This is point of inquiry for Friday, September 21st, 2007.
Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, which is a think tank that advances science and reason and secular values in public affairs. Before we move on to this week’s guest, Massimo Pihl Yuchi, to talk about his book, Making Sense of Evolution. Here’s a word from this week’s sponsor. Skeptical Inquirer magazine.
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I’m happy to have Mossimo Pill Yuchi on point of inquiry this week. He’s a professor of ecology and evolution at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and he’s a well-known, outspoken critic of creationism, of intelligent design and an advocate of the public understanding and appreciation of science. A recipient of the Duke Gansky Prize from the Society for the Study of Evolution, he’s been awarded three times the Oak Ridge National Laboratories Science Alliance Faculty Research Award. He’s a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, now called CSI. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. His scientific research focuses on Geno type environment interactions, on natural selection and on the constraints imposed on natural selection by the genetic and the developmental makeup of organisms. As a philosopher, he’s interested in epistemological issues and the philosophy of science and and in the conceptual examination of the basic ideas underlying evolution. He regularly writes for Skeptical Inquirer magazine and is the author of a number of books, including the Oxford University Press title Phenotypic Integration Also Denying Evolution, Creationism, Scientism and the Nature of Science and Phenotypic Plasticity. His most recent book, coauthored with Jonathan Kaplan, is Making Sense of Evolution. The Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Biology. Welcome to a point of Inquiry. Mossimo Pill Yujie.
My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.
Masimo first met you years ago. I think it was in Kansas City. You’re a longtime friend of the Center for Inquiries. You’re a population geneticists expert in public science understanding. I have a confession to make. In nearly 100 episodes of Point of Inquiry, we’ve really never had a single episode devoted just to evolutionary biology. We’ve talked. Shame on you. Well, you’re not the only one I’m hearing it from. We’ve talked to tons of people about creation, science, intelligent design, the social, maybe ethical implications of evolution or the scientific worldview. All kinds of other unrelated and interesting topics with interesting people, I think, but never one show about the conceptual foundations of evolution. So that’s what today’s all about, not really about why people don’t buy into evolution, but why you Masimo Pill, you really do buy into evolution.
Yeah, that’s an interesting way to put it. Well, the first thing to understand about the conceptual foundations, as you put them, of evolutionary theory, like of any other scientific theory, is that those conceptual foundations do change over time. It is, as you know, one thing, that creation is just then not to understand about the very nature of science. Right. If we’re talking about, for example, the conceptual foundations of physics in Newton’s time, those are clearly very different from the foundations of physics at the turn of the 20th century with with Java activity and quantum mechanics. And they’re and they’re still changing because they’re still trying to find a way to reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics. So the conceptual foundations of a field do change. That doesn’t mean that there was anything that is anything particularly wrong about the old. It just means that we learn more about the way how the world works and therefore we conceptualize how we think about the world in different ways. Same thing happened and is still happening to evolutionary biology. Evolution biology started out essentially with Darwin’s publication in 1859, The Origin of Species. There were people talking about evolution before Lamarque being the most famous one, but even Erasmus Darwin, Darwin’s grandfather, but really the first modern scientific foundations for evolutionary theory wearing that laid down by Darwin. And those foundations were really essentially about two ideas, common sense and natural selection. Darwin said, look, there are two fundamental principles that explain all the diversity of life on Earth as we observe. One is that all living organisms are related to each other by common descent. And the second one is that the major mechanism, although not the only major mechanism, that explains why living organisms are still well adapted, generally speaking, to their environment is a process that is discovered essentially called natural selection and natural selection.
I guess you’d define that as opposed to unnatural or artificial selection like what we do when we breed dogs or something.
That’s exactly right. And in fact, Darwin himself used extensively the analogy of artificial selection. That’s where the term natural selection comes from. It’s a direct analogy with artificial selection. And now we said, look, the only difference, of course, is that natural selection is a natural process. In other words, it does not require an intelligent designer. While artificial selection is obviously a result of intelligent design, doesn’t you don’t stand by by human beings. But otherwise, the two processes work in very analogous ways. They both define a certain fitness for the organism. In the case, of course, animal imprint, plant breeding, fitness is whatever it is that we want to get out of those animals or play a smaller dog of a different shaped ear or something like that. More milk from the cow. Whatever it is that we intervene in the case of the natural process. On the other hand, the fitness of the. Is simply the ability of that organism, both to survive to the reproductive point and then to reproduce. Also, Darwin pointed out that, however, one defines that there are consequences that I can process, that even in the case of selection, are not necessarily what the intelligent designer indicates of humans, actually. I mean, we do design our crops and animals to increase the yield in certain quantities. But then as a result of the fact that these organisms have a certain genetic constitution and mental constitution, they also do other things. So, for example, yes, you might get cows that produce more milk, but that may come with other modifications to the developmental biology of the cow. There wasn’t. There were not actually ended by the artificial breeder. And there’s the result that the fact that you’re dealing with living organisms that respond as a whole package. You don’t just you can just like a particular trait. You select them, the whole structure of the organism. Similarly, in the case of natural selection, although the goal, so to speak, of natural selection is to improve essentially the fitness of the organism, the environment, all sorts of things happen as a result of it. So there are many, many different ways in which organisms can improve their physical environment.
Massimo, I want to get into some of the colet lines of evidence for evolution. But before that, let’s just talk about the obvious. When we’re talking about natural selection and fitness and these small changes adding up, we’re talking about them adding up over very long periods of time, so long that it’s hard for most people to kind of wrap their heads around it. I just returned from a couple weeks in Rome and it’s mental work for me to comprehend 3000 years ago in the Etruscan civilization before the Italians or or Rome, the time of Augustus and Marc Anthony. A thousand years later, much less three million years ago or 30 million years ago. But that’s really the big point in evolutionary biology, isn’t it, that we’re talking about unbelievably big periods of time?
It is. And in fact, the idea that evolution does take a long period of time was at the root of a little known but very interesting controversy that Darwin got himself into immediately after publication and the Origin of Species. So Darwin realized, as you just said, that evolution does take a long period of time. And we’re talking millions of years now. At the time, the leading physicist in England was Lord Kelvin, who discovered plenty of interesting things, including the second principle. There were dynamics. He was appointed professor of mathematics at the age of 22. So he was a really big leading figure in science at the time. And Kelvin did some calculation according to which the maximum age of the other sun and therefore the earth could not be more than about 100 million years. Which, of course, is much more than any creation would grant you. But it was not enough for Darwin and realize that Earth had to be much, much older than that. If his theory were actually to explain the diversity of life on Earth. So that created a problem for Darwin. Yeah, we have the leading physicists of the age essentially telling him that evolution is impossible in mathematical grounds. Now, Darwin, first reaction was, well, maybe Kelvin calculations are wrong, but Darwin, like many biologists, was not practical in plain math. So he can check out calculations on his own. So you ask one of his sons who was a mathematician, to do the calculation for him. And unfortunately, it’s not that bad. He’s right. The calculations are correct. Well, the controversy didn’t go away. Darwin, how these grounds. He said, you know, there’s too much evidence in favor of natural. I came for my hypothesis to be wrong. It’s got to be something else along with Gilpin’s calculation. Kelvin, also, it’s not much. It turned out that later on, after Darwin’s death, faithlessness discovered that there was, in fact, something dramatically wrong with Elvan idea. It wasn’t these calculations. It was his fundamental assumption. Help and assume that the sun and other stars burn like candles. In other words, they use chemical fuel, things like coal. We know today, of course, that that’s not the case. They use nuclear fuel and nuclear fuel last much, much longer than chemical fuel. So Kelvin was, in fact, wrong? Darwin was correct. And ironically, it was Darwin Sun who published a paper at the beginning of the 20th century, essentially vindicating his father and say that because of the discovery of radioactivity, we now know that Gilpin’s calculations were off the mark. Now, the reason I’m telling you is. It’s a great example in the history of science, of major intellectual battle between two nine two scientists, but two major disciplines. Each successful in its own right. And this is exactly the sort of thing that creationists take as an example of why science doesn’t work. And I think exactly the best proof that science does work as a self-correcting mechanism. It just turned out that Calvin and Darwin had very reasonable idea at the time. And one of them was wrong. And it took about 30 years to demonstrate who were, in fact, on the wrong side of the argument.
But we now know and we know that even though there are these big rouse in evolutionary biology, say, between Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins and others. But that doesn’t mean that evolution is a theory in crisis.
That’s right. So the current version, we were talking earlier about the conceptual foundations of evolutionary theory. The current version of evolutionary theory is not longer than Darwinian one, although creationists referred to this whole thing as Darwinism. But nobody really talks about Darwinism anymore. It’s kind of version of evolutionary theory called modern synthesis. Modern synthesis was originated in the 1930s and 40s, and it was the result of bringing in together Darwin’s original ideas, the ones that I mentioned earlier, basically common descent and natural selection. We’re the new discovery genetics. At the turn of the 20th century, genetics started out as an entirely new discipline. It solved one of Darwin’s unsolved problems, which was the problem of other entity. Darwin didn’t know anything about genetics.
The problem of heredity, like you said.
That’s right. Now, we didn’t know anything about genes. We did not know how the original material was passed from one generation to another, although that was, in fact, the fundamental requirement of his theory of natural selection. It’s not going to work unless there is a high degree of some kind of information from one generation to another Jim Underdown unless those variations are passed along somehow. That’s right. There had to be passed along something. So the new discoveries of genetics did solve that problem. And what the the modern synthesis theory of evolution did was essentially to bring together into one unified conceptual framework of genetics and original insights. That’s what we have at the moment. So for the last 60 plus years, we as evolutionary biologists have worked with that sort of framework. However, in the meantime, it has become increasingly clear that there are still several major things that are not explained by that framework. And let me give you what I think is the fundamental example. One of the major questions today in evolutionary biology is the question of evolvability. Evolvability is the idea that the ability of organisms to evolve itself can change over time. In other words, it can evolve. So we have an interesting empirical evidence that shows that the ability to respond to natural selection, for example, changes over time and has changed over geological time and is still changing today.
Right. So some creation scientists or some intelligent design advocates say that the fact that some species aren’t evolving, that, you know, we have species on the planet that have been here for millions of years in their present form, that that’s a hole in the theory of evolution.
Right. And that’s another example of a misunderstanding, not just evolutionary theory, but of how science works in general. So there is no contradiction between what we know of the evolution of living organisms today, including the fact that some of them seem not to evolve for long periods of time. That is what Stephen Gould called species period in during the history of a particular lineage. There’s no contradiction in that observation. And either do the in theory or the modern synthesis, which is the current version of evolutionary theory. However, what there is is that neither one of those two conceptual framework are sufficient, in my opinion, to claim the fact that we know about biology or living organisms. So there is a huge and crucial difference between an observation or a or a set of facts being in contradiction of a theory. That would be a problem, a huge problem. And that set of fact, being compatible with that theory, but not fully explained by that point to the possibility that the theory is incomplete. Now, this is not typical just evolution in biology. It is typical of science in general. Again, if we refer to physics, there are certain things such as quantum mechanical behavior of black holes to get really excited example into the discussion that is compatible with both the theater ever activity and the fun, the mechanics which are to established theories currently used by physicists. And yet there are things about quantum mechanical behavior by calls that we don’t understand. The two theories that we have are simply not sufficient in order to explain it. So what does that mean? Does it mean that quantum mechanics is wrong with the general relativity is wrong? No, I don’t know anything to actually suggest that seriously. What they do suggest that therefore, wherever there must be something else, an additional component, at least one additional component to their theoretical framework that is not in place yet. And that’s why this is their working goal, what they call the unified theory forces. The saying goes in biology. I am absolutely convinced that there are plenty of things in evolution, biology that we do not currently have all the theoretical tools that we need to explain. But none of those things actually contradicts the current version of evolutionary theory, which means the Chrome version is not wrong. It’s just incomplete. And by the way, plenty of people are working toward sort of an expansion of string theory. I’m being one of them. I know that there is a international workshop, for example, scheduled for July of 2000 and eight, Indiana, where a lot of evolutionary biologists will get together to really try to figure out, well, what is exactly that we’re missing and how we’re going to proceed to find it out. But the point is that this is the way science works. If, in fact, somebody were to seriously claim that evolution theory, we’re complete and there was nothing else to do, then that wouldn’t explain why there are so many practicing evolutionary biology. You know, what do I have a jump for?
I could be doing something else instead. We already knew everything.
I’d like to let our listeners know that you can purchase a copy of Making Sense of Evolution. The conceptual foundations of evolutionary biology through our Web site. Point of inquiry dot org. Mossimo. Let’s get into where selection, where natural selection actually occurs at the level of the gene or the level of whole populations or whole species. I guess I’m getting it. Your seeming to disagree with Dawkins metaphor of the selfish gene, which we haven’t really gotten into just yet.
Right. So Dawkins original idea, as you put it in The Selfish Gene, which came out in 1976, was actually a popularization of ideas that had been proposed by George Williams and Milton Williams in the United States here at Stony Brook, actually in Hamilton in England and. And Williams, that pointed out that one could read everything that happens in evolution from the genes perspective. But is that all evolutionary changes can be reduced to an understanding of how selfish genetic elements actually respond to natural selection? That was a fairly radical view, even at time, because classical Darwinism had seen organisms, not genes, as central to evolutionary theory. That is, natural selection for Darwin was occurring on organisms, not on on genes. Of course, Darwin didn’t know anything about genes to begin with. Remember, he published his work before the discovery of genetics. Now, Dawkins, therefore, sort of popularized in his 1936 book this alternative View of the Genes, a perspective on evolution. And for a while that perspective has been, in fact, very successful and has helped explain several interesting things. For example, what evolutionary biologist referred to as kin selection. The idea that the living organisms tend to be altruistic toward close kin. So if there were your children, for example, forward your close relatives. The idea is that if you look at it from a perspective not of the organism, but of the genes that favor that that altruistic behavior behavior, in fact, turns out not to be altruistic at all because it simply helps propagating more copies of the same gene. If I help my children or my close relatives, my children and my close relatives carry a lot of the same genes that I carry. And therefore, from the genes perspective on undoing by altruistically, helping relatives is effective at propagating the genes. Now that that’s all very well and and it’s fairly well understood. There’s a good mathematical theory underlying that, that that idea of genes I view. However, it has become also increasingly clear over the last several decades that that is a highly incomplete view of evolution.
Not necessarily wrong, but not comprehensive.
That’s exactly right. So we do know that there are selfish genetic elements. There’s no question about it. In fact, molecular biology after for a couple of decades after the publication, Dawkins book definitely demonstrated that there are selfish genetic elements that even compete within the same organism for more space in the genome. So there is clearly natural selection going on at the gene level and polluted that are in fact, things like genetic, selfish, genetic.
But he was also very clear, even early on. I mean, immediately after the Buggins book came out that something major was missing from that picture. One reason for this is because genes have to cooperate with other genes because genes don’t live inside organisms by themselves. They’re not independent units. They’re not inherited independently. They have to interact with other genes. And then, of course, there is the introduction of the entire genome with the environment. Once you get those two components in there, both the fact that there are other genes and the fact that there isn’t an environment to deal with, then it becomes essentially impossible.
Understand how the whole of evolution can happen at the level of selfish genes. Now, the discussion between Dawkins and Gould and other people has been going on for long periods of time. And so one of the early objections to the selfish gene view of biology was that there are clearly other levels of organization that seemed to be under selection. For example, there are things like super organisms. Super organisms are things like social insects, colonies. Ponys of social insects can really be considered not a whole organism by themselves as opposed to a group of organisms, because they are in fact, like they respond to natural selection as a group. And it is very it’s beginning to be difficult to understand that kind of dynamics from a point of view of individual selfish genes. And then things get more complicated when you get to higher level of organizations. Stephen Gould has proposed being one of those to propose that species themselves can be selected and that differential extinction in speciation rate. That is the level of formation of new species are essentially mechanism by which species compete with other species at a very hierarchical level. Now, there is pretty good evidence for some cases of species selection at this point, and it is essentially impossible to explain superorganism and species selection just on the basis of a gene, a selfish gene view of the world. Again, it doesn’t mean that the selfish gene view of the world is in fact one. It just means that it’s only partial. It’s only incomplete. But. Even cases, Casey’s unit, the single organism level, the new level, the kind of selection, natural selection that Darwin was talking about that are really difficult to understand from a point of view of selfish genes. Because, again, genes have to interact with each other inside the organism, which means that they cannot afford to be selfish because otherwise they are going to self-destruct. And if you only self-destruct, then there is no gene to be propagated to the next generation, period. So that means that now biologists think of evolution as a series of transitions from individual genes to organisms from organisms, organisms from simple movement to species. And each time that you two have one of these transitions, higher levels of selection come into play.
But that natural selection comes to bear on all of those levels.
That’s exactly right. On all the levels, there is a book that just came out very recently called The Levels of Selection and by Okasha with a philosopher of science actually in in England. And that seems to me to be at the moment the final word on this question. Who really brings everything together very nicely? I mean, from a mathematical perspective, it shows why, yes, Dawkins view is correct, but it’s something very, very partial. So to claim that Dawkins has made repeatedly that the genes, a view of evolution is in fact comprehensive, it helps explain everything that goes on, which is simply false. But that doesn’t mean that the selfish gene perspective is mistaken. It just means that it’s partial.
Massimo, you’re from Rome.
I just toured a lot of Roman Catholic cathedrals. I saw a lot of Spandau rules and penalties. Tell our listeners what they are and what they have to do with evolutionary biology.
And this discussion about Dawkins and Gould, the spaniel’s, which actually, I guess technically from an architectural perspective are invented, are an interesting metaphor, an evolution in biology. Those are the species that are created by the fact that if you want to build a down in that dome in many European county in particular, has these these triangular spaces, essentially, that then opens up on the dome and they’re saying your species are often filled with rich imagery, with rich paintings. And the idea that these Spindel were used by Stephen Gould and Richard Lee, one can several years ago to point out that not everything that happens in evolution is the result of natural selection. The way that reasoning works is this. Look, if you go into a cathedral like a month ago in Venice and look at these spaniels, look at these spaces that are so nicely painted, you might think for a moment that the whole reason don’t have this. Pendrell is because two to two allowed painting to emerge out of with that function. This Banjul is the painting, to be fair and to be so evident to you eye. But it would be a mistake. In reality, the spanel is there because it is an inevitable consequence of the fact that the dome is built in a certain way. And once you have that space, the painters, you know, the artists have been called in to fill it up and make it as beautiful as possible. Similarly, Gouldman, we wanted argued sometimes structures in evolutionary biology may look like they are the result of natural selection, but in fact they are there as a result of a byproduct of the fact that organisms are complex entities. They fall up in a complex manner. And so there are certain things that are out there, but they’re not. And if they do result, the natural selection of that idea is powerful in the sense that it really lessens the burden of proof really on evolutionary biology. Nothing, if not everything, has to have a selective explanation that margins are free to enlarge their conceptual arsenal, so to speak, and to bring in other mechanisms to explain evolution, including development, including random variations, including things that are essentially non adaptive. So that’s what a fundamental idea which was introduced a decade ago by by golden mean one thing which is pretty much accepted today. I mean, very few biologists today are plan selection. No, no. Biologists are trying to explain everything that you’re observing the living world by natural selection, but that I introduced the problem. And the problem is, well, how do I know? How do I distinguish between something that is the result of selection in something that is up? And so in some cases, it is obvious, like, you know, the human eye clearly is the result of natural selection. It’s just too complex until well, function and functioning structure not to be the result of natural selection. But there are other things like, you know, the some of us have, I don’t know, patches of. Here inside the years, is that the result, the natural selection? Is that a byproduct leftover of something else, of a historical accident or what? And how would you go about finding that out? And it’s not easy because for those cases, for those characteristics that are clearly not not obviously the result of natural selection, one means a lot of information to figure things out. One needs to know about how those go things develop. One needs to know what your bases of those characteristics are. And one needs to know about the evolutionary history of those characteristics. And that sort of information is not merely come by.
Last couple of questions, Mossimo, your population geneticists, but you’ve gone back and you’ve taken your page d’Eon philosophy of science. Your book is it seems like it’s as much philosophy as it is. You know, evolutionary biology. Has this being steeped in philosophy. Has it trickled down to your graduate students?
Yes. If that book is coauthor with Jonathan Kaplan, who is a philosopher of science and you’re right, the book is about how biology and how philosophy and in fact, it’s not clear which happens, which it is informed by my understanding of philosophy. And the reason for that is because a lot of philosophy science currently really deals with a conceptual analysis of the fundamental ideas of science, which is really what biologists themselves, of course, are scientist themselves should be doing. But most scientists do not have the time to engage in that kind of conceptual analysis because, you know, they’re doing experiments and doing experiments and getting grants funded by federal agencies to do those experiments takes all the time. So most scientists simply cannot afford to spend the victor year or two off that it takes to catch up with you more theoretical literature and to really think about where their field is going conceptually. So there is one niche, if you will, where philosophers can contribute. Is not something the philosophers by themselves do necessarily. You do need a strong background in the science that you’re trying to understand as well. And that’s why the book Making Sense Evolution is in fact a good example of a collaboration between the philosopher and the biologist that it was a lot of fun to write because we came at it from very different perspectives, different backgrounds and different ways of thinking. And I think that’s what makes the book valuable. If if at all.
So the book is in a way, maybe not a chastisement, but an encouragement for biologists to take the philosophy informing these conceptual frameworks, these foundations more seriously. But in the course of making that suggestion to evolutionary biologists, it seems like you’re suggesting a number of places throughout the book that the way that they’re doing their stuff doesn’t actually do them much good, might not be serving their scientific goals. That, in fact, that there are some big flaws in both their methods and their concepts. Doesn’t this kind of play into the hands of the intelligent design theorists who do argue it’s a theory in crisis?
Yeah, you’re right. First of all, that the most controversial part of the book is where we identify with, Jonathan, some areas of current evolutionary theory, but just do not match very well with give research. And I would say we think that there are some areas where theoretical and an empirical biology have diverged to the point that they are actually not necessarily talking about the same thing. And we think that those areas need need correction. So we point out what some of those areas, you know, opinion are and what biologists Shupe could do in order to correct the problem is by the playing in the hands of intelligent design. Not a sum. Any criticism of ongoing scientific effort plays into the hands of intelligent design or proponents or a creationist. That is simply because those proponents, those creationists are either misunderstanding the nature of science out of ignorance or they are disingenuously using the very normal fact that there are controversies in science to their ideological advantage. Either way, they are making a mistake, not the scientists who are open in debate about their own their own research.
Massimo, thank you very much for joining me. On Point of inquiry, we only scratched the surface. We’ll have to have you back on to explore the theory of evolution in more detail. Thanks. Thanks for being on.
It was a pleasure.
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