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ScienceReview - Science
by Steve Fuller
Acumen, 2010
Review by Tuomas Manninen
Oct 4th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 40)

Those readers who are familiar with the ongoing public debate between evolution and creationism no doubt recognize Steve Fuller's name from his appearance as an expert witness for the defense in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, as well as his earlier book Science v. Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution (Fuller 2007).  The theme in Fuller's present book, Science, in "The Art of Living" series, further develops the theme he has advocated previously: modern science is intimately grounded in Christian theology.  Fuller summarizes his thesis in the opening section: "the art of living scientifically involves taking theology much more seriously than either practicing scientists or religious believers are inclined to do" (p.1).  The claim that Fuller is defending is no doubt controversial and provocative -- and oddly familiar (at least to those with knowledge of Fuller's earlier entries in the foray).  However, I do not aim to prejudice the reader who is not familiar with Fuller's previous works; it is with these readers in mind that I approach this text.

In the brief introductory remarks, Fuller gestures at the goals for the rest of the book: "I take science's progressive future to require a return to its original theological impulse, even if that means subverting or otherwise criticizing the current scientific establishment in search for a more inclusive universal truth" (p.3).  That is to say, science requires faith that its goals will materialize, and given the track record of current scientific establishment, Fuller claims that this faith is misplaced.  As for the bulk of the text, each of the chapters 1 through 9 aims to further explore the main thesis, if from different vantage points.  The last chapter is a bibliographic essay with suggestions for further readings.  The argument in the book is not cumulative in that the chapters do not build up on each other.  Rather, the approach is akin to death by a thousand cuts as each chapter charges against the current scientific establishment from a different angle. 

In Chapter 1, Fuller calls "faith in science" "the modern superstition" (p.6) because he finds the public acceptance of science perplexing, especially in light of "science's actual track record" (p.6).  Fuller discusses the public perception of science, and claims that this is remarkable, given all the follies of science.  Still, despite these follies, Fuller sees scientists as committed to the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself; it is in this sense that science has sublimated, rather than eliminated, God (p.15).  In doing so, science (by which Fuller seems to mean the inquiry as pursued by the current scientific establishment -- but more about this later) has not remained true to its origins.  Here Fuller makes the bold claim that the intelligent design theory, roundly rejected by scientists, has remained more true to the ideals of science than the neo-Darwinists have: "Its proponents [the intelligent design theorists] refuse to inhabit a schizoid world in which everything that appears designed is the product of designing intelligence except nature itself, whose complex organization Darwinists attribute to chance-based processes that extend into the indefinite past" (pp.16-17).  Turning to recent advances in biology -- genetics and molecular biology -- Fuller asserts that its history "can be told with minimal reference to Darwin" (p.17); as for Darwin, Fuller thinks he will become to be seen as "an able natural historian and taxonomist who underestimated our ability to penetrate the nature of life by virtue of his skepticism of life's progressive and mathematical character, which is what he rejected in Lamarck and Mendel, respectively" (p.17).

In Chapter 2, Fuller argues that for the scientific enterprise (or any enterprise, for that matter) to remain legitimate, its "intellectual parents should recognize their children" (p.24).  Fuller raises concerns that in this respect, science is the wayward child.  He imagines Sir Isaac Newton being resurrected in the present-day world -- and becoming offended if told that "we still like his physics in spite -- not because -- of the theological baggage he thought was necessary to appreciate its full significance" (p.23).  In similar vein, Fuller imagines what the reactions from Plato and Aristotle (pp.51-52) and Galileo (pp.83-84) would be to the sciences as practiced today.  Galileo, in particular, would "regard bastions of the scientific establishment, such as the US National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London as comparable to the Vatican in his own day" (p.83).  That is, all these institutions "have sought to minimize the reasonableness of dissent" (p.83).  (If we were to apply the title question of Chapter 2 ("Can science live with its past?) to Fuller's own views, it is here that he passes with flying colors.  Fuller's aforementioned appearance as an expert witness for the defense in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial was succinctly summed up by Judge John Jones, who characterized Fuller as offering "an affirmative action program ... for a view that has been unable to gain foothold within the scientific establishment" (Kitzmiller v. Dover, 70-71).  With the current book, the only thing that seems to have changed is the intended audience.)

In Chapter 4, Fuller turns to look at science through the lens of the history of Christianity, and argues that just as reformation challenged the authority of the Catholic Church, today's individuals are losing their faith in the authority of the scientific establishment.  But, Fuller asserts, "it would be a mistake to conclude that people are losing their faith in science per se; rather they are losing the compulsion to conform to a specific orthodoxy that is upheld by a specially anointed class of priests" (p.83).  So, just as it made little sense to call the dissenting protestants 'atheists' just because they rejected the orthodoxy, Fuller claims it makes equally little sense to call someone who rejects the scientific establishment 'anti-scientific'.  This latter restorationist movement Fuller dubs 'Protscience', and he goes on to detail what it entails.  In brief, "today's Protscientists wish to revive the empowering spirit of scientific enquiry from the institutions that shackle it" (p.62).  The spirit of scientific inquiry remains vibrant among the general public and, Fuller claims, it should allowed to remain such.  If "science aims to provide the most comprehensive understanding of reality that is potentially available to all rational beings" (p.65), scientists and scientific institutions ought not hold this under lock and key, and mete it out according to their own rules. 

In Chapter 6, Fuller questions the notion that atheism has made positive contributions for science.  Atheism, as Fuller takes it, is "the simple denial of religious authority on matters of knowledge and morals" (p.86).  In contrast, there is Atheism (with capital 'A'), "quite explicitly anti-God belief in the West [which] provides the metaphysical backdrop for Darwinism" (p.87).  In Fuller's view, however, neither atheism nor Atheism has been significantly pro-science.  On the contrary, Fuller views that science has contributed more to Atheism: "Darwin gave Atheists reasons for believing that, at least in principle, a durable sense of order could arise from disorder" (p.98).  Atheism (with either spelling) started off as an ethical view, but after being elevated to a view that one could justifiably hold in public, it has branched into epistemological matters.  Nevertheless, what Atheism has to offer is "an ethic of equanimity and even resignation, certainly not a drive to remake the planet, if not the universe, to our own purposes" (p.111).  According to Fuller, following the implications of Darwinism (as Atheists are wont to do) leads to unadulterated nihilism: "There is something profoundly irrational in hitching one's fate to a theory in which all that is meaningful is ultimately based on chance-based processes" (p.146).

The foregoing survey touches only some of the claims Fuller advances in his book; to cover each of them would extend this review to unreasonable lengths.  Instead, I have opted for the above, representative selection, which I wish to comment further.  First of all, the fact I found most curious -- and, at times, very aggravating -- about Fuller's book was that he never defines what science is.  Granted, he comes close to this at times -- "Here we need to be clear what is meant by 'science'" (p.102).  Instead of providing a clear answer, he digresses into giving an ideological history of the relationship between science and religion, and one that represents his view on the nature of science.  The best I can gather is that Fuller views science as an ideology -- and one that has outlived its usefulness.  Early on in Chapter 1, Fuller questions the track record of science: "There would be no aerial warfare, mass surveillance, mass extinctions, forced sterilizations, gas chambers, nuclear threats, environmental despoliation or global warming without many of the most advanced natural and social sciences" (p.5).  Granted, these items would have to be accounted for in a comprehensive track record of science.  But curiously, Fuller focuses on just the worst of science's accomplishments -- or, more accurately, the worst of what science has been used.  Another question worth considering here is, whether science has been anything but a mere instrument for some underlying (either religious or political) motivations?  Had there not been any gas chambers, would this have stopped the Final Solution and all its atrocities?  Had there not been airplanes (and, subsequently, aerial warfare), would wars have been any less gruesome?  Still, Fuller does make a valuable point here: any ideology needs to be judged by all of its consequences -- both positive and negative.  Curiously, Fuller's list is cherry-picked to contain only the worst outcomes, without mentioning, e.g., that the racial purity doctrines held by the Nazis were rejected by scientists as pseudoscience.  And here one wonders -- quite rightly --  how religions or political ideologies would fare if they were judged only by the worst outcomes they have generated.   

Throughout the book, Fuller makes no secret that he is viewing science through the same lens as he applies to religion.  But as to how Fuller conceives of this relationship, it is not immediately clear to the reader.  Other authors have used various military metaphors -- for instance, likening the science-religion relationship to the American Civil War or to the Vietnam War (Miller 2008, chs.1 and 8, respectively) -- but they have not insisted that everything in science must conform to military history.  Fuller, in contrast, seems to be asserting the opposite.  More curious is Fuller's claim that in order to understand "our continuing faith in science" we do best to treat it as "the secular residue of a religiously inspired belief in Divine Providence" (p.1).  That is, according to Fuller, the best model for explaining science and its reception in the contemporary society can be found in the history of Christianity.  Here one wonders how we are to understand the nature of science itself; for an answer, we could do worse than to consult an actual scientist.  Here is how Kenneth Miller views the nature of science:

"Like any scientist, I have a built-in affection for the underdog, and like other researchers, I do not dream of conducting boring experiments that merely confirm the status quo, but of achieving new insights, radical and subversive, that would smash the orthodox and set off revolutions of thought and understanding.  True scientists are not afraid of making waves" (Miller 2007, 13-14).

A view like Miller's seems to make for an uneasy fit into Fuller's narrative.  If Fuller is correct -- that the best model for understanding science comes from the history of Christian reformation -- then we would have to revisit the church history in order to accommodate a far greater number of successful reformers.  A view like Miller's makes the scientific establishment seem far less ossified in its positions than one could glean from Fuller's exposition.

At this point, I would like to turn to David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (which is the only text that is cited in the body of Fuller's book).  Hume, in the voice of Philo, points out the dangers inherent in arguments from analogy:

"After having experienced the circulation of the blood in human creatures, we make no doubt, that it takes place in Titius and Maevius: But from its circulation in frogs and fishes, it is only a presumption, though a strong one, from analogy, that it takes place in men and other animals.  The analogical reasoning is much weaker, when we infer the circulation of the sap in vegetables from our experience, that the blood circulates in animals; and those, who hastily followed that imperfect analogy, are found, by more accurate experiments, to have been mistaken" (Hume 2007, Part 2 §7).

There are plenty of reasons to conclude that Fuller's analogies are, on the whole, quite weak.  For instance, when it comes to authority, there are some similarities between that of religious institutions (such as the Catholic Church and its entire hierarchy) and that of scientific ones (such as the National Academy of Sciences).  But nowhere in Fuller's polemic is it clear how similar the two actually are -- or, more importantly, how dissimilar they are.  This problem crops up, e.g., in Fuller's discussion of Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, who identifies himself as a born-again Christian.  For a view like Fuller's, Collins is a bit of an anomaly: "While Collins denies papal authority, which at least has a biblical basis in Peter's Apostolic primacy, [he] confer[s] Vatican-like authority on scientific institutions that have no biblical basis whatsoever" (p.84).  Yet nowhere does Fuller make it known to the reader how exactly the scientific authorities need to rely on biblical basis.

Interspersed through the chapters are Fuller's bold visions for the brave new future of science.  In Chapter 1 Fuller asserts: "I imagine that not too long from now an ambitious historian will manage to write an illuminating account of twentieth-century biology that posits Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Gregor Mendel as the main nineteenth-century theoretical inspirations, while consigning Charles Darwin to a secondary role" (p.17).  And later, in Chapter 4, Fuller asks "would biomedical research suffer irreparably [...] if we added intelligent design to neo-Darwinism as a permissible general explanatory theory?"  In providing an answer to his own question, Fuller asserts that it would be "very probably not" (p.65).  Yet here -- and elsewhere -- Fuller offers precious little to support these assertions, other than his power of imagination.  It is as if Fuller sets up these bold goals, but he provides the reader next to no indication as to how he intends these to be reached; the goals remain elusive at the end of the horizon, but the road to these is nowhere to be found.  On the whole, in these passages Fuller seemingly dispenses with the need of evidential support, and downplays its significance to the sciences.  This strikes me as a worrisome approach.  The attitude underlying this seems to be "if the facts don't fit your narrative, change your facts!"  In contrast, the approach taken by the scientific establishment could be summed up in the words from former US Senator, Patrick Moynihan: "You are entitled to your opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts". 

In describing science as an ideology, Fuller makes no mention that science has its own methodology that other ideologies don't share.  Furthermore, in Fuller's hands, scientific theories seem to have around them the air of the general term 'theory'.  As someone who is trained in the history and philosophy of science, Fuller surely must know the distinction between 'theory' in ordinary discourse, and a scientific theory.  Sadly, he doesn't seem to acknowledge it in the book.  For the benefit of the reader, here is one way to articulate the difference:

"In everyday usage, 'theory' often refers to a hunch or a speculation. When people say, 'I have a theory about why that happened,' they are often drawing a conclusion based on fragmentary or inconclusive evidence.  The formal scientific definition of theory is quite different from the everyday meaning of the word. It refers to a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence" (NAS 2008, 11).

This distinction allows us to properly demarcate the two theories that prominently feature in Fuller's discussion.  Theory of evolution is an example of a theory in the scientific sense, whereas Intelligent Design theory is theory only in the former sense.  Furthermore, this distinction casts Fuller's assertions that scientific theories must be "nurtured" or "propped up" by the scientific establishment in curious light.

As a significant part of his argumentative strategy, Fuller invokes middle knowledge -- or, counterfactual knowledge.  Although the notion is thoroughly delineated (in Chapter 7, pp.114-115 as well as in the bibliographic essay, pp.162-164), nowhere does Fuller explicate as to which of his claims are factual, and which of them are counterfactual -- and which of them are merely wishful thinking on his part.  On a close inspection, it seems that in order to interpret Fuller's claims charitably, a lot of them would have to be taken as counterfactuals.  Consider, for instance, the following:

"While in possession of Mendel's original papers, Darwin could not fathom why Mendel might have supposed that something as apparently mysterious as the life's generative principle could be subject to rigorous mathematical laws" (p.49).

Contrary to Fuller's interpretation, the consensus view of the Darwin-Mendel --connection has that even if Darwin had in his possession a copy of Mendel's paper, the paper was not prepared for publication.  Even if Darwin had had Mendel's publication at hand, he would have thought that Mendel's work addressed a different issue (heredity) than his did (evolution).  (Although there are divergent views on the Darwin-Mendel connection (for a survey, see e.g. Bizzo & El-Hani 2009), virtually none endorse the interpretation that Fuller advances here.)

As for other peculiarities about Fuller's claims, chief among them is his characterization of Darwinism as a process of pure chance.  For instance, Fuller asserts that that "Darwinists attribute to chance-based processes that extend into the indefinite past" the "complex organization" of nature (p.17).  Similarly, Fuller sees it "profoundly irrational" to hitch "one's fate to a theory in which all that is meaningful is ultimately based on chance-based processes" (p.146).  As for the first claim, I would like to turn to a Darwinist par excellence, Charles Darwin himself.  In Chapter 5 of Origin of Species, we read:

"I have hitherto sometimes spoken of as if the variations -- so common and multiform in organic beings under domestication, and in a lesser degree in those in a state of nature -- had been due to chance.  This, of course, is a wholly incorrect expression, but it serves to acknowledge plainly our ignorance of the cause of each particular variation" (Darwin 2008, 101). 

In short, Darwin spoke of variation of organisms being due to chance as a shorthand notion.  To interpret Fuller's claim charitably, it seems that he is talking about Darwinism as a chance-based process in the shorthand sense -- which means that Fuller's criticism misses Darwin's actual view.  As for Fuller's second claim, here is Darwin again -- this time in the closing paragraph of Origins of Species:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful, have been, and are being, evolved" (Darwin 2008, 360).  

I daresay that other Darwinists concur with the above sentiment -- as can be easily verified, e.g., in Kenneth Miller (2008, Chapter 6, especially pp.143ff.), or in Francisco Ayala (2010, Chapter 6 passim).  (Similar sentiments are expressed in the works of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Theodosius Dobzhansky, Niles Eldredge, Darrell Falk, Donald Prothero, Michael Ruse, Roger Wiens, and many, many others – including the faculty of the Faraday Institute, at http://www.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk/faraday/index.php.  Aside from being 'Darwinists', the aforementioned individuals have very little in common with each other.  Although they are all outspoken critics of creationism (and the Intelligent Design 'theory' alike), they represent various academic disciplines (from evolutionary biology to cell biology, and from paleontology to philosophy), and various religious views (from atheism to agnosticism and from Catholicism to non-denominational, born-again Christianity).) This fact should serve as a challenge -- a defeater, even -- to Fuller's claim that all Darwinists are cut of the same cloth.

As for Fuller's claim that Darwin was repelled by natural theology (p.17), here the evidence -- drawn from Darwin's Autobiography -- does not support it, either. Darwin writes:

"In order to pass the B.A. examination, it was, also, necessary to get up Paley's Evidences of Christianity, and his Moral Philosophy. This was done in a thorough manner, and I am convinced that I could have written out the whole of the Evidences with perfect correctness, but not of course in the clear language of Paley. The logic of this book and as I may add of his Natural Theology gave me as much delight as did Euclid. The careful study of these works, without attempting to learn any part by rote, was the only part of the Academical Course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind. I did not at that time trouble myself about Paley's premises; and taking these on trust I was charmed and convinced by the long line of argumentation" (Darwin 1958, 59; emphasis added).

As the historical record shows, Darwin ultimately came to reject Paley's premises, along with the notion that the apparent design of the world unequivocally demands a designer.  Throughout his career, culminating with the Origin of Species, Darwin came to formulate a formidable challenge to Paley's premises, which the latter could not withstand.  But to say that Darwin was repelled by natural theology seems curious at its best, and mendacious at its worst.

One fundamental problem for Fuller's bold vision involving Protscience can be seen in the following passages.  First, "...the public harbours enough scientific literacy to pick and mix from what the scientific establishment would rather have them accept or reject as a package deal.  Welcome to the world of Protscience!" (p.78)  And elsewhere, much to the same effect, we read that "there is no reason to think that rejecting a grand explanatory theory nurtured by the scientific establishment, such as neo-Darwinism, entails rejecting any of the technical aspects of science that serve us so well" (p.66).  These two passages seem to sum up Fuller's main idea about Protscience: if you cannot reconcile scientific theories with your personal worldview, just take what you like, and scuttle the rest.  Such intellectual scavenging may serve to put an end to the conflict between science and one's worldview.  But what if we try to apply the model of Protscience to any of the discoveries that have revolutionized the sciences?  No matter which one we pick as an example, we see that Protscience offers a poor fit.  The scientists who made the discoveries did not just scavenge the extant body of scientific knowledge, selecting only those parts that were useful to their work; instead of changing the rules of the game, they worked within the system.  By Fuller's lights, what matters in living scientifically has next to nothing to do with what scientists actually do -- for him, it is a matter of subscribing to an ideology, and calling it scientific.  At its worst, living scientifically amounts to bowdlerizing scientific theories to make them fit one's ideology. (Lest this sounds too harsh, Fuller himself seems welcoming to this approach; see above (p.66).  )  By Fuller's lights, scientific theories are just nurtured (or, propped up) by the scientific establishment -- for whatever purpose -- and they could just as easily be stripped for parts for more worthy ideologies, among which Fuller seemingly counts the Intelligent Design 'theory'.

To remain with Protscience slightly longer, in Chapter 4 Fuller asserts that just as the protestant reformation moved the authority (regarding salvation) from the establishment (of the church) to the individual, science is undergoing similar process.  Just as protestants were not atheists (by their own lights), neither are protscientists anti-science (by their own lights). 

However, this line of argumentation raises far more questions than it answers.  If the history of science is to be interpreted through the lens of the history of Christianity (especially from the reformation onwards), what would be the outcome?  The Catholic Church still remains the largest of all Christian denominations, some five centuries after the reformation.  Nowhere does Fuller make it explicit if the 'Protscience' reformation he envisions for the sciences is supposed to follow the same path.  Would the scientific establishment remain as the largest body of scientists, united under the banner of the orthodoxy that Fuller challenges?  Would the protscientists have their own, comparable establishments?  Furthermore, what of Christian ecumenism?  None of these issues are discussed -- or even brought up -- by Fuller.

Having dwelled on the details of Fuller's proposal, what of book as a whole?  Granted, Fuller's is an undoubtedly bold vision, and he offers some keen insights.  However, these tend to get lost in the clutter, as the support he provides for his claims falls abysmally short of the goal.  To a philosopher, many of Fuller's arguments are uncogent or underdeveloped; many others a amount to mere unsupported assertions.  To someone with a working knowledge of the history of science, Fuller's revisionary telling of the history of science is jarring -- given especially the fact that he nowhere acknowledges which of his historical claims are factual, which are counterfactual, and which are his own revisionary interpretations.  Put briefly, the historical record just does not support Fuller's assertions when it comes to many of key claims.  Now, in criticizing Fuller's conclusion (that the connection between science and Christianity is as close as he alleges), I do not intend to deny that there are interesting -- and significant -- similarities between science and religion, and between science and Christianity in particular.  After all, questions of cosmogony ("Where did we come from?"), eschatology ("Where will we end up?"), and the human condition ("What is our nature?") are crucially important to Christianity.  As such, it should be no surprise that these remain important to sciences that originate in that ideological foundation.  My point here is merely that the connection between the sciences and its Christian origins is nowhere near as intimate as Fuller alleges it to be -- at least, not in light of the support he manages to provide. 

All in all, I find myself inclined to sum up Fuller's book in just one phrase: it is a baffling doctrine bafflingly presented.  (I borrow this phrase from David Pears' characterization of Ludwig Wittgenstein's picture theory of language (Pears 1987, 143).)  In my mind, this aptly captures Fuller's overall project, for several reasons.  First, the grandiose vision that Fuller offers is in dire need of far more support than Fuller manages to muster.  Second, despite not being a scientist myself, I have genuine difficulties in thinking of just one who would either agree with Fuller's indictments, or share in his vision of what the sciences should be.  Third, Fuller's project for the bold new vision for the sciences seems utterly superfluous: science already has a method in place for accommodating -- and accepting -- revolutionary ideas and hypotheses.  Each of the revolutionary ideas has to run a gauntlet of criticism and scrutiny -- the same gauntlet as all other successful scientific hypotheses have.  If some ideas -- such as Fuller's seeming preference, the Intelligent Design 'theory' -- fail to do this, it may be more revealing about the shortcomings of those ideas, rather than of any inherent bias in the scientific approach.

 

References:

Ayala, Francisco.  2010.  Am I A Monkey?  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bizzo, Nelio, and Charbel El-Hani.  2009.  "Darwin and Mendel: Evolution and genetics," in Journal of Biological Education 43, no.3: 108-114.

Darwin, Charles. 1958.  The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. Nora Barlow.  London: Collins.  Retrieved on 20 July 2011 from http://darwin-online.org.uk/pdf/1958_autobiography_F1497.pdf

Darwin, Charles.  2008 (1860).  On the Origin of Species, 2nd. ed. New York: Oxford University Press.    

Fuller, Steve.  2007.  Science vs. Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution.  Malden, MA: Polity.

Hume, David.  2007 (1779).  Dialogues concerning Natural Religion.  New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kitzmiller v. Dover.  2005.  400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa.).  Retrieved on 14 July 2011 from http://www.pamd.uscourts.gov/kitzmiller/kitzmiller_342.pdf

Miller, Kenneth.  2008.  Only a Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul.  New York: Penguin.

National Academy of Sciences.  2008.  Science, Evolution, and Creationism.  Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.

Pears, David.  1987.  The False Prison, v.1.  New York: Oxford University Press.

 

© 2011 Tuomas Manninen

 

Tuomas Manninen is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the Arizona State University at the West Campus, where he regularly teaches the course "Science and Religion," (among his other courses).  He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the metaphysics of personhood at the University of Iowa in 2007.

 


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