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Humanity's Next Great Adventure

Written by Daniel QuinnAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Daniel Quinn


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: February 04, 2009
Pages: 208 | ISBN: 978-0-307-55464-2
Published by : Broadway Books Crown/Archetype
Beyond Civilization Cover

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In Beyond Civilization, Daniel Quinn thinks the unthinkable. We all know there's no one right way to build a bicycle, no one right way to design an automobile, no one right way to make a pair of shoes, but we're convinced that there must be only one right way to live -- and the one we have is it, no matter what.

Beyond Civilization makes practical sense of the vision of Daniel Quinn's best-selling novel Ishmael. Examining ancient civilizations such as the Maya and the Olmec, as well as modern-day microcosms of alternative living like circus societies, Quinn guides us on a quest for a new model for society, one that is forward-thinking and encourages diversity instead of suppressing it. Beyond Civilization is not about a "New World Order" but a "New Personal World Order" that would allow people to assert control over their own destiny and grant them the freedom to create their own way of life right now -- not in some distant utopian future.


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.
Daniel Quinn

About Daniel Quinn

Daniel Quinn - Beyond Civilization
Daniel Quinn's first book, Ishmael, won the Turner Tomorrow Fellowship, a prize for fiction presenting creative and positive solutions to global problems. He is also the author of Providence, The Story of B, and My Ishmael.


"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
About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Guide

One of our fundamental cultural beliefs is this, that civilization must continue at any cost and must not be abandoned under any circumstances. Implicit in this belief is another: that civilization is humanity's ultimate invention and can never be surpassed.

Both of these beliefs exemplify the cultural fallacy that one's beliefs are not merely expressions of one's culture but are intrinsic to the human mind. The effect of this fallacy is that it's almost impossible for the people of our culture to entertain the idea that there could be any invention beyond civilization. Civilization is the end, the very last and unsurpassable human social development.

Quinn's book challenges these beliefs and leads the way into new territory beyond civilization. This territory isn't a geographical space (is not, for example, somewhere you go and start a commune). It's an unexplored cultural, social, and economic space "on the other side" of civilization's hierarchical organization. The journey to this new territory doesn't represent a way to overturn civilization's hierarchy but rather a way to leave it behind. It's an escape route to a future where ordinary people can reclaim dignity, joy, equality, and self-reliance. The escape route is hidden, of course, or it would have been found before now. As Quinn shows, it's hidden where all the greatest
secrets are hidden -- in plain sight.

About the Author

Daniel Quinn is the award-winning author of Ishmael, The Story of B, and My Ishmael. He lives in Houston, Texas. Quinn's writing life, spanning more than 40 years, has been an inspiration to aspiring writers everywhere. Before beginning work on the book that would ultimately make him famous, he wrote advertising copy, scripts for audio and filmstrip productions, math and science textbooks, encyclopedia articles, short stories, and children's books. Focus and success came late. He was 56 when he won the half-million-dollar Turner Tomorrow Fellowship for his novel Ishmael, a book which itself has had an extraordinary career. Originally thought to have little future, it slowly gained popularity among readers after its publication in 1992, finding its way into four editions, dozens of printings, twenty languages, and hundreds of classrooms all over North America, from mid-school to graduate school, where it continues to be used in courses as varied as history, geography, biology, economics, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, religion, and literature. Quinn was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, studied at St. Louis University, the University of Vienna, and Loyola of Chicago. After more than two decades in Chicago, one in New Mexico, and one in Austin, Texas, he and his wife, Rennie, now live in Houston, where he's finishing a new novel.

Discussion Guides

1. What does Quinn gain by starting with a fable? What effect did reading this fable have on you? The fable is a mixture of realistic elements and fabulous elements. Which are which? What events and stages in our cultural development correspond to the events of the fable? How do you think the leaders of our society would respond to the challenge posed by the masses in this fable?

2. Do you agree that "there's nothing the people of our culture want more than change"?

3. According to Quinn old minds think "How do we stop these bad things from happening?" while new minds think "How do we make things the way we want them to be?" What difference do you see between "stopping bad things" and "making things the way we want them to be"?

4. Choose for discussion an example of some bad thing (for example, school shootings like the Columbine High School tragedy). Consider various ways the bad thing might be stopped. Then consider instead how you'd like things to be and how you might go about making them that way. Which way of discussing the matter seems more productive?

5. The term "manifest destiny" was coined by historian John Louis O'Sullivan, who wrote: "The expansive future is our arena. We are entering on its untrodden space with the truth of God in our minds, beneficent objects in our hearts, and with a clear conscience unsullied by the past. We are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits on our onward march?" Discuss these ideas in the terms presented in "Conspicuous success, invisible source" on page 13.

6. Put together a list of memes (for example, relating to success) that you grew up with. How do these memes compare with the ones your parents grew up with and the ones your children are growing up with? What memes relevant to family life were reinforced by television fare in the fifties? How do these compare to memes being reinforced by television fare in the nineties?

7. A well-known folk song announces that "This land is your land, this land is my land...this land was made for you and me." Has your reading of these "patriotic" sentiments been colored by the ideas expressed "Holy work" on page 50?

8. In "Pyramid builders," on page 51, Quinn cites his impressions of how today's young people feel about the prospect of entering the world of work. Do your impressions agree with his? When you were in school, how did you feel about the world of work?

9. Is it fair to compare the building of a company like Bill Gates's Microsoft to the building of Khufu's pyramid? How are the ventures similar? Different?

10. Did such a thing as running off to join the circus ever cross your mind when you were young? If so, can you remember and describe what the attraction was for you?

11. Quinn describes three ways the people of our culture have traditionally dealt with their place within the hierarchy. They've justified it as karmic (as something they deserve); they've transcended it by looking for justice in a better existence after death; and they've worked to overturn it by revolution. What are your own strategies for dealing with the discontents of the hierarchical life (if you experience any)?

12. On page 82, Quinn describes tribal life as "the gift of natural selection to humanity." We usually think of natural selection as a process that in some way weeds out unsuccessful traits. How does this process end up bestowing "gifts"? What are some other "gifts" that have been bestowed on humanity or other species by natural selection?

13. How do you think you'd like living in a system like that of the Natchez?

14. Quinn says that in Houston he and his wife have upped their standard of living tenfold over the one they enjoyed in Madrid, but adds that what has not been upped is their "overall feeling of contentment and well-being." Most of us experience changes in standards of living in the course of our lives. Discuss the effect such experiences have had on you.

15. Quinn says he wasn't surprised to hear from many youngsters who feel "just like Jeffrey." Are there any such in your own personal experience?

16. Quinn characterizes our "overriding response to failure" as: If it didn't work last year, do it AGAIN this year (and if possible do it MORE). What didn't work last year in our "war against crime" or in our effort to "fix the schools," is exactly what we'll do this year, predictably spending MORE on it. Can you give any examples of this from your own sphere of experience -- at work, for example?

17. As you began to read Quinn's proposals aimed at "helping the homeless succeed while being homeless," what were your initial responses? Did these responses change or remain the same as you read on?

18. Do you think Quinn makes a realistic assessment of the likely "objections" to his proposals for the homeless (page 135)?

19. Among Quinn's examples of modern-day, non-ethnic tribes is that of team of con-artists. Do you think this example was chosen to make some subtle moral point about tribalism?

20. Have you encountered any businesses that operate in a tribal way?

21. In his discussion of the Columbine massacre, does it seem to you that Quinn is offering an excuse for killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold?

22. Back in the 1960's Timothy Leary set off an explosion of "flower power" with this famous formula: "Tune in, turn on, drop out." In deliberate juxtaposition to this formula, Quinn has elsewhere articulated the formula presented in this book as: "Walk away, go tribal, think incremental." Leary's formula led to a dead end. Is Quinn's more promising?

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