Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature

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Overview


In an age when the nature of reality is complicated daily by advances in bioengineering, cloning, and artificial intelligence, it is easy to forget that the ever-evolving boundary between nature and technology has long been a source of ethical and scientific concern: modern anxieties about the possibility of artificial life and the dangers of tinkering with nature more generally were shared by opponents of alchemy long before genetic science delivered us a cloned sheep named Dolly.

In Promethean Ambitions, William R. Newman ambitiously uses alchemy to investigate the thinning boundary between the natural and the artificial. Focusing primarily on the period between 1200 and 1700, Newman examines the labors of pioneering alchemists and the impassioned—and often negative—responses to their efforts. By the thirteenth century, Newman argues, alchemy had become a benchmark for determining the abilities of both men and demons, representing the epitome of creative power in the natural world. Newman frames the art-nature debate by contrasting the supposed transmutational power of alchemy with the merely representational abilities of the pictorial and plastic arts—a dispute which found artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Bernard Palissy attacking alchemy as an irreligious fraud. The later assertion by the Paracelsian school that one could make an artificial human being—the homunculus—led to further disparagement of alchemy, but as Newman shows, the immense power over nature promised by the field contributed directly to the technological apologetics of Francis Bacon and his followers. By the mid-seventeenth century, the famous "father of modern chemistry," Robert Boyle, was employing the arguments of medieval alchemists to support the identity of naturally occurring substances with those manufactured by "chymical" means.

In using history to highlight the art-nature debate, Newman here shows that alchemy was not an unformed and capricious precursor to chemistry; it was an art founded on coherent philosophical and empirical principles, with vocal supporters and even louder critics, that attracted individuals of first-rate intellect. The historical relationship that Newman charts between human creation and nature has innumerable implications today, and he ably links contemporary issues to alchemical debates on the natural versus the artificial.

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Editorial Reviews

Nature - David Knight

"Newman is a prominent among the historians of science who have shown how important alchemy was as a part of the serious 'chymistry' of Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and their contemporaries. In this book, he looks at the divide between 'art,' which used to mean anything productive involving artifice and forethought, and 'nature,' as illuminated in discussions of, and laboratory and clinical practice in, alchemy. . . . Newman, a clear and graceful writer, keeps his goal in view. He is an initiate--tapping, testing and transmuting--until something different, still called alchemy, gradually takes shape."
New York Times - Ed Rothstein

"A clear and graceful writer.... Mr. Newman argues that most current debates about boundaries between nature and artifice, or boundaries between proper and improper scientific exploration, echo debates that run through the history of alchemy. Critics of alchemy argued that the natural world could not be replicated or improved and that such goals should not be pursued. Advocates found porous boundaries between nature that could be explored and tested."
New Scientist - Simon Ings

"With close attention to historical and textual detail that is never less than engaging, Newman unpicks the historical accidents and political machinations that led to alchemy's marginalisation, bringing sympathy, wit and imagination to his account."
Washington Times - Eric Wargo

"William R. Newman shows that debating the ethical limits of human meddling in nature--even over creating artificial life in the laboratory--has a remarkably long history, going back well before the scientific revolution."
Science - Iwan Rhys Morus

"Newman chooses the fascinating topic of alchemy as his case study in the long history of human efforts to breach the barriers between nature and human artifice. . . . A thought-provoking book. "
American Historical Review - John Hedley Brooke

"By uncovering within scholasticism an alchemical lineage in which knowledge was made by making things, not merely by contemplating their essences, [Newman] is able to launch a powerful critique of a conventional wisdom that such an innovation had to wait for Francis Bacon."
Journal of Chemical Education - Pedro J. Bernal

""[The book] is rich in nuance and detail, but it is also readable. . . . For those interested in the history and cultural importance of alchemy, it is a must-read. If in a moment of scientific triumphalism one is tempted to ask, 'What are the humanities for?' this book answers the question. . . . Read Newman and you will understand why Newton was an alchemist and why, dear reader, if you are a chemist, you are one, too."
Wall Street Journal - Russell Seitz

One of the Wall Street Journal's "Five Best Science Books--2006"
 
“As William R. Newman reminds us in Promethean Ambitions, his fascinating history of alchemy, the failure to distinguish good science from bad has been a recipe for policy disaster for centuries. Newman shows that alchemists were more than dreamers trying to convert lead into gold. From 1200 to 1700, they followed trends in metaphysical fashion by trying to create tiny humans, called homunculi. One hears echoes of today’s cloning debates in the 16th-century wrangling over the moral status of these imaginary creatures.”
Chemical Heritage - Kathleen R. Sands

"Newman's book, a masterpiece of historical synthesis, leads the reader through all sorts of topics, including the shape-shifting of early modern witches, the possibility of demonic assistance in the creation of trompe-l'oeil effects, Leonardo da Vinci's pigment recipes. . . . The weaving of these threads into Newman's careful and scholarly explication of alchemy's history enlivens that history and validates alchemy as an important and influential contributor the the Western intellectual tradition."
Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences - Walter W. Woodward

"Newman's book will reward readers interested or involved in biogenetics or bioengineering, as well as historians and philsophers of science. The former will find a background for contextualizing the ethical dilemmas they face; the latter will find a powerful example of their discipline at its most thoughtful."
Bulletin for the History of Chemistry - Peter J. Ramberg

"Promethean Ambitions is extraordinarily rich in detail. . . . An important and ambitious book that will reward the careful reader."
Journal of Interdisciplinary History - Tara E. Nummedal

"Promethean Ambitions demonstrates Newman's mastery of the alchemical textual tradition; he is at his best when reconstructing the long afterlife of specific medieval arguments and showing how Renaissance artists and seventeenth-century natural philosophers alike engaged them even as they turned them to new ends....This erudite book is an important contribution to the intellectual history of art and nature in medieval and early modern Europe."

Technology and Culture - Deborah E. Harkness

"In this important new book, William Newman uncovers the surprisingly long history of modern debates concerned with delineating the natural and the artificial by exploring the philosophical underpinnings of alchemy from the ancient world to the period of the Scientific Revolution. With his characteristic command of difficult primary sources and his flair for framing provocative, historically nuanced arguments based on formidable archival research, Newman succeeds in bringing together the ancient myth of Daedalus and the modern concerns about Dolly the cloned sheep."
Ambix - John T. Young

"Newman's own ambitions in this volume verge on the Promethean, and there are points at which the sheer wealth of material under discussion threatens to overwhelm the coherence and comprehensibility of his arguments. However, given a work of such range and quality--deeply serious but often entertaining, challenging but never tendentious, erudite but eminently readable--it seems churlish to grumble about an embarrassment of rishes."
Choice

"Thesis aside, read this book for lurid, colorful detrails about such figures as Zosimos and Paracelsus."
Nature
Newman is a prominent among the historians of science who have shown how important alchemy was as a part of the serious 'chymistry' of Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton and their contemporaries. In this book, he looks at the divide between 'art,' which used to mean anything productive involving artifice and forethought, and 'nature,' as illuminated in discussions of, and laboratory and clinical practice in, alchemy. . . . Newman, a clear and graceful writer, keeps his goal in view. He is an initiate—tapping, testing and transmuting—until something different, still called alchemy, gradually takes shape.

— David Knight

New York Times
A clear and graceful writer.... Mr. Newman argues that most current debates about boundaries between nature and artifice, or boundaries between proper and improper scientific exploration, echo debates that run through the history of alchemy. Critics of alchemy argued that the natural world could not be replicated or improved and that such goals should not be pursued. Advocates found porous boundaries between nature that could be explored and tested.

— Ed Rothstein

New Scientist
With close attention to historical and textual detail that is never less than engaging, Newman unpicks the historical accidents and political machinations that led to alchemy's marginalisation, bringing sympathy, wit and imagination to his account.

— Simon Ings

Washington Times
William R. Newman shows that debating the ethical limits of human meddling in nature—even over creating artificial life in the laboratory—has a remarkably long history, going back well before the scientific revolution.

— Eric Wargo

Science
Newman chooses the fascinating topic of alchemy as his case study in the long history of human efforts to breach the barriers between nature and human artifice. . . . A thought-provoking book.

— Iwan Rhys Morus

Choice
"Thesis aside, read this book for lurid, colorful detrails about such figures as Zosimos and Paracelsus."
American Historical Review
By uncovering within scholasticism an alchemical lineage in which knowledge was made by making things, not merely by contemplating their essences, [Newman] is able to launch a powerful critique of a conventional wisdom that such an innovation had to wait for Francis Bacon.

— John Hedley Brooke

Journal of Chemical Education
[The book] is rich in nuance and detail, but it is also readable. . . . For those interested in the history and cultural importance of alchemy, it is a must-read. If in a moment of scientific triumphalism one is tempted to ask, 'What are the humanities for?' this book answers the question. . . . Read Newman and you will understand why Newton was an alchemist and why, dear reader, if you are a chemist, you are one, too.

— Pedro J. Bernal

Wall Street Journal
One of the Wall Street Journal's "Five Best Science Books—2006"

 

“As William R. Newman reminds us in Promethean Ambitions, his fascinating history of alchemy, the failure to distinguish good science from bad has been a recipe for policy disaster for centuries. Newman shows that alchemists were more than dreamers trying to convert lead into gold. From 1200 to 1700, they followed trends in metaphysical fashion by trying to create tiny humans, called homunculi. One hears echoes of today’s cloning debates in the 16th-century wrangling over the moral status of these imaginary creatures.”

— Russell Seitz

Chemical Heritage
Newman's book, a masterpiece of historical synthesis, leads the reader through all sorts of topics, including the shape-shifting of early modern witches, the possibility of demonic assistance in the creation of trompe-l'oeil effects, Leonardo da Vinci's pigment recipes. . . . The weaving of these threads into Newman's careful and scholarly explication of alchemy's history enlivens that history and validates alchemy as an important and influential contributor the the Western intellectual tradition.

— Kathleen R. Sands

Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences
Newman's book will reward readers interested or involved in biogenetics or bioengineering, as well as historians and philsophers of science. The former will find a background for contextualizing the ethical dilemmas they face; the latter will find a powerful example of their discipline at its most thoughtful.

— Walter W. Woodward

Bulletin for the History of Chemistry
Promethean Ambitions is extraordinarily rich in detail. . . . An important and ambitious book that will reward the careful reader.

— Peter J. Ramberg

Journal of Interdisciplinary History
Promethean Ambitions demonstrates Newman's mastery of the alchemical textual tradition; he is at his best when reconstructing the long afterlife of specific medieval arguments and showing how Renaissance artists and seventeenth-century natural philosophers alike engaged them even as they turned them to new ends....This erudite book is an important contribution to the intellectual history of art and nature in medieval and early modern Europe.

— Tara E. Nummedal

Technology and Culture
In this important new book, William Newman uncovers the surprisingly long history of modern debates concerned with delineating the natural and the artificial by exploring the philosophical underpinnings of alchemy from the ancient world to the period of the Scientific Revolution. With his characteristic command of difficult primary sources and his flair for framing provocative, historically nuanced arguments based on formidable archival research, Newman succeeds in bringing together the ancient myth of Daedalus and the modern concerns about Dolly the cloned sheep.

— Deborah E. Harkness

Ambix
Newman's own ambitions in this volume verge on the Promethean, and there are points at which the sheer wealth of material under discussion threatens to overwhelm the coherence and comprehensibility of his arguments. However, given a work of such range and quality—deeply serious but often entertaining, challenging but never tendentious, erudite but eminently readable—it seems churlish to grumble about an embarrassment of rishes.

— John T. Young

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226575247
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/1/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author


William R. Newman is the Ruth N. Halls Professor in the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University. He is the author of Gehennical Fire and, with Lawrence M. Principe, Alchemy Tried in the Fire, both published by the University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations
Acknowledgments
A Note on Terminology
Abbreviations
Introduction. From Alchemical Gold to Synthetic Humans: The Problem of the Artificial and the Natural
1. Imitating, Challenging, and Perfecting Nature: The Arts and Alchemy in European Antiquity
2. Alchemy and the Art-Nature Debate
3. The Visual Arts and Alchemy
4. Artificial Life and the Homunculus
5. The Art-Nature Debate and the Issue of Experiment
Afterword. Further Ramifications of the Art-Nature Debate
References
Index
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First Chapter

Promethean Ambitions

Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature
By William R. Newman

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2004 University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-57712-0


Introduction

From Alchemical Gold to Synthetic Humans: The Problem of the Artificial and the Natural

Many of us feel besieged by the rapidly eroding boundaries between the realms of the artificial and the natural. Not only does nature itself appear to be experiencing an unparalleled threat from environmental degradation and human encroachment on what once was wilderness, but the very concept of nature as an intelligible category seems increasingly remote. After all, we live in the era of "Frankenfoods," cloning, in vitro fertilization, synthetic polymers, Artificial Intelligence, and computer generated "Artificial Life." Pope John Paul II, driven by fears that the impact of biomedical research on human nature will soon deprive life of its dignity, warns of the "Promethean ambitions" implicit as he sees it in much contemporary science. But the artistic world too offers challenges to the category of the natural-consider the emergence of transgenic art, which claims to have produced a bioluminescent rabbit by means of DNA extracted from jellyfish. All of these technological marvels impinge on areas that, in the not-too-distant past, seemed to belong to a domain beyond the power of humankind. We are worried, and perhaps rightly so.

Part of our fear stems from the feeling that humans are being increasingly outclassed by machines. Not only has our biological champion, Garry Kasparov, been defeated at the hand of the robotic chess master Deep Blue-we are now beginning to observe the animated products of Computer Graphics Imaging substitute for living actors in film and television. The farcical events surrounding Andrew Niccol's virtual actress in the recent film Simone stem from genuine apprehensions about the replacement of real humans by animated screen images. Even fashion models are beginning to feel threatened by their virtual counterparts-the New York Times has reported that modeling agencies have begun using cyberspace personalities such as "Webbie Tookay" in their clothing advertisements. The founder of a famous model-management company expounds his semijocular wish that "all models were virtual," in view of their "hassle-free" personalities and their ability to keep looking good over the long haul. The virtual model, a two-dimensional creature of unthinking electrons impelled by human artifice, could end up replacing her (or his) natural exemplar.

But is the phenomenon of "art" (or as we now say, technology) impinging on nature really a new thing, and is our attendant anxiety a novel sentiment? Clearly the answer must be no, since Leon R. Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, recently raised a minor sensation by assigning Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1843 story, "The Birth-Mark," to his fellow committee members as required reading for their deliberations on human cloning. A closer connection with the theme of the present book cannot be imagined. The principal character of Hawthorne's story is a chemist named Aylmer, who is obsessed with the desire to remove a hand-shaped birthmark from the cheek of his wife Georgiana, a faultless beauty in every respect other than this blemish. With Georgiana's consent, Aylmer concocts an elixir that succeeds in eliminating the birthmark, but with one unfortunate side effect-it also kills Georgiana. Hawthorne ends the story with an explicit moral:

had Aylmer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness, which would have woven his mortal life of the self-same texture with the celestial. The momentary circumstance was too strong for him; he failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of Time, and living once for all in Eternity, to find the perfect Future in the present.

Kass and his committee members broadcast a related message in Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President's Council on Bioethics-we should ban human cloning in all areas of research, whether intended for producing children or for biomedical purposes. Otherwise we run the risk of tampering too eagerly with nature, and may, like Aylmer, succeed in destroying the very humanity that we desire to improve.

Whatever the reader may think of Kass and his report, one must sympathize with the council's desire to find some grounding in tradition for the profound ethical dilemmas that surround our increasing power over nature. There is every reason to seek moral guidance in the classics of literature. But there are dangers as well as benefits to such an approach. The key problem, illustrated clearly by the council's published discussion, stems from the treatment of literature in a historical vacuum. By looking at "The Birth-Mark" as an atemporal index of human repulsion to the hubris inherent in "the pursuit of perfection," one commits the fallacy of reification. With all due respect to the council, our reaction to Aylmer is not a "natural" or "necessary" one born of universal, diachronic human emotion without the aid of prior tutelage. Nor did Hawthorne merely draw on his own sense of moral outrage to "invent" the subject about which he wrote so skillfully. Indeed, the council's discussion failed to notice that Hawthorne himself, in composing "The Birth-Mark," drew upon a much older tradition of debating the hubris implicit in human beings' godlike power over the natural world. That tradition forms the subject of Promethean Ambitions.

Even the most casual reader of Hawthorne cannot fail to see that the "chemist" Aylmer is really an alchemist. After presenting a number of traditional "natural magic" demonstrations to Georgiana, such as the magic lantern, camera obscura, and artificial rebirth or "palingenesis" of a plant, Aylmer launches into an enthusiastic discussion of alchemy, describing "the universal solvent, by which the Golden Principle might be elicited from all things vile and base," and the Elixir Vitae that could indefinitely prolong life. As though these well-worn themes were not enough to identify Aylmer's alchemical lineage, Hawthorne later has Georgiana rummage through her husband's library, finding tomes by Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Roger Bacon, all famous medieval and early modern writers on alchemy and the occult sciences. All of this is obvious to the reader. What is not immediately evident, however, is that the very language in which Hawthorne clothes his discussion of the powers of art versus nature is itself drawn from a centuries-old debate about the legitimacy of alchemy and its claim to refashion nature in the image of man. If we are going to view current debates on the limits of science in the context of literary traditions, it is imperative that we fully understand the history of the alchemical debate upon which Hawthorne and similar authors drew.

In Hawthorne's words, the alchemists "imagined themselves to have acquired from the investigation of nature a power over nature." Like them, Aylmer had "faith in man's ultimate control over nature." But the omniscient narrator of "The Birth-Mark" points out that in reality, nature "permits us indeed to mar, but seldom to mend, and, like a jealous patentee, on no account to make." Throughout the present book we will meet these three categories time and time again-perverting nature, perfecting nature, and creating nature anew. These were traditional distinctions employed countless times by alchemists and their detractors in order to defend or defeat the art. When Aylmer finally announces to Georgiana that he must "change your entire physical system" in order to eliminate her birthmark, he verges on the third category, a transmutation in all respects as complete as the alchemical conversion of base metal into gold. Even the preliminary demonstration that Aylmer gives of his elixir, rejuvenating a dying geranium by pouring the liquid on its roots, finds its sources in alchemy. The first famous scientist of the American colonies, "Eirenaeus Philalethes" or George Starkey, used the rejuvenation of a withered peach tree by the alchemical elixir as a means of broadcasting his own transmutational prowess.

It is no accident that Hawthorne chose alchemy to illustrate the conflict of art and nature, or that the same cast of alchemists and magicians-including Agrippa, Paracelsus, and Albert-appears in the early education of Mary Shelley's character, Victor Frankenstein. In Shelley's novel it is again the traditional upholders of the occult sciences-and particularly alchemy-who profess the wisdom that Frankenstein updates by more modern means to produce his monster. But as with Hawthorne, Shelley was not creating this fantasy or its attendant philosophical dilemmas out of whole cloth. This book will show that medievals and early moderns alike were already deeply concerned with such issues as artificial human life and the identity of synthetic products with their natural counterparts, topics of profound interest both to alchemists and to their opponents. Not only did such topics raise the general religious problem that man seemed to be usurping the creative powers of his own maker; they also evoked a host of more specific objections. Consider some of the following historical examples.

Let us imagine that humans could produce a laboratory mouse by artificial means, assembling the proper ingredients and subjecting them to heat and moisture in a controlled environment, a feat that most medievals and early moderns believed to be within the realm of possibility. Would this mouse then be the same as its sexually generated counterpart? Not if one consults the twelfth-century Arabic philosopher Averroes, who explicitly raises this puzzle. Even if the two mice look and act exactly the same, the artificial mouse will not be genuine. Averroes explicitly applied the same argument to the gold produced by alchemists. No matter how closely the artificial product matched the properties of its natural exemplar, the two would be separated by an unbridgeable gulf. Who has not heard this sort of argument employed by modern proponents of vitamin C from rose hips and other natural food products? Even if they have the same molecular structure, the natural and the artificial are assumed to be different. And lest we prejudice the discussion, it must be admitted that vitamin C from natural sources may well contain impurities that do make it differ from the pure, synthesized variety. Even if we could not perceive these differences with our most powerful tests, they might still be present. Does this mean, then, that the synthetic version of the chemical is fake? And if that is so, does it follow that a sheep cloned from mammary cells like the famous Dolly is a fake sheep? Averroes and his followers would have responded with a resounding yes.

The stakes, of course, were raised when premodern thinkers turned from spontaneously generated mice to the artificial production of human life. Here one encountered a host of concerns beyond the mere identity of the artificial and natural product, though that remained a problem too, of course. Let us imagine that a human being could be made by placing the proper progenerative fluids in a flask and subjecting the apparatus to an incubating heat. In the era of in vitro fertilization, this is not a huge stretch of the imagination, even if modern biologists have not yet replaced the human womb as an instrument of gestation. But many premodern thinkers were also capable of believing this eventuality, if their Aristotelian biology was only given a modest bit of fine-tuning. The homunculus, or miniature human created in an alchemical flask, was a topic of discussion already among the medieval Arabs. Could one use this form of generation to alter the sexuality of the child? Why not make a being of extraordinary intelligence, with powers denied to the offspring of normal sexual generation? Was it permissible to use the bodily fluids of the homunculus as a means of curing dangerous diseases? Have we not heard all of these questions discussed recently in the controversy surrounding the artificial selection of gender, the prenatal modification of biological traits, and the use of fetal tissue for medical purposes?

As in the contemporary incarnation of these questions, the medievals and early moderns felt that they were coming perilously close to playing god and transgressing the boundaries imposed on man and nature by a wise Creator. Like many a contemporary critic of cloning, premodern opponents of artificial life feared the implication that the laboratory worker could create a soul on demand. The famous Catalan physician of the late thirteenth century, Arnald of Villanova, was said to have smashed his gestating homunculus before it could acquire a rational soul, driven by the fear that this would be a mortal sin. Others worried over a different implication of the homunculus. Like Leon Kass and the members of his presidential council-fearing the "manufacture" of human beings and the consequent dehumanization that this might imply-early modern theologians already worried that humanity would soon be relegated to the status of a soulless artisanal product. Over a century after Arnald, his story was still told, with the added concern that the making of such a test tube baby would diminish the role of the human mother, demoting her to the status of a hollow flask. Others, however, were not beset by such worries. Some sixteenth-century followers of the outrageous medical and chymical writer Paracelsus had no problem with the gender-altering connotations of the homunculus. By segregating the male and female generative fluids, they believed that they could separate out the sexual characteristics of their artificial beings and produce a "pure" male and a "pure" female. The ruminations on this experiment are strangely reminiscent of the infatuation that ectogenesis and artificial parthenogenesis hold for modern advocates of biotechnology as a tool of attaining sexual equality, from J. B. S. Haldane in the 1920s to contemporary exponents of radical lesbian feminism. Babies produced in bottles, their sex and other characteristics predetermined in the laboratory, form a desideratum extending well into the Middle Ages.

There is another area as well where the contemporary infringement of technology on nature had prescient underpinnings in the world of premodern Europe. We are accustomed to thinking of the current rivalry between science and the combined arts and humanities as following on the heels of the Second Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century. As industry and wealth have come to rely ever more on the fruits of applied science and high technology, the place of the arts and humanities has suffered a concomitant erosion. Yet already in the sixteenth century, many artists strongly believed that alchemy had imposed on their discipline and that the claims of the aurific art should be combated.

Continues...


Excerpted from Promethean Ambitions by William R. Newman Copyright © 2004 by University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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