Ishmael: Part Six



"And how are you feeling today?" Ishmael asked. "Palms sweating? Heart going pit-a-pat?"

I gazed at him thoughtfully through the glass that separated us. This twinkle-eyed playfulness was something new, and I wasn't sure I liked it. I was tempted to remind him that he was a gorilla, for God's sake, but I held it in and muttered:

"Relatively calm, so far."

"Good. Like the Second Murderer, you are one whom the vile blows and buffets of the world have so incens'd that you are reckless what you do to spite the world."


"Then let's begin. We confront a wall at the boundary of thought in your culture. Yesterday I called it a monument, but I suppose there's nothing to prevent a wall from being a monument as well. In any case, this wall is an axiom stating that certain knowledge about how people should live is unobtainable. I reject this axiom and climb over the wall. We don't need prophets to tell us how to live; we can find out for ourselves by consulting what's actually there. "

There was nothing to say to that, so I just shrugged.

"You're skeptical, of course. According to the Takers, all sorts of useful information can be found in the universe, but none of it pertains to how people should live. By studying the universe, you've learned how to fly, split atoms, send messages to the stars at the speed of light, and so on, but there's no way of studying the universe to acquire the most basic and needful knowledge of all: the knowledge of how you ought to live."

"That's right."

"A century ago the would-be aeronauts of the world were in exactly the same condition with regard to learning how to fly. Do you see why?"

"No. I don't see what aeronauts have to do with it."

"It was far from certain that the knowledge these would-be aeronauts were looking for existed at all. Some said it wasn't out there to be found, so there was no point in looking for it. Do you see the similarity now?"

"Yes, I suppose."

"There's more to the similarity than that, however. At that point in time, there wasn't a single piece of knowledge about flying that could be considered certain. Everyone had his own theory. One would say, `The only way to achieve flight is to imitate the bird; you've got to have a pair of flapping wings.' Another would say, `One pair isn't enough, you've got to have two.' And another would say, `Nonsense. Paper airplanes fly without flapping wings; you need a pair of rigid wings and a power plant to push you through the air.' And so on. They could argue their pet notions to their hearts' content, because there wasn't a single thing that was certain. All they could do was proceed by trial and error."

"Uh huh."

"What would have enabled them to proceed in a more efficient way?"

"Well, as you say, obviously some knowledge."

"But what knowledge in particular?"

"Lord . . . They needed to know how to produce lift. They needed to know that air flowing over an airfoil . . ."

"What is it you're trying to describe?"

"I'm trying to describe what happens when air flows over an airfoil."

"You mean what always happens when air flows over an airfoil?"

"That's right."

"What's that called? A statement that describes what always happens when certain conditions are met."

"A law."

"Of course. The early aeronauts had to proceed by trial and error, because they didn't know the laws of aerodynamics—didn't even know there were laws."

"Okay, I see what you're getting at now."

"The people of your culture are in the same condition when it comes to learning how they ought to live. They have to proceed by trial and error, because they don't know the relevant laws—and don't even know that there are laws."

"And I agree with them," I said.

"You're certain that no laws can be discovered concerning how people ought to live."

"That's right. Obviously there are made-up laws, like the laws against drug use, but these can be changed by a vote. You can't change the laws of aerodynamics by a vote—and there are no laws like that about how people should live."

"I understand. That's what Mother Culture teaches, and in this case you agree with her. That's fine. But at last you have a clear understanding of what I'm attempting here: to show you a law that you will agree is not subject to change by any vote."

"Okay. My mind is open, but I can't imagine any way in the world you're going to accomplish that."


"What's the law of gravity?" Ishmael asked, once again startling me with an apparent change of subject.

"The law of gravity? Well, the law of gravity is . . . every particle in the universe is attracted to every other particle, and this attraction varies with the distance between them."

"And that expression of the law was read where?"

"What do you mean?"

"It was derived by looking at what?"

"Well . . . at matter, I suppose. The behavior of matter."

"It wasn't derived by a close study of the habits of bees."


"If you want to understand the habits of bees, you study bees, you don't study mountain-building."

"That's right."

"And if you had the strange notion that there might be a set of laws about how to live, where would you look for it?"

"I don't know."

"Would you look into the heavens?"


"Would you delve into the realm of subatomic particles?"


"Would you study the properties of wood?"


"Take a wild guess."


"Anthropology is a field of study, like physics. Did Newton discover the law of gravity by reading a book on physics? Is that where the law was written?"


"Where was it written?"

"In matter. In the universe of matter."

"So, again: If there is a law pertaining to life, where will we find it written?"

"I suppose in human behavior."

"I have amazing news for you. Man is not alone on this planet. He is part of a community, upon which he depends absolutely. Have you ever had any suspicions to that effect?"

It was the first time I'd seen him raise a single eyebrow.

"You don't have to be sarcastic," I told him.

"What's the name of this community, of which man is only one member?"

"The community of life."

"Bravo. Does it seem at all plausible to you that the law we're looking for could be written in this community?"

"I don't know."

"What does Mother Culture say?"

I closed my eyes and listened for a while. "Mother Culture says that if there were such a law it wouldn't apply to us."

"Why not?"

"Because we're so far above all the rest of that community."

"I see. And can you think of any other laws from which you are exempt because you're humans?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that cows and cockroaches are subject to the law of gravity. Are you exempt?"


"Are you exempt from the laws of aerodynamics?"






"Can you think of any laws at all from which humans are exempt?"

"Not offhand."

"Let me know if you do. That will be real news."


"But meanwhile, if there does happen to be a law that governs behavior in the community of life in general, humans would be exempt from it."

"Well, that's what Mother Culture says."

"And what do you say?"

"I don't know. I don't see how a law for turtles and butterflies could be of much relevance to us. I assume that turtles and butterflies follow the law you're talking about."

"That's right, they do. As to relevance, the laws of aerodynamics weren't always relevant to you, were they?"


"When did they become relevant?"

"Well . . . when we wanted to fly."

"When you want to fly, the laws governing flight become relevant."

"Yes, that's right."

"And when you're on the brink of extinction and want to live for a while longer, the laws governing life might conceivably become relevant."

"Yes, I suppose they might."


"What's the effect of the law of gravity? What's gravity good for?"

"I'd say that gravity is what organizes things on the macroscopic level. It's what keeps things together—the solar system, the galaxy, the universe."

Ishmael nodded. "And the law we're looking for is the law that keeps the living community together. It organizes things on the biological level just the way the law of gravity organizes things on the macroscopic level."

"Okay." I guess Ishmael could sense I had something else on my mind, because he waited for me to go on. "It's hard to believe our own biologists aren't aware of this law."

Lines of amused astonishment crinkled the blue-gray skin of his face. "Do you imagine that Mother Culture doesn't talk to your biologists?"


"Then what does she tell them?"

"That if there is such a law it doesn't apply to us."

"Of course. But that doesn't really answer your question. Your biologists would certainly not be astounded to hear that behavior in the natural community follows certain patterns. You have to remember that when Newton articulated the law of gravity, no one was astounded. It's not a superhuman achievement to notice that unsupported objects fall toward the center of the earth. Everyone past the age of two knows that. Newton's achievement was not in discovering the phenomenon of gravity, it was in formulating the phenomenon as a law."

"Yes, I see what you mean."

"In the same way, nothing you discover here about life in the community of life is going to astound anyone, certainly not naturalists or biologists or animal behaviorists. My achievement, if I succeed, will simply be in formulating it as a law."

"Okay. Got it."


"Would you say that the law of gravity is about flight?"

I thought about that for a while and said, "It isn't about flight, but it's certainly relevant to flight, inasmuch as it applies to aircraft in the same way it applies to rocks. It makes no distinction between aircraft and rocks."

"Yes. That's well said. The law we're looking for here is much like that with respect to civilizations. It's not about civilizations, but it applies to civilizations in the same way that it applies to flocks of birds and herds of deer. It makes no distinction between human civilizations and beehives. It applies to all species without distinction. This is one reason why the law has remained undiscovered in your culture. According to Taker mythology, man is by definition a biological exception. Out of all the millions of species, only one is an end product. The world wasn't made to produce frogs or katydids or sharks or grasshoppers. It was made to produce man. Man therefore stands alone, unique and infinitely apart from all the rest."



Ishmael spent the next few minutes staring at a point about twenty inches in front of his nose, and I began to wonder if he'd forgotten I was there. Then he shook his head and came to. For the first time in our acquaintance, he delivered something like a minilecture.

"The gods have played three dirty tricks on the Takers," he began. "In the first place, they didn't put the world where the Takers thought it belonged, in the center of the universe. They really hated hearing this, but they got used to it. Even if man's home was stuck off in the boondocks, they could still believe he was the central figure in the drama of creation.

"The second of the gods' tricks was worse. Since man was the climax of creation, the creature for whom all the rest was made, they should have had the decency to produce him in a manner suited to his dignity and importance—in a separate, special act of creation. Instead they arranged for him to evolve from the common slime, just like ticks and liver flukes. The Takers really hated hearing this, but they're beginning to adjust to it. Even if man evolved from the common slime, it's still his divinely appointed destiny to rule the world and perhaps even the universe itself.

"But the last of the gods' tricks was the worst of all. Though the Takers don't know it yet, the gods did not exempt man from the law that governs the lives of grubs and ticks and shrimps and rabbits and mollusks and deer and lions and jellyfish. They did not exempt him from this law any more than they exempted him from the law of gravity, and this is going to be the bitterest blow of all to the Takers. To the gods' other dirty tricks, they could adjust. To this one, no adjustment is possible."

He sat there for a while, a hillside of fur and flesh, I guess letting this pronouncement sink in. Then he went on. "Every law has effects or it wouldn't be discoverable as a law. The effects of the law we're looking for are very simple. Species that live in compliance with the law live forever—environmental conditions permitting. This will, I hope, be taken as good news for mankind in general, because if mankind lives in compliance with this law, then it too will live forever—or for as long as conditions permit.

"But of course this isn't the law's only effect. Those species that do not live in compliance with the law become extinct. In the scale of biological time, they become extinct very rapidly. And this is going to be very bad news for the people of your culture—the worst they've ever heard."

"I hope," I said, "that you don't think any of this is showing me where to look for this law."

Ishmael thought for a moment, then took a branch from the pile at his right, held it up for me to see, then let it fall to the floor. "That's the effect Newton was trying to explain." He waved a hand toward the world outside. "That's the effect I'm trying to explain. Looking out there, you see a world full of species that, environmental conditions permitting, are going to go on living indefinitely."

"Yes, that's what I assume. But why does it need explaining?"

Ishmael selected another branch from his pile, held it up, and let it fall to the floor. "Why does that need explaining?"

"Okay. So you're saying this phenomenon is not the result of nothing. It's the effect of a law. A law is in operation."

"Exactly. A law is in operation, and my task is to show you how it operates. At this point, the easiest way to show you how it operates is by analogy with laws you already know—the law of gravity and the laws of aerodynamics."



"You know that, as we sit here, we are in no sense defying the law of gravity. Unsupported objects fall toward the center of the earth, and the surfaces on which we're sitting are our supports."


"The laws of aerodynamics don't provide us with a way of defying the law of gravity. I'm sure you understand that. They simply provide us with a way of using the air as a support. A man sitting in an airplane is subject to the law of gravity in exactly the way we're subject to it sitting here. Nevertheless the man sitting in the plane obviously enjoys a freedom we lack: the freedom of the air."


"The law we're looking for is like the law of gravity: There is no escaping it, but there is a way of achieving the equivalent of flight—the equivalent of freedom of the air. In other words, it is possible to build a civilization that flies."

I stared at him for a while, then I said, "Okay."

"You remember how the Takers went about trying to achieve powered flight. They didn't begin with an understanding of the laws of aerodynamics. They didn't begin with a theory based on research and carefully planned experimentation. They just built contraptions, pushed them off the sides of cliffs, and hoped for the best."


"All right. I want to follow one of those early trials in detail. Let's suppose that this trial is being made in one of those wonderful pedal-driven contraptions with flapping wings, based on a mistaken understanding of avian flight."


"As the flight begins, all is well. Our would-be airman has been pushed off the edge of the cliff and is pedaling away, and the wings of his craft are flapping like crazy. He's feeling wonderful, ecstatic. He's experiencing the freedom of the air. What he doesn't realize, however, is that this craft is aerodynamically incapable of flight. It simply isn't in compliance with the laws that make flight possible—but he would laugh if you told him this. He's never heard of such laws, knows nothing about them. He would point at those flapping wings and say, `See? Just like a bird!' Nevertheless, whatever he thinks, he's not in flight. He's an unsupported object falling toward the center of the earth. He's not in flight, he's in free fall. Are you with me so far?"


"Fortunately—or, rather, unfortunately for our airman—he chose a very high cliff to launch his craft from. His disillusionment is a long way off in time and space. There he is in free fall, feeling wonderful and congratulating himself on his triumph. He's like the man in the joke who jumps out of a ninetieth-floor window on a bet. As he passes the tenth floor, he says to himself, `Well, so far so good!'

"There he is in free fall, experiencing the exhilaration of what he takes to be flight. From his great height he can see for miles around, and one thing he sees puzzles him: The floor of the valley is dotted with craft just like his—not crashed, simply abandoned. `Why,' he wonders, `aren't these craft in the air instead of sitting on the ground? What sort of fools would abandon their aircraft when they could be enjoying the freedom of the air?' Ah well, the behavioral quirks of less talented, earthbound mortals are none of his concern. However, looking down into the valley has brought something else to his attention. He doesn't seem to be maintaining his altitude. In fact, the earth seems to be rising up toward him. Well, he's not very worried about that. After all, his flight has been a complete success up to now, and there's no reason why it shouldn't go on being a success. He just has to pedal a little harder, that's all.

"So far so good. He thinks with amusement of those who predicted that his flight would end in disaster, broken bones, and death. Here he is, he's come all this way, and he hasn't even gotten a bruise, much less a broken bone. But then he looks down again, and what he sees really disturbs him. The law of gravity is catching up to him at the rate of thirty-two feet per second per second—at an accelerating rate. The ground is now rushing up toward him in an alarming way. He's disturbed but far from desperate. `My craft has brought me this far in safety,' he tells himself. `I just have to keep going.' And so he starts pedaling with all his might. Which of course does him no good at all, because his craft simply isn't in accord with the laws of aerodynamics. Even if he had the power of a thousand men in his legs—ten thousand, a million—that craft is not going to achieve flight. That craft is doomed—and so is he unless he abandons it."

"Right. I see what you're saying, but I don't see the connection with what we're talking about here."

Ishmael nodded. "Here is the connection. Ten thousand years ago, the people of your culture embarked on a similar flight: a civilizational flight. Their craft wasn't designed according to any theory at all. Like our imaginary airman, they were totally unaware that there is a law that must be complied with in order to achieve civilizational flight. They didn't even wonder about it. They wanted the freedom of the air, and so they pushed off in the first contraption that came to hand: the Taker Thunderbolt.

"At first all was well. In fact, all was terrific. The Takers were pedaling away and the wings of their craft were flapping beautifully. They felt wonderful, exhilarated. They .were experiencing the freedom of the air: freedom from restraints that bind and limit the rest of the biological community. And with that freedom came marvels—all the things you mentioned the other day: urbanization, technology, literacy, mathematics, science.

"Their flight could never end, it could only go on becoming more and more exciting. They couldn't know, couldn't even have guessed that, like our hapless airman, they were in the air but not in flight. They were in free fall, because their craft was simply not in compliance with the law that makes flight possible. But their disillusionment is far away in the future, and so they're pedaling away and having a wonderful time. Like our airman, they see strange sights in the course of their fall. They see the remains of craft very like their own—not destroyed, merely abandoned—by the Maya, by the Hohokam, by the Anasazi, by the peoples of the Hopewell cult, to mention only a few of those found here in the New World. `Why,' they wonder, `are these craft on the ground instead of in the air? Why would any people prefer to be earthbound when they could have the freedom of the air, as we do?' It's beyond comprehension, an unfathomable mystery.

"Ah well, the vagaries of such foolish people are nothing to the Takers. They're pedaling away and having a wonderful time. They're not going to abandon their craft. They're going to enjoy the freedom of the air forever. But alas, a law is catching up to them. They don't know such a law even exists, but this ignorance affords them no protection from its effects. This is a law as unforgiving as the law of gravity, and it's catching up to them in exactly the same way the law of gravity caught up to our airman: at an accelerating rate.

"Some gloomy nineteenth-century thinkers, like Robert Wallace and Thomas Robert Malthus, look down. A thousand years before, even five hundred years before, they would probably have noticed nothing. But now what they see alarms them. It's as though the ground is rushing up to meet them—as though they are going to crash. They do some figuring and say, `If we goon this way, we're going to be in big trouble in the not-too-distant future.' The other Takers shrug their predictions off. `We've come all this enormous way and haven't even received so much as a scratch. It's true the ground seems to be rising up to meet us, but that just means we'll have to pedal a little harder. Not to worry.' Nevertheless, just as was predicted, famine soon becomes a routine condition of life in many parts of the Taker Thunderbolt—and the Takers have to pedal even harder and more efficiently than before. But oddly enough, the harder and more efficiently they pedal, the worse conditions become. Very strange. Peter Farb calls it a paradox: `Intensification of production to feed an increased population leads to a still greater increase in population.' `Never mind,' the Takers said. `We'll just have to put some people pedaling away on a reliable method of birth control. Then the Taker Thunderbolt will fly forever.'

"But such simple answers aren't enough to reassure the people of your culture nowadays. Everyone is looking down, and it's obvious that the ground is rushing up toward you—and rushing up faster every year. Basic ecological and planetary systems are being impacted by the Taker Thunderbolt, and that impact increases in intensity every year. Basic, irreplaceable resources are being devoured every year—and they're being devoured more greedily every year. Whole species are disappearing as a result of your encroachment—and they're disappearing in greater numbers every year. Pessimists—or it may be that they're realists—look down and say, `Well, the crash may be twenty years off or maybe as much as fifty years off. Actually it could happen anytime. There's no way to be sure.' But of course there are optimists as well, who say, `We must have faith in our craft. After all, it has brought us this far in safety. What's ahead isn't doom, it's just a little hump that we can clear if we all just pedal a little harder. Then we'll soar into a glorious, endless future, and the Taker Thunderbolt will take us to the stars and we'll conquer the universe itself.' But your craft isn't going to save you. Quite the contrary, it's your craft that's carrying you toward catastrophe. Five billion of you pedaling away—or ten billion or twenty billion—can't make it fly. It's been in free fall from the beginning, and that fall is about to end."

At last I had something of my own to add to this. "The worst part of it is this," I said, "that the survivors, if there are any, will immediately set about doing it all over again, exactly the same way."

"Yes, I'm afraid you're right. Trial and error isn't a bad way to learn how to build an aircraft, but it can be a disastrous way to learn how to build a civilization."