What you are doing is reproducing the ideas of biological
determination in society, saying that our culture is a result of natural
adaptation. People who defend that position often say that "New York City
just as natural as an anthill or a slime mold.". This is absurd. A anthill
took a long time "negotiating" it's space in the environment, becoming a
indistinguishable part of it. A city is nothing like it, it is primary
result of rapid invasion, it is a human product made by cuttings in the
New York City is "natural" because it is part of the physical universe.
IMHO, human cultures are products of natural selection, just like anthills
and slime molds.
Or are you arguing that the products of human intellect are somehow
physics or biology?
And of course, "cursing and blessing" imply moral judgment.
There are those who would argue that a smoker has two choices: maintain his
current course (the habit of smoking) until disaster, or stop smoking. Is
that too narrow? Of course, if think that smoking is not a problem. But if
it is, then it is not a matter of 'narrowing' a choice. The problem is that
Quinn sticks with the idea that we can have the cake and eat it at the same
time. This is the belief of the technocracy. You are showing me that Quinn
managed to destroy everything that could evolve to something good in
Ishmael. If the problem is reduced to the matter of making a transition
civilization to a (materially) sustainable way of living, then our hope is
I'm not particularly interested in defending Quinn's ideas. I found his
books thought provoking, but I am not by any means any kind of disciple.
My observations are based on a couple of decades of researching and
thinking about these issues.
Since none of can run controlled experiments in history, the best we can do
is make comparisons from the evidence at hand. I like to model human
cultures in thermodynamic terms, and the scholar whose work I come back to
again and again is Joseph Tainter, whose Collapse of Complex Societies, as
his many papers on similar subjects which I heartily recommend to all and
It is a fact that there have been sedentary agricultural cultures that have
lasted hundreds of years without destroying their resource base, but there
no guarantee that the lessons of the cultures I've studied can be applied
to ours. We are clearly far beyond the Earth's carrying capacity for human
absent massive energy subsidies whose limits are approaching rapidly.
If civilization collapses, there is a possibility that homo sapiens will
cease being a reproductively viable species, but I imagine that one way or
the species will survive, even if hundreds of millions of people do not
once the sh*t begins to hit the fan. But overshoot can always lead to
Sometimes when I'm feeling particularly morbid, I sometimes ponder the
question of whether our kind of intelligence may be, in the long run,
an evolutionary dead end...kind of like a species of bacteria that
flourishes for a short while, but dies out when it kills off all the
potential hosts in its ecosystem. Even before the coming of civilization,
homo sapiens seemed to be pretty good at destroying other species. The
question of human responsibility for the killing off of mega fauna in North
America is controversial, but the fossil record indicates that similar
die-offs happened nearly every time that humans entered a new territory for
first time, and usually in a relatively short period of time, by biological
In any event, species come and go. Life will continue for at least the next
couple of billion years regardless of whether we're here or not. At some
as the Sun continues to grow hotter and brighter, every species in the
world will die out. But that's another discussion for another time
2010/4/7 <wclary5424@... <wclary5424%40aol.com>>
> It seems to me that you're disappointed because Quinn's evolution as a
> writer/thinker does not match your preferences. But as I said before,
> is obligated to be a disciple of any author. I'm certainly notthan
> A few other observations:
> In broad terms, Ishmael's interpretation of the Cain/Abel story predates
> Lorenz. I first heard it 40-odd years ago as an undergraduate taking an
> introductory religious studies class, and it's at least 70 years older
> that. If memory serves me correctly, my instructor cited a late 19thCentury
> German Biblical scholar as his source. Ishmael doesn't cite a source, butdeveloped
> most novels lack footnotes...
> The question of who :"invented" technology is an interesting one. My own
> view is that since even the earliest members of the genus homo has
> a toolkit, technology is an inherent trait of the human genome.natural
> Categorically speaking, human individuals and groups invent various
> technologies, but the meta-idea of technology is an "invention" of
> selection, IMHO.time.
> In paragraph 6, you mention that Quinn calls himself a "lover" of
> civilization. One can love something and be critical of it at the same
> (My wife is certainly critical of me...) Personally I kind of like thingssince
> like the Internet, the drugs that help me regulate my cholesterol and
> moveable type. At the same time, I also understand that our use of these
> technologies come at a cost.
> Whether civilization is a "curse" is an uninteresting question to me,
> I don't think that making moral judgments about physical facts isthe
> particularly useful. The progenitors of our current civilization began
> process that led to our current situation in order to solve problems thatspread
> they faced. As an evolutionary adaptation, it has helped human DNA to
> all over this planet, and thus up to a certain point, it has beeneither
> successful. If it is going to fall apart, it will be because it has
> overshot the earth's carrying capacity, or in some other way no longerfits
> environmental conditions, not because it is good or evil. New York Cityis
> just as natural as an anthill or a slime mold.our
> There are those who would argue that humanity has two choices: maintain
> current course until disaster strikes, or return to the paleolithic. Iwould
> argue that this is too narrow. The single most interesting issue in allof
> this, to me, is how a high-energy, unsustainable culture like ours canto
> evolve into a lower energy, more thermodynamically secure, but still
> sedentary culture. I would further argue that one can see inklings of how
> carry that transition off by studying the aftermath of the collapse ofdevelopment
> Anasazi culture in the four corners area of the US Southwest, and what
> changes where made by the various Pueblo peoples in response to changing
> environmental conditions. Another interesting model might be the
> of some of the Tairona peoples northern South America after the arrivalof
> the Spanish.40gmail.com>>
> -----Original Message-----
> From: Janos Biro <janosbirozero@... <janosbirozero%40gmail.com><janosbirozero%
> To: firstname.lastname@example.org<ishmael_discussion%40yahoogroups.com><ishmael_discussion%40yahoogroups.com>
> Sent: Wed, Apr 7, 2010 7:51 am--
> Subject: Re: [ishmael_discussion] DQ controversy
> I've tried to translate some of my observations about this subject. I
> eed to tell you all that I am not trying to prove anything, it is
> ust an impression I have. Sorry about the way I wrote before. I will
> ot comment about the book being out of print, because, thinking
> gain, this is not relevant now. But just for you to know, the book
> shmael could not be printed for many years, apparently because of a
> ankrupt. In this time Daniel Quinn also became unavailable, because
> f a illness.
> It is possible that Quinn is really the author of Ishmael, but if he
> s, and just changed his ideas, then he changed A LOT, as I will try
> o show you now.
> About Humanism, I don't know if this word is so clear as it is in
> ortuguese, but I mean something like what is described in the English
> ikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humanism. A good book that
> hows why Humanism is a problem of civilization is "Straw Dogs:
> houghts on Humans and Other Animals", by John Gray, a book which is,
> owever, very similar to Ishmael.
> Sorry about the way I write, because I have difficulties thinking in
> Here are some things to think about:
> 1. Ishmael received the greatest sum of money ever given to a single
> ork of fiction. You can see this here:
> ttp://www.friendsofishmael.org/about/why_ishmael.shtml. This is a
> reat motivation for ghost-writing.
> 2. The previous works of Daniel Quinn do not resemble Ishmael in any way.
> 3. The idea about Cain being the agricultural people is in a much
> lder book by Konrad Lorenz, named ‘Der Abbau des Menschlichen’ (that
> pparently never had an English version), which is a critique of ‘our
> ulture’, a term that in this book means ‘civilization’, much like in
> shmael. The author wrote ‘The foundations of ethology’, the study of
> he human ethos by comparison with other animals behavior. Many
> thologists observed the gorillas. The author of Ishmael probably knew
> bout ethology, because he use a gorilla that observes man, and uses
> any terms that Lorenz uses in his book, with the same meaning. But
> aniel Quinn doesn't seem to know anything about this.
> 4. In Ishmael, it is clearly stated that technology is a product of
> ivilization, and so it is part of the problem: “The settlement lead
> o the division of work, the division of work to technology,
> echnology to commerce, commerce to math, language, writing, science
> nd all else”. This was all a consequence of a culture based in
> ccumulation and expansion, all inventions of civilization. In My
> shmael, Quinn says: "You know from experience that at this point,
> any people think I'm thinking about a future in which technology has
> one. For you it's too easy to blame all the problems in technology.
> owever, humans are born with a vocation for technology, and are born
> ith a vocation for linguistics". He claims that the readers of
> shmael "got him wrong", all of them. The author of Ishmael listed
> technology’ as a problem, quite literally. While in story of B, Quinn
> ays that technology, agriculture and even civilization are not our
> nventions at all. He turns a absolute term into a relative one, such
> s the distinction between agriculture and totalitarian agriculture.
> 5. Quinn may be turning the discourse of Ishmael to another direction,
> y accusing even the most logical interpretations of what Ishmael says
> f being wrong or incomplete. He compares ‘unaware’ readers with the
> nabomber, for example, in a very rude way. He also emptied any
> piritual message in Ishmael. Also, he turned away from the ethical
> iew. He said not to be interested in ethics, but in what "works",
> ccepting a kind of social and biological functionalism, which Ishmael
> riticizes. “New Tribal Ventures” is also completely unlike anything
> ou can derive from reading Ishmael.
> 6. In Beyond Civilization he says he is a lover of civilization. ‘My
> shmael’ implies that Lomax could not fully understand Ishmael. Looks
> ike “My Ishmael” is really the Ishmael of Quinn, while the original
> shmael is not. I am not alone in thinking that Quinn is subverting
> he words of Ishmael in a very subtle way. The author of Ishmael does
> ot look like a lover of civilization. For a comparison, read John
> erzan, for example.
> 7. Quinn says “I do not consider civilization as a curse, but as bless
> hat people should have the freedom to let go”. He is not saying
> ivilization is a problem itself, but instead that we should ‘evolve’
> o a new level of society, that would be BETTER FOR US. But what is
> ur curse, according to Ishmael? It is the original sin: to think we
> an better our lives by doing what we want, going out to get what WE
> hink WE NEED, instead of obeying God’s law. Quinn subverted the whole
> dea of “living in the hand of God”, which is a theological argument
> hat precedes him, and the author of Ishmael probably knew it, since
> e does not redefine it.
> 8. Ishmael is not about “creating a new mythology”, but is rather
> bout something of the past which has been forgotten. Quinn looks at
> he past in different way. He thinks man has created itself in the
> ast, and he is looking for the tools to recreate human society in his
> wn liking. Quinn’s philosophy seems to be derived from the
> enaissance and the Enlightenment. There is an apology to the
> nventive spirit of man, capable of creating itself.
> I am not trying to debunk Daniel Quinn. He is a good writer. I lived
> y life according to this ideas for about 10 years. But I have made
> hese observations, and I no longer support his ideas. I have
> ifferent ideas now, derived from a different tradition. I do not have
> ny proof that Daniel Quinn is not the author of Ishmael, this is just
> guess based in an inconclusive set of evidences. That's a
> upposition. I have no interest in hurting Quinn's image of anything
> ike that.
> I’m still working with the critique of civilization. I have a
> iscussion group and some articles published, all in Portuguese. I am
> A in Philosophy, Post-graduating in Theology and heading to a Master
> egree in Sociology.
> If I had to recommend a book to a person who wants to understand our
> ulture in a critical way, I would recommend Zygmunt Bauman, not
> aniel Quinn. It is deeper and clearer. That’s it. I hope you try to
> nderstand what I’m saying before throwing rocks.
> ollow Mike (the ISHMAEL List Owner) on Twitter:
> ~~~~Yahoo! Groups Links
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