Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With the publication of his trilogy of novels (Ishmael; The Story of B; My Ishmael), Quinn became something of a cult figure in visionary fiction. In those books, Quinn explored the self-sustaining nature of tribal societies and his belief that the current worldwide ecological and economic crises are due to the agriculture-based organization of civilized societies. He now turns his hand to nonfiction, with an appeal for universal renewal through a "New Tribal Revolution." Acknowledging that it would be impossible for most civilized humans to return to the hunting and gathering typical of tribes, Quinn argues that modern men and women need to invent a completely different mode of existence. To do this, they must question a basic assumption of all civilized societies: "Civilization must continue at any cost and must not be abandoned under any circumstances." Quinn, borrowing from Richard Dawkins, calls this assumption a "meme," the cultural equivalent of a gene. Quinn's main examples are peoples like the Maya and Anasazi, who returned to tribalism after unsuccessful attempts at other types of social organization, and the communal structure of traditional circuses. The author has a knack for stating the obvious with tremendous personal conviction. His articulation of a simpler way of life will appeal to those made frantic by globalization and all the forces conspiring to make people dance as fast as they can. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Using parable and dialog, Quinn introduces the reader to some of the philosophical views that have led to our tacit assumption that civilization is the answer to humanity's problems. He offers critical reminders, without being either polemical or technical, that civilization may not be the answer. Rather, he asserts that we should move beyond hierarchy to a new form of tribal living--not the communal style of the 1960s but one suffused with conscious, purposeful awareness of each action's greater impact. Quinn notes, "Beyond civilization isn't a geographical space...it's a cultural space that opens up among people with new minds." As is characteristic of his philosophical novels, Ishmael, The Story of B, and My Ishmael, the prose is readable and the sociological discussion unobtrusive. Fans of Quinn's earlier works will welcome this title. Libraries seeking to provide contemporary discussion on human ecology will find this title an asset. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/99.]--Leroy Hommerding, Citrus Cty. Lib. Syst., Inverness, FL Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
A cultish recipe for the salvation of the human race, which is being poisoned by the "genetic" structure of its own civilization. Quinn returns to the theme of "Taker" and "Leaver" societies that he expounded in his prizewinning novel Ishmael (1992) and the sequel, My Ishmael (1997). In a typical simplistic reduction, he constantly asserts that the solutions to mankind's problems are easy, but no one else has thought about them correctly. His naive answer is to understand culture as consisting of what are called memes, the cultural equivalent of genes in the body. Once we are able to isolate the pathological memes that have allowed civilization (bad) to triumph over more successful tribal societies (good), we can initiate a new tribalism in which we all work together as equals to obtain the necessities of human life. Revolution against the current economic system will not be necessary; we can just opt not to participate in the prevalent, hierarchically structured, exploitative "Taker" society. Evidence of his crackpot theory is drawn haphazardly from Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene (the origin of the term meme and an extremely controversial book in its own right), a stunningly shallow analysis of Meso-American prehistory, and the plot of the movie The Sting (it turns out con men are also members of the ancient tribal fraternity). He anticipates his argument will be criticized by social theorists as an utter romanticization of tribalism and tribal society, but rather than offering a more sophisticated analysis, he merely attacks social theorists for being prejudiced. His justification for choosing tribal society over hierarchical society, premised upon thecontrol of food crops by an armed elite, is explained in a section entitled "Circus people are tribal people." Quinn is the sociological equivalent of Ross Perotall vision and anecdote, with neither depth of thought nor workable solutions.
From the Publisher
"Beyond Civilization is the most solid, real, practical, and you-can-really-do-it book you'll ever find on how to save the world. Daniel Quinn has again proven he is one of our century's greatest and most insightful thinkers. The re-tribalization of the world: what an extraordinary possibility!"
Thom Hartmann, author of The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight
"As always with Quinn, his argument is crystalline and reads like a thriller. He shows us that getting 'beyond' the mess of civilization doesn't mean changing human nature or setting off a revolution. We need only breathe new life into an ancient human strategy for survival. Quinn's plan is inspiring and devilishly clever."
John Briggs, author of Seven Life Lessons of Chaos
Read an Excerpt
From Part One: Closing In on the Problem
I heard this, naturally, from my grandfather, he from his grandfather, he from his own grandfather, and so on, back many hundreds of years. That means this tale is very old. But it won't disappear, because I offer it to my children, and my children will tell it to their children, and so on.
-- Gypsy storyteller Lazaros Harisiadis, quoted by Diane Tong in Gypsy Folk Tales
A fable to start with
Once upon a time life evolved on a certain planet, bringing forth many different social organizations--packs, pods, flocks, troops, herds, and so on. One species whose members were unusually intelligent developed a unique social organization called a tribe. Tribalism worked well for them for millions of years, but there came a time when they decided to experiment with a new social organization (called civilization) that was hierarchal rather than tribal. Before long, those at the top of the hierarchy were living in great luxury, enjoying perfect leisure and having the best of everything. A larger class of people below them lived very well and had nothing to complain about. But the masses living at the bottom of the hierarchy didn't like it at all. They worked and lived like pack animals, struggling just to stay alive.
"This isn't working," the masses said. "The tribal way was better. We should return to that way." But the ruler of the hierarchy told them, "We've put that primitive life behind us forever. We can't go back to it."
"If we can't go back," the masses said, "then let's go forward--on to something different."
"That can't be done," the ruler said, "because nothing different is possible. Nothing can be beyond civilization. Civilization is a final, unsurpassable invention."
"But no invention is ever unsurpassable. The steam engine was surpassed by the gas engine. The radio was surpassed by television. The calculator was surpassed by the computer. Why should civilization be different?"
"I don't know why it's different," the ruler said, "It just is."
But the masses didn't believe this--and neither do I.
A Manual of Change
My first concept of this book was reflected in its original title: The Manual of Change. I thought of this because there's nothing the people of our culture want more than change. They desperately want to change themselves and the world around them. The reason isn't hard to find. They know something's wrong--wrong with themselves and wrong with the world.
In Ishmael and my other books, I gave people a new way of understanding what's gone wrong here. I had the rather naive idea this would be enough. Usually it is enough. If you know what's wrong with something--your car or your computer or your refrigerator or your television set--then the rest is relatively easy. I assumed it would be the same here, but of course it isn't. Over and over again, literally thousands of times, people have said to me or written to me, "I understand what you're saying--you've changed the way I see the world and our place in it--but what are we supposed to DO about it?"
I might have said, "Isn't it obvious?" But obviously it isn't obvious--or anything remotely like obvious.
In this book I hope to make it obvious.
Humanity's future is what's at stake.
Who are the people of "our culture"?
It's easy to pick out the people who belong to "our" culture. If you go somewhere--anywhere in the world--where the food is under lock and key, you'll know you're among people of our culture. They may differ wildly in relatively superficial matters--in the way they dress, in their marriage customs, in the holidays they observe, and so on. But when it comes to the most fundamental thing of all, getting the food they need to stay alive, they're all alike. In these places, the food is all owned by someone, and if you want some, you'll have to buy it. This is expected in these places; the people of our culture know no other way.
Making food a commodity to be owned was one of the great innovations of our culture. No other culture in history has ever put food under lock and key--and putting it there is the cornerstone of our economy, for if the food wasn't under lock and key, who would work?
What does "saving the world" mean?
When we talk about saving the world, what world are we talking about? Not the globe itself, obviously. But also not the biological world--the world of life. The world of life, strangely enough, is not in danger (though thousands and perhaps even millions of species are). Even at our worst and most destructive, we would be unable to render this planet lifeless. At present it's estimated that as many as two hundred species a day are becoming extinct, thanks to us. If we continue to kill off our neighbors at this rate, there will inevitably come a day when one of those two hundred species is our own.
Saving the world also can't mean preserving the world as it is right now. That may sound like a nice idea, but it's also out of reach. Even if the entire human race vanished tomorrow, the world wouldn't stay the way it is today. We will never, under any circumstances, be able to stop change on this planet.
But if saving the world doesn't mean saving the world of life or preserving it unchanged, what are we talking about? Saving the world can only mean one thing: saving the world as a human habitat. Accomplishing this will mean (must mean) saving the world as a habitat for as many other species as possible. We can only save the world as a human habitat if we stop our catastrophic onslaught on the community of life, for we depend on that community for our very lives.
From the Hardcover edition.