Dear Mr Dawkins,
I am writing to you to thank you for the wonderful, exhilarating and inspiring lessons your books have taught me over the years. I’m not exactly a convert, as from a young age I was blessed with a balanced education from my parents (both medical doctors) and always aware that somehow the religious version of events did not quite add up, to say the least.
I wanted to hear your thoughts on a matter which I have not heard you discuss, namely a certain manifestation of the moral zeitgeist which you often talk about.
Last year I was lucky enough to go on safari in Botswana and South Africa. To stand in the open countryside and be gazing at an African elephant munching on a tree just a few yards away was about as an incredible and humbling experience as I could imagine – the ‘blind watchmaker’ was there in front of me, in all its glory. All of the wildlife I saw was mesmerisingly beautiful and I found myself thinking that there was a time, perhaps as recently as a hundred years ago, that people found it perfectly socially and morally acceptable to shoot and kill the animals I was standing there admiring. Looking at these animals in the natural habitat, I could not imagine why on earth the thought to kill these animals for sport would even enter anybody’s mind. But of course, at the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, the moral zeitgeist was quite different.
My point is this: I submit to you that the reason the moral zeitgeist as shifted with respect to the trophy hunting of, for example, ‘the big five’ in southern Africa is at least in some part due to the gradual and unstoppable acceptance of Darwin’s elegant theory. I do not think it a coincidence that as his theory of evolution became more and more widely accepted, not just by scientists but also by lay people, this particular way of thinking – of shooting wild animals for sport – became less and less morally acceptable.
Prior to Darwin opening our eyes to how the natural world came into being, I can only assume that the vast majority of people believed that man was put on earth by God and that somehow humans stood apart from and above all the other ‘lesser’ animals – we were not animals in the same sense, though of course we now know we are. By vast majority, I mean a greater majority than one that exists now – before Darwin came along there was simply no plausible explanation as to how the complex living world came into being.
Although I’ve nothing concrete to base this on really, it seems to follow that this religious way of thinking, that man ‘stood above’ the beasts, would deem it morally acceptable that one would shoot a wild animal for sport. It also seems to follow that as Darwin’s theory gradually became widely accepted, the moral zeitgeist shifted as a direct result. As most (sane) people now understand that we are as much part of evolution and the food chain as all the other millions of species, I’m sure that this has fundamentally changed the way we look at and respect the natural world around us. For this reason it seems, now we gaze in awe and admiration as we watch David Attenborough describe the realities of the natural world, and the general attitude in African countries is to cherish the rich resource they’ve been blessed with – as they realise that people will pay handsomely to come and see it flourish, whereas once they would pay handsomely to come and destroy it.
I was curious to hear your thoughts on the above, I’m sure you’ll be able to express what I am saying in a far more eloquent and convincing manner and will uncover many things I hadn’t even thought of.
Thank you once again for your wonderful books and continuing to inspire and excite my intellect.