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433 of 446 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Dawn of New Knowledge: Fascinating, But Bound to Be Controversial
"Before the Dawn" is a very well written survey of what genetics can teach us about the origin and evolution of the human species. Starting with the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees 5 million years ago, Wade explores the latest theories about the development of the "hominid" line and explains why homo sapiens evolved differently from our cousins, the chimpanzees...
Published on April 30, 2006 by William Holmes

145 of 170 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting material but flawed scientific reasoning
This book deals with a fascinating topic, of how to use genetics to understand history. It is very timely, since it is an area of research in rapid development. The prose is excellent, and a pleasure the read.

Content wise, the book consists of two types of material. One is description of a large number of recent scientific studies. This is fascinating stuff to...
Published on April 18, 2007 by Martin

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433 of 446 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Dawn of New Knowledge: Fascinating, But Bound to Be Controversial, April 30, 2006
"Before the Dawn" is a very well written survey of what genetics can teach us about the origin and evolution of the human species. Starting with the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees 5 million years ago, Wade explores the latest theories about the development of the "hominid" line and explains why homo sapiens evolved differently from our cousins, the chimpanzees and the bonobos.

Most of the books about human origins tend to focus on paleoanthropology and related disciplines. "Before the Dawn" does a great job of synthesizing the discoveries of paleoanthropolgists with the findings of geneticists--in some cases, examination of human DNA has confirmed what paleoanthropolgists have long believed, in others it has raised new and sometimes disturbing questions.

Without becoming overly technical, Wade explains how scientists use the study of DNA to determine when signficant events occurred in human evolution--for example, when humans began to use fully modern language (about 50,000 years ago), the size of the ancestral population of modern humans (as small as 150 people), or when the ancestral population left the African continent (also around 50,000 years ago).

Some of Wade's observations may surprise and trouble many people. Creationists will not be pleased with the book's basic view that Darwin's theory of natural selection is absolutely correct and that it applies to people as well as animals. Others will be troubled by the ideas that our DNA contains evidence that our ancestors practiced cannibalism; that homo sapiens wiped out the Neanderthal and Homo ergaster populations in genocidal warfare that spanned millenia; that hunting and gathering societies are much more warlike than modern, settled ones; that our DNA suggests that humans became more sociable and less violent roughly 15,000 years ago, finally enabling human societies to settle down and begin farming; that human evolution did not stop 10,000 or 50,000 years ago as some have argued, but that it continues down to the present day and will continue into the future (either naturally or artificially); that in rare cases, unusual selection pressures have produced populations that, on average, are either more intelligent or more physcially capable in certain respects than others. Wade handles each of these delicate propositions with care, but some will be disturbed by the implications of what he is saying. (Perhaps that's why E.O. Wilson, in the blurb on the back of the book, praised Wade's "courage and balance.")

"Before the Dawn" is a superb survey of what scientists know (or think they know) about human origins in 2006. But this is a report from the cutting edge of genetics and paleoanthropology, so stay tuned for further developments. In the meantime, Wade's book is an excellent introduction to a new dawn of knowledge.
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219 of 237 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars fascinating, meticulous and wide in scope, April 20, 2006
David Fernandez (Bronx, NY United States) - See all my reviews
I liked this book a lot. The material is complicated, but familiar at the same time. When I thought about it, I found that I had a number of ingrained notions about ancient human life. I had a picture in my mind of a relatively peaceful caveman, the same one from grade school textbooks and the natural history museum- I had never really thought about ancient human history, or what humanity's predecessors might have been like. This book examines those points in depth- how our ancestors might have walked, made tools, begun to speak, and spread across the world. A main point of this book is that scientists' growing understanding of the information encoded in DNA, along with integrating information from other disciplines, can provide a window into human history we have never had before.

The breadth of disciplines that apply to this topic are amazing, encompassing history, biology, primatology, archaeology, linguistics, paleontology, sociology, behavioral science, and many others- it was enjoyable to learn about different fields of normally esoteric knowledge from someone who can explain it all clearly and interestingly. And delicately- for example, the chapter on race is an artful discussion of the new questions we can ask about race and evolution with DNA, describing with precision what sort of meaningful things can and cannot be said about race from a biological standpoint, versus a sociological one.

This book is reminiscent in some respects to Guns, Germs, and Steel, another book looking at humans from a more biology-focused perspective (in fact, Mr. Wade addresses a couple of claims made in it), and people who liked that book would almost certainly enjoy this one. This book is similarly broad in scope, yet surprisingly concise, which I suppose might be expected from a journalist. Anyway, it is a well-written, fun and interesting book, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in science in general and human history and biology in particular-
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92 of 101 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Wow, a great read, April 20, 2006
For those of us science junkies Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade is a wonderful fix. Wade does a masterful job at making the science easy to understand and "wows" the reader with terrific examples at how modern genetic research is lifting the curtain on human history.

Wade links together diverse areas in his discussion of modern genetics. Language development is an interesting example, but he also looks at how the scientific evidence is also shedding new light on to areas of human development such as social behavior, and even ideas about the rise of religion, and also includes an interesting discussion of racism.

Organized in a logical manner with interesting chapters, Wade also includes great notes. At 320 pages the book is easily a weekend read and would be a great companion at the beach. Some of his conclusions will raise the ire of some readers, but Before the Dawn is a must read for those who want to stay on top of whats happening in human research.

Perhaps most refreshing of all is the application of genetics research to a topic of great interest and importance of all of humankind. Genetics in Before the Dawn isn't a punch line in some television show but hard science.

I highly recommend this book.
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52 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Evolution is alive and well, and dwelling among humans, May 26, 2006
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The science of DNA analysis has progressed with amazing rapidity over the last decade, confirming, correcting and filling in the details outlined by pioneers in human migration such as Stanford's Luigi Cavalli-Sforza. The most powerful tools at the moment are analysis of the Y-chromosome, which is heritable only from the father, and mitochondrial DNA, heritable from the mother. Both are subject to small mutations from generation to generation. The time at which populations quit interbreeding can be fairly accurately determined by which mutations they share and which they don't. Scientist Spenser Wells' "The Journey of Man" does an excellent job of describing the science. Wade does so with fewer words and less depth, and brings Wells' work up to date. Wells thought Europeans and East Asians parted company in the heart of the Russian steppes; Wade has Europe being populated by a more southerly route.

Wade's human timeline has us becoming "anatomically modern" 100,000 years ago, acquiring language sometime thereafter, with a pioneer group of 150 or so individuals emigrating out of Africa to displace Neanderthals and other archaic humans around 50,000 years ago. These timelines are later than other writers have posited. It raises the question, what is language? Wade sees it as the essential tool for communicating culture: the acquired knowledge, toolmaking skills, religion and social skills that made it possible for humankind to transcend the hunter-gatherer style of life.

His discussion of linguistic paleontology, and its ties with paleoanthropology, the ways in which people and languages moved and morphed, shows the benefit of coming at a problem from several angles. Languages evolve rapidly. Wade retraces the established schools of thought on linguistics, the work done on the evolution of Indo-European languages, and some more controversial theories that examine commonalities among all the world's languages and attempt to establish the dates at which language groups diverged. The tool of choice is Bayesian Maximum Likelihood Estimation statistics, a technique that examines every possible way a group of events could be assembled to meet some given constraints (i.e., Japanese and Chinese had to have split after man left Africa; man was in the Americas by 12,000 BC; the root of the word "one" remains the same in a language for an average of 20,000 years) and finds the most likely scenario that fits, or rather, requires the least compromise to fit all of the data points... a technique that has blossomed with the availability of powerful desktop computers over the past decade.

Though he quotes Stephen Pinker throughout, Wade does not get into the neural wiring required for language, the stuff of Pinker's "The Language Instinct" and "The Blank Slate." Given the complexity of the human language apparatus, I am confident there was a lot going on with language earlier than Wade would have us believe. Other surprising omissions from Wade's bibliography are Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett on evolution in general and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy on human motherhood. Conversely, he seems to lean disproportionately on other authors such as Joseph Greenberg. These imbalances do not seem to bias the work, but their inclusions would make it richer.

Give Wade credit for courage. To acknowledge that Darwinian selection has continued unabated, even increased, since the advent of agriculture is tempting the demons of political correctness. Wade out and says it: high levels of abstract intelligence would not have enjoyed selective advantage in hunter-gatherer societies. In large communities, however, the abilities to manage stored riches and to focus the labor of many individuals on community projects became essential. His most interesting case is of the Jews, citing some work published late last year. Ashkenazi Jews were forbidden to own property for roughly the eight centuries between 900 and 1700. They had to make their living as merchants, moneylenders and other types of professionals, occupations that demanded very high brainpower. To an even greater extent than others in Europe, they endured ongoing persecution. See Wikipedia's Timeline of Jewish History. Wade cites two researchers at BYU who have a compelling thesis that four sphingolipid genetic diseases suffered by the Ashkenazim, while fatal to individuals who inherit two recessive genes, confer higher intelligence on those who inherit just one. The scientific community has been harsh on previous writers such as Jensen and Lynn, Murray and Herrnstein who have dared associate cognition with race or ethnicity. Cavalli-Sforza and others spent careers dancing around the issue, and Pinker himself has dodged it with exquisite delicacy. That Wade writes so directly is a sign perhaps not that the topic has become respectable, but simply that the elephant in the living room can no longer be ignored.
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57 of 62 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and frustrating, July 8, 2006
Richard Stauduhar (Kailua-Kona, HI USA) - See all my reviews
In the last few decades DNA analysis has provided much new information about the evolution and early history of humankind. Wade's book tells the story of this new science in fascinating detail. Archeological evidence has suggested that modern humans began their spread across the world roughly 50,000 years ago. DNA studies confirm this view, and also tell something about where the spread began, in northeastern Africa, and the path and progress of the spread into Eurasia, Australia, and ultimately into the Americas. Moreover, these studies of mitochondrial DNA and the DNA of the Y chromosome among present day peoples suggest that the world outside Africa was settled by the descendants of a single band of a few hundred people. All this is endlessly interesting.

The frustrations of this book come when the author seems to take the facts presented and use them to draw conclusions that stretch logic past the breaking point, or worse, to make assertions unsupported by any reasoning at all. Examples are myriad; I will mention one of each kind.

In the early part of the 20th century a prion disease decimated the population of a certain New Guinea tribe. It was discovered that the disease was spread by a ritual cannibalistic practice, but some members of the tribe were found to be immune, and a genetic basic for their immunity was determined. It was later found that many Northern Europeans had the same genetic immunity. Wade thinks this proves Northern Europeans must at one time have practiced cannibalism. But in fact it proves no such thing. Early Northern Europeans depended on herd animals for meat, and many herd animals are subject to prion diseases. A sustained outbreak among, e.g., reindeer, might have induced the immunity.

An example of the second kind occurs when Wade discusses religion. Wade makes the bald assertion, "Religion began as a mechanism for a community to exclude those who could not be trusted." I have read many explanations for the origin of religion, but never one asserted with more confidence, or less plausibility. There is not the slightest evidence for this proposal, and none is given.

In short, this book sets out a mixture of wonderfully interesting scientific discoveries, and irritating authorial pronunciamentos. If you can tell the difference it's well worth reading.
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145 of 170 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting material but flawed scientific reasoning, April 18, 2007
Martin (Ashford, CT) - See all my reviews
This book deals with a fascinating topic, of how to use genetics to understand history. It is very timely, since it is an area of research in rapid development. The prose is excellent, and a pleasure the read.

Content wise, the book consists of two types of material. One is description of a large number of recent scientific studies. This is fascinating stuff to read. The studies are well chosen and well described, showing the authors great skills as a science writer.

The other type of material is the authors own scientific reasoning, conclusions and speculations, which are spread throughout the book. Unfortunatly, his logic and scienific reasoning is often very weak. Here are just three examples:


On page 96, Wade uses the fact it is possible to use a genetic test to determine where in Iceland a persons grand-parents came from, as "striking proof of the human tendency to develop local genetic variations" in as little as 1000 years. That argument assumes that the Icelandic population was genetically homogeneous 1000 years ago, which is not at all obvious, since different parts of Iceland may have been settled by people from different parts of Norway and Ireland. If that was the case, the regional genetic differences were there from the start.


On page 199, he criticizes Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel), for attributing early European advance on "their geography" with for example a greater number of plants and animals suitable for domestication, providing them a head start on the farming revolution.

Wade writes: "In attributing western advance solely to geography, while tacitly excluding the genetic explanation . . . Diamond focuses on the development of agriculture. But . . ., archeologists now believe that the NearEast sedentism came long before agriculture: the first people settled down, abandoning the foraging way of life. They tehn took to cultivating plants. . . . The critical step was not domestication, but sedentism. This finding would seem to undercut an important part of Diamond's case because, unlike the case with agriculture, it's harder to see any geographical reason why sedentism should have risen in one society and not another."

Some problems with Wades argument above are:

1. It is very easy to see geographical reasons for sedentism, namely, a geographically concentrated supply of continuously available food.

2. Wades give no explanation why sedentism rather than agriculture was the critical step (for the development of western civilization). Sedentism might have been a critical step for domestication/agriculture, but agriculture was obviously a critical step for western civilization. As long as agriculture was one of possible sevral critical steps, Diamonds arguments have not been undercut.

I am not trying to prove Diamonds thesis, nor disprove genetic explanations for many things. It is just one illustration of the weak scientific reasoning used by Wade when he leaves the realm of published scientic research.


On page 238 Wade discusses the issue of wheather Englisg surname has a single or multiple progenitors (originators). He argues that since 50% of a sample of men with the surname Sykes have the same Y-chromosome, "there where was just one real Sykes Y chromosome. All men who carried it were presumably descendend from the first bearer of the surname. That meant that the surname had been assigned only once or, if more than once, all other lines had ended without male heir and no longer existed". Wade explains the 50% who did not carry the Sykes Y chromosome, by "nonparity events" where the biological father is difefrent from the husband of the mother.

Here are two problems with the scientific reasoning:

1. There may very well be multiple Sykes Y-chromosomes, each originating with a difefrent Sykes progenitor. It is just that one have prolifirated a lot, while others have not, while others may be extinct. The theory of branching processes tells us that that is a likely outcome if there are multiple progenitors, and we would not expect to see an equal amount of each Y-chromosome in the current population.

2. Even if there were only one Sykes progenitor, those with the "Sykes Y-chromosome" may not at all be decendant of him. If there was an early "nonparity event", within a few generations after the first Sykes, none of them may be a paternal line decendant of him.

So, my advice is, enjoy the book when it describes established scientific work, but ignore the authors own conclusions and speculations.
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tracking our roots., June 26, 2006
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Nicholas Wade thoroughly exercises his source material. As science writer for the NY Times he has access to many of the latest research reports on a wide variety of related fields including anthropology, archeology, languages, and genetics. In "Before the Dawn," Wade collected the latest findings from these fields and others and assembles them into a readable compiled description of the origins of modern humans. According to theories reported in this book our ancestors developed the mental ability for fully articulated speech only about 50,000 years ago or so. In a few thousand years thereafter our speaking ancestors had split into three genetic lineages and some small number of only one lineage left southern Africa to venture along the southern coast of Asia. Migration was slowly accomplished by growth of a tribe until it split and the new division moved a little farther along. Within a few thousand years or so humans from original genetic all the way to Australia. From southern Asia our ancestors also moved north and west. Fascinating DNA studies of people from all around the world show how various people migrated and when.

One aspect of human evolution that Wade devotes considerable attention to is the taming of our species. Primitive hunter gatherer tribes are constantly at war with their neighbors and generally value men who are successful warriors. When our ancestors moved into Europe and Asia these areas were already occupied by other species of early humanoids such as Neanderthals. Over a period of years and countless skirmishes, raids, and battles, our ancestors hunted them all down and exterminated them; there is no discernable Neanderthal DNA in modern humans. Constant tribal warfare eliminates about 30% of each generation of men so it is a very powerful evolutionary force. By comparison, even the wars of the 20th century killed a far smaller percentage of our whole population. In order to leave our age old hunter gatherer, tribal warfare, model of life and become villagers, farmers, and even soldiers, our ancestors had to evolve into less aggressive and more trusting people. Wade reports sociological speculation that one early function of tribal religions was to allow more trust among a wider group than immediate kin. Wider trust increases the size of the "us" group and helps all of the group to succeed in tribal warfare. Trust and peaceful coexistence wider than kin was a necessary change before our ancestors could settle in villages.

One chapter deals with the study of linguistics. Linguistics studies how common early languages split into divergent related languages and attempts to track how they are related. In theory all the small number of humans who originally left Africa about 50,000 years ago spoke the same language. When they became isolated in geographically separated areas their languages changed over time. In theory the history of language migration should be consistent with archeological and genetic evidence of human migrations. Wade provides the reader with an update on current linguistic thinking on the history of world language families and how they relate to DNA evidence and recorded history.

In the last part of the book Wade relates recent genetic findings from DNA studies of British, Icelanders and Jews, three groups where more extensive DNA histories have been worked on. Genetic data is compared to historic accounts. Some of it is surprising. In an area of the UK where successive invasions were said to have pushed out the previous peoples, the mitochondria DNA of an 8,000 year old fossil matches that of the current schoolmaster. Evidently the women, at least, stayed put all those centuries.

It took me some weeks to read the book because of all the interesting information. My brain would get loaded up with new information that needed to be thought about and discussed before proceeding on to the next chapter. For those who deny the existence of evolution for political or religious reasons it should be an eye opener. Science not only accepts evolution, but has now figured out the minute detail of how it works, and has tracked, classified and numbered human evolution through thousands of DNA modifications. I learned, for example, that sickle cell among people of African ancestry is a side effect of an recent evolutionary genetic modification that increases resistance to malaria. One criticism was that Wade often asserted major facts without backup or explanation. After a while it became apparent that the book already covers so much territory that he could not provide detailed support for much of the material. He does often say when the material is disputed by other scientists and what the disputes are. Although there are extensive footnotes, a bibliography would be nice.

I strongly recommend "Before the Dawn" to anyone who is interested in human ancestry, anthropology, history, evolution, or just figuring out where you own family came from.
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42 of 48 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars a mixed bag but worth reading, November 17, 2006
Mike Garrison (Covington, WA USA) - See all my reviews
The proverb says a man who has only a hammer thinks everything is a nail. By the end of this book, I thought Wade was a little too much in love with his hammer.

The start of the book is excellent, with one of the better descriptions of DNA analysis that I have ever read. His description of how it can be used to trace back human populations, perhaps all the way to the very band of humans who first spread out of Africa, was engrossing. I was also very interested in the argument that settlement led to agriculture rather than vice versa.

But somewhere along the line the DNA analysis argument became less and less convincing as it was used over and over again in every context covered by the book. I think perhaps the problem may have been that I was more interested in the ancient history of the human race, but Wade was more interested in the many ways the DNA tracing technique can be used. As many of the applications became more and more speculative, I felt it diluted the more concrete discussion earlier in the book. In particular, his repeated assertion that religion was a product of genetic influence seemed unsubstantiated and unexplored.

I also found myself not really caring about Thomas Jefferson's or Ghengis Khan's family tree. In fact, I find it completely unsurprising that a prime motive for becoming a powerful ruler is the spread of one's genes (whether the motivation is conscious or not).

The discussion of race was very well-written, but I thought he should have gone into more detail about the implications of either pretending race does not exist or acknowledging that it does. There's more to the question than just medicine, sports, and disease resistance. And several times he mentions being able to tell that someone is 23% this race and 49% that one without ever really having a discussion of what that means to the concept of "race" and "species".

In fact, I also thought the question of speciation (what that means, how it is done, how it is different from races) was worth exploring in more detail. For instance, why did he assume that all humans are interfertile right now? Is that really true? How much of the population has to be interfertile for the entire population to be considered one species?

All in all it was a good book, and thought-provoking. But after a very promising start, it didn't seem to go in the directions I was most wanting it to.
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent overall, but not without flaws., July 25, 2006
One problem "science writers" seem to have is coping with the reality that they are not scientists. Nor are they free of the political biases of their associations. That said, Nicholas Wade is better than most, such as the poseur Malcolm Gladwell, but he still falls victim to politically correct platitudes.

For example and for entirely logically inexplicable reasons, Wade spends six pages discussing the possibility that Thomas Jefferson fathered a child by his slave, Sally Hemmings. First, there is a question as to what relationship this particular subject has to his otherwise excellent treatment of his main theme, how genetic science is reshaping our understanding of human history. Second, perhaps in the interests of winning points with the politically correct crowd, Wade presents a hotly disputed claim that Jefferson fathered said children as almost an absolute fact when it still a contested question.

Happily this is the worst of several excursions into areas Wade should have avoided.

For the most part, Wade is a diligent reporter, gathering facts from a variety of sources to present an inclusive picture of the state of research into human origins. Genetic research plays a major role and Wade's treatment is informative without being condescending or superficial.

Some of what Wade reports will disturb the kumbaya crowd. For example, Wade note that humankind has been warlike and aggressive since its beginnings and that only recently have humans evolved into a more sociable species. Likewise, those who pretend that early humans lived in some kind of blissful harmony with nature will not enjoy Wade's findings that two-legged folks have been despoiling their habitat and preying on flora and fauna since before the dawn of time.

Wade does have a disturbing tendency to speculate beyond the evidence he presents. (He also seems a bit naive in accepting all academic research as intellectually honest.) Fans of Jared Diamond ("Guns, Germs and Steel") may also find Wade's themes disturbing.

Overall an excellent overview of the state of research into the evolution of modern humankind, but one to be read carefully and critically.

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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent read, May 11, 2006
L. Hatcher (San Antonio, TX USA) - See all my reviews
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This books presents an excellent rebuttal to the crowd that insists on mixing science and religion. I have always believed that evolution, including natural selection and punctuated equilibrium, is the method for the creation of life. For me, it's not an either/or question, and there should be no competition between those who would have us believe in magical creation stories (the realm of faith and religiosity) and those who present the evidence for the factual methods of how we and our fellow species came to be.

I liked this book very much, and thought the author quite brave to address the issue of race. When I was in school, my professors taught me that there is no such thing as race. Mr. Wade readdresses that notion, and makes a very convincing argument that it is unfair to those whose forbears came from a particular continent, such as Africa, to categorize them socially, an it is equally wrong to deny their heritage -- particularly when they (whether black, white, tan, or green) may have a genotype that makes them especially susceptible to certain diseases, or renders them unable to metabolize certain medications, etc. To deny their heritage, in my opinion, marginalizes them -- and "them" sometimes includes me.

I was also fascinated by the discussions regarding the evolution of languages, and most especially by the idea that early humans were not necessarily peaceful, dumb, and happy and that only in the past few thousand years have we learned the fine arts of warfare.

Highly recommend this book, provocative though it may be to some. Nicely written, with great pacing.
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