I write to you as an atheist, a man of little means and one who has found great inspiration in your books. I have been inspired, or at least what I once would have called inspired, though I must say, on second reading of The God Delusion, I have come to a realization.
I am not inspired; it is simply that my consciousness has been raised.
I follow in the footsteps of Douglas Adams, and I find his words to ring with a truth that should be sung from the mountain tops. “I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.” Though I hold no expertise, no talent, as it were, in any way similar to his, it seems only that Adams’ and I are similar in our veneration of you and your work. But what a similarity it is to have been transformed from ignorance to awareness through an understanding of Darwinism, or as is popular among younger atheists, Dawkins-ism.
To spare you the tedium of my life story, suffice it to say that my upbringing was less than literary and more than somewhat religious. Through your books though, I have taken to self directed study of evolutionary biology, physics, cosmology, astronomy, memetics and natural history in general. I am, as mentioned earlier, a man of little means, and after a second reading your passage on the conversion of Douglas Adams, it seemed appropriate to thank you for doing so much to make the science of men like Darwin available to those who would otherwise not be able to afford formalized education on the subject.
I have you listed at the top of my favourite authors, above Hitchens, Brian Green and even Hawking, as I have read all but three of your older works (they are on my wish-list) and, I must say, I enjoyed every one to the last word. I have also endeavoured to become an author, though my expertise is somewhat lacking, even next to some of the titles in the New Age & Occult section of the book store.
To bring this letter to a place of relevance, I wanted to relay to you that I am troubled by Darwin’s statement that natural selection works only in the absence of man’s influence. I do not doubt the truth or accuracy of the statement; what troubles me is not the concept, but its implications. Mankind has the singular ability to remove himself from the march of natural selection. We can, and have for centuries, thwarted the natural cull of our species with medicine, engineering and even humanitarian aid. My concern, as yours, hides behind a veil of pragmatism, but in so doing remains ineffective in identify the problem publicly, and hence finding a solution, if there is one to be found.
I know, with certainty, that I am not the man to address these issues, and then I look around me. I see the state of literacy among my peers and colleagues (such as they are), and I see that relative intelligence has all but left my social circle, replaced by obsession with pseudo-events, and media coverage and popular distraction. I abhor the quoting of popular TV in lieu of the same from classic literature, and in the face of it I find myself defending the misunderstood words of classic intellects, a la Jefferson, Franklin, Huxley, Darwin and even the quintessential loud-mouth himself – Mark Twain.
When I think on this subject, questions swim through my head, incoherently. Many I could, with sufficient time and motive, answer myself. Some I fear have no answer. But one question has repeated for me time and again, and it is one I believe you can answer.
Do you see an evolutionary path ahead of mankind? In asking this question I realise fully the difficulty anyone, even one as you at the top of the field of evolutionary biology, would have in providing a meaningful answer. Evolution, or rather, Natural Selection has no will. It does not march on with a purpose and has no particular end in mind. Thus, anticipating that direction with any shadow of intelligence is said to be fruitless, and as others have suggested, a complete waste of time. I’m not nearly convinced however.
If it is not a useless endeavour to speculate on the possible form of extraterrestrial life, as has been done by Hawking, among others – extraterrestrial life of course, being entirely unknown, and, more to the point, at the mercy of selection pressures that are and will remain, entirely unknown. Would there not, at least, be some small value in doing the same for our own species? Could you not, given your expertise in the area of our past and present, make certain speculative predictions about our future? It seems to me, that the selection pressures we face are, or could be, largely identifiable, and with that information, one could – in theory – project a path or an array of paths that we might take, however unwittingly.
Though I do not remember reading an account, I am certain that you have been asked this question – or one like it – before. To take my query one step further, if I may presume to do so, I present that, among your many fans, I would greatly enjoy reading about such ideas in your next book.
If there were a purpose to this letter, aside from showering you with well deserved but otherwise meaningless flattery, it would be to ask for that incredible favour. Without knowing what literary work remains on your plate, I would ask that you consider turning your focus on the above. With your skill and your expertise, and your influence in matters of reason and logic and science, I presuppose that, while there are others who might write such a book, yours would be the one to read.
I realise that you receive many letters and correspondence, some not nearly flattering in any way, and while I would appreciate a reply, even from an assistant forwarding your contempt of the idea, I do also know that you are not able to respond to every letter. In any event, I wish you well in your work and look forward to completing the ‘Dawkins’ section of my own library, in due time.
Martin J. Clemens