Daniel Quinn

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For other people with this name, see Daniel Quinn.
Daniel Quinn
Born (1935-10-11) October 11, 1935 (age 79)[1]
Omaha, Nebraska, US
Occupation Writer

Daniel Quinn (born October 11, 1935) is an American writer and former publisher of educational texts best known for his novel Ishmael, which won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award in 1991 and was published the following year. Quinn's ideas are popularly associated with environmentalism, though he criticizes this term, claiming that it portrays the environment as somehow separate from human life and thus creates a false dichotomy.[2] Rather, Quinn identifies himself a cultural critic[3] and specifically refers to his philosophy as new tribalism.


Daniel Quinn was born in Omaha, Nebraska, where he graduated from Creighton Preparatory School. He went on to study at Saint Louis University, at University of Vienna, Austria, through IES Abroad, and at Loyola University, receiving a bachelor's degree in English, cum laude, in 1957. He delayed part of this university education, however, while a postulant at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Bardstown, Kentucky, where he hoped to become a Trappist monk; however his spiritual director, Thomas Merton, prematurely ended Quinn's postulancy. Quinn then went into publishing, abandoned his Catholic faith, and underwent two unsuccessful marriages.[4]

In 1975, Quinn left his career as a publisher to become a freelance writer. He is best known for his book Ishmael (1992), which won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship Award in 1991. This fellowship was established to encourage authors to seek "creative and positive solutions to global problems." Ishmael became the first of a loose trilogy of novels by Quinn, including The Story of B and My Ishmael. Ishmael and its sequels brought increasing fame to Quinn throughout the 1990s, and he became a very well-known author to segments of the environmental, simplicity, and anarchist movements; in addition, proponents of deep ecology and a critique of civilization broadly labeled anarcho-primitivism often associate Quinn with their ideas. However, Quinn himself rejects these associations, disagrees with the notion that his philosophy is rooted in anarchism,[5] and considers the similarities between his philosophy and deep ecology to be purely coincidental.[6]

The Pearl Jam song "Do the Evolution" was inspired by Ishmael as were aspects of the 1999 film Instinct; however, Quinn has personally remarked that the film bears "virtually no resemblance to the book."[7] Quinn has traveled widely to lecture and discuss his books. While response to Ishmael was mostly very positive, Quinn inspired controversy especially with his claim that human populations grow and shrink according to food availability and with the catastrophic implications he draws from this. These ideas are discussed in the most depth in The Story of B's appendix section.

In 1998, Quinn collaborated with environmental biologist Alan D. Thornhill in producing Food Production and Population Growth, a 2-hour, 40-minute-long video (later DVD) elaborating in depth the ideas presented in his books.

Quinn's book Tales of Adam was released in 2005 after a long bankruptcy scuffle with its initially scheduled publisher. It is designed to be a look through the animist's eyes in seven short tales; Quinn explores the idea of animism as the first worldwide religion and as his own belief system in The Story of B and his autobiographical Providence.

In 2010, James Jay Lee, the perpetrator of the Discovery Communications headquarters hostage crisis, cited My Ishmael in his manifesto of demands.[8] Quinn characterized Lee as a "fanatic" who had distorted his ideas.[9]

Related authors include Jean Liedloff, Derrick Jensen, John Zerzan, Edward Goldsmith, Charles Eisenstein, and Fredy Perlman.

Quinn currently lives in Houston, Texas with his third wife, Rennie.


Quinn's philosophy largely regards looking toward past and current indigenous tribal societies as models to develop a diversity of functional human social structures in the future, while abandoning the current, unsustainable, world-dominating structure: civilization. Quinn exposes and rejects a variety of civilization's deepest-held cultural myths, most prominently including the memes that "there absolutely must be some one right way for everyone to live"[10] and that "the world was made for Man, and Man was made to conquer and rule it".[11][12]

Quinn also challenges popular thinking about ecology and human population dynamics, claiming that "we imagine that as our population grows, the rest of the living community remains the same (because it's [perceived as] separate from us), whereas in fact, the biomass that we're adding to the human population comes directly from the rest of the living community."[13] Furthermore, Quinn asserts that, since population growth is a function of food supply, sustained food aid to starving nations is merely delaying and dramatically worsening massive starvation crises, rather than resolving such crises, as is commonly assumed. These population problems are born of a disconnect between local humans and the food of the local habitat, and Quinn claims that ending this disconnect (in other words, reconnecting people to the food made available through their local habitats) is a proven way to avoid famines and accompanying starvation. Some have interpreted this to mean that Quinn is resolving to let starving people in impoverished nations continue starving, which Quinn has repeatedly identified as a misconception of his views.[14][15]

Quinn has coined or repopularized a variety of terms, including the following:

  • Takers and Leavers — "Takers" refers to members of the dominant globalized civilization and its culture, while "Leavers" refers to members of the countless other non-civilized cultures existing both in the past and currently[16]
  • Mother Culture – a personification of any culture's inherently biased influences that are not perceived as biased by its members
  • Food Race – the phenomenon of ongoing human overpopulation and its accompanying global catastrophes, in which the giving of more food to starving, growing populations paradoxically yields only still greater population growth and starvation
  • Law of limited competition – a biological law that "defines the limits of competition in the community of life," according to which "you may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down your competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food";[17] species that violate this "law" end up becoming extinct
  • Law of Life – the universal collection of all evolutionarily stable strategies
  • Totalitarian Agriculture – the modern world's dominant and unsustainable "form of agriculture predicated on the notion that all food on this planet belongs to humans exclusively"[18]
  • The Great Forgetting – widespread historical ignorance regarding "the fact that we [humans] are a biological species in a community of biological species and are not exempt or exemptible from the forces that shape all life on this planet";[19] this also includes our forgetting of the fact that most of human history has been based on an ecologically sound way of life (largely hunting and gathering); instead, this Great Forgetting has led us to falsely perceive "the universe and humankind to be the products of a single creative effort that had occurred just a few thousand years ago"[20]
  • Visions and programs – a "vision" is a world-view that inevitably influences the behaviors of members of a given culture, while "programs" are organized but insufficient efforts to alter those behaviors; Quinn says: "Vision is the flowing river. Programs are sticks set in the riverbed to impede the flow. [...] The world will not be saved by people with programs. If the world is saved, it will be saved because the people living in it have a new vision"[21]
  • Culture of maximum harm – a "culture in which all members are dedicated to attaining the high point of maximum affluence (and to forever raising the high point of maximum affluence)";[22] this "dedication" causes the greatest degree of destructiveness possible for a human society to achieve
  • New Tribal Revolution – a hypothetical, sociocultural period of global change that Quinn supports, in which civilization would gradually begin to transform into a collection of more sustainable, tribal societies



  1. ^ Von Ruff, Al. "Daniel Quinn – Summary Bibliography". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved October 11, 2011. 
  2. ^ Quinn, Daniel (March 7, 2002). "The New Renaissance". 
  3. ^ Quinn, Daniel (2007). "Schooling: The Hidden Agenda". Recently I was introduced to an audience as a cultural critic, and I think this probably says it best. 
  4. ^ Quinn, Daniel. Providence: The Story of a Fifty-Year Vision Quest. Austin, TX: Hard Rain Press, 1994.
  5. ^ "Q and A #605". Ishmael.org. 2013. 
  6. ^ "Q and A #491". Ishmael.org. 2012. 
  7. ^ "Q and A #491". Ishmael.org. 2012. 
  8. ^ "Discovery Channel gunman James J. Lee’s manifesto"
  9. ^ Boorstein, Michelle (September 2, 2010). "Author disowns gunman's interpretation of provocative novel". Washington Post. 
  10. ^ Quinn 1999, 97
  11. ^ Quinn 1992
  12. ^ Quinn 1997, 151, 156
  13. ^ "Q and A #501". Ishmael.org. 2013. 
  14. ^ "Q and A #23". Ishmael.org. 2013. 
  15. ^ "Q and A #767". Ishmael.org. 2013. 
  16. ^ Quinn 1992, 38–39
  17. ^ Quinn 1992, 129
  18. ^ "Q and A #48". Ishmael.org. 2013. 
  19. ^ Quinn 1997, 307
  20. ^ Quinn 1997, 62
  21. ^ Quinn 1997, 49–50
  22. ^ Quinn 1999, 109

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