Managing Nature: On Recent Books About Conservation and Genetic Modification

John Dupré discusses recent science books about genetic modification, conservation, factory farming, and the effects of capitalism on ecology.

Managing Nature: On Recent Books About Conservation and Genetic Modification

Our Transgenic Future: Spider Goats, Genetic Modification, and the Will to Change Nature by Lisa Jean Moore. 232 pages.Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, & the Factory Farm by Alex Blanchette. Duke University Press. 320 pages.Strange Natures: Conservation in the Era of Synthetic Biology by Kent H. Redford and William M. Adams. Yale University Press. 296 pages.Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration by Laura J. Martin. Harvard University Press. 336 pages.

THE QUESTION OF OUR RELATIONSHIP to nature is a familiar but curious one. Humans comprise 34 percent of the mammals on earth and our livestock a further 62 percent, leaving just four percent as “wild.” Furthermore, 70 percent of birds are farmed poultry. And insect and fish numbers are everywhere in decline, overwhelmingly as a direct consequence of our activities. We have become the part of nature largely responsible for determining what happens to the rest. Hence, we have come to think of ourselves as more or less competent managers of nature. The books reviewed here examine the ways in which humans are currently shaping the state of life on our planet. They illuminate what exactly “managing nature” means in the 21st century.


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An obvious place to begin is with the 62 percent of mammals and 70 percent of birds that we rear for our own purposes. If anyone still imagines these animals living in a bucolic farmyard with chickens scratching in the dirt and a horse surveying the scene from a hay-filled stall, Alex Blanchette’s Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, & the Factory Farm tells us just how far we have come from there — and it is not a pretty place that we have reached.


Blanchette’s book is an ethnography of the industrial pig. It describes a part of post-manufacturing rural America given over entirely to their mass production. Striking features of this industrial landscape include vertical integration, with every stage of the pig’s life and death brought into a unified commercial enterprise, and also horizontal segregation. The constant threat of communicable disease means that the various pig stages — piglet-producing sows, semen-producing boars, and the rapidly fattening young pigs — are scrupulously separated from one another, and the workers engaged with each pig category are strongly discouraged from intermixing.


One perspective on this operation is as a constant battle between the unruliness of nature and the never-quite-attainable goal of complete homogenization and routinization of the life of the pig. This small victory by nature is most striking in the final and most shocking part of the pigs’ lives, when, in the factory Blanchette describes, up to 19,000 pigs a day are “disassembled” into cuts of meat and other products extracted from their corpses. Ideally, in the view of the managers of this system, the disassembly should be automated. Instead, this demands over 100 different human interventions. Currently, humans are not replaceable with machinery because the pigs refuse to become standardized enough for each to require precisely the same cut at each stage in the process.


The intensity of the drive to maximize the productivity of the pigs is extraordinary. One less surprising form this takes is the optimization of their genetics to produce as much good quality meat as possible in the shortest possible time. More disturbing is the hormonal manipulation of breeding sows to make sure they are constantly engaged in reproductive work. In a particularly grim aside, the author describes how some farms in South America drain the blood of pregnant mares to produce pregnant mare serum gonadotropin (PMSG, or just Merck PG 600), which is injected into the sows to bring back estrus immediately after the previous litter is weaned. Although the pig rearing is highly localized, its tendrils reach deep into the global economy. The best cuts of meat, for instance, are airmailed to Japan.


The total commodification of a highly intelligent animal into a commercially optimized production chain is surely what a majority of readers will remember most sharply from this excellent if grueling book. But Blanchette’s ultimate concern is even more with the humans who are sucked into this grisly process. While the pigs are fully segregated by sex and age, the workers are much more finely differentiated. At the grossest level, men deal with the collection and application of semen, and women with the delivery and nurture of piglets. The workers who deal with the live pigs are mainly Latin American and the slaughterhouse workers are Asian or North African. That such a workforce should be substantially racialized and gendered is no great surprise.


But Blanchette wants to show us how the lives and even the physiology of the workers are shaped almost as much as the pigs’ by the all-encompassing industrial process. The most striking illustration of this thesis is in the slaughterhouse work. The disassembly line includes dozens of distinct and massively repetitive jobs. One woman, for instance, worked for six years “using enormous scissors to cut out part of the pig’s stomach for tripe.” Naturally, this repetitive action causes chronic pain. To optimize the distribution of these tasks, the company established a health clinic, a central function of which was to assess the muscular capacities of potential employees to determine what repetitive cutting motion they would be able to endure best.


In short, Porkopolis, the place in rural America where all this takes place, is almost fully integrated and optimized for the production of pig products — over 1,000 distinct products, ranging from blood plasma and pork chops to bone glue and biodiesel. If the wind is in a certain direction, there is a stench from the manure pits that “makes tears run out of your eyes.” The pig’s body is shaped by the market and the prices of its various parts. But more shockingly, as Blanchette argues, much the same is true of the bodies of the workers sucked into the maw of this gigantic meat machine. It would be hard to find a more compelling critique of contemporary capitalist exploitation of what was once part of the natural world.


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With Lisa Jean Moore’s Our Transgenic Future: Spider Goats, Genetic Modification, and the Will to Change Nature, we move from the mass production of animal products to a decidedly niche interaction with nature. The target of the scientific work she describes is the large-scale production of the fiber that is spun by spiders — silk. There are actually many such fibers, but some have unique combinations of strength and elasticity. Such fibers, and the proteins of which they are made, have huge potential in at least two main areas: in medicine as artificial tendons and ligaments, sutures, coatings for medical devices such as catheters, and much else; and, most strongly driving and funding the research, in the military, especially in the production of bulletproof and shrapnel-proof fabrics, for which the combination of strength and elasticity is crucial, but also for parachutes, ropes to catch plane tailhooks on aircraft carriers, and such.


The trouble is that spiders are not amenable to the kind of large-scale production that we see in pigs or chickens. They are small, solitary carnivores, and the quantities of silk produced by an individual are tiny. Recent advances in genetic engineering offer possible solutions — the proteins that make up the spider silk could be made by another organism with the relevant genetic information transcribed into its genes. One technology of this kind that has already been used for producing certain human medicines relies on the expression of transgenic proteins in the milk of goats. Its application to spider silk proteins is the subject of the present work.


Moore finds arachnologists who show her the golden orb weaver spider (Trichonephila clavipes), whose silk is deemed to be the most appropriate for these productive efforts. She also meets the goats who make spider silk protein and the researchers who work with and take care of them. As it now turns out, there is no likely future for goats making spider silk. While they have been essential in providing sufficient quantities of spider silk protein for researchers to evaluate the uses of the product, they are not capable of producing it in quantities that would make commercial manufacture profitable. The future in this domain appears to lie with the silkworm, an organism that has already been organized into large-scale manufacturing systems. While it has not yet been, and may never be, possible for silkworms to produce exactly the same product as a spider, silkworms do already produce, it is claimed, silk modified in that direction and exhibiting some of the virtues of spider silk. The consensus view is that this is the future and that Moore’s goats are becoming no more than a scientific relic.


For a reader interested in the details and daily routine of this kind of scientific interaction with large animals, there is much in this book to enjoy. And one may also learn something about spiders, which are undoubtedly fascinating creatures. I am more skeptical about the realization of the ambition of this book to give us much insight into the prospects and problems for future genetic modifications of animals.


One problem is apparent from the book’s title. The term “spider goat” gives the impression that the animal is in some way a cross between a spider and a goat, a truly astonishing conception. But it is, of course, nothing of the kind. No spider will ever mate with a goat, and there is no spider in the spider goat. The spider extrudes a product that is deemed to be potentially valuable, and information about this product is used to modify the genome of the goat so that the product is expressed in the goat’s milk. Goats have been modified to produce human lysozyme and human growth hormone with a view to potential medical uses. But no one calls these goats “human goats.” There are concerns enough about genome modification of animals without gratuitous encouragement of confusion — and this confused and confusing notion frames a good deal of the discussion throughout the book.


My other reservation about this book is more methodological, and perhaps more a matter of taste. To my taste, anyhow, the degree of self-reflexivity that Moore employs is excessive. Moore tells us, early and often, that she is a queer woman with three daughters by artificial insemination and in a relationship with a transgender man. This atypical social position, she suggests, gives her a special sympathy with the genetically anomalous goats. Her experience of lactation gives her insight into the life of animals whose main function in life is to produce milk, and her experience of motherhood more generally gives her sympathy with both goats and spiders.


Sharing, as it happens, none of the identities that Moore claims, I cannot speak to the special insights that may come from her position. (Though parents who do not gestate or lactate may, nonetheless, share some of the insights of parents who do.) While the standpoint epistemology of Sandra Harding and others has given us crucial insight into the positionality of knowledge claims, constant reflection on the particularity of one’s perspective can make what is mainly a descriptive ethnology of a scientific research project a challenging read.


Both of these problems come together in a reflection in the book’s conclusion on what should happen to the goats now that their scientific usefulness has almost come to an end. Moore thinks that something — she is not sure exactly what — should be done to preserve the “unique, transgenic species” that humans have created. But these goats are not, in any possible sense of that difficult term, a species. They are genetically slightly anomalous goats. If we were to try to set up facilities to preserve in perpetuity every “species” of mouse that had been created in the course of medical research, we would have an overwhelming task. As these questions arise for Moore, she perceives herself “caught up in a sweep of emotions.” “The lurking question of [her] relationship with [her] biotech children remains,” and she wonders whether she asks such a question because she is a woman and a mother. I have no wish to deny the legitimacy of reflections of this sort or the effects of one’s specific perspective on one’s understanding of phenomena, but for a reader whose primary interest is in genetic engineering, they may become distracting. As for the goats, why not let them live out their lives with the quiet dignity that one might optimistically hope for any other superannuated farm animal?


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As I noted, the large majority of warm-blooded animals in the world are domesticated. But when we think of our relationship to nature, it is generally the others, the so-called “wild” animals, that we have in mind. Laura J. Martin’s Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration, an outstandingly well-researched and deeply thoughtful account of the way that the United States has attempted to negotiate its relationship to wild plants and animals, is an essential read for anyone who wants to understand the implications of our interventions.


Martin distinguishes three overarching conceptions of how we should respond to the damage that, as everyone agrees, human civilization has inflicted on other species. One familiar idea is preservation, the defense of refuges where humans are as far as possible excluded. Conservation, by contrast, looks for less damaging ways for humans to continue to use nature, thus aiming to control both human and nonhuman behaviour. Restoration, the central focus of Wild by Design, aims to reverse environmental damage by actively intervening in nature, with the goal of helping (some) other species thrive.


Martin traces the gradual emergence of ecological restoration from a long history of wildlife management largely aimed at making the environment productive of species valued by humans, mainly for hunting, and from parallel developments in the science of ecology. She shows this scientific project to be deeply intertwined with multiple political and social interests. Anyone who imagines that science, at least in an area so central to human concerns, might be value-free should read this book.


It may disturb those who associate the word “ecology” with warm, fuzzy scientists trying to save the world from the ravages of capitalist greed to read Martin’s detailed explanation of the emergence of modern ecology from work funded by the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), aimed principally at understanding the resilience of nature in the face of catastrophes such as nuclear explosions. The generally sanguine answer to this question: nature, on the whole, was highly resilient. The explanation for this purported resilience was closely intertwined with the development of the concept of an “ecosystem,” a set of species, the larger the better, that interacted to form a robust and stable whole.


The growing entrenchment of the idea of an ecosystem in ecological theory provided the background to the emergence of restoration ecology. The role of the AEC in the development of ecosystem thinking may be surprising, but the role of the Walt Disney Company in the takeoff of restoration ecology is even more so. When Disney World, a vast entertainment complex in Florida built on thousands of hectares of wetland, sought to expand into new wetlands in 1989, the political landscape had changed, and the plans generated major environmental pushback. In response, Disney agreed to undertake an 11,500-acre wetland restoration project, which became the Disney Wilderness Preserve. This, in turn, became a model for environmental offsetting projects, and an opportunity for the growth and professionalization of restoration ecology. It also marked the separation between sites of environmental harm and remediation. Today it is increasingly common for environmental harm in the Global North to be offset by restoration projects in the Global South.


Another theme that runs through Wild by Design is the extraordinary amount of killing involved in efforts to manage nature. As recently as 2018, the US Department of Agriculture slaughtered 2.6 million animals. Until recently, these animals were primarily predators, perceived as impediments to the conservationist goal of maximizing the number of desirable animals. With the growth of ecosystem-focused ecology, on the other hand, the enemy has become the invasive, alien species, liable to disrupt the harmonious balance of the natural and indigenous ecosystem. Species such as the gray wolf, for many years hunted to near extinction as a matter of national policy, are now being reintroduced in an effort to restore the integrity of indigenous ecosystems.


The idea that requires the strongest emphasis in this story is the entanglement of ecological and social thinking. Nowhere is this clearer than in the way Native Americans figure in the narrative. The earliest ventures in reintroducing threatened and valued species, notably the bison, involved redeployment of lands that had been taken from Native Americans, sometimes for the second time. Indian reservations became bison reservations.


The status of Native Americans also points to the fundamental issue that prevents any fully objective practice of restoration. Restoration to what or when? The restoration movement in the United States fantasized about recreating the conditions that the first white settlers would have encountered on their arrival in America. But, of course, evolution neither started nor stopped when these colonists arrived, and ecology is a dynamic process. A common assumption was that, whereas white settlers had agency, positive or negative, in transforming ecosystems, Native Americans were part of wild nature, residents rather than managers or destroyers. Even as late as 2003, an article in the journal Ecological Restoration, while recognizing that many generations of Native Americans had shaped American landscapes, drew the conclusion that the actions of Indigenous people should be simulated rather than that their sovereignty should be restored.


There is much in this book to encourage pessimism, not least the segregation of environmental damage and restoration, constituting new forms of global injustice. But Martin ends on a surprisingly upbeat note. She describes how in 2021 the National Bison Range, established in 1908 on Native American land, was returned to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. This agreement developed from the Buffalo Treaty of 2014, an intergovernmental treaty now including more than 30 tribes and First Nations in the United States and Canada who are engaged in the restoration of the bison and their ecological and cultural benefits. Martin takes this as a paradigm for the justice-oriented restoration that provides a progressive way forward.


This is an attractive conclusion, indeed. One thing that it involves, clearly illustrated by the preceding example but perhaps going against many people’s idea of the natural, is a clear focus on which species we want to restore and care for. Equal care for all species, if we even knew what they were, is not a realistic option, and decisions as to what species we single out for our concern have consequences for our treatment of different groups of people.


One possibility, a step that many will find disturbing, is that we should not even restrict ourselves to the options that nature provides. In the early stages of American intervention in nature, selective breeding of desirable species with intent to increase their resilience was considered appropriate and applied extensively to fish populations. Now, synthetic biology, especially genome editing, provides us with more rapid means for changing the natures of organisms. Could this be the way forward for a more unashamedly interventionist custodianship of the natural world?


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This, more or less, is the question animating Kent Redford and William Adams’s Strange Natures: Conservation in the Era of Synthetic Biology — what might be the role of genome modification in conservation? For many years, we have been warned about a global decline in amphibians, and about the extinction of many species of frogs. In 1998, the cause was identified as a chytrid fungus with a very wide range of adaptation to amphibian hosts. Various interventions have been suggested to counteract this development, including editing the genomes of amphibians to increase resistance to the fungus.


Or consider the well-known collapse of many coral reefs, generally attributed to rising sea temperatures. It appears that corals in warmer, shallower water have adaptations that enable them to survive there, in an environment not cold enough for other corals. Might it be possible to save the reefs by identifying the genetic basis of this tolerance and editing the genomes of coral organisms in light of this knowledge?


Most controversial is the possibility of gene drives, a technique for eliminating, or greatly reducing the population of, unwelcome species. The technology here depends on the fact that certain genes have the capacity to subvert the familiar process by which the genes of parents are randomly distributed to offspring. Normally, if a gene produces a disastrous trait, such as infertility, it will be rapidly eliminated by natural selection. But if it can be greatly overrepresented in reproduction, it may sweep through a population despite its deleterious effects, with catastrophic consequences for the species.


Redford and Adams tell a harrowing story of cute, fluffy baby albatrosses being eaten alive in their nests by overgrown house mice that were accidentally released on the island where the albatrosses raise their young. Might this be a candidate for a gene drive aimed at eliminating the mice? More likely, and widely discussed, is the possibility that this technique might be applied to control species of mosquitoes spreading serious human diseases such as malaria.


While these are interesting possibilities that may indeed one day help to solve serious problems, Strange Natures suffers from a systemic failure to demonstrate convincingly that genome modification is likely to be a significant contributor to environmental management. Redford and Adams are well aware that nature, including genomes, is constantly evolving. And they recognize that genomic interventions in undomesticated animals will be difficult, expensive, and therefore rare. Together, these facts make it difficult to see how suitable and efficacious points for such a highly targeted intervention in environmental management could be convincingly identified. As Martin describes in much greater detail, we have been intervening in nature for a very long time, and often with very large effects. Even the most successful gene drive is hardly going to surpass the extermination of the passenger pigeon, the near extermination of the bison, or generally the mass of extinctions currently resulting from habitat destruction and climate change. Any plausible genomic interventions are likely to compare in significance to such anthropogenic effects as do a handful of genetically modified goats to the 19,000 pigs a day being disassembled in Porkopolis.


How do Redford and Adams attempt to sidestep this objection? One way is by exaggerating the power of genetic intervention through a kind of gene fetishism that occasionally breaks through their officially more balanced views of the power of genes. For example, they claim both that salmons’ tendency to return to their natal rivers is genetically encoded and also that their failure to do so 10–30 percent of the time (“straying”) is also genetically encoded. Looking at one of the references for the latter claim, we find that, however,


adult straying is affected by endocrine physiology and neurological processes in juveniles, incomplete or interrupted imprinting during rearing and emigration, and by complex interactions among adult maturation processes, reproductive behaviors, olfactory memory, environmental conditions during migration, and senescence physiology.


The point nicely illustrated here is that interesting behavior is seldom caused solely by genes. The real point of the example is only that genetic variation is often adaptive. But not all variation is genetic.


An endemic feature of these discussions is that there is a great deal of concern about the inaccuracies of genome editing technology, especially with respect to off-target effects, unwanted changes to the genome. Scientists reply, quite plausibly, that they are well on the way to solving these problems. But there is much less discussion of an often more serious problem, the complex developmental pathways from genome to physiology and behavior, leading, as one might put it, to off-target traits. It would be exceptionally good fortune if there were a gene variant that did nothing except create immunity to fungal attack. And even if we have eliminated the possibility of unanticipated developmental effects, there is a question of ecological prediction. Much though we may love frogs, do we know what other species may survive only by occupying the niches opened up by their decline?


By virtue of the fetishistic aura that still hangs around the genome — it is the blueprint of life, the book of nature, and other such nonsense — genome editing creates a frisson of boundary crossing that appears to raise profound ethical issues. But these largely spurious metaphysical worries conceal real worries about what the actual consequences of interventions in the genome will be, the level of uncertainty about actual effects on the organisms manipulated, and under what circumstances they may nonetheless be ethically and practically appropriate.


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I was recently involved in developing a report on the ethical problems in genome editing of farmed animals. The working group, with very diverse interests and backgrounds, soon reached an agreement that the core problem was not the legitimacy of “playing God,” messing with the Book of Nature, or anything of that sort, but understanding the actual goals and effects of particular proposals. Our greatest concern by far was that proposed interventions — for example enhancing the resistance of pigs to deadly viral diseases — might actually exacerbate the very low welfare of factory-farmed animals by allowing greater stocking densities or, more generally, allowing these ethically appalling operations to continue at all.


Even when it is recognized that genomic intervention is going to be a quite minor contribution to our management of nature, the question still arises as to when it may nonetheless be appropriate. Like Martin, Redford and Adams realize that there is no natural state that we should restore or maintain; nature is constantly changing. Every species will become extinct. Martin recognizes that decisions to intervene on behalf of a particular species or set of species are ultimately human choices, driven by a mix of social, political, and scientific considerations. Redford and Adams try to resist this conclusion by seeing that the “key objective for conservation is […] to maintain the diversity and, through it, the evolutionary and ecological processes on which life depends.” This, they hold, enables us to “avoid the trap of seeing gene editing as yet another technology that can be used to tie nature down to human purposes” and see it instead as being used “to support or assist evolution.”


I fear this trap is not so easily avoided. Even setting aside the mosquito-targeting gene drives, obviously directed at human purposes, none of these examples really stands up to the proposed definition. Humans like reefs, and they like eating the fish that thrive on them. Do we really know that allowing the natural replacement of reefs over time with more heat-tolerant systems will lead to less diversity? We know perfectly well that the source of this problem is climate change, and we should certainly not let tinkering with the odd genome distract us from the existential necessity of addressing this challenge, as far as we still can.


I have nothing against trying to save cute, cuddly, and rare birds. Unfortunately, ground nesting seems generally to be a bad strategy for birds, especially when evolved on islands temporarily free from predators, and keeping such a species may be an uphill struggle. Creating a drastic genetic disease in an extremely widespread and successful species is surely not a good way to go about this — although, wiping out the house mouse might create a lot of vacant niches and thus foster growing diversity.


And consider even the poor frogs. I have great sympathy with the distress caused by the loss of many wonderful frog species. But whether saving them is “supporting evolution” is another matter. Evolution, I fear, doesn’t care one way or another about how many frog species there are, or indeed about anything else. Caring is more essentially imbricated in human activity.


On the whole, I think Redford and Adams do more to demonstrate the mystification that worrying too much about genomes tends to produce than to show the importance of genome modification for conservation. Although they make commendable efforts to explain the science behind genomic interventions in nature, this is a massive task, requiring a grounding in genetics, developmental biology, evolutionary biology, and ecology, not to mention a good helping of political and social science. Their attempt is not always successful. As already noted, the understanding of genetics occasionally drifts towards the simplistic, as in the description of DNA as software and in the discussion of genes for traits. Occasionally, their writing is also sloppy. When they write, “Gene flow from genetically engineered crops through pollination can carry the genes into the pollinating species,” I assume any reader would conclude that the genomes of bees were being corrupted. I doubt it. Or when they write that the result of a hypothetical gene drive would be that “in time all mice in the population would be either male or female.” Indeed. Overall, Strange Natures is a mixed bag.


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Let me return to Laura J. Martin and the notion of care. The reason that both conservation and restoration are problematic is that nature is a constantly dynamic process. Conservation of what? Restoration to what? There is no answer to these questions neatly separable from the ethical, social, and political concerns of the people doing the conserving or restoring. And as we see at various places throughout these books, the relevant concerns will not always be a benign and disinterested regard for the health of nature.


But caring for nature in the way Martin celebrates is a possible practice and a process, too. “Practices of ecological restoration will continue to evolve as we change both how we care and what we know.” This seems to me just right. If we continue to care about what happens to nature and continue to try to understand it better, we shall probably do as well as is possible in pursuing a productive and ethically decent relationship to the rest of the system in which we live, “[a]n earth whose diversity is living, flowing through and around us,” as Redford and Adams conclude their book.


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John Dupré is professor of the philosophy of science, University of Exeter and director of Egenis, The Centre for the Study of Life Sciences, which he founded in 2002. His books include The Disorder of Things (1993), Human Nature and the Limits of Science (2001), Darwin’s Legacy (2003), and Processes of Life (2012).

LARB Contributor

John Dupré is professor of the philosophy of science, University of Exeter and director of Egenis, The Centre for the Study of Life Sciences, which he founded in 2002. He received a PhD from Cambridge in 1981, and has subsequently worked at Oxford, Stanford, and Birkbeck College, London before moving to Exeter. His books include The Disorder of Things (1993), Human Nature and the Limits of Science (2001), Darwin’s Legacy (2003), and Processes of Life (2012). His recent work has advocated a radically processual understanding of living systems, which is explored in a book co-edited with Daniel Nicholson, Everything Flows: Towards a Processual Philosophy of Biology (2018, open access), and in The Metaphysics of Biology, due to be published this month. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an honorary international member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the president of the Philosophy of Science Association. Photo by Guido Castagnoli.

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