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Why the recent article in Nature calling for Wallace recognition is right AND wrong

George W. Beccaloni and Vincent S. Smith of The Natural History Museum (London) recently drew attention to the nearly forgotten figure of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) in Nature vol. 451.28 (February 2008): 1050.  Bemoaning “how Wallace’s achievements have been overshadowed by Darwin’s . . ., a process certainly not helped by the Darwin ‘industry’ of recent decades,” the authors call for a revision of “the current darwinocentric view of the history of biology.”  Few among this blog could dissent from such a bold proposal.  Beccaloni and Smith would like the focus to be upon the reading of Darwin and Wallace’s seminal papers to the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858, with due recognition accorded Wallace for his joint discovery of natural selection.  Published one month later, this most surely was a major turning point in the history of the biological sciences and in that regard one can hardly find fault with the simple but instructive point that for all the Darwin Day hype, natural selection was indeed a joint discovery.

Yet this in itself fails to do justice to Wallace.  The theory Wallace developed from years of field experience in the Mayla Archipelago did not end with that 1858 reading; in fact, it was just the beginning of an intellectual odyssey that would find fullest expression in what might arguably be regarded as his magnum opus, The World of Life: a Manifestation of Creative Power, Directive Mind and Ultimate Purpose, published just three years before his death in 1913.  That book more than any other expressed Wallace’s fullest and most complete views on the subject of evolution.  While Beccaloni and Smith want us to remember Wallace’s discovery, I suggest a fuller reflection upon what that discovery meant to Wallace and to the biological sciences will uncover a wholly different kind of evolutionary scenario than that fashioned by Darwin, Huxley and their X-Club fellow travelers.  In short, I call for not a recognition of Wallace within this much-touted Darwinian context but rather upon Wallace as the originator of an independent design-centered view best expressed as Wallaceism.  What precisely that means requires some explanation.

In order for Wallace’s views to make sense some historiographical rubbish needs to be cleared out of the way.  It should be pointed out from the outset that, not surprisingly, Wallace’s contributions to science have suffered at the hands of Darwinist biographers.  Typcial is Peter Raby’s  Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life (2002).  Raby reiterates the standard accusation that Wallace’s career plummeted from his gullibility and persistent adherence to spiritualism.  This, Raby insists, caused Wallace to be ostracized and ultimately marginalized by his scientific peers.  Similarly, Michael Shermer’s In Darwin’s Shadow: the Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace: a Biographical Study on the Psychology of History (2002) dismisses much of Wallace’s professional life as the product of a “heretic personality.”  Shermer’s biography degenerates into an inconsistently applied psycho analysis that sheds no new light on Wallace or his career.  As such it offers little over Wallace’s own autobiography My Life (1908), which is at least a more honest account sans the Shermer psychobabble. 

This propensity for psycho analyzing Wallace is nothing new.   Ernest Jones, writing in 1959 for example, compared the reactions of Darwin and Wallace for their respective theories of natural selection and evolution on natural theology:    “One of them, Darwin, the one who stood in such awe of his own father, said it was ‘like committing murder’ – as, indeed, it was unconsciously; in fact, a parricide.  He paid the penalty in a crippling and lifelong neurosis, and in an astonishing display of modesty, hesitancy, and dubiety concerning his work.  The other, A. R. Wallace, compensated for the displacement of the supernatural by bringing it back in another sphere, by his quite naïve adherence to spiritistic beliefs”   (Free Associations: The Memoirs of a Psychoanalyst [1959; reprinted, Edison, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1990], pp. 193-194).   Little is gained in such subjective accounts and indeed they have helped to ossify stereotypes that had emerged even within Darwin and Wallace’s own lifetimes.

Much better is Ross A. Slotten’s Heretic in Darwin’s Court: The Life of Alfred Russel Wallace (2004).  Meticulously researched, no other source gives more intimate details than this 602-page biography.  But Slotten’s approach tends to be rather plodding and pedestrian, offering much in the way of minutia with little assessment and contextual analysis.  Nevertheless, Slotten gives a sympathic account worth reading.

Fortunately, there is a biographer who has managed to avoid all these pitfalls; it is Martin Fichman, whose An Elusive Victorian: The Evolution of Alfred Russel Wallace (2004) presents the clearest and most thoroughly researched account of the man and his theory.  For Fichman, Wallace’s teleological worldview was not the product of a change of heart or a byproduct of his spiritualism.  Rather, he sees Wallace as holding views that were implicitly teleological almost from the beginning.  “Wallace’s emerging evolutionary worldview,” he insists, “was compatible with a broader spritual and teleological framework that would become more overt on his return to England [from the Malay Archipelago]” (p. 34).  Why the shift in Wallace’s emphasis?  The reason, as Fichman tells it, is that early on Wallace’s chief interest was in establishing the scientific viability of natural selection.  Robert Chambers’ highly speculative work on evolution, Vestiges (1844), sparked more resistance and controversy to the theory than it gained supporters, and Wallace understood the need to establish an evolutionary theory that would improve upon Chambers work and answer the critics.  Thus, never would Wallace and Darwin be closer companions than when their joint paper was read in that summer of 1858.  As Fichman puts it, “Wallace’s comparative silence . . . on the teleological components of his evolutionism comes as no surprise.  He recognized that the battle in 1859 turned on defending the Origin to the scientific community and the broader public” (p. 80).  But in time all that would change, most especially as Darwin himself more explicitly laid bare his trenchant materialism and as his “Bulldog”Huxley increasingly made the case for a more explicitly naturalistic selection.

It was on the relation of natural selection to man that Wallace and Darwin would part company.  In the April 1869 issue of The Quarterly Review Wallace, in a review of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology and his Elements of Geology, declared that the human brain simply could not be accounted for by the operations of natural selection.  He concluded his essay by stating, “Let us fearlessly admit that the mind of man (itself the living proof of a supreme mind) is able to trace, and to a considerable extent has traced, the laws by means of which the organic no less than the inorganic world has developed.  But let us not shut our eyes,” he added, “to the evidence that an Overruling Intelligence has watched over the action of those laws, so directing variations and so determining their accumulation, as finally to produce an organization sufficiently perfect to admit of, and even to aid in, the indefinite advancement of our mental and moral nature” (394). 

Those harboring notions of theistic-friendly Darwinian evolution need only to honestly admit the harsh reaction of the Down House patriarch to reassess their position.  Darwin was appalled, scratching a triple underscored NO in the margin.   Darwin told Lyell he was “dreadfully disappointed” in Wallace.  Writing to Wallace, Darwin “groaned” over his position on man and evolution ending with, ”Your miserable friend, C. Darwin.”

Speculations on the reasons for Wallace’s break abound.  Gould claims it was his rigid view of natural selection; Malcolm Kottler believes that Wallace “changed his mind” as a result of his conversion to spiritualism; and Shermer, who elevates NOMA to new heights, believes it was an overarching “scientism” that caused Wallace to intrude teleology into his evolutionary theory, a charge that doesn’t even pass the laugh test.  Fichman’s thesis that Wallace’s views demonstrate an incipient teleology even in his days in the Maylasian islands – indeed even being spawned and fostered there – are compelling.  Neither Gould nor Kottler nor Shermer address the most obvious consideration: perhaps Wallace genuinely felt that there were clear limits to natural selection in explaining life in all its complexity.

In 1888 Wallace wrote Darwinism: An Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection With Some of Its Applications.  Although, as mentioned before, his World of Life represents the fullest, most mature development of his evolutionary theory, chapter 15 of Darwinism encapsulates much of his teleogical views.  They are worth reading and offer a window into what I believe to be one of the first expressions modern intelligent design.  I therefore have reproduced Wallace’s most salient comments below. 

But first a brief preface is in order.  Wallace opens his chapter by agreeing that natural selection accounts for much in the natural world, even the human form.  The unique properties of the brain, however, are another matter.  Wallace proceeds to demonstrate that, Darwin’s elaborate speculations in his Descent of Man (1871) notwithstanding,  particular features of the human intellect simply could not have been the product of natural selection.  Humanity, in short, is more than the mere refinement of traits found in lower animals.  Mathematical skill, musical and artist appreciation and ability, humor, the capacity for metaphysics, none of these could be explained by way of natural selection processes.  This forms the context for his main thesis, namely, that humanity and its distinctiveness cannot be explained by Darwin’s strict materialism.

In reading Wallace a few caveats are in order.  First of all, Wallace, like Darwin and all their Victorian contemporaries, accepted racial distinctions and categories we would find offensively Eurocentric by modern standards.  Second, the reader should not be misled by Wallace’s constant use of the term “Darwinism.”  Wallace himself never abandoned the term Darwinism even though by the end of Wallace’s career people like Yale President Noah Porter were noticing the obvious differences.   Finally, A. A. W. Humbrecht in the November 1908 issue of Contmeporary Review called it what it was — Wallaceism.  Wallace himself didn’t like the term; he felt it made his theistic evolutionary beliefs more vulnerable to criticism.  Wallace tried to solve the problem of reconciling his evolutionary theory with Darwinism  by simply imputing his teleology to the term.  Many (in varying degrees) still try this approach today, but it simply doesn’t work.  It really is Wallaceism.  With this in mind, we pick up Wallace near the conclusion of his chapter.

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Chapter 15 – Darwinism Applied to Man

From Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwinism: an Exposition of the Theory of Natural Selection With Some of Its Applications. London: Macmillan, 1889.  Pp. 473-478.

The Interpretation of the Facts.

The facts now set forth prove the existence of a number of mental faculties which either do not exist at all or exist in a very rudimentary condition in savages, but appear almost suddenly and in perfect development in the higher civilised races.  These same faculties are further characterised by their sporadic character, being well developed only in a very small proportion of the community; and by the enormous amount of variation in their development, the higher manifestations of them being many times — perhaps a hundred or a thousand times — stronger than the lower.  Each of these characteristics is totally inconsistent with any action of the law of natural selection in the production of the faculties referred to; and the facts, taken in their entirety, compel us to recognise some origin for them wholly distinct from that which has served to account for the animal characteristics — whether bodily or mental — of man.

The special faculties we have been discussing clearly point to the existence in man of something which he has not derived from his animal progenitors — something which we may best refer to as being a spiritual essence or nature, capable of progressive development under favorable conditions.  On the hypothesis of this spiritual nature, superadded to the animal nature of man, we are able to understand much that is otherwise mysterious or unintelligable in regard to him, especially the enormous influence of ideas, principles, and beliefs over his whole life and actions.  Thus alone we can understand the constancy of the martyr, the unselfishness of the philanthropist, the devotion of the patriot, the enthusiasm of the artist, and the resolute and preserving search of the scientific worker after nature’s secrets.  Thus we may perceive that the love of truth, the delight in beauty, the passion for justice, and the thrill of exultation with which we hear of any act of courageous self-sacrifice, are the workings within us of a higher nature which has not been developed by means of the struggle for material existence.

It will, no doubt, be urged that the admitted continuity of man’s progress from the brute does not admit of the introduction of new causes, and that we have no evidence of the sudden change in nature which such introduction would bring about.  The fallacy as to new causes involving any breach of continuity, or any sudden or abrupt change, in the effects, has already been shown; but we will further point out that there are at least three stages in the development of the organic world when some new cause or power must necessarily have come into action.

The first stage is the change from inorganic to organic, when the earliest vegetable cell, or the living protoplasm out of which it arose, first appeared.  This is often imputed to a mere increase of complexity of chemical compounds; but increase of complexity, with consequent instability, even if we admit that it may have produced protoplasm as a chemical compound, could certainly not have produced any living protoplasm — protoplasm which has the power of growth and of reproduction, and of that continuous process of development which has resulted in the marvellous variety and complex organisation of the whole vegetable kingdom.  There is in all this something quite beyond and apart from chemical changes, however complex; and it has been well said that the first vegetable cell was a new thing in the world, possessing altogether new powers — that of extracting and fixing carbon from carbon dioxide of the atmosphere, that of indefinite reproduction, and, still more marvellous, the power of variation and of reproducing those variations till endless complications of structure and varieties of form have been the result.  Here, then, we have indications of a new power at work, which we may term vitality, since it gives to certain forms of matter all those characters and properties which constitute life.

The next stage is still more marvellous, still more completely beyond all possibility of explanation by matter, its laws and forces.  It is the introduction of sensation or consciousness, constituting the fundamental distinction between animal and vegetable kingdoms.  Here all idea of mere complication of structure producing the result is out of the question.  We feel it altogether preposterous to assume that at a certain stage of complexity of atomic constitution, and as a necessary result of that complexity alone, an ego should start into existence, a thing that feels, that is conscious of its own existence.  Here we have the certainty that something new has arisen, a being whose nascent consciousness has gone on increasing in power and definiteness till it has culminated in the higher animals.  No verbal explanation or attempt at explanation — such as the statement that life is the result of molecular forces of the protoplasm, or that the whole existing organic universe from the amæba up to man was latent in the fire-mist from which the solar system was developed — can afford any mental satisfaction, or help us in any way to a solution of the mystery.

The third stage is, as we have seen, the existence in man of a number of his most characteristic and noblest faculties, those which raise him furthest above the brutes and open up possibilities of almost infinite advancement.  These faculties could not possibly have been developed by means of the same laws which have determined the progressive development of the organic world in general, and also of man’s physical organism. (For an earlier discussion of this subject, with some wider applications, see the author’s Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection, chap. x.)

These three stages of progress from the inorganic world of matter and motion up to man, point clearly to an unseen universe — to a world of spirit, to which the world of matter is altogether subordinate.  To this spiritual world we may refer the marvellously complex forces which we know a gravitation, cohesion, chemical force, radiant force, and electricity, without which the material universe could not exist for a moment in its present form, and perhaps not at all, since without these forces, and perhaps others which may be termed atomic, it is doubtful whether matter itself could have any existence.  And still more surely can we refer to it those progressive manifestations of Life in the vegetable, the animal, and man — which we may classify as unconscious, conscious, and intellectual life — and which probably depend upon different degrees of spiritual influx.  I have already shown that this involves no necessary infraction of the law of continuity in physical or mental evolution; whence it follows that any difficulty we may find in discriminating the inorganic from the organic, the lower vegetable from the lower animal organisms, or the higher animals from the lowest types of man, has no bearing at all upon the question.  This is to be decided by showing that a change in essential nature (due, probably, to causes of a higher order than those of the material universe) took place at the several stages of progress I have indicated; a change which may be none the less real because absolutely imperceptible at its point of origin, as is the change that takes place in the curve in which a body is moving when the application of some new force causes the curve to be slightly altered.

Concluding Remarks.

Those who admit my interpretation of the evidence now aduced — strictly scientific evidence in its appeal to facts which are clearly what ought not to be on the materialistic theory — will be able to accept the spiritual nature of man, as not in any way inconsistent with the theory of evolution, but as dependent on those fundamental laws and causes which furnish the very material for evolution to work with.  They will also be releaved from the crushing mental burthen imposed upon those who — maintaining that we, in common with the rest of nature, are but products of the blind eternal forces of the universe, and believing also that the time must come when the sun will lose his heat and all life on the earth necessarily cease — have to contemplate a not very distant future in which all this glorious earth — which for untold millions of years has been slowly developing forms of life and beauty to culminate at last in man — shall be as if it never existed; who are compelled to suppose that all the slow growths of our race struggling towards a higher life, all the agony of martyrs, all the groans of victims, all the evil and misery and undeserved suffering of the ages, all the struggles for freedom, all the efforts towards justice, all the aspirations for virtue and the wellbeing of humanity, shall absolutely vanish, and, “like the baseless fabric of a vision, leave not a wrack behind.”

As contrasted with this hopeless and soul-deadening belief, we, who accept the existence of a spiritual world, can look upon the universe as a grand consistent whole adapted in all its parts to the development of spiritual beings capable of indefinite life and perfectibility.  To us, the whole purpose, the only raison d’être of the world — with all its complexities of physicial structure, with its grand geological progress, the slow evolution of the vegetable and animal kingdoms, and the ultimate appearance of man — was the development of the human spirit in association with the human body.  From the fact that the spirit of man — the man himself — is so developed, we may well believe that this is the only, or at least the best, way for its development; and we may even see in what is usually termed “evil” on the earth, one of the most efficient means of its growth.  For we know that the noblest faculties of man are strengthened and perfected by struggle and effort; it is by unceasing warefare against physical evils and in the midst of difficulty and danger that energy, courage, self-reliance, and industry have become the common qualities of the northern races; it is by the battle with moral evil in all its hydra-headed forms, that the still nobler qualities of justice and mercy and humility and self-savrifice have been steadily increased in the world.  Being thus trained and strengthened by their surroundings, and possessing latent faculties capable of such noble development, are surely destined for a higher and more permanent existence; and we may confidently believe with our greatest living poet –

That life is not as idle ore,

But iron dug from central gloom,

            And heated hot with burning fears

            And dipt in baths of hissing tears,

And batter’d with the shocks of doom

To shape and use.

We thus find that the Darwinian theory, even when carried out to its extreme logical conclusion, not only does not oppose, but lends a decided support to, a belief in the spiritual nature of man.  It shows us how man’s body may have been devloped from that of a lower animal form under the law of natural selection; but it also teaches us that we possess intellectual and moral faculties which could not have been so developed, but must have had another origin; and for this origin we can only find an adequate cause in the unseen universe of Spirit.

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10 Responses to Why the recent article in Nature calling for Wallace recognition is right AND wrong

  1. Natural selection was “discovered” before Darwin and Wallace, by a guy named Ed Blyth(e). And if we try we may even find someone discussed it before him.

  2. 2
    Granville Sewell

    Thanks Flannery for a great post.

    Probably Wallace’s objections to strictly naturalistic explanations of the origin of life and the human mind were not based on emotional problems he had with such explanations, but on the logical problems. Interesting how the motives of anyone who tries to re-insert design into any part of the story are called into question, even if that person is the co-author of the theory of evolution.

  3. Joseph,

    Edward Blyth wrote a series of articles in the 1830s discussing natural selection, but Blyth did not see natural selection in terms of evolving species but rather as restoring animals to their archetypes. In fact, Blyth was one of the first to appreciate the significance of Wallace’s seminal work in this area. So I really wouldn’t say Blyth in any sense “discovered” natural selection in the modern sense of its useage. He was a precursor much as Chambers had been with his Vestiges.

  4. Natural selection is somewhere in between what Darwin and Blyth described. As Richard Lewontin said in the Mazar article, “Natural Selection happens.” But it doesn’t have the power to produce what is not there.

    The gene pool of any population is limited and natural selection can only reshuffle the deck it has been given. Darwin assumed the deck had infinite variation so that all the species of the world were somewhere in the deck and only needed additional shuffles to reach each of these species. That was Darwin’s major mistake.

    So both Darwin and Blyth were correct but in reality Blyth’s understanding is closer to reality because the deck is limited.

    Natural selection gives us the richness of the life we see around us but it can only work with the cards it has been dealt.

  5. [...] From UD George W. Beccaloni and Vincent S. Smith of The Natural History Museum (London) recently drew attention to the nearly forgotten figure of Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) in Nature vol. 451.28 (February 2008): 1050. Bemoaning “how Wallace’s achievements have been overshadowed by Darwin’s . . ., a process certainly not helped by the Darwin ‘industry’ of recent decades,” the authors call for a revision of “the current darwinocentric view of the history of biology.” [...]

  6. 6

    Wallace is unacceptable as a founder of evolution theory because unlike Darwin he does not have the same official birthdate as Abraham Lincoln.

    A dispute over whether to add the Darwin-Lincoln birthdate coincidence to Darwin’s biography was one of the biggest edit wars in Wikipedia history:

    Is sharing a birthday with Abraham Lincoln important enough to include in the Charles Darwin article, or is it a bit of trivia that has no place in an encyclopedia? As of 4 February 2005, there has been an eight week-long revert war over a single sentence. . . . . . The discussions at Talk:Charles Darwin/Lincoln and LincolnArchive01, plus the arbitration pages amount to some 30,000 words, which is about the length of a short Agatha Christie novel. — from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W.....les_Darwin

    It was finally overwhelmingly decided to omit the coincidence. One advocate of including the coincidence reverted the Darwin biography 37 times — see
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T....._Debate.3F

    The solution under my proposed Wikipedia dispute resolution procedure would be to add the birthdate coincidence along with (1) a note that there is a dispute over whether including the coincidence is appropriate and (2) links to Wikipedian an external-website discussions and debates on the dispute.

    Despite the triviality of the coincidence, the Darwin Day celebrations include a Darwin-Lincoln essay contest.

    Ironically, we are not even sure of Lincoln’s actual birthdate — he was born on the frontier, where people tend to lose track of dates.

  7. Edward Blyth wrote a series of articles in the 1830s discussing natural selection, but Blyth did not see natural selection in terms of evolving species but rather as restoring animals to their archetypes.-Flannery

    Exactly. And what does observation tell us:

    Sexuality has brought joy to the world, to the world of the wild beasts, and to the world of flowers, but it has brought an end to evolution. In the lineages of living beings, whenever absent-minded Venus has taken the upper hand, forms have forgotten to make progress. It is only the husbandman that has improved strains, and he has done so by bullying, enslaving, and segregating. All these methods, of course, have made for sad, alienated animals, but they have not resulted in new species. Left to themselves, domesticated breeds would either die out or revert to the wild state—scarcely a commendable model for nature’s progress.

    (snip a few paragraphs on peppered moths)

    Natural Selection, which indeed occurs in nature (as Bishop Wilberforce, too, was perfectly aware), mainly has the effect of maintaining equilibrium and stability. It eliminates all those that dare depart from the type—the eccentrics and the adventurers and the marginal sort. It is ever adjusting populations, but it does so in each case by bringing them back to the norm. We read in the textbooks that, when environmental conditions change, the selection process may produce a shift in a population’s mean values, by a process known as adaptation. If the climate turns very cold, the cold-adapted beings are favored relative to others.; if it becomes windy, the wind blows away those that are most exposed; if an illness breaks out, those in questionable health will be lost. But all these artful guiles serve their purpose only until the clouds blow away. The species, in fact, is an organic entity, a typical form, which may deviate only to return to the furrow of its destiny; it may wander from the band only to find its proper place by returning to the gang.

    Everything that disassembles, upsets proportions or becomes distorted in any way is sooner or later brought back to the type. There has been a tendency to confuse fleeting adjustments with grand destinies, minor shrewdness with signs of the times.

    It is true that species may lose something on the way—the mole its eyes, say, and the succulent plant its leaves, never to recover them again. But here we are dealing with unhappy, mutilated species, at the margins of their area of distribution—the extreme and the specialized. These are species with no future; they are not pioneers, but prisoners in nature’s penitentiary.—geneticist Giuseppe Sermonti in “Why is a Fly Not a Horse?”

    So I really wouldn’t say Blyth in any sense “discovered” natural selection in the modern sense of its useage.–Flannery

    He described it for what it is. “It is what it is.”

  8. Joseph,

    All you say may, in fact, be true. Blyth’s scenario is more one of elimination rather than selection. Blyth nonetheless commended Wallace’s views. But far more importantly, all this is somewhat beside the point. The point is, even given the acknowledged co-discoveries of natural selection via Darwin/Wallace (Blyth notwithsanding), Wallace proves beyond doubt that Darwin’s theory was too overarching in its materialism and too confident in its naturalist explanations for all of creation to be the comprehensive model he claimed it to be. In short, Wallace demonstrates that evolution can be designed with natural selection subordinate to its designer. This is NOT the deistic secondary causes Darwin wanted to invoke either, because Wallace saw the process as proactive and proceeding not only with design but with intent. Of course this isn’t Darwinism anymore; it’s Wallaceism. Arguments about who “discovered” it first and third party contributions, revisions, objections, nuances, etc. (whatever their merit) really tend to fall into the enemies hands because it permits the continued marginalization of Wallace, and FOR SURE the last thing they want to have to deal with is a resurrected Wallaceism. It shows their NOMA to be a sham and allows for the open debate of design as a legitimate scientific project, something Wallace had always argued for. Incorporating Wallace into the legitimate historical heritage of ID stands Darwin on his head and points up the fact that natural selection can as easily lead to design as to materialism – Darwinism is not the only road. We can argue details later . . .

  9. [...] Also, why Darwin banished Wallace: [...]

  10. [...] Also, why Darwin banished Wallace: [...]

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