Review: The Story of B by Daniel Quinn

Well, here we go…

I’m going to come right out and say that I disagree with a great deal of Daniel Quinn’s teachings in both Ishmael and The Story of B, mostly those things in regard to the position of humankind on this planet and his interpretations of the major religions as they exist today.  I’ll be getting to that in a little.

If you’ve been following my posts lately (and you can always backtrack and read about them), you know I’ve been reading The Story of B for about two-ish weeks now.  I’m rather glad to be done and moving on to other books, but this particular book has left me a lot to think about, and that’s a good thing.  Good books do that sort of thing.

There’s a series of emotions I find swirling about as I finish B; annoyance, frustration, and  being let down simmer at the top, but there is also a certain amount of understanding and insight to be had as well.  Let me get through my frustrations and disagreements first, my irritations with Quinn’s style having been expressed in full here.

Let me try to summarize Quinn’s beliefs about mankind and still do them justice:

1) Man, for several million years, did not regard himself as being made for the world, or the world being made for him.  He was just another species on this planet, competing for food with the rest of the species on this planet (but not waging war on his competitors; this is known as the Law of Limited Competition, discussed further here) and was completely fine with that.

2) At some point in time, specifically the dawn of civilization in the Near East (Mesopotamia), a group he identifies as the “Takers” (everyone else is called the “Leavers”), developed a system of agriculture which rejected the Law of Limited Competition and allowed for the elimination of man’s competitors for food (Quinn calls this totalitarian agriculture).  All great thinkers, from Moses to Socrates to Jesus to Muhammed and so on, advocated this culture.

3) This cultural development is the cause of all the horrible things in the world, including war, disease, famine, oppression from ruling classes, and everything else we don’t like about the world today (religion is included here as well; salvation became necessary for man who was so horrible in nature).

4) This culture is on the verge of collapse unless we do something about it soon.

All of this is what Quinn is trying to get out to everyone in an effort to produce “changed minds” that might stop the flow of our entire culture toward catastrophe.  I’m sure that that doesn’t do justice to everything I just read, but summaries rarely do. Here’s my objections.

1) First, I can’t STAND his understanding of religion. He attempts to generalize all faiths as more or less lap dogs of a culture he views as evil, and needlessly so. He even goes so far as to identify as an Antichrist because he sees what he’s doing as the antithesis of Taker culture and its proponents.  Granted, this book was written in 1996, but even then, there existed great amounts of scholarship regarding, for example, biblical interpretation that shows that our beliefs aren’t just for the salvation of man, but the whole universe. Paul makes it clear in Romans 10 that “all creation groans out for the day of redemption.” Religion is not against saving the world; quite the contrary, it’s for it!  We’re on your side, Mr. Quinn!

2) My observations regarding man and his evolution (as well as my religious beliefs) still place him as the pinnacle of Creation, but with a role that has been abused through The Fall.  As caretakers of the Earth, we have failed, and we must return to our roles in that position.

These two positions of Quinn’s strike me as unnecessary for what Quinn’s character “B” is really fighting: overuse of the world’s resources and the population explosions.  We know full well our resources are low, and yet we continue to live unchanged.  What, then, is Quinn’s solution? *Spoiler alert, highlight to read*

Limiting food production in an effort to level out population growth. 

THAT’S IT!?  That’s your big solution to the Great Forgetting!?  After all the criticism of our culture and our faiths, that’s what you bring forth?  Was all that REALLY that necessary!?  Talk about expecting a bang and getting a fizzle.  After wading through some really, really hard parts of that book, I feel severely let down.

Although, I have to admit, there’s a certain amount of logic to it, and the way it was approached in the book was rather gentle and with good understanding.  Points to you, Mr Quinn. You have some brilliant and amazing points to make here, but you need not make yourself the enemy of so many!  You’re fighting a lot of people who actually see where you’re coming from!

Look, I’m not going to tell you not to read this book, because what Quinn deep down wants to go is get people on board for saving the planet, and I’m with that.  I want to join in and help too, but I won’t go to the lengths Quinn thinks we need to go to do it. I don’t need to, and neither do you. By all means, though, check this book out, in addition to Ishmael. It’s a fresher take than most, even though it’s flawed. However, as you should ALL books, read with an open mind, but not an empty one. You as the reader have a right to disagree, or to agree in full.

Quinn is right: in order to avoid catastrophe, we need a change of mindset.  Just don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.


10 thoughts on “Review: The Story of B by Daniel Quinn

  1. As you requested, you wanted opinion from someone who read this book. Let me apologize first, as this is probably going to get a little long-winded, and I just got a fresh cup of coffee, so I don’t need to get up for a while.

    First, I’m in agreement that his particular solution isn’t necessarily viable. I find it’s one of those good on paper, not really implementable type situations. What I found to be the greatest strength of his novels is that he draws attention to a problem that many people in today’s “Get new, bigger, better first” society have been taught to ignore. Example: sure, we’re taught / encouraged to recycle in school, but then the process is made difficult enough to turn away many people who would otherwise do so. I find many people are taught / believe that there’ll always be another oil reserve, more rainforest, and as long as it doesn’t inconvenience me, don’t worry about it. I think we need look no farther than the people who drive, say, a Hummer for no reason other than “I can.” We (as a society) have this idea that what we can get we deserve, and beyond that, well, someone else can worry about it.

    Now, as for the attacks against religion. As you’re well aware, my knowledge base on religion / religious masses / tenants / etc is limited, so do take this with a grain of salty speculation. Before, I mentioned / asked about the antichrist being depicted as a single figure versus a concept in terms of widespread, popular culture. I’m going to play that card again, but a little differently. I don’t feel comfortable saying “most Christians”, so instead how about “people in power who will cite Christian scripture to justify a decision” seem to often use the idea that man is the highest form of life / god gave dominion over the earth to man as a way of saying / meaning “We can’t do wrong.” Animals are dumb, soul-less creatures, so there’s no need to worry about them. Trees are even lower, so why not cut them all down? God gave us this planet and all of it for *our* use. Again, please let me emphasize I really hope that a majority doesn’t believe this (I’m in no place to say they do or don’t), but religion, like anything else, gets used as a shield to defend dangerous, disastrous decisions. So as not to appear to just be railing against Christianity, Buddhism does this too, but what I would consider to be a more roundabout way. Buddhism still places humans as an incredibly high level of incarnation (at least disregarding the higher planes of existence – high on incarnation we can observe, shall we say), implying that it still possesses some special standing.

    This is a long lead-up to this: Quinn’s attack on religion seems to do a couple things. First, it addresses what some (many?) might view as the shield for overuse. Secondly, and what I think might be more correct, is that Quinn is trying very hard to make us look at what we are told / brought up to believe and question it. I think its fair to say if we don’t question what we’ve been taught / told / engrained, we won’t ever be able to come up with new ideas to change. Striking at religion is something that many people hold very close to themselves and, possibly / often / in some instances hold so tightly that it is, to some level, un-questionable. So by attacking religion, he’s turning that searchlight onto some of the most sacred thoughts we possess, allowing us to maybe begin questioning things we wouldn’t have thought to before, be they religious or otherwise. And here’s where I can’t talk for Quinn – he may or may not believe religion to be evil and detrimental to society, but I think the lesson take away isn’t that religion is bad, but should never be used as a shield for unhealthy behavior. But by attacking religion, he’s making a stronger point / creating a more powerful reaction than saying something like, “Yeah – you shouldn’t have nonfat vanilla lattes! Cut back on them to save the planet!”

    As for his lack of citing sources, this didn’t bother me solely because the book is classified as fiction. I get what you’re saying though. While not excusing the lack of them in his book, his website does offer a very large list of extended reading relating to his ideas. However, since I found his storytelling to feel rather strained as it was, I feel the inclusion of source material would have completely broken the text.

    Ultimately, I find Quinn’s books to be thought provoking, and highly so. Do I agree with everything he says? No. Do I agree with the trail of events he lays out? Yes and no. I can see where the ideas come from, and how / why the conclusions he reaches make sense. Do I think his way is the answer to solving the world’s problems? Of course not. I don’t think he does either. It’s either in one of the two books you read or “My Ishmael” where he talks about how there’s no one right way to live. That’s what I feel is the greatest take away from his books. Moving towards any sort of single thought for how we should live will eventually be disastrous / unable to be sustained by the planet. Combined with that he does force you to think / reflect on what you’ve been taught / what is accepted, I feel his books can help us change our thinking to at least see some unexplored avenues to making the world better / see some things that we are taught are perfectly acceptable but might not be.

    Now let me stop, and just add that I think you’re weighing of Quinn is, if nothing else, fair. You found something that you agree with, and things you don’t agree with, and it has made you think in a way that maybe another book might not of. It sounds like you gained something from the book, and I’m glad for that.

    • Sorry, but the hierarchy of man (as rational animal) -> beast (as non-rational) -> plant (as merely possessing body) goes back at least to Plato and Aristotle. Whether humans are to be thought of as spirits inhabiting bodies (Platonic dualism) or intrinsically and interminably collated, the schools of thought following each exalt the role of the mind in defining humanity and its role. This is not an inherently religious assertion; though it found homes often enough in Western Christianity such anthropologies which place ration at the centre are better described as philosophical byproducts, culminating in various historical humanisms, and famously, Hegel.

      In short, if Quinn is aiming his attack at religions due to anthropologies which glorify humanity simply because their stances allow for the Takers to abuse (and Leave nothing)…he has n’t understood well his history and his aim could be better placed.

      • He actually lumps Plato and Aristotle in there too. Calls them part of the Great Forgetting (or the assumption that mankind was always a a totalitarian griculturalist.

      • Patrick has just commented on one point I was about to make, so let me just make a short addition as well. Quinn, in what can be considered a broad sweep that more or less sets himself up to not lose, addresses this idea, saying that all we have (philosophy, religion, etc) is based off this idea that we were always overpowering our environment (totalitarian agriculture) rather than coinciding with it (as some aboriginal tribes have been known to do). So even the Greeks are speaking from this standpoint of forcing the land to do what we want with it, as started in Mesopotamia. Now, if we switch our view to one of Quinn’s examples that I remember most readily, many Native American tribes were essentially hunter-gatherer tribes, which have more of a “go with the flow of the world” outlook rather than the “subdue the world” outlook, even to the point of religions based around Animism formed in their cultures. So this idea of Man -> Beast -> Plant isn’t universally applicable; there are / were plenty that believe animals / plants / nature to be sacred.

      • My point is it can’t be attributed to religion (much less Mesopotamian religion).

        That Quinn can’t lose demonstrates a dishonest approach to discourse. If his claims aren’t falsifiable, they aren’t an argument.

        Philosophically, the mind-first anthropologies led many to think that by rightly enacting reason they WERE in harmony with that point about which the universe spun. One has to assume Quinn’s standpoint before one can condemn these anthropologies and the actions resulting therefrom for being ‘part of the Tak’.

        How we are to assume that tribalism is first in the evolution of human society should be supported by verifiable claims. As it stands, Quinn can always claim that earlier on the ‘more primitive’ expressions of culture have it right. That he looks fondly on a ‘simpler’ culture is all well until we truly attempt to enact it (must we internalize those who turn into Takers in order to expel such a plague from our tribe for instance?) – it’s much prettier as a utopian concept before we really try to apply it.

        Instead, we would do better to stay away from such categories as ‘primitive’ and ‘advanced’ for these are still speaking in terms of technology and larger state structures able to overpower others [and these realities go back so far into the ANE corpus and are evidenced by the digs to the point that we ought rather to think of them as societies in cycle rather than as evolving from one to another]. The naivete evidenced by painting with such broad brush-strokes should stand up to better reasoning if it is to ever be considered seriously.

      • Just a few thoughts, and as I don’t have his books handy, and it’s been a few years since I’ve read them, you’ll have to excuse some specific examples. In at least one of his books (I want to say more), Quinn takes time to clarify that we can’t all just wander off from our cities and start living like aboriginals again. He fully acknowledges that that can never work with the way the world exists today, and even that tribal life isn’t what will satisfy the needs of every individual. He’s using “primitive” culture to show that it has been done before and, therefore, can be done again, though undeniably in a different form.

        As for saying it can’t be contributed to religion: I’m willing to concede that this method of thinking can’t be attributed to *beginning* with religion. But I can say without a doubt that religion perpetuates this thinking. And again, I’m not talking about the depths of theology where great minds have analyzed every line of every holy text and determined *exactly* what was meant, using good historical research and translation from original languages to get at the precise meaning: I’m talking about the average person, who goes to church / mosque / temple on Sunday / Friday / Saturday / Christmas / Solstices. Philosophers have been on every side of every argument, and with enough digging we can find evidence to support pretty much any thinking before / after / during its time. But I think it’s safe to say religions, generally, tend to teach that man is the top of the pyramid, which immediately separates us from the natural world.

      • The naivete of which I speak is one which fails to look at history on several levels – which fails to look at it as judged on its own terms (of course we can’t do away with our own location either, but no one resisted or sued for peace because we would one day approve) – which fails to even attempt to see what purposes societal structures served.

        Religion is a social structure (sometimes overtly embedded within a structure and sometimes holding a more prominent place or performing the role of the cultural outsider) and to my thinking is the leading producer of what might be termed ‘cultural prophets’. True, many critics of our day are non-religious or anti-religious, but a greater number of those seeking to rebuild are critical AND religious. Religion doesn’t simply encode and crystallize the power structures which enable ‘Takers’ to win, it provides points from which helpful criticism may emerge.

        In regards to the close of your final paragraph, I find it difficult to see how religions teach (any more than humanist philosophies or naive political rhetoric) or encode or provide a safe haven for such problematic views, when the presumption is that sans religion the structure is somehow fairer. Religions teach the real presence of evil not only outside of us, but within us (take Solzhenitsyn’s quote for instance) and within our abilities to understand (Nietzsche, Kant, Kierkegaard, Derrida) so that we may dominate. True, not many read or listen well enough to hear anything but that which empowers them, but can religious leaders or the greatest philosophical minds be discounted because others fail to take their charges properly to account? I’m not saying be happy with religion or philosophy, but it is far more fruitful to locate the prophetic voices which may lend helpful critiques that are applicable rather than those which are sharply dismissive, save when speaking of their favored Utopia. Better to do the work of translation than to claim that all must be rethought (and this without even asserting falsifiable claims).

  2. ‘Bout time you weighed in. Been waitin’ all day!

    Ha ha, I do want to say that his books aren’t all evil nothings. It’s a bad habit of mine that, when someone has something negative to say about religion, I tend to take it personal. If someone hasn’t figured out that my faith is a big part of my life, they’re not paying attention. However, it took a lot for me to continue going through with this book, not because his ideas were so bogus I can’t imagine why anyone would believe them, but because I felt a little offended. Mortimer Adler talks about throwing off all emotions when reading books of this nature, but never mentions how hard it is to do that.

    That being said, you’re right. Quinn makes some killer points about questioning the things that Mother Culture whispers in our ears, and how those in power will stand behind religion (and other institutions) to do their bidding to the point where it’s driving us to total cultural collapse. Honestly, if his books DON’T open our eyes to that potential, we’re not reading close enough. That’s one of the big things I’m grateful to Quinn for: speaking as loud as he can about the dangers that await, and I could never fault him (or fall short of thanking him) for doing that.

    As far as sources go, you’re right. His writing was strained enough as it was, and sources would have broken it up more, but a bibliography would have been nice. Ha ha, guess I can’t have my cake and eat it to. From what I’ve read of Quinn, he’s not the type to just make crap up. I’ll have to do some more research myself. I think it was the character Albrecht, though, who made the point that anyone can parrot the information B laid out, but to believe it was something different altogether.

    • I think you might enjoy one of his other books more: “Beyond Civilization”. It’s been a while since I read it, and I read it fast, so I don’t remember it 100%. But it is a nonfiction book where he spells out some of his ideas without the framework of a story and clarifies some things / answers questions people had been asking him in the wake of Ishmael / B / My Ishmael. I don’t remember if it has a bibliography / more source material in it or not, thought. Also, his website has a lot more information if you wanted to do further reading:

      I can easily see how his book can come off as offensive, though, especially B, and how it could / would get in the way of . . . enjoying the book, I guess. Quinn is one of those guys who I would love to sit down and have coffee / beer with, and just listen to him talk. His books are nice, thought provoking, but the chosen form, as I think we’ve both agreed on, could stand some improving.

      And even with a “negative” response, or a offended response, it still has fired your brain up for some good, hard thinking and analysis of what he said, so I think you’re criticisms / thoughts strike me as something Quinn would approve of. I think he would respect anyone forming their thoughts and opinions of his work and then moving on with the pieces that will help and at least being aware of the pieces that you disagree with. That’s the impression I take away from him, be it right or completely incorrect.

      All in all, I’m glad you gave the book a read and stuck it through to the end.

  3. Pingback: Review: Genesis and the Rise of Civilization by j. Snodgrass | Reading to Live

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