Ishmael’s Takers and Leavers and the forager vs farmer hypothesis

The literary work that is closest to my forager vs farmer hypothesis is Ishmael, a 1992 philosophical novel by Daniel Quinn. A captive gorilla who has learned to communicate with people teaches the narrator about human Takers and leavers, with the former being represented by farmers and the latter by foragers:

The Leavers were chapter one of human history-a long and uneventful chapter. Their chapter of human history ended about ten thousand years ago with the birth of agriculture in the Near East. This event marked the beginning of chapter two, the chapter of the Takers. It’s true there are still Leavers living in the world, but these are anachronisms, fossils-people living in the past, people who just don’t realize that their chapter of human history is over.

Ishmael declares that the distinction is one of cultural narrative (myth) with the takers having a different culture than the leavers. They believe:

  • Humans are the pinnacle of evolution.
  • The world was made for humans, and humans are thus destined to conquer and rule the world.
  • This conquest is meant to bring about a paradise, as humans increase their mastery over-controlling nature.
  • However, humans are always failing in this conquest because they are flawed beings, who are unable to ever obtain the knowledge of how to live best.
  • Therefore, however hard humans labor to save the world, they are just going to go on defiling and destroying it.
  • Even so, civilization-the great human project of trying to control the whole world-must continue, or else humans will go extinct.

Their whole economy is based on growth:

That’s what the Takers have been doing-and are still doing. That’s what their agricultural system is designed to support: not just settlement-growth. Unlimited growth

The takers, in contrast to every other living thing (including human foragers), take more than their fair share of nature and by doing so continuously destroy whole ecosystems. This story of forager sustainability and farmer unsustainability is hardly an exaggeration. James Suzman write in Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots (2020):

Genomic data suggests that through much of their history ancient African forager populations were characterized by a surprising level of demographic stability. This in turn implies that they lived very sustainably. Indeed, it suggests that if the measure of a civilization’s success is its endurance over time, then the direct ancestors of southern Africa’s Khoisan are the most successful civilization in human history-by a considerable margin. Genetic diversity in Africa as a whole is much higher than anywhere else in the world, and the genetic diversity of the now tiny 100,000-strong population of Khoisan is higher than that of any other regionally established population anywhere in the world.

Even the longest-lasting empires in history, Byzantine and Rome pale in comparison to the millennia of sustainable living of the Khoisan.

Daniel Quinn’s narrative and mine diverge in two points. Quinn inconsistently names pastoralists (a third “tribe’’) as Leavers too as he thinks they live more sustainably than farmers. Ishamael assumes (correctly IMHO) that the story Adam and Eve was written by a Leaver. The story depicts the advent of agriculture as a fall from paradise and not as a gift of the Gods (from the point of view of Takers). However, he then goes on to misattribute the authorship to a pastoralist tribe, the Semitic herder ancestors of the Hebrews. The evidence he provides is that Cain (farmer) killed his brother Abel (pastoralist). However, the historic evidence points very much in the other direction, farmers being the victims of herders.

The second, more important point of divergence: Ishmael portrays the differences between Takers and Leavers as a cultural one, whereas I have argued that it’s very much a genetic one involving genes related to the serotonin and dopamine receptors. The story of Adam and Eve was very likely ideated by a Leaver/forager type, who was the progeny of foragers (slaves or foragers who turned into laborers not finding enough food).

Can we find any evidence of such forager types in our society? Well, I would argue that most people who are fascinated by Quinn’s novel are such forager types. There is even a hint of such people in the novel itself:

In such places (he went on at last), where animals are simply penned up, they are almost always more thoughtful than their cousins in the wild. This is because even the dimmest of them cannot help but sense that something is very wrong with this style of living.

There are humans who behave very similarly to animals in capacity: philosophers, scientists, novelists and others who spend a considerable amount of their time thinking. Thinking because the environment they live in (a farmer world) is not the environment their minds were programmed for (a forager world). A traditional dichotomy divides people into doers and thinkers, or sensors and intuitives in Jungian psychology. This comes very close to Takers (farmer and herder types who act in accordance with their evolutionary programming) and Leavers (forager types who often hesitate and need time for thinking as their programming is off). When I tell such people that they are evolutionary forager types they are highly skeptical, arguing that they wouldn’t have survived as foragers (too scatterbrained, too fearful, etc.) However, that is exactly what we often see with animals in captivity, they become neurotic, show weird behaviour and often even refuse to breed. So many forager type women have told me that they never felt the wish to have children or would even find it irresponsible to have children in a world like ours.

Yes, sadly the Leavers are leaving (becoming fewer and fewer) this planet. It’s not only sad for forager types, but also for humankind in general. It has been precisely the Leavers/forager types who have been trying to make a farmer world sustainable since almost the beginning of farming. This farmer world has been starting to crack, making the lack of Leavers visible. Those who are still fighting as environmental activists are often ridiculed. And yes, Greta Thunberg is one of those Leavers.

Originally published at on September 11, 2021.