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 81)[1]
Omaha, Nebraska, US
Occupation Writer

Daniel Quinn (born October 11, 1935) is an American writer (primarily, novelist and fabulist),[2] cultural critic,[3] 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.[4] Quinn specifically identifies his philosophy as new tribalism.[5]


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;[6] 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.

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 follow-ups brought increasing fame to Quinn throughout the 1990s, and he became a very well-known author to segments of various social and political groups, including the environmental, simplicity, and anarchist movements, none of which he strongly self-identifies with. Nevertheless, his views are said to have "articulated the most prevalent cosmogony found within radical environmental subcultures."[7]

Quinn has traveled widely to lecture and discuss his books. While response to Ishmael was mostly very positive, Quinn's ideas have inspired the most controversy, particularly in The Story of B's appendix, with his claim that human populations grow and shrink according to food availability and with the catastrophic real-world conclusions he draws from this.[8]

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 first explores the idea of animism as the original worldwide religion and as his own dogma-free belief system in The Story of B and his autobiographical Providence.[6]

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

Philosophy and themes[edit]

Daniel Quinn writes primarily about the cultural bias, mythology, and world-view driving modern civilization and the destruction of the natural world.[9] Quinn exposes that some of civilization's most unchallenged myths, or "memes," include: that the Earth was made especially for humans, who are destined to conquer and rule it; that humans are innately flawed;[7][10] that humans are separate from and superior to nature (which Quinn has called "the most dangerous idea in existence");[11] and that all humans must be made to live according to some one right way.

Quinn commonly discusses ecology and human population dynamics in-depth. He claims that the total population of humans, like all living things, grows and shrinks according to an ecological law—an increase in food availability for any population yields an accompanying increase in the population's overall size[12]—despite the fact that popular cultural thinking regards civilized humans as separate from and above any such law.[7]

Quinn argues that the global system's dependence on agriculture requires ever-more expansion, in turn generating ever-more population growth[13] (an escalating vicious cycle he identifies as the "food race")[8] making modern civilization, by definition, unsustainable.[13] He commonly analyzes and defends the effectiveness of traditional indigenous tribal societies—regarded by recent anthropological research as fairly egalitarian, ecologically well-adapted, and socially secure[14]—as models to develop a new diversity of workable human social structures for the future.[15]

Beginning with the Neolithic Revolution, Quinn argues that human overpopulation has been driven by an imperialistic way of life that denigrates nature, relies entirely upon expansionist farming (which Quinn calls "totalitarian agriculture"),[16] and grows in proportion to the rest of the living world's decline in biomass.[7] In Quinn's view, civilization today has largely become a merged, single massive global economy and culture.

Quinn warns about food and population dangers in a way often compared to Thomas Robert Malthus,[17] though Quinn's warning is markedly different. Unlike Malthus, who warned that rising human population would outpace the food generated to feed it, Quinn considers this assessment backwards, instead warning that excess population is the result of excess food. According to Quinn, the success of totalitarian agriculture is causing a catastrophic loss of biodiversity, and, even more directly, overshoot towards an eventual population crash, of which the civilized mainstream shows very little anticipation or interest.[18][19]

Quinn's conclusions on population also suggest the controversial notion that sustained food aid to starving nations is merely delaying and dramatically worsening massive starvation crises, rather than resolving such crises, as is commonly assumed. Quinn claims that 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 he has repeatedly refuted.[20][21]

Quinn self-admittedly presents a lack of simplistic or universal solutions,[22] though he strongly encourages a worldwide paradigm shift away from self-destructive memes and towards the values and organizational structures of tribalism, but not in the old style of ethnic tribalism so much as new groupings of individuals as equals trying to make a living communally, while still subject to evolution by natural selection;[23] he has sometimes referred to this gradual shift as the "New Tribal Revolution." Quinn has noted that his admiration for the sustainable lifestyles of indigenous tribes is not intended to encourage a massive "return" to hunting and gathering so much as his acknowledging an enormous history of relative ecological harmony between humans and the rest of the environment (from which humans are never separate), attributable to the tribe as an effective model for human societies (just as the pack works for wolves, the hive for bees, etc.).[14][22]

Although Quinn himself regards the following associations as coincidental, his philosophy is sometimes considered related to deep ecology, dark green environmentalism, or anarcho-primitivism.[7][11][24]

Quinn has been influential in developing a vocabulary for his philosophy; he has coined or popularized 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[25][9][26]
  • Mother Culture – a personification of any culture's inherently biased influences that are not perceived as biased by its members[27]
  • 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[8][28]
  • 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 in general," meaning across-the-board;[29] species that violate this law end up extinct
  • Law of Life – the universal collection of all evolutionarily stable strategies
  • Totalitarian Agriculture – today's dominant form of agriculture that "subordinates all other life-forms to the relentless, single-minded production of human food," unsustainable because it generates enormous food supplies that in turn generate ever-greater human population booms[16]
  • 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; 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)"[30]
  • Boiling frog – "a metaphor for so many circumstances in life when people are unwilling or unable to react effectively to crises that occur very gradually or imperceptibly,"[31] used especially by Quinn to refer to creeping normality in terms of escalating environmental degradation
  • 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[5]


Ishmael directly inspired the 1998 Pearl Jam album Yield (and particularly the song "Do the Evolution"),[32] the name of the band Animals as Leaders, the ideology behind the 1999 drama film Instinct,[2] and the 2007 documentary film What A Way To Go: Life at the End of Empire. Quinn's writings have also influenced the filmmaker Tom Shadyac (who featured Quinn in the documentary I Am), as well as the entrepreneur Ray C. Anderson, founder of Interface, Inc. (the world's largest manufacturer of modular carpet), who began transforming Interface with more "green" initiatives.[33] Actor Morgan Freeman's interest in the Ishmael trilogy inspired his involvement with nature documentaries, such as Island of Lemurs: Madagascar and Born to Be Wild, both of which he narrated, while adopting from Quinn the phrase "the tyranny of agriculture."[34][35] Punk rock band Rise Against includes Ishmael on their album The Sufferer & the Witness' reading list.



  1. ^ Von Ruff, Al. "Daniel Quinn – Summary Bibliography". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved October 11, 2011. 
  2. ^ a b Wilson (2007:70)
  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 (March 7, 2002). "The New Renaissance". Archived from the original on January 19, 2012. 
  5. ^ a b Dawei (2014:53)
  6. ^ a b Dawei (2014:46)
  7. ^ a b c d e Taylor (2010:78–9)
  8. ^ a b c Dawei (2014:44)
  9. ^ a b Gorman (2012:201–2)
  10. ^ Burr (2007:36–8)
  11. ^ a b Seed (Spring 2005)
  12. ^ Foung (2002:91)
  13. ^ a b Experiencing Globalization: Religion in Contemporary Contexts. Derrick M. Nault, Bei Dawei, Evangelos Voulgarakis, Rab Paterson, Cesar Andres-Miguel Suva (eds). Anthem Press. 2014. p. 12.
  14. ^ a b Frank, Adam. "Is Civilization a Bad Idea?" NPR, 2011.
  15. ^ Dawei (2014:49)
  16. ^ a b Burr (2007:24–5)
  17. ^ "Q and A #83". Ishmael.org. Ishmael.org. Retrieved 2010-10-06. 
  18. ^ Dawei (2014:45)
  19. ^ Godesky, Jason (2005). "Thesis #4: Human population is a function of food supply." The Anthropik Network. Rewild.info.
  20. ^ "Q and A #23". Ishmael.org. 2013. Archived from the original on October 16, 2013. 
  21. ^ "Q and A #767". Ishmael.org. 2013. Archived from the original on October 16, 2013. 
  22. ^ a b Dawei (2014:52)
  23. ^ Rehling, Petra (2012) "Enemy metaphors and the countdown for mankind in the American TV series Space: Above and Beyond (1995-1996) and Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009),” in Jordan J. Copeland (ed.), The Projected and Prophetic: Humanity in Cyberculture, Cyberspace and Science Fiction. Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, 145-152; PDF version: p. 7.
  24. ^ Zellen, Barry (2008), Breaking the Ice. From Land Claims to Tribal Sovereignty in the Arctic, Lexington Books, 2008, p. 331
  25. ^ Burr (2007:24–5)
  26. ^ Foung (2002:94)
  27. ^ Burr (2007:33–4)
  28. ^ Burr (2007:48)
  29. ^ Dawei (2014:55)
  30. ^ Burr (2007:30–1)
  31. ^ Day, Lori. "Republicans and the Parable of the Boiling Frog." TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc., 2013.
  32. ^ Anderson, Stacey. "Do the Evolution: 5 Insights From Ovation's Pearl Jam Doc." Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, 2014.
  33. ^ Hart, Craig. Climate Change and the Private Sector. Routledge, 2013. p. 174.
  34. ^ "Interview: Morgan Freeman on Narrating Born to be Wild". Coming Soon. CRAVEONLINE MEDIA, LLC, 2011.
  35. ^ Triplett, Gene. "Morgan Freeman narrates new documentary on dwindling lemur population." News OK. News OK (The Oklahoman), 2014.

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