Ishmael | Study Guide

Daniel Quinn

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Ishmael | Part 3 | Summary



Ishmael tells the narrator he will use a tape recorder to record himself telling the myth of his origins. He doesn't want to hear the biblical creation story but insists the story the narrator will tell is also a myth. He says, "No creation story is a myth to the people who tell it. It's just the story." The narrator begins telling the story of how the earth was formed. Ishmael says that broad outlines will suffice. It isn't a test. The narrator says that first the solar system was born, and then oceans. Next, life-forms such as single-celled creatures began to appear in the oceans and then on land. Amphibians evolved into reptiles. Then mammals appeared. Finally, about three million years ago, humans first appeared.

Ishmael expresses surprise that the narrator says that this story, as it's told in the narrator's culture, isn't a myth. The narrator reiterates that it isn't a myth and that he could put it on an eighth-grade science test. However, Ishmael insists it's a myth. The narrator asks if Ishmael is claiming that evolution is a myth or that humans didn't evolve. Ishmael shrugs his shoulders in response. The narrator is still confused, so Ishmael asks him to imagine a story that takes place half a billion years ago. An anthropologist comes to Earth, and after looking for a long time, he sees some living blobs on the shore. He asks the blobs to tell the story of their creation myth. The blobs insist that they have no creation myth and tell the scientific account for their own existence; the blobs explain there is no land, just rocks and dirt that form the lip of the bowl that contains the ocean. For many centuries, there were simply microorganisms floating around in a chemical broth. Then more complex organisms came along. And finally, the blobs say, jellyfish appeared. Ishmael asks why it isn't appropriate to end the story with the appearance of jellyfish. The narrator says there is more to come. Yet, says Ishmael, the narrator ended his story by saying that humans appeared, implying that that was the end. The narrator replies, "This is what it was all leading up to." Ishmael says that, yes, that's what people in the narrator's culture believe. They believe that everything was created not for gorillas or jellyfish, but for humans. He asks how this is not a myth. He asks if there is evidence that the creation of the universe came to a halt with the birth of humans. The narrator admits that he isn't aware of any evidence to support such a claim. However, the universe went on after the appearance of humans just as it went on after the appearance of jellyfish. He asks the narrator what this means to him. The narrator admits, surprised, that it means that humanity's origin story is a myth, with Earth at the center, because Earth is home to humans; however, there are other planets and other solar systems. Ishmael notes that the narrator didn't mention a god or gods. Presumably, this was because he didn't want the story to seem mythological. However, even atheists know that the world was made for humans, which implies some sort of belief in a divine being that made it so.

Ishmael says that people of the narrator's culture take as their premise that "the world was made for man." He asks the narrator what people might then believe based upon this premise. The narrator replies they would believe that "it belongs to us, and we can do what we damn well please with it." This is why people treat the world as they do. However, it is possible people may belong to the world. Ishmael asks the narrator if it would be the same way if it had been made for jellyfish. The narrator agrees it would not. Ishmael tells the narrator that his homework for the next day is to figure out the other parts of the story. He should figure out the middle of the story.


While Ishmael has used the Socratic question-and-answer technique before this part, it is here that he presses the narrator to consider his questions. The result is that the narrator feels affronted by the idea that the scientific story of human origin is a myth. However, he is then forced to reconsider things he always believed to be true. Socratic questioning separates what people know from what they believe they know. In using this technique, Ishmael forces the narrator to confront the idea that his long-held knowledge is actually a convenient fiction.

The story about the jellyfish illustrates the theme of storytelling and human behavior. The narrator is forced to consider how a story differs depending on who is telling it. This is the crux of this theme of the book. Humans believe they are the culmination of billions of years of evolution because humans are the ones writing the story, similar to the statement "History is written by the victors."

When Ishmael asks the narrator how things would have been different if creation had ended with jellyfish, the narrator says it would have been different but doesn't explain how. What he likely believes—illustrating the concept that humans believe the world is made for them—is that humans have changed things in the way jellyfish have not. In Ishmael's view, these changes are not positive ones. Humans have polluted the earth and caused the extinction of species. Quinn introduces the theme of the ecosystems. If the world belongs to humans, then they can do as they please. If humans destroy the world, it will be their fault, and they will have to live with the consequences. However, if humans belong to the world and are simply inhabitants, then they have a responsibility to the other creatures in the world, including those who come after them.

According to the myth of the evolutionary ladder, Ishmael uncovers, humans have been the pinnacle of creation for millions of years. This is why humans have the hubris to believe that they are the ones for whom the earth was made. However, the premise that humans are at the top is a flawed one. There is no top. In Ishmael's story, no one life form is superior to another. His reference to other solar systems simply highlights that the narrator doesn't even consider them in his account of creation—Earth is the center in this myth, but there is no real center. Ishmael uses the term "the gods" to mean the powers that be. He is not necessarily referring to God as portrayed in the Judeo-Christian Bible.

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