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ME AND MY DOUBLE HELIXES

Steve Talbott

Notes concerning Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, by Bill McKibben (New York: Henry Holt, 2003). Hardcover, 275 pages, $25.

"What will you have done to your newborn", Bill McKibben asks, "when you have installed into the nucleus of every one of her billions of cells a purchased code that will pump out proteins designed to change her?" His answer is stark -- and, I believe, misdirected:

You will have robbed her of the last possible chance of understanding her life. Say she finds herself, at the age of sixteen, unaccountably happy. Is it her being happy -- finding, perhaps, the boy she will first love -- or is it the corporate product inserted within her when she was a small nest of cells, an artificial chromosome now causing her body to produce more serotonin? Don't think she won't wonder: at sixteen a sensitive soul questions everything. But perhaps you've "increased her intelligence" -- and perhaps that's why she is questioning so hard. She won't even be sure whether the questions are hers. (p. 47)

McKibben repeatedly comes back to this point. A lover of running, he says that "if my parents had somehow altered my body so that I could run more quickly, that fact would have robbed running of precisely the meaning I draw from it" -- the meaning that comes from exertions and achievements he could call his own (p. 48). "If you've been designed and programmed to run, what meaning can running hold?" (p. 55)

Likewise, noting that scientists "have pinpointed the regions of the parietal lobe that quiet down when Catholic nuns and Buddhist monks pray", he surmises that genetic engineers will before long be able to amplify the reaction.

As a result, the minister's son may be even more pious than he is, but if he has any brain left to himself he will question that piety at the deepest level, wonder constantly whether it means anything or if it's so much brainwashing. And if he doesn't question it, if the gene transplant takes so deeply that he turns into an anchorite monk living deep in the desert, then his faith is utterly meaningless, far more meaningless than the one his medieval ancestors inherited by birthright. It would be a faith literally beyond questioning and hence no faith at all. He would be, for all intents and purposes, a robot. (p. 48)

And so, too, there's the pianistically inclined mother who wants her child to be an even better pianist than she. But the point of piano playing lies in the meaning that is created through inclination and effort. "If the mother injects all that into her daughter's cells, she robs her daughter forever of the chance to make music her own authentic context -- or to choose something else". The daughter would be a player piano as much as a human, "ever uncertain whether it is her skill and devotion or her catalogue proteins that move her fingers so nimbly" (p. 48).

Too Much Liberation?

As happy as one might expect to be when a writer of Bill McKibben's stature draws attention to the troubling potentials of DNA manipulation, I fear that in this book he has unwittingly sided with the manipulators. But this will take a little explaining.

McKibben usefully sketches our progressive loss of human context, which is also a loss of meaning. The automobile wrenched us loose from local community; television isolated us from our immediate neighbors; divorce as a mass phenomenon cast a shadow of uncertainty over every family; and the natural world itself has been arbitrarily re-shaped according to our habits and appetites, so that it no longer offers us "a doorway into a deeper world".

But don't waste time asking whether these changes are good or bad, he advises us. They "came upon us like the weather", before we could do anything about them.

What, then, are we left with as a resource against meaninglessness? Only our individual selves. And that important truth brings McKibben to his punch line, which is that now, thanks to the genetic engineers, "we stand on the edge of disappearing even as individuals". Of course, the engineers put it in slightly different terms. They "promise to complete the process of liberation, to free us or, rather, our offspring from the limitations of our DNA, just as their predecessors freed us from the confines of the medieval worldview, or the local village, or the family".

But this, McKibben opines, "is one liberation too many":

We are snipping the very last weight holding us to the ground, and when it's gone we will float silently away into the vacuum of meaninglessness. (p. 47)

Yet, unlike with those earlier challenges (although he does not explain why now and not then), we still have a choice when it comes to germline engineering. "What makes us unique is that we can restrain ourselves. We can decide not to do something that we are able to do. We can set limits on our desires. We can say, 'Enough'" (p. 205).

We Are Not Our DNA

The problem is that McKibben's entire line of argument is self-defeating. "If you genetically alter your child and the programming works", he tells us, "then you will have turned your child into an automaton to one degree or another". As we heard above, the monk with genetically reinforced piety "would be, for all intents and purposes, a robot".

But if this is true -- if we are, in this mechanistic sense, creatures of our DNA -- then we are robots in any case. An entity that can be programmed is already an automaton. That's what it means to be an automaton. What difference does it make whether "chance events" programmed us, or someone in a lab coat? If, as McKibben insistently repeats, a twiddled bit of DNA substitutes for my meaningful self, then so, too, does an untwiddled bit of DNA.

McKibben is very good at showing how the engineers would treat our children as product lines, and would view the results of unsuccessful experiments as defective products. But he never offers a clear alternative to this product-view of ourselves. The parents who succumb to the lure of germline engineering would, he suggests, "be inserting genes that produced proteins that would make their child behave in certain ways throughout his life. You cannot rebel against the production of that protein" (p. 58). Well, no more and no less can you rebel against the protein that would have been there without the engineering. Why, on his argument, are you not the product and slave of that protein?

McKibben reasonably asks us to exercise our freedom by saying "Enough!" to the engineers. But there is startling dissonance in hearing someone argue for the urgency of free choice by asserting that our proteins determine our choices. By appearing to validate the scientist's (and the public's) conviction that we are our protein-producing DNA, McKibben is assisting the engineers' program. For while his commendable aim is to convince us to pull back from the eugenic brink, the fact is that those who think they are their DNA are exactly the ones who will clamor for a new and improved self, or at least for new and improved children.

Will the genetic engineers make our lives meaningless? This is ever so close to the truth, yet light years away from it. No one can, in absolute terms, rob someone else of meaning. What makes life meaningless is our rejection of meaning -- a rejection we have already given expression to when we conceive ourselves as the product of DNA "mechanisms". The engineers are not making our lives meaningless; they are acting out the implications of their own flight from meaning by grasping whatever straws of pseudo-meaning they can find in their high-tech toys.

McKibben should have said, not that we are at risk of designing the individual self out of existence, but rather that we are directing unprecedented violence against it. We would make our offspring, in C. S. Lewis' phrase, the patients of our power, which is not at all the same as destroying their selfhood. Historically, the human individual has shown itself capable of surviving every imaginable insult, including those originating in the Gulag and Holocaust of the past century. It will also survive chemical assaults from the environment and chemical assaults from within its own body.

The real question today -- a question McKibben's book only makes more poignant -- is whether the individual can survive disbelief in its own existence.

A Concept on the Verge of Collapse

That the worshippers of machinery, efficiency, and power are engaged today in a fateful assault upon the human being is beyond all doubt. McKibben performs a valuable service by documenting this assault for a large audience from the mouths of the commandos carrying it out. There is no shortage of testimony. To take just two brief examples: Robert Haynes, president of the Sixteenth International Congress of Genetics, understands our ability to manipulate genes as indicating "the very deep extent to which we are biological machines". Likewise, Rodney Brooks of the MIT AI Laboratory declares that interacting molecules are "all there is". They have produced the human body -- "a machine that acts according to a set of specifiable rules .... We are machines, as are our spouses, our children, and our dogs". As for the contraptions that will surpass us, we should be under no illusions: "Resistance is futile" (p. 204).

McKibben makes as if to tackle this sort of gibberish. But in his eagerness to raise the alarm as shrilly as possible, he ends up granting far too much plausibility to the engineers. It is, after all, just laughable to claim that a particular gene, or any identifiable suite of genes, can account, in a coherent and manageable way, for intelligence or running ability or pianistic skill or piety. Certainly, as McKibben notes, there are people like the double-helix celebrity, James Watson, who speak glibly of "going for perfection", as if this goal laid out an obvious course that could be traversed with reliable means. But Watson is a childish, petulant anti-intellectual who can't have devoted sixty seconds of his life to contemplating what it might mean for a human being to be perfect, or how we might get there.

The fact is that nearly all genetic engineers today have been forced to acknowledge the silliness of the "gene-for-this" idea. The idea has proven problematic enough when it comes to the most narrowly defined human diseases. Transpose it to deep character traits and skill sets and it is off the mark by what one can only call an astronomical order of magnitude.

Evelyn Fox Keller in The Century of the Gene (Harvard University, 2000) provides an excellent review of the state of genetic research. Her long summary of the complications besetting the easy, simplistic notion of the gene culminates in this ironic observation:

At the very moment in which gene-talk has come to so powerfully dominate our biological discourse, the prowess of new analytical techniques in molecular biology and the sheer weight of the findings they have enabled have brought the concept of the gene to the verge of collapse.

So it is that "the prospect of significant medical benefits -- benefits that only a decade ago were expected to follow rapidly upon the heels of the new diagnostic techniques -- recedes ever further into the future".

The Unity of the Organism

McKibben briefly alludes to these problems. It is, he grants, "unlikely that genes work quite as simply as the standard models insisted" (p. 13). This may sound comforting, he allows; "maybe there's not much to worry about; maybe it's a problem for the grandkids". But he quickly moves on:

In fact, however, all these qualifications mask the larger truth: genes do matter. A lot. That fact may not fit every ideology, but it does fit the data. Endless studies of twins raised separately make very clear that virtually any trait you can think of is, to some degree, linked to our genes. Intelligence? The most recent estimates show that half or more of the variability in human intelligence comes from heredity. (p. 14)

Of course genes matter. All aspects of the human organism matter, and they are all related to what we call "heredity" just as they are all related to our cell membranes or to our hearts and would likely be affected, in some cases drastically, by an operation to modify the heart's functioning. Heredity affects everything, but then, too, the stuff and the interactions we (rather arbitrarily) group under the label of "heredity" are affected by all the rest of the organism. There is no way to slice up the organic unity that we are and say, without qualification, "This part determines that". This sort of causality simply doesn't exist in the organism.

McKibben's argument for the effectiveness of genetic engineering has two steps. First, he cites evidence for the partial genetic determination of traits ranging from muscle mass to intelligence to homosexuality. Then, noting a history of accelerating technical success, he suggests that it's just a matter of time before we can reliably engineer these traits into our offspring.

This is a subtle mixture of truth and nonsense that desperately needs sorting out. Yes, we can be sure that more and more genetic "causes" for this and that will be found, much as we have been finding one substance after another that "causes" cancer. In fact, one can say with a great deal of confidence that nearly everything, in some amount and via some possible pathway, can meaningfully be linked to cancer or its avoidance. That's just the way organisms work; everything is related to everything else.

When we begin discovering that "everything" is causally related to a particular condition, we also begin realizing that we haven't learned much about the condition at all -- not, at least, so long as we remain stuck in this mechanistic, cause-and-effect mindset, disregarding the governing unity and expressive tendencies of the organism as a whole. And, indeed, while specific bits of knowledge about this or that particular "mechanism" of cancer have multiplied almost beyond all comprehension, it remains a live question whether we understand, any more than our grandparents did, why one individual develops cancer and another (who may have been subject to the same risk factors) does not. Genetic scientists are now well along the path toward a similar lesson.

The stunning technical progress McKibben traces has little bearing on this lesson. There is no doubt at all that our technical capabilities will continue to develop at an ever-accelerating pace. We will learn to stick this set of genes in that location with greater and greater precision. We will continue to overcome previously "unsurpassable" technical barriers. And we will declare our efforts successful or unsuccessful in willful ignorance of all the ways the organism has shifted its entire structure and way of being in response to the unasked-for invasion. It will be enough, for the priest-scientist, that some desired effect was noted. And, yes, McKibben is right: some of these effects will be commercially valuable. We can expect to see much of the technological sickness he describes.

But none of this represents success at the kind of global re-engineering of the organism and the individual that McKibben envisions. Certainly we can pursue such engineering in a negative sense, perhaps all the way to making the physical body humanly uninhabitable. We can throw up decisive genetic obstacles to the individual's self-expression through his own body -- we could, to be trivial, intentionally or unintentionally disable critical parts of the nervous system.

We will doubtless also be able to make some collection of changes known to have a bearing on, say, intelligence. But this is very different from a knowledgeable, systematic, or coherent redesign of the organism, which would require a different kind of science from what we now have. And it doesn't address the question of the individual self at all. If we pursue this path, we may arbitrarily interfere in the destinies of our fellows in countless novel ways, and we may count many isolated alterations as "improvements", but we will not be engineering superior human beings.

Intertwined Lives

McKibben is emphatically right in his central contention: the gene manipulators are promising us nothing less than disaster. But I think our only hope for avoiding the disaster lies in an ability to move beyond the current terms of the debate.

McKibben, as we saw, believes that if his parents had altered his body to make him a faster runner, it would have robbed his running of its meaning. But -- as he notes without adequately exploring the fact -- all parents do have the power to alter their children's bodies, and they always exercise that power. When we leave aside the fact that, by pairing off as they did, they determined a great deal about their offspring's genetic heritage, there remain all the effects of upbringing.

The quality of a child's diet, for example, can make the difference between a superb runner and an obese non-runner. The kind of activity -- or inactivity -- the parents encourage while young bones, muscles, and nerves are developing sets bounds to what the adult may eventually achieve. And parental carelessness -- or, worse, downright abuse -- may result in an injury radically limiting the child's potentials as a runner.

The young child can hardly be expected to override or control all such parental influences. Moreover, these influences extend beyond the body, into the innermost regions of the psyche. Whether a child is brimming with confidence, ready to take on every new challenge as a runner, or instead shies away from such challenges, may depend in part upon the parents' love and supportiveness.

The moral is simple: we are caught up in each other's destinies. There is no escaping the fact. This, however, is not to dismiss the importance of our interactions with each other as "merely routine". Quite the opposite. One way to put it is to say that McKibben's concern for the grave implications of genetic engineering should be extended to all those other ways in which we "engineer" one another's destiny. We may have taken these far too lightly. None of us becomes what he is alone.

But nothing in this line of thought justifies our arguing that, because DNA manipulation recklessly affects someone's destiny, this manipulation therefore reconstitutes the self or robs it of meaning. So far as I can tell, McKibben does not offer a single sentence in justification of this primary contention. A mere assumption -- and a pernicious one at that -- is the ruling center of his argument. Furthermore, the clear, if unspoken, implication of his argument is that, if your physical body and its chemistry have been dramatically and irreversibly shaped by an abusive parent or anyone else, then your life, too, must be to that extent meaningless.

"Germline engineering destroys the meaningful existence of the individual." I realize how hard it is to give up such a clear-cut line of defense when one feels under the shadow of an extreme danger. But surely our long-term hope hinges on truly outlining the danger rather than misrepresenting it.

Self and World

Any such assessment, it seems to me, must begin with this truth: the skin of our bodies does not constitute the boundary between self and world. Our physical bodies belong to the outer world, even though we obviously have a special relationship with this particular part of the world. And just as a "blow of destiny" from the world -- say, a freak, disabling injury to my body -- does not subvert that core place within me where I experience myself as a free and spiritual being -- neither do the assaults of the engineers upon my bodily DNA destroy this inner reality.

As Craig Holdrege makes clear in Genetics and the Manipulation of Life, the organism treats a bit of injected DNA much as it treats alien elements introduced into its external environment: it adapts in its own distinctive manner, an adaptation expressing its inner way of being (which is exactly what makes the organism-wide results of genetic engineering so unpredictable by an engineering mentality). Injuries, whether inflicted accidentally or by engineers, may severely limit our possibilities of expression in the world -- and may do so in morally reprehensible ways -- but this is not the same as destroying the self that responds freely and in its own way to these limitations.

McKibben describes the death of his childhood friend, Kathy, from cystic fibrosis. Pondering whether he would opt for germline engineering to overcome such a disease, he worries about the slippery slope this would put us on. The problem, he says, is that there is no clear line between repair of obvious disorders and the sort of enhancement that redefines the self:

Soon you're headed toward the world where Kathy's lungs work fine, but where her goodness, her kindness, don't mean what they did. Where someone's souping up her brains or regulating her temper, not just clearing up her mucus.

There is a slippery slope, and we should avoid it. But we can't choose to do so by losing sight of the individual who must do the choosing -- the individual who, for McKibben, seems always about to vanish into a set of controlling mechanisms.

Kathy's kindness could never mean in one situation what it meant in another. But this does not suggest the absence of her self in either case. We all know that it's much easier to be kind in social contexts where this is encouraged and supported from all sides. It's much harder in an every-man-for-himself environment. Kindness while under the influence of Prozac, and kindness while undergoing chemotherapy, may express quite different potentials of one's personality. But either there's a self capable of manifesting itself through all the differing physical and social conditions of the individual's life, or there isn't. And the conviction that there is -- a conviction that must underlie any solution to our current quandary -- is one that McKibben seems unable to muster with sufficient force to overcome the mindset of the engineer.

The self-doubt that McKibben ascribes to the patients of the engineer's power ("Is this really my character?") is self-doubt we ought to feel in any case, since we are always tempted to abdicate the self's true achievement by yielding to mechanism. Do my responses at this moment genuinely reflect the freedom of my self, or are they rather indicative of the good meal I just enjoyed -- or of the powerful hunger now voicing itself in my blood chemistry?

Or, if I am born with a temperament inclining me toward equanimity, I might well ask: how much of my deepest potential have I yet brought to birth through this physically mediated temperament? What new aspects of myself would I discover if I ventured into extreme circumstances forcing me out of the comfortable, rather too easy pattern of my life? Do I avoid new challenges precisely in order to preserve my highly valued equanimity?

Such questions about the conditioning factors of one's life do not testify to the loss of self; they are a deep expression of the self. They exemplify its power to transcend all material conditions. To question something is already to have separated one's essential identity from the thing. McKibben has it backward when he equates the physical body (DNA) with the self and deprecates the self's questioning of itself as lostness. His stance serves the purpose of the engineers perfectly. Discount the self that can question and rise above the material conditions of life, and all you have left is a mechanism fit for tinkering.

Freedom and Limitation

If it's true, as I have suggested, that we unavoidably affect each other's destinies -- for ill, but also for good -- then everything hinges upon our understanding of this mutuality. And the first thing to grasp is that healthy human exchange is, and is essentially, a matter of mutuality. We are called to engage each other in a mutually respectful dance or conversation, which is very different from unilateral manipulation. Conversation or manipulation: this is the decisive distinction.

Two people in conversation meet and accommodate to each other. Each gives and each receives -- the giving is prerequisite for the receiving and the receiving for the giving. The exchange is irreducibly moral, as is every meeting between self and other. I cannot talk about the good-for-me except in relation to the good-for-others. No human being grows and develops in the sense that counts most deeply except by helping others to grow and develop.

Such mutuality extends even to the relation between parent and tiniest child. Martha Beck's story in Expecting Adam (NF #102) reminds us in a startling way that a child, even a yet-unborn child, can speak powerfully in its own behalf, summoning from its environment the crucial elements of its destiny.

But we don't need such an extraordinary story in order to see the truth. Every attentive mother and father knows that their child, though lacking powers of intellectual articulation, has yet many voices for expressing its distinctive character and needs. Conscientious parents do not find themselves unilaterally determining the shape of their child's life; they are forever responding to what comes to meet them, which as often as not is unexpected. They struggle to make room for the unforeseen potentials the child is ceaselessly declaring.

This kind of mutuality characterizes all worthwhile human interaction. One result of this is that the Other, whose needs I must bear even as he bears mine, becomes not only essential to the realization of my destiny -- a gift to me -- but also a kind of burden, limiting my freedom. But the gift and the limitation are thoroughly intertwined, so that one turns out to be the face of the other.

In general, limitation and suffering, which we so often inflict upon each other, are inseparable from the highest gifts we receive. We must always work to overcome limitation and reduce suffering in the world, but if in this work we remain blind to their necessary and positive role, our work will be destructive.

Freedom is empty without the necessities that bind us. If we were able to act with complete, arbitrary abandon to achieve anything we wanted without restriction, it would mean we were able to do nothing significant. It would mean there was no constraining lawfulness, no order and regularity in the world, in which case our activity could have no coherent or meaningful effects. Without limitation and necessity (and the suffering they bring with them), there is no freedom.

Acting in Ignorance

Every philosopher who has ever looked at the problem of freedom and necessity has recognized this interweaving of the two. But if one or two of the vocal, best-selling advocates of eugenic engineering have ever attempted some such reflection, I haven't seen evidence of it. Those who speak of removing human limitation and going for perfection don't seem to have the slightest clue about the inseparability of meaningful achievement and limitation. And they appear perfectly content to talk about altering the physical "machinery" of the individual without any consideration of the mutuality essential to non-totalitarian human exchange.

What makes this infinitely worse is that, when they enter the laboratory, they don't know what they're doing -- a point McKibben unfortunately obscures with his unrealistic depiction of the state of the art. The genomic engineer is carrying out his manipulations in utter ignorance of their broad, ramifying effects, and is either unaware of his ignorance or, much more likely, frighteningly casual about it.

The bedrock principle of the organism, as I remarked above, is that everything is connected to everything else -- and in ways we have scarcely begun to understand. To alter the human genome today through the engineer's techniques is the moral equivalent of my flipping a coin to determine whether my child will be educated in a public school, on the streets, in my home, or in a prison for hardened felons. The difference, of course, is that I at least have a fair idea of the alternatives when I flip the coin; the genetic engineer who plays the DNA roulette wheel cannot begin to conceive the range of unknown but possible effects of this action -- effects that may continue on down the germ line through countless generations.

Perhaps you will ask, "How can an element of mutuality enter into the engineer's dealings with the yet-unborn -- or with the yet-unconceived?" If this seems to you an obvious impossibility, then that itself places a sobering question mark over these dealings. But if you are among those who see the citadel of materialism and mechanism being weakened and undermined from all sides, you may suspect that a mutual exchange between a parent and an incarnating child is not altogether unthinkable. In this case you cannot rule out, in absolute terms, all future application of genetic engineering techniques to the unborn -- assuming, of course, that we eventually get the kind of qualitative science that would make such techniques meaningful and reliable in their implications for the entire organism.

A Bifurcation of Humanity

A final note regarding the Lee Silvers, Hans Moravecs, and Ray Kurzweils (all leading characters in McKibben's book) and their tales of the twilight of the human race as we have known it. These would-be prophets of a post-human future have found a rewarding niche for themselves proclaiming in the most outrageously satisfied manner they can contrive, "The end is near!" We can learn a great deal from them about certain tendencies of the technological mindset, but not much at all about human freedom, the self, or truth, beauty, and goodness. To allow their rhetoric to determine the form of the discussion when you're concerned with responsible assessment of human nature and the shape of the future is to give up all clarity of thought at the very outset.

I will say for the "prophets", however, that they are justified in feeling a certain revulsion when they hear of absolute limits to human development, of challenges refused, of human achievement that has come far enough. They are correct: we will never have come far enough. Our dual responsibility is to accept our limits and to work against (or rise above) them in the knowledge that no limits are absolute just as no freedom is absolute. Our life is our growth and development -- growth and development within a context that forever limits, disciplines, and shapes us even as we forever re-shape and transcend it.

What the prognosticators miss is the crucial truth: in the end, all enduring achievements -- the only ones we can ever be satisfied with -- are inner ones. They are achievements of the spirit. The effort to conceive what we want in terms of outward mechanisms (which include the body's "mechanisms") is not a stretching toward new horizons, but a darkening of those horizons. The only truth in all the frenzy of post- human prediction is that we can, through inner abdication, bring about a twilight of the race. We are being urged toward this goal from all sides.

But perhaps "regression" is more accurate than "twilight". You can't read the futuristic scenarios and personal hopes of the re-engineers of humanity without being struck by the utter childishness of it all. Genetic modifications that will save us from the necessity of bodily excretion; nano-contrived plants that look exactly like orchids but can grow in frigid climes; robots that wait on us like slaves; a cyber-nano- genetically engineered "elite race of people who are smart, agile, and disease-resistant"; nanobot swarms able to wander the human bloodstream and keep us eternally healthy; technological horns of plenty that will convert every "desolate" village into "a Garden of Eden, with widescreen TVs and cappuccino machines for all"....and so on ad infinitum.

And many of these visions come from the same people who delight in ridiculing the "childish hopes" of the traditionally religious!

I offer a confession. I, too, think we may be headed toward the kind of two-class society many of the engineers envision. And I fear that the lower, "unenhanced" class will be left pitifully behind. But this underclass will consist of the infantilized portion of the race -- a group of people so mesmerized by what they see as the promise of technology that they will give up their own development. In their arrested, technology- fixated state, with their lightspeed tools of calculation and well-honed manipulative skills (wonderful pacifiers of the human spirit) they may, for who knows how long, wield the external power in society. But it will be the power of the child-tyrant. Meanwhile, a wiser humanity will continue maturing those inner powers of imaginative insight and moral resolve that just may, in the end, enable them to save the tyrants from themselves.

I wish I could say that Bill McKibben's opus is likely to encourage this wiser movement toward an ever-deepening human future. But a book that sows self-doubt in the face of the technological assault does not promise much encouragement.

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