Feb 22, 2011

Daniel Quinn’s theories on culture and civilization part 1

Daniel Quinn is best known for his award winning book Ishmael which he wrote after a long career as an editor for various reputable publications. Since then he has expanded on those ideas outlining them in greater and greater detail which is considered to have reached it’s completion with the publication of his fictional novels.

His book Ishmael became a bestseller and won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award for its unique ideas about history, mythology, anthropology and culture. However, that was just the beginning. The ideas in his book resonated with a large number of people from various walks of life and all age groups. They have inspired the song ‘Do the Evolution’ by the music group Pearl Jam, a movie and is being used as a textbook in many schools and colleges.

After Ishmael he wrote ‘My Ishmael’ and ‘The Story of B’ (which go together as a trilogy) followed by several other books and even study guides to help teachers, available from his website.

The books Ishmael and My Ishmael are my favorites because they are engaging both in the story telling and the Socratic Method used to teach. In fact, I think these two books are a great way to introduce students to the Socratic Method which is a very effective teaching method as it forces a student to think.

The movie Instinct is about an anthropologist, Dr. Ethan Powell (Anthony Hopkins), who disappears in the Jungles of Africa for two years and when he returns commits a crime for which he is committed to a psychiatric hospital. At this hospital Dr. Theo Calder (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is assigned to his case and in the process of treating the troubled anthropologist he becomes a willing student of Dr. Powell’s unusual theories and teaching methods.

This movie is based on Daniel Quinn’s theory (who is consulted on the script – though he doesn’t believe the movie really portrays his ideas properly). In the following clip you see Dr. Powell explaining Quinn’s ideas on the difference between tribal and agricultural cultures.

(Note: Daniel Quinn sees our culture as essentially one type of agricultural system he calls ‘Takers’ while tribal societies are called ‘Leavers’ – He choose these names for their neutrality and as descriptions of the basic pattern that these two different systems follow)

In this video Dr. Powell is drawing his view of the history of mankind on his cell walls.

The theory Daniel Quinn outlines is very broad and essentially lumps together all of our agricultural civilization as one type of culture when compared to the general behavior of tribal cultures. In explaining these differences he intends to show his perspective of where our culture went wrong and how we can learn from tribal cultures to help us remake our civilization in a way that will be more sustainable. He sees our problems with pollution, poverty, education, war etc. as arising from underlying cultural behavior which is supposed to originate with the birth of agriculture.

When I first read his books, several years ago, I was very taken by his explanations and evidence. However, since then I’ve come across several instances in which his explanations and evidence are inaccurate. So this post is meant as an introduction to Daniel Quinn while the next post will outline the basic theory. After that I will look more critically at some of his claims with available evidence (this could take a while).

I have chosen Daniel Quinn’s theories as a start to my own analysis of culture as his classifications are broad and begin from the beginning of the agricultural revolution which is also considered to be the beginning of civilization itself. Also, his books are very well written and are even being used as textbooks, so in a sense, his theories represent a view that is gaining greater acceptance in popular culture i.e. it’s not particularly ‘alternative’. Finally, the number of fields of study his theories encompass make his ideas make a great starting point to analyze different fields of research and bring them together which is the purpose of this blog.

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