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I recall a dinner conversation at a symposium in Paris that I organized in 2010, where a number of eminent evolutionary biologists, economists and philosophers were present. One of the economists asked the biologists why it was that whenever the topic of “group selection” was brought up, a ferocious argument always seemed to ensue. The biologists pondered the question. Three hours later the conversation was still stuck on group selection, and a ferocious argument was underway.
Group selection refers to the idea that natural selection sometimes acts on whole groups of organisms, favoring some groups over others, leading to the evolution of traits that are group-advantageous. This contrasts with the traditional ‘individualist’ view which holds that Darwinian selection usually occurs at the individual level, favoring some individual organisms over others, and leading to the evolution of traits that benefit individuals themselves. Thus, for example, the polar bear’s white coat is an adaptation that evolved to benefit individual polar bears, not the groups to which they belong.
The debate over group selection has raged for a long time in biology. Darwin himself primarily invoked selection at the individual level, for he was convinced that most features of the plants and animals he studied had evolved to benefit the individual plant or animal. But he did briefly toy with group selection in his discussion of social insect colonies, which often function as highly cohesive units, and also in his discussion of how self-sacrificial (‘altruistic’) behaviours might have evolved in early hominids.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the group selection hypothesis was heavily critiqued by authors such as G.C. Williams, John Maynard Smith, and Richard Dawkins. They argued that group selection was an inherently weak evolutionary mechanism, and not needed to explain the data anyway. Examples of altruism, in which an individual performs an action that is costly to itself but benefits others (e.g. fighting an intruder), are better explained by kin selection, they argued. Kin selection arises because relatives share genes. A gene which causes an individual to behave altruistically towards its relatives will often be favoured by natural selection—since these relatives have a better than random chance of also carrying the gene. This simple piece of logic tallies with the fact that empirically, altruistic behaviours in nature tend to be kin-directed.
Strangely, the group selection controversy seems to re-emerge anew every generation. Most recently, Harvard’s E.O. Wilson, the “father of sociobiology” and a world-expert on ant colonies, has argued that “multi-level selection”—essentially a modern version of group selection—is the best way to understand social evolution. In his earlier work, Wilson was a staunch defender of kin selection, but no longer; he has recently penned sharp critiques of the reigning kin selection orthodoxy, both alone and in a 2010 Nature article co-authored with Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita. Wilson’s volte-face has led him to clash swords with Richard Dawkins, who says that Wilson is “just wrong” about kin selection and that his most recent book contains “pervasive theoretical errors.” Both parties point to eminent scientists who support their view.
What explains the persistence of the controversy over group and kin selection? Usually in science, one expects to see controversies resolved by the accumulation of empirical data. That is how the “scientific method” is meant to work, and often does. But the group selection controversy does not seem amenable to a straightforward empirical resolution; indeed, it is unclear whether there are any empirical disagreements at all between the opposing parties. Partly for this reason, the controversy has sometimes been dismissed as “semantic,” but this is too quick. There have been semantic disagreements, in particular over what constitutes a “group,” but this is not the whole story. For underlying the debate are deep issues to do with causality, a notoriously problematic concept, and one which quickly lands one in philosophical hot water.
All parties agree that differential group success is common in nature. Dawkins uses the example of red squirrels being outcompeted by grey squirrels. However, as he intuitively notes, this is not a case of genuine group selection, as the success of one group and the decline of another was a side-effect of individual level selection. More generally, there may be a correlation between some group feature and the group’s biological success (or “fitness”); but like any correlation, this need not mean that the former has a direct causal impact on the latter. But how are we to distinguish, even in theory, between cases where the group feature does causally influence the group’s success, so “real” group selection occurs, and cases where the correlation between group feature and group success is “caused from below”? This distinction is crucial; however it cannot even be expressed in terms of the standard formalisms that biologists use to describe the evolutionary process, as these are statistical not causal. The distinction is related to the more general question of how to understand causality in hierarchical systems that has long troubled philosophers of science.
Recently, a number of authors have argued that the opposition between kin and multi-level (or group) selection is misconceived, on the grounds that the two are actually equivalent—a suggestion first broached by W.D. Hamilton as early as 1975. Proponents of this view argue that kin and multi-level selection are simply alternative mathematical frameworks for describing a single evolutionary process, so the choice between them is one of convention not empirical fact. This view has much to recommend it, and offers a potential way out of the Wilson/Dawkins impasse (for it implies that they are both wrong). However, the equivalence in question is a formal equivalence only. A correct expression for evolutionary change can usually be derived using either the kin or multi-level selection frameworks, but it does not follow that they constitute equally good causal descriptions of the evolutionary process.
This suggests that the persistence of the group selection controversy can in part be attributed to the mismatch between the scientific explanations that evolutionary biologists want to give, which are causal, and the formalisms they use to describe evolution, which are usually statistical. To make progress, it is essential to attend carefully to the subtleties of the relation between statistics and causality.
The New Atheists – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Dan Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens – are not particularly comfortable people. The fallacies in their arguments beg to be used in classes on informal reasoning. The narrowness of their perspectives are remarkable even by the standards of modern academia. The prejudices against those of other cultures would be breathtaking even in the era when Britannia ruled the waves. But there is a moral fervor unknown outside the pages of the Old Testament. And for this, we can forgive much.
Atheism is not just a matter of the facts – does God exist or not? It is as much, if not more, a moral matter. Does one have the right to believe in the existence of God? If one does, what does this mean morally and socially? If one does not, what does this mean morally and socially?
Now you might say that there has to be something wrong here. Does one have the right to believe that 2+2=4? Does one have the right to believe that the moon is made of green cheese? Does one have the right to believe that theft is always wrong? Belief or non-belief in matters such as these is not a moral issue. Even though it may be that how you decide is a moral issue or something with moral implications. How should one discriminate between a mother stealing for her children and a professional burglar after diamonds that he will at once pass on to a fence?
But the God question is rather different, because, say what you like, it is nigh impossible to be absolutely certain one way or the other. Even Richard Dawkins admits that although he is ninety-nine point many nines certain that there is no god, to quote one of the best lines of that I-hope-not-entirely-forgotten review, Beyond the Fringe, there is always that little bit in the bottom that you cannot get out. There could be some kind of deity of a totally unimaginable kind. As the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane used to say: “My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
So in some ultimate sense the God question is up for grabs, and how you decide is a moral issue. As the nineteenth-century English philosopher, William Kingdom Clifford, used to say, you should not believe anything except on good evidence. But the problem here is precisely what is good evidence – faith, empirical facts, arguments, or what? Decent, thoughtful people differ over these and before long it is no longer a simple matter of true or false, but of what you believe and why; whether you should or should not believe on this basis; and what are going to be the implications of your beliefs, not only on your own life and behavior but also on the lives and behaviors of other people.
If you go back to Ancient Greece, you find that above all it is the moral and social implications of non-belief that worried people like Plato. In the Laws, indeed, he prescribed truly horrendous restrictions on those who failed to fall in line – and this from a man who himself had very iffy views about the traditional Greek views on the gods and their shenanigans. You are going to be locked up for the rest of your life and receive your food only at the hands of slaves and when you die you are going to be chucked out, unburied, beyond the boundaries of the state.
Not that this stopped people from bringing up a host of arguments against God and gods, whether or not they thought that there truly is nothing beyond this world. Folk felt it their duty to show the implausibility of god-belief, however uncomfortable the consequences. And this moral fervor, either in favor or against the existence of a god or gods, continues right down through the ages to the present. Before Dawkins, in England in the twentieth century the most famous atheist was the philosopher Bertrand Russell. His moral indignation against Christianity in particular – How dare a bunch of old men in skirts dictate the lives of the rest of us? — shines out from every page. And so it is to the present. No doubt, as he intended, many were shocked when, on being asked in Ireland about sexual abuse by priests, Richard Dawkins said that he thought an even greater abuse was bringing a child up Catholic in the first place. He is far from the first to think in this particular way.
Believers think they have found the truth and the way. Non-believers are a lot less sure. What joins even – especially – the most ardent of partisans is the belief that this is not simply a matter of true and false. It is a matter of right and wrong. Abortion, gay marriage, civil rights – all of these thorny issues and more are moral and social issues at the heart of our lives and what you believe about God is going to influence how you decide. Atheism, for or against, matters morally.
Featured image credit: “Sky clouds” by 12345danNL. CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Writing huts! We all have them. And by “all” I mean “Laurie Halse Anderson”. But famous authors of the past also have had magnificent writing huts and one of them belonged to Roald Dahl. Now Dahl’s granddaughter Sophie is leading a fund-raiser to restore and relocate the hut. I would think she need only appeal to Wes Anderson for her needs. He’s a Dahl hut fan, this I know. Thanks to Playing By the Book for the link.
So this past Saturday was the Kidlitosphere Conference. Due to my maternity leave I was unable to attend but I did at least present via Skype a panel alongside Mary Ann Scheuer of Great Kid Books and Paula Wiley of Pink Me about children’s book apps. To begin, we showed this video for The Three Little Pigs, a pop-up version based on the book by Leslie Brooke. It is one of the smarter app trailers out there, and possibly my favorite.
Big time thanks to Paula Wiley for the link!
Speaking of trailers, I was a big fan of last year’s Blexbolex book Seasons. Here’s a trailer for the newest title by the Frenchman, People. I love the connections made between the images.
Recently Jules at 7-Imp wrote a fabulous post on Jack Gantos and his ambassadorial possibilities. Jack Gantos is a charming fellow, and well worth the price if you can ever hear him speak. Case in point, he recently presented at the Center for Children’s & Young Adult Literature (CCYAL) at the University of Tennessee’s first annual Focus on Children’s Literature Conference on April 2, 2011. Here’s a taste of what he was offering:
So. Richard Dawkins wrote a book for kids. Were you aware of this? Nor I. But here’s a trailer for it and everything. The art was by none other than Dave McKean (The Wolves in the Walls, etc.). The jury is out. Has anyone seen this?
SLJ represent! Though I could not attend this year’s KidLitCon (the annual conference of children’s and YA bloggers) many others did and they have all posted links to their recaps of the event here. So while I could not be present, fellow SLJ blogger Liz Burns of Tea Cozy showed up and has a fabulous encapsulation of that which went on. Lest you label me a lazy lou, I did at least participate in a presentation on apps. Yes, doing my best Max Headroom imitation (ask you parents, kids) I joined Mary Ann Scheuer and pink haired Paula Wiley. It went, oddly enough, off without a hitch. Attendees may have noticed my gigantic floating head (we Skyped) would occasionally dip down so that I seemed to be doing my best Kilroy imitation. This was because the talk happened during my lunch and I wanted to nosh on some surreptitious grapes as it occurred. You may read Mary Ann’s recap here and Paula’s here, lest you fail to believe a single word I say.
Speaking of Penderwicks, the discussions fly fast and fierce over at Heavy Medal. To my infinite delight, both Jonathan AND Nina are Penderwick fans. Wow! For the record, I agree with their thoughts on Amelia Lost as well. That book has a better chance at something Newberyish than any other nonfiction this year. This could well be The Year of Amelias (Jenni Holm has an Amelia book of her own, after all).
Heads up, America! According to an article in The Guardian, “The debt-laden businesses behind some of the biggest names in childrens’ TV and books are selling off some of the nation’s best-loved characters.” Personally, I figure the Brits can keep their Peppa Pig. It’s Bagpuss I want. Or The Clangers. I grew up watching Pinwheel on Nickelodeon so I’ve an affection for these. Any word on the current state of King Rollo?
Aw yeah. Authors talking smack about authors. Granted it’s living authors talking about dead authors (dead authors talking about living authors is a different ballgame entirely) but it’ll stand. Two dude who write for kids break down J.M. Barrie, The Yearling, etc. and then end with unanimous praise for what I may consider the world’s most perfect children’s book. Go check ‘em out.
In this ambitious book, richly and imaginatively illustrated throughout by Dave McKean, Dawkins sets himself the task of answering some of the really big question of life, exactly the sort of questions you hear from the mouths of children including “Are we alone?” and “Why do bad things happen?”
Over the course of 12 chapters Dawkins tackles these questions head on, also exploring key aspects of space, time and evolution along the way. He begins almost every chapter with examples of myths (from all over the world, from all different sorts of traditions) about the topic in question before moving on to explore the scientific explanation for the phenomenon under discussion.
This video gives a great summary of the book from Dawkins himself:
The Magic of Reality is no dry academic tract. Rather Dawkins takes on the role (almost) of intimate storyteller. He adopts an informal, colloquial manner focusing throughout the book on showing us what he calls the “poetic magic” of science, that which is “deeply moving, exhilarating: something that gives us goose bumps, something that makes us feel more alive.”
Dawkins’ friendly tone and his inclusion of stories about rainbows, earthquakes and the seasons make The Magic of Reality an eminently readable book, especially for readers with no or little background knowledge. There’s a lot of the pace, suspense and beauty you might associate with a great novel in Dawkins’ book. Indeed, Dawkins really seems to me to be trying to tell a story (albeit a true one) rather than simply sharing and contextualising a lot of scientific facts.
Perhaps a conscious decision to make the book read like a story is behind the decision not to include any footnotes, suggested further reading or bibliography. This I found frustrating; Dawkins’ succeeded in getting me curious, getting me asking questions about the issues he discusses, and although I would have liked to know more, he doesn’t provide any suggestion for where to go next. That said, the lack of references does help the book flow and feel quite unlike a hard hitting science book (though that is exactly what it is).
As a result of reading The Magic of Reality I got out our prisms and made rainbows with M and J - for them it really was magic to see the colours appear "from nowhere"
Dawkins’ storytelling approach also means that The Magic
"I think it's rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism".
Now I took issue with Professor Dawkins (aka 'The Frog') on this very subject back in 2008, with a piece called 'Long Live the Fairytale', and I still stand by the words I wrote.
To be honest, I'm just a bit fed up with having to get up and shout against this sort of thing, so I'm not going to go into a long and involved rant here. Luckily for me, there are many other people who can do that far better and more articulately - Non Pratt (on reading YA) last week, and Philip Pullman (on Fairytales) back in 2011 - to name just two.
From a personal point of view, I am what might be called an omnivorous reader. Last week it was Jennifer Worth's accounts of midwifery in 1950's London, before that Jung Chang's fascinating biography of the Dowager Empress Cixi, as well as some excellent UKYA by Tanya Landman and Claire McFall - one a historical novel about the American Civil War and the other an almost literally heart-stopping thriller. I read letters, I read diaries (because I'm damned nosy). I read literary novels, I read crap detective stories. I read erotica and travel, politics, the classics and deep, dusty tomes on mythology, ancient religions and shamanism, picture books, chapter books and middle-grade fiction. Even the backs of cereal packets if I'm really desperate (I recommend Rude Health ones).
I write all sorts of different stuff too - from very young picture books about grubby pirates and tree-snipping bears through retellings of old myth and folklore to novels about fairy folk, dragons and ancient queens.
The point I'm trying to make here is that I'm not ashamed of any of it. Not the reading, not the writing - and why the hell would anyone think they have the right to tell me I should be? I LIKE reading YA. It gives me a different sort of reading pleasure to, say, Austen or Tolstoy or Zadie Smith or Donna Tartt or Malcolm Gladwell - but I happen to think that's ok.
Same goes for the writing. I LIKE making weird and fantastical stories up for kids of all ages (including ones about fairies and gods). From the fan-mail I get, and the interactions I have with kids in the schools I visit, I think my readers appreciate it too. In my opinion, fairytales and fantasy feed the mind, they don't corrupt it, and I still don't think Mr Dawkins gives children enough credit for intelligence. What I said back in 2008 is as relevant to me today as it was then, so I'll leave you with this thought:
"A child’s mind is absolutely capable of containing many ‘once upon a times’ and evidential scientific formulae all at the same time—and what’s more, distinguishing entirely successfully between the two without any harmful effects whatsoever."
Stick that where the sun don't shine, Professor. Thanks all the same, but I'd rather listen to Einstein.
Richard Dawkins is the bestselling author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. He’s also a pre-eminent scientist, the first holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford, and is a fellow of New College, Oxford. Called “Darwin’s Rottweiler” by the media, he is one of the most famous advocates of Darwinian evolution. His most recent book is The Oxford Guide to Modern Science Writing, a collection of the best science writing in the last century.
DORIAN DEVINS: Alan Turing, another British scientist, computer mathematician…
RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes. Alan Turing. Well, one of the fathers of the modern computer. So Turing was, I suppose, the nearest British approach to the father of the modern computer, apart from [Charles] Babbage in the 19th Century. Turing was the leading code-breaker in the Second World War at the Bletchley Park code-breaking establishment, which was phenomenally successful in breaking German codes. The famous Enigma code that the Germans used—the Germans never realized that their Enigma code had been broken. And the result of breaking the Enigma code was that Allied British and American generals would sometimes get German orders more or less at the same time as German generals were getting them. So it was a most extraordinarily valuable contribution to the Allied war effort. However, Turing committed suicide after the war because he was arrested for homosexual activity, and in those days in Britain, homosexual behavior was illegal. And Turing, who should have been given a medal and a knighthood, feted as the savior of his nation, was instead arrested for homosexuality and was given a choice between a two year prison sentence or being given a course of hormone injections which would have had some kind of feminizing effect and would have made him grow breasts. He chose instead to eat an apple that he’d injected with cyanide. One of the most tragic stories in British science. He was a great mathematician, a brilliant mathematician, a brilliant philosopher, and one of his contributions was the Turing Machine. Another one was the Turing Test, the hypothetical test for whether a computer could think; the so-called Turing Test, where you have a human in one room and an entity, which might be a computer and might be another human in another room, communicating by teleprinter. And the task of the real human, the subject, is to discover whether what he’s talking to is a computer or another human. The Turing Test, if the computer passes the Turing Test, what it means is that a human can’t tell the difference between the computer and another human. And the Turing Test you very often find mentioned in philosophical works about the nature of consciousness and machine intelligence.
DEVINS: It’s quite interesting to be able to read something by him, rather than just about him too.
DAWKINS: Yes. He was a real eccentric, a very, very strange man, and as I say, his downfall and his death is one of the most tragic and actually wicked stories that I know.
This is the fourth in our series of podcasts. Dawkins has talked about a wide range of scientists before, and now he introduces us to Fred Hoyle, one of the astronomers who originally proposed the steady state theory of the universe. The steady state theory may have been disproved, but Hoyle’s contributions to science–and science fiction–still remain.
Transcript after the jump. DORIAN DEVINS: Outside of the realm of biology, you have a lot of physicists and mathematicians as well, and it struck me that you have Fred Hoyle in here—a lot of people may not be familiar with Fred Hoyle.
RICHARD DAWKINS: Yes, Fred Hoyle was an English astronomer, astrophysicist. He was one of the three physicists who proposed the steady state theory of the universe, which is now out of fashion. Indeed, it’s almost certainly wrong, disproved by the evidence. But it was a very, very interesting theory. According to the steady state theory, there never was a beginning to the universe. The universe has always been in existence; and the expanding universe, the galaxies pulling apart, that is true, but the gaps between the galaxies get filled with spontaneously created new matter, so there are new galaxies being created in the gaps that are left as the other, older galaxies pull apart. Now, that theory is wrong, but it was never obviously silly. You might think “Well how on Earth can matter just spontaneously be created?” And Hoyle’s point was well that’s no more odd than the idea that it should be spontaneously created in the first place, at the time of the Big Bang. So it was an interesting theory; its now been disproved. He had another great claim to fame, which was that he worked out how the elements, the chemical elements, are formed in the interior of stars. We now know that in this case, Hoyle was absolutely right, that all the elements apart for hydrogen and helium I think, are made in the interior of stars. And we’re all made of star stuff, that was the poetic phrase that Carl Sagan used to quote. I think maybe he got it from Joni Mitchell or the other way around. But anyway, that all comes from Fred Hoyle. He was also a science fiction writer. His first science fiction book, The Black Cloud, is a wonderful story. I mean it’s just a feast, it’s just a riveting science fiction story marred by the fact that its hero is such a deeply unpleasant character. And all the heroes of Fred Hoyle’s science fiction books are the same deeply unpleasant character, you can’t help wondering where that unpleasant character came from.
Do we really need agnosticism nowadays? The inventor of the name ‘agnosticism’, the Victorian evolutionist Thomas Henry Huxley, certainly found it useful to have a word describing his lack of certainty when he was surrounded by those who seemed to have no such doubt. But then he lived in a period of transition. Science, and in particular biology, appeared to undermine old certainties. On the one hand, churchmen were promoting the importance of unshakeable faith. On the other, there were philosophers advocating a materialist and anti-religious outlook. Huxley felt he couldn’t identify with either side. If the Gnostics were those who claimed to have access to a special route to religious knowledge, then Huxley would be an a-gnostic, one who does not profess to know. But perhaps agnosticism served only as a temporary stopping point en route to a more satisfactory position, a stepping stone from faith to atheism.
For Richard Dawkins, a scientist, writer and today’s perhaps most vocal atheist, we have already crossed that river. It was perhaps reasonable to be an agnostic in Huxley’s time, when it was not yet clear how science could answer some of the awkward questions posed by believers: How, if there is no divine designer, could intelligence have developed? What is the source of our moral conscience? Why was the universe so congenial to the emergence of life? Now we have some detailed answers, the idea of God is de trop. And so too is agnosticism, apparently.
What is Dawkins’ thinking here? First, the agnostic’s point that we can’t know whether or not God does not exist, is not a very interesting one. There are lots of things we don’t know for sure. We don’t know that Mars isn’t populated by fairies. Of course, we are not remotely inclined to believe that it is, but still we don’t have conclusive proof. Nevertheless, we don’t describe ourselves as agnostics about Martian fairies. Similarly, atheists can admit that they don’t have conclusive proof of God’s non-existence.
Second, not having conclusive proof does not make God’s existence just as probable as his non-existence. Moving from ‘not certain’ to ‘50/50 chance either way’ is what we might call the agnostic fallacy.
Third, a necessary feature of God makes his existence highly improbable, namely his complexity. Of course, the world itself is complex – unimaginably so – but then science has an explanation of this complexity in terms of a series of gradual evolutionary steps from simpler states. In contrast there is no evolutionary account of God’s complexity: his nature is supposed to be eternal. And that there should just exist such complexity, with no explanation, is highly improbable.
That’s a very plausible line of thought. The conclusion is that, unless you think you have overwhelming evidence for God, the rational thing is to be an atheist. But it rests on a questionable assumption. There is still room for an interesting form of agnosticism. Take a look at the third point above: that God must be complex, and so improbable. It is a part of traditional theology that God is in fact simple. Dawkins finds this incredible: how can something responsible for the creation of the world, and who has perfect knowledge of it, be less complex than that creation? There are, however, different kinds of complexity. A language is complex in one sense, in that it contains a virtually limitless range of possible expressions. But those expressions are generated from a finite number of letters, and a finite number of rules concerning the construction of sentences. A language may be complex in its variety but (relatively) simple with respect to the components and principles that give rise to that complexity. When the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz opined that God had created ‘the best of all possible worlds’, his
What do scientists say about the “soul”? How does Richard Dawkins answer the question “why are we here?” In Part 2 of this series on religion, Steve Paulson (of NPR fame) reflects on the biggest questions in the ongoing science vs. religion debate. Part 1 can be found here.
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