E I G H T
The search for the law took me four days.
I spent one day telling myself I couldn't do it, two days doing it, and one day making sure I'd done it. On the fifth day I went back. As I walked into Ishmael's office, I was mentally rehearsing what I was going to say, which was, "I think I see why you insisted I do it myself."
I looked up from my thoughts and was momentarily disoriented. I had forgotten what was waiting for me there: the empty room, the lone chair, the slab of glass with a pair of glowing eyes behind it. Foolishly, I quavered a hello into the air.
Then Ishmael did something he'd never done before. By way of greeting, he lifted his upper lip to give me a look at a row of amber teeth as massive as elbows. I scurried to my chair and waited like a schoolboy for his nod.
"I think I see why you insisted I do it myself," I told him. "If you had done the work for me and pointed out the things the Takers do that are never done in the natural community, I would have said, `Well, sure, so what, big deal.' "
"Okay. As I make it out, there are four things the Takers do that are never done in the rest of the community, and these are all fundamental to their civilizational system. First, they exterminate their competitors, which is something that never happens in the wild. In the wild, animals will defend their territories and their kills and they will invade their competitors' territories and preempt their kills. Some species even include competitors among their prey, but they never hunt competitors down just to make them dead, the way ranchers and farmers do with coyotes and foxes and crows. What they hunt, they eat."
Ishmael nodded. "It should be noted, however, that animals will also kill in self-defense, or even when they merely feel threatened. For example, baboons may attack a leopard that hasn't attacked them. The point to see is that, although baboons will go looking for food, they will never go looking for leopards."
"I'm not sure I see what you mean."
"I mean that in the absence of food, baboons will organize themselves to find a meal, but in the absence of leopards they will never organize themselves to find a leopard. In other words, it's as you say: when animals go hunting—even extremely aggressive animals like baboons—it's to obtain food, not to exterminate competitors or even animals that prey on them."
"Yes, I see what you're getting at now."
"And how can you be sure this law is invariably followed? I mean, aside from the fact that competitors are never seen to be exterminating each other, in what you call the wild."
"If it weren't invariably followed, then, as you say, things would not have come to be this way. If competitors hunted each other down just to make them dead, then there would be no competitors. There would simply be one species at each level of competition: the strongest."
"Next, the Takers systematically destroy their competitors' food to make room for their own. Nothing like this occurs in the natural community. The rule there is: Take what you need, and leave the rest alone."
"Next, the Takers deny their competitors access to food. In the wild, the rule is: You may deny your competitors access to what you're eating, but you may not deny them access to food in general. In other words, you can say, `This gazelle is mine,' but you can't say, `All the gazelles are mine.' The lion defends its kill as its own, but it doesn't defend the herd as its own."
"Yes, that's true. But suppose you raised up a herd of your own, from scratch, so to speak. Could you defend that herd as your own?"
"I don't know. I suppose so, so long as it wasn't your policy that all the herds in the world were your own."
"And what about denying competitors access to what you're growing?"
"Again . . . Our policy is: Every square foot of this planet belongs to us, so if we put it all under cultivation, then all our competitors are just plain out of luck and will have to become extinct. Our policy is to deny our competitors access to all the food in the world, and that's something no other species does."
"Bees will deny you access to what's inside their hive in the apple tree, but they won't deny you access to the apples."
"Good. And you say there's a fourth thing the Takers do that is never done in the wild, as you call it."
"Yes. In the wild, the lion kills a gazelle and eats it. It doesn't kill a second gazelle to save for tomorrow. The deer eats the grass that's there. It doesn't cut the grass down and save it for the winter. But these are things the Takers do."
"You seem less certain about this one."
"Yes, I am less certain. There are species that store food, like bees, but most don't."
"In this case, you've missed the obvious. Every living creature stores food. Most simply store it in their bodies, the way lions and deer and people do. For others, this would be inadequate to their adaptations, and they must store food externally as well."
"Yes, I see."
"There's no prohibition against food storage as such. There couldn't be, because that's what makes the whole system work: the green plants store food for the plant eaters, the plant eaters store food for the predators, and so on."
"True. I hadn't thought of it that way."
"Is there anything else the Takers do that is never done in the rest of the community of life?"
"Not that I can see. Not that seems relevant to what makes that community work."
"This law that you have so admirably described defines the limits of competition in the community of life. You may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down your competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war."
"Yes. As you said, it's the peace-keeping law."
"And what's the effect of the law? What does it promote?"
"Well . . . it promotes order."
"Yes, but I'm after something else now. What would have happened if this law had been repealed ten million years ago? What would the community be like?"
"Once again, I'd have to say there would only be one form of life at each level of competition. If all the competitors for the grasses had been waging war on each other for ten million years, I'd have to think an overall winner would have emerged by now. Or maybe there'd be one insect winner, one avian winner, one reptile winner, and so on. The same would be true at all levels."
"So the law promotes what? What's the difference between this community and the community as it is?"
"I suppose the community I've just described would consist of a few dozen or a few hundred different species. The community as it is consists of millions of species."
"So the law promotes what?"
"Of course. And what's the good of diversity?"
"I don't know. It's certainly more . . . interesting."
"What's wrong with a global community that consists of nothing but grass, gazelles, and lions? Or a global community that consists of nothing but rice and humans?"
I gazed into space for a while. "I'd have to think that a community like that would be ecologically fragile. It would be highly vulnerable. Any change at all in existing conditions, and the whole thing would collapse."
Ishmael nodded. "Diversity is a survival factor for the community itself. A community of a hundred million species can survive almost anything short of total global catastrophe. Within that hundred million will be thousands that could survive a global temperature drop of twenty degrees—which would be a lot more devastating than it sounds. Within that hundred million will be thousands that could survive a global temperature rise of twenty degrees. But a community of a hundred species or a thousand species has almost no survival value at all."
"True. And diversity is exactly what's under attack here. Every day dozens of species disappear as a direct result of the way the Takers compete outside the law."
"Now that you know there's a law involved, does it make a difference in the way you view what's going on?"
"Yes. I no longer think of what we're doing as a blunder. We're not destroying the world because we're clumsy. We're destroying the world because we are, in a very literal and deliberate way, at war with it."
"As you've explained, the community of life would be destroyed if all species exempted themselves from the rules of competition laid down by this law. But what would happen if only one species exempted itself?"
"You mean other than man?"
"Yes. Of course it would have to possess an almost human cunning and determination. Suppose that you're a hyena. Why should you share the game with those lazy, domineering lions? It happens again and again: You kill a zebra, and a lion comes along, drives you off, and helps himself while you sit around waiting for the leavings. Is that fair?"
"I thought it was the other way around—the lions make the kill and the hyenas do the harassing."
"Lions make their own kills, of course, but they're perfectly content to appropriate someone else's if they can."
"So you're fed up. What are you going to do about it?"
"Exterminate the lions."
"And what's the effect of this?"
"Well . . . no more hassles."
"What were the lions living on?"
"The gazelles. The zebras. The game."
"Now the lions are gone. How does this affect you?"
"I see what you're getting at. There's more game for us."
"And when there's more game for you?"
I looked at him blankly.
"All right. I was assuming you knew the ABC's of ecology. In the natural community, whenever a population's food supply increases, that population increases. As that population increases, its food supply decreases, and as its food supply decreases, that population decreases. This interaction between food populations and feeder populations is what keeps everything in balance."
"I did know it. I just wasn't thinking."
"Well," Ishmael said with a baffled frown, "think."
I laughed. "Okay. So, with the lions gone, there's more food for hyenas, and our population grows. It grows to the point where game becomes scarce, then it begins to shrink."
"It would in ordinary circumstances, but you've changed those circumstances. You've decided the law of limited competition doesn't apply to hyenas."
"Right. So we kill off our other competitors."
"Don't make me drag it out of you one word at a time. I want you to work it out."
"Okay. Let's see. After we kill off our competitors for the game . . . our population grows until the game begins to get scarce. There are no more competitors to kill off, so we have to increase the game population . . . . I can't see hyenas going in for animal husbandry."
"You've killed off your competitors for the game, but your game has competitors as well—competitors for the grasses. These are your competitors once removed. Kill them off and there'll be more grass for your game."
"Right. More grass for the game means more game, more game means more hyenas, more hyenas means . . . What's left to kill off?" Ishmael just raised his eyebrows at me. "There's nothing left to kill off."
I thought. "Okay. We've killed off our direct competitors and our competitors once removed. Now we can kill off our competitors twice removed—the plants that compete with the grasses for space and sunlight."
"That's right. Then there will be more plants for your game and more game for you."
"Funny. . . . This is considered almost holy work by farmers and ranchers. Kill off everything you can't eat. Kill off anything that eats what you eat. Kill off anything that doesn't feed what you eat."
"It is holy work, in Taker culture. The more competitors you destroy, the more humans you can bring into the world, and that makes it just about the holiest work there is. Once you exempt yourself from the law of limited competition, everything in the world except your food and the food of your food becomes an enemy to be exterminated."
"As you see, one species exempting itself from this law has the same ultimate effect as all species exempting themselves. You end up with a community in which diversity is progressively destroyed in order to support the expansion of a single species."
"Yes. You have to end up where the Takers have ended up—constantly eliminating competitors, constantly increasing your food supply, and constantly wondering what you're going to do about the population explosion. How did you put it the other day? Something about increasing food production to feed an increased population."
" `Intensification of production to feed an increased population leads to a still greater increase in population.' Peter Farb said it in Humankind."
"You said it was a paradox?"
"No, he said it was a paradox."
Ishmael shrugged. "I'm sure he knows that any species in the wild will invariably expand to the extent that its food supply expands. But, as you know, Mother Culture teaches that such laws do not apply to man."
"I have a question," I said. "As we've gone through these things, I keep wondering if agriculture itself is contrary to this law. I mean, it seems contrary to the law by definition."
"It is—if the only definition you have is the Taker definition. But there are other definitions. Agriculture doesn't have to be a war waged on all life that doesn't support your growth."
"I guess my problem is this. The biological community is an economy, isn't it? I mean, if you start taking more for yourself, then there's got to be less for someone else, for something else. Isn't that so?"
"Yes. But what are you getting at by taking more for yourself? Why do it?"
"Well, this is the basis for settlement. I can't have settlement unless I have agriculture."
"Are you sure that's what you want?"
"What else would I want?"
"Do you want to grow to the point where you can take over the world and put every square foot of it under cultivation and force everyone alive to be an agriculturalist?"
"That's what the Takers have been doing—and are still doing. That's what their agricultural system is designed to support: not just settlement—growth. Unlimited growth."
"Okay. But all I want is settlement."
"Then you don't have to go to war."
"But the problem remains. If I'm going to achieve settlement, I have to have more than I had before, and that more has got to come from somewhere. "
"Yes, that's true, and I see your difficulty. In the first place, settlement is not by any means a uniquely human adaptation. Offhand I can't think of any species that is an absolute nomad. There's always a territory, a feeding ground, a spawning ground, a hive, a nest, a roost, a lair, a den, a hole, a burrow. And there are varying degrees of settlement among animals, and among humans as well. Even hunter-gatherers aren't absolute nomads, and there are intermediate states between them and pure agriculturalists. There are hunter-gatherers who practice intensive collection, who collect and store food surpluses that enable them to be a bit more settled. Then there are semi-agriculturalists who grow a little and gather a lot. And then there are near-agriculturalists who grow a lot and gather a little. And so on."
"But this is not getting to the central problem," I said.
"It is getting to the central problem, but your vision is locked on seeing the problem in one way and one way only. The point you're missing is this: When Homo habilis appeared on the scene—when that particular adaptation that we call Homo habilis appeared on the scene—something had to make way for him. I don't mean that some other species had to become extinct. I mean simply that, with his very first bite, Homo habilis was in competition with something. And not with one thing, with a thousand things—which all had to be diminished in some small degree if Homo habilis was going to live. This is true of every single species that ever came into being on this planet."
"Okay. But I still don't see what this has to do with settlement."
"You're not listening. Settlement is a biological adaptation practiced to some degree by every species, including the human. And every adaptation supports itself in competition with the adaptations around it. In brief, human settlement isn't against the laws of competition, it's subject to the laws of competition."
"Ah. Yes. Okay, I see it now."
"So, what have we discovered here?"
"We've discovered that any species that exempts itself from the rules of competition ends up destroying the community in order to support its own expansion."
"Any species? Including man?"
"Yes, obviously. That's in fact what's happening here."
"So you see that this—at least this—is not some mysterious wickedness peculiar to the human race. It isn't some imponderable flaw in man that has made the people of your culture the destroyers of the world."
"No. The same thing would happen with any species, at least with any species strong enough to bring it off. Provided that every increase in food supply is answered by an increase in population."
"Given an expanding food supply, any population will expand. This is true of any species, including the human. The Takers have been proving this here for ten thousand years. For ten thousand years they've been steadily increasing food production to feed an increased population, and every time they've done this, the population has increased still more."
I sat there for a minute thinking. Then I said, "Mother Culture doesn't agree."
"Certainly not. I'm sure she disagrees most strenuously. What does she say?"
"She says it's within our power to increase food production without increasing our population."
"To what end? Why increase food production?"
"To feed the millions who're starving."
"And as you feed them will you extract a promise that they will not reproduce?"
"Well . . . no, that's not part of the plan."
"So what will happen if you feed the starving millions?"
"They'll reproduce and our population will increase."
"Without fail. This is an experiment that has been performed in your culture annually for ten thousand years, with completely predictable results. Increasing food production to feed an increased population results in yet another increase in population. Obviously it has to have this result, and to predict any other is simply to indulge in biological and mathematical fantasies."
"Even so . . ." I thought some more. "Mother Culture says that, if it comes to that, birth control will solve the problem."
"Yes. If you're ever so foolish as to get into a conversation on this subject with some of your friends, you'll find they heave a great sigh of relief when they remember to make this point. `Whew! Off the hook!' It's like the alcoholic who swears he'll give up drink before it ruins his life. Global population control is always something that's going to happen in the future. It was something that was going to happen in the future when you were three billion in 1960. Now, when you're five billion, it's still something that's going to happen in the future."
"True. Nevertheless, it could happen."
"It could indeed—but not as long as you're enacting this story. As long as you're enacting this story, you will go on answering famine with increased food production. You've seen the ads for sending food to starving peoples around the world?"
"Have you ever seen ads for sending contraceptives?"
"Never. Mother Culture talks out of both sides of her mouth on this issue. When you say to her population explosion she replies global population control, but when you say to her famine she replies increased food production. But as it happens, increased food production is an annual event and global population control is an event that never happens at all."
"Within your culture as a whole, there is in fact no significant thrust toward global population control. The point to see is that there never will be such a thrust so long as you're enacting a story that says the gods made the world for man. For as long as you enact that story, Mother Culture will demand increased food production today—and promise population control tomorrow."
"Yes, I can see that. But I have a question."
"I know what Mother Culture says about famine. What do you say?"
"I? I say nothing, except that your species is not exempt from the biological realities that govern all other species."
"But how does that apply to famine?"
"Famine isn't unique to humans. All species are subject to it everywhere in the world. When the population of any species outstrips its food resources, that population declines until it's once again in balance with its resources. Mother Culture says that humans should be exempt from that process, so when she finds a population that has outstripped its resources, she rushes in food from the outside, thus making it a certainty that there will be even more of them to starve in the next generation. Because the population is never allowed to decline to the point at which it can be supported by its own resources, famine becomes a chronic feature of their lives."
"Yes. A few years ago I read a story in the paper about an ecologist who made the same point at some conference on hunger. Boy, did he get jumped on. He was practically accused of being a murderer."
"Yes, I can imagine. His colleagues all over the world understand perfectly well what he was saying, but they have the good sense not to confront Mother Culture with it in the midst of her benevolence. If there are forty thousand people in an area that can only support thirty thousand, it's no kindness to bring in food from the outside to maintain them at forty thousand. That just guarantees that the famine will continue."
"True. But all the same, it's hard just to sit by and let them starve."
"This is precisely how someone speaks who imagines that he is the world's divinely appointed ruler: `I will not let them starve. I will not let the drought come. I will not let the river flood.' It is the gods who let these things, not you."
"A valid point," I said. "Even so I have one more question on this." Ishmael nodded me on. "We increase food production in the U.S. tremendously every year, but our population growth is relatively slight. On the other hand, population growth is steepest in countries with poor agricultural production. This seems to contradict your correlation of food production with population growth."
He shook his head in mild disgust. "The phenomenon as it's observed is this: `Every increase in food production to feed an increased population is answered by another increase in population.' This says nothing about where these increases occur."
"I don't get it."
"An increase in food production in Nebraska doesn't necessarily produce a population increase in Nebraska. It may produce a population increase somewhere in India or Africa."
"I still don't get it."
"Every increase in food production is answered by an increase in population somewhere. In other words, someone is consuming Nebraska's surpluses—and if they weren't, Nebraska's farmers would stop producing those surpluses, pronto."
"True," I said, and spent a few moments in thought. "Are you suggesting that First World farmers are fueling the Third World population explosion?"
"Ultimately," he said, "who else is there to fuel it?"
I sat there staring at him.
"You need to take a step back from the problem in order to see it in global perspective. At present there are five and a half billion of you here, and, though millions of you are starving, you're producing enough food to feed six billion. And because you're producing enough food for six billion, it's a biological certainty that in three or four years there will be six billion of you. By that time, however (even though millions of you will still be starving), you'll be producing enough food for six and a half billion—which means that in another three or four years there will be six and a half billion. But by that time you'll be producing enough food for seven billion (even though millions of you will still be starving), which again means that in another three or four years there will be seven billion of you. In order to halt this process, you must face the fact that increasing food production doesn't feed your hungry, it only fuels your population explosion."
"I see that. But how do we stop increasing food production?"
"You do it the same way you stop destroying the ozone layer, the same way you stop cutting down the rain forests. If the will is there, the method will be found."
"As you see, I left a book beside your chair," Ishmael said.
It was The American Heritage Book of Indians.
"While we're on or near the subject of population control, there's a map of tribal locations there in the front that you may find illuminating." After I'd studied it for a minute, he asked me what I made of it.
"I didn't realize there were so many. So many different peoples."
"Not all of them were there at the same time, but most of them were. What I'd like you to think about is what served to limit their growth."
"How is the map supposed to help?"
"I wanted you to see that this was far from an empty continent. Population control wasn't a luxury, it was a necessity."
"You mean from looking at the map? No, I'm afraid not."
"Tell me this: What do the people of your culture do if they get tired of living in the crowded Northeast?"
"That's easy. They move to Arizona. New Mexico. Colorado. The wide open spaces."
"And how do the Takers in the wide open spaces like that?"
"They don't. They put bumper stickers on their cars that say, `If you love New Mexico, go back where you came from.' "
"But they don't go back."
"No, they just keep coming."
"Why can't the Takers of these areas stem the flood? Why can't they limit the population growth of the Northeast?"
"I don't know. I don't see how they could."
"So what you have is a gushing wellspring of growth in one part of the country that no one bothers to turn off, because the excess can always flow into the wide open spaces of the West."
"Yet each of these states has a boundary. Why don't those boundaries keep them out?"
"Because they're just imaginary lines."
"Exactly. All you have to do to transform yourself into an Arizonan is to cross that imaginary line and settle down. But the point to note is that around each of the Leaver peoples on that map was a boundary that was definitely not imaginary: a cultural boundary. If the Navajo started feeling crowded, they couldn't say to themselves, `Well, the Hopi have a lot of wide open space. Let's go over there and be Hopi.' Such a thing would have been unthinkable to them. In short, New Yorkers can solve their population problems by becoming Arizonans, but the Navajo couldn't solve their population problems by becoming Hopi. Those cultural boundaries were boundaries that no one crossed by choice."
"True. On the other hand, the Navajo could cross the Hopi's territorial boundary without crossing their cultural boundary."
"You mean they could invade Hopi territory. Yes, absolutely. But the point I'm making still stands. If you crossed over into Hopi territory, they didn't give you a form to fill out, they killed you. That worked very well. That gave people a powerful incentive to limit their growth."
"Yes, there is that."
"These were not people limiting their growth for the benefit of mankind or for the benefit of the environment. They limited their growth because for the most part this was easier than going to war with their neighbors. And of course there were some who made no great effort to limit their growth, because they had no qualms about going to war with their neighbors. I don't mean to suggest that this was the peaceable kingdom of a utopian dream. In a world where no Big Brother monitors everyone's behavior and guarantees everyone's property rights, it works well to have a reputation for fearlessness and ferocity—and you don't acquire such a reputation by sending your neighbors curt notes. You want them to know exactly what they'll be in for if they don't limit their growth and stay in their own territory."
"Yes, I see. They limited each other."
"But not just by erecting uncrossable territorial boundaries. Their cultural boundaries had to be uncrossable too. The excess population of the Narraganset couldn't just pack up and move out west to be Cheyenne. The Narraganset had to stay where they were and limit their population."
"Yes. It's another case where diversity seems to work better than homogeneity."
"A week ago," Ishmael said, "when we were talking about laws, you said that there's only one kind of law about how people should live—the kind that can be changed by a vote. What do you think now? Can the laws that govern competition in the community be changed by a vote?"
"No. But they're not absolutes, like the laws of aerodynamics. They can be broken."
"Can't the laws of aerodynamics be broken?"
"No. If your plane isn't built according to the law, it doesn't fly."
"But if you push it off a cliff, it stays in the air, doesn't it?"
"For a while."
"The same is true of a civilization that isn't built in accordance with the law of limited competition. It stays in the air for a while, and then it comes down with a crash. Isn't that what the people of your culture are facing here? A crash?"
"I'll ask the question another way. Are you certain that any species that, as a matter of policy, exempts itself from the law of limited competition will end by destroying the community to support its own expansion?"
"Then what have we discovered here?"
"We've discovered a piece of certain knowledge about how people ought to live. Must live, in fact."
"Knowledge that a week ago you said was unobtainable."
"Yes. But . . ."
"I don't see how . . . Hold on for a minute."
"Take your time."
"I don't see how to make this a source of knowledge in general. I mean, I don't see any way to apply this knowledge in a general way, to other issues."
"Do the laws of aerodynamics show you how to repair damaged genes?"
"Then what good are they?"
"They're good for . . . They enable us to fly."
"The law we've outlined here enables species to live—enables species to survive, including the human. It won't tell you whether mood-altering drugs should be legalized or not. It won't tell you whether premarital sex is good or bad. It won't tell you whether capital punishment is right or wrong. It will tell you how you have to live if you want to avoid extinction, and that's the first and most fundamental knowledge anyone needs."
"True. All the same . . ."
"All the same, the people of my culture will not accept it."
"You mean the people of your culture will not accept what you've learned here."
"Let's be clear about what they will and will not accept. The law itself is beyond argument. It's there, plainly in place in the community of life. What the Takers will deny is that it applies to mankind."
"That hardly comes as a surprise. Mother Culture could accept the fact that mankind's home is not the center of the universe. She could accept the fact that man evolved from the common slime. But she will never accept the fact that man is not exempt from the peace-keeping law of the community of life. To accept that would finish her off."
"So what are you saying? That it's hopeless?"
"Not at all. Obviously Mother Culture must be finished off if you're going to survive, and that's something the people of your culture can do. She has no existence outside your minds. Once you stop listening to her, she ceases to exist."
"True. But I don't think people will let that happen."
Ishmael shrugged. "Then the law will do it for them. If they refuse to live under the law, then they simply won't live. You might say that this is one of the law's basic operations: Those who threaten the stability of the community by defying the law automatically eliminate themselves."
"The Takers will never accept that."
"Acceptance has nothing to do with it. You may as well talk about a man stepping off the edge of a cliff not accepting the effects of gravity. The Takers are in the process of eliminating themselves, and when they've done so, the stability of the community will be restored and the damage you've done can begin to be repaired."
"On the other hand, I think you're being unreasonably pessimistic about this. I think there are a lot of people out there who know the jig is up and are ready to hear something new—who want to hear something new, just like you."
"I hope you're right."
"I'm not quite satisfied with the way we've formulated this law," I said.
"We refer to it as a law, but it's actually three laws. Or at any rate I described it as three laws."
"The three laws are branches. What you're looking for is the trunk, which is something like, `No one species shall make the life of the world its own.' "
"Yes, that's what the rules of competition ensure."
"That's one expression of the law. Here's another: `The world was not made for any one species.' "
"Yes. Then man was certainly not made to conquer and rule it."
"That's too big a leap. In Taker mythology, the world needed a ruler because the gods had made a mess of it. What they'd created was a jungle, a howling chaos, an anarchy. But was it that in fact?"
"No, everything was in good order. It was the Takers who introduced disorder into the world."
"The rule of that law was and is sufficient. Mankind was not needed to bring order to the world."
"The people of your culture cling with fanatical tenacity to the specialness of man. They want desperately to perceive a vast gulf between man and the rest of creation. This mythology of human superiority justifies their doing whatever they please with the world, just the way Hitler's mythology of Aryan superiority justified his doing whatever he pleased with Europe. But in the end this mythology is not deeply satisfying. The Takers are a profoundly lonely people. The world for them is enemy territory, and they live in it like an army of occupation, alienated and isolated by their extraordinary specialness."
"That's true. But what are you getting at?"
Instead of answering my question, Ishmael said, "Among the Leavers, crime, mental illness, suicide, and drug addiction are great rarities. How does Mother Culture account for this?"
"I'd say it's because . . .Mother Culture says it's because the Leavers are just too primitive to have these things."
"In other words, crime, mental illness, suicide, and drug addiction are features of an advanced culture."
"That's right. Nobody says it that way, of course, but that's how it's understood. These things are the price of advancement."
"There's an almost opposite opinion that has had wide currency in your culture for a century or so. An opposite opinion as to why these things are rare among the Leavers."
I thought for a minute. "You mean the Noble Savage theory. I can't say I know it in any detail."
"But you have an impression of it. That's what's current in your culture—not the theory in detail but an impression of it."
"True. It's the idea that people living close to nature tend to be noble. It's seeing all those sunsets that does it. You can't watch a sunset and then go off and set fire to your neighbor's tepee. Living close to nature is wonderful for your mental health."
"You understand that I'm not saying anything like this."
"Yes. But what are you saying?"
"We've had a look at the story the Takers have been enacting here for the past ten thousand years. The Leavers too are enacting a story. Not a story told but a story enacted."
"What do you mean by that?"
"If you go among the various peoples of your culture—if you go to China and Japan and Russia and England and India—each people will give you a completely different account of themselves, but they are nonetheless all enacting a single basic story, which is the story of the Takers. The same is true of the Leavers. The Bushmen of Africa, the Alawa of Australia, the Kreen-Akrore of Brazil, and the Navajo of the United States would each give you a different account of themselves, but they too are all enacting one basic story, which is the story of the Leavers."
"I see what you're getting at. It isn't the tale you tell that counts, it's the way you actually live."
"That's correct. The story the Takers have been enacting here for the past ten thousand years is not only disastrous for mankind and for the world, it's fundamentally unhealthy and unsatisfying. It's a megalomaniac's fantasy, and enacting it has given the Takers a culture riddled with greed, cruelty, mental illness, crime, and drug addiction."
"Yes, that seems to be so."
"The story the Leavers have been enacting here for the past three million years isn't a story of conquest and rule. Enacting it doesn't give them power. Enacting it gives them lives that are satisfying and meaningful to them. This is what you'll find if you go among them. They're not seething with discontent and rebellion, not incessantly wrangling over what should be allowed and what forbidden, not forever accusing each other of not living the right way, not living in terror of each other, not going crazy because their lives seem empty and pointless, not having to stupefy themselves with drugs to get through the days, not inventing a new religion every week to give them something to hold on to, not forever searching for something to do or something to believe in that will make their lives worth living. And—I repeat—this is not because they live close to nature or have no formal government or because they're innately noble. This is simply because they're enacting a story that works well for people—a story that worked well for three million years and that still works well where the Takers haven't yet managed to stamp it out."
"Okay. That sounds terrific. When do we get to that story?"
"Tomorrow. At least we'll begin tomorrow."
"Good," I said. "But before we quit today, I have a question. Why Mother Culture? I personally have no difficulty with it, but I can imagine some women would, on the grounds that you seem to be singling out a figure of specifically female gender to serve as a cultural villain."
Ishmael grunted. "I don't consider her a villain in any sense whatever, but I understand what you're getting at. Here is my answer: Culture is a mother everywhere and at every time, because culture is inherently a nurturer—the nurturer of human societies and life-styles. Among Leaver peoples, Mother Culture explains and preserves a life-style that is healthy and self-sustaining. Among Taker peoples she explains and preserves a lifestyle that has proven to be unhealthy and self-destructive."
"So what's your question? If culture is a mother among the Alawa of Australia and the Bushmen of Africa and the Kayapo of Brazil, then why wouldn't she be a mother among the Takers?"