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The Nature of Being

rethinking the facts of life

Author

Lena Sch

The moral Obligation towards other Species

So what is the solution to this dilemma? To this paradoxical, yet seemingly inevitable, nature of the relationship between humans and non-human animals, between nature and culture?

I do not have an easy answer. I am not sure if I have an answer, at all – let alone a generalisable one. I´d rather say that this is very much a question of individual ethical reasoning.

However, there is one aspect that is crucial for this kind of reasoning to be allowed and that is empathy. Empathy, i.e. the ability of putting ourselfes in the positions of others and seeing that their suffering is like our own, enables us not only to understand them better and feel compassionate toward them [1], but to take their interests into consideration when making decisions for our own ends, whether they be our kin, kind, a stranger or an entirely different species.

Some might ask, why we should take members of other species into consideration at all. To me the answer is quite simply, for the same reasons we take into consideration the wellbeing of every single member of the human society. We apply basic consideration to all humans, no matter of their mental or physical capacities, their character or looks. So given that we view all humans as equals in regard to those basic commonalities, I can see no reason why we should not apply the same rights to nonhuman creatures who share the same characteristics.

Orphaned kangaroo joeys give each other closeness and comfort
Orphaned kangaroo joeys give each other closeness and comfort
DSC09801
Kangaroo mothers love their young unconditionally, the females staying together in family groups for many years
Kangaroo Orphans often suckle their fingers or toes or bits of material for comfort, just like human babies do
Kangaroo Orphans often suckle their fingers or toes or bits of material for comfort, just like human babies do

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are many suggestions which characteristics are necessary to imply a moral obligation on us towards someone else. But there are none I can think of that would apply to humans only and all humans, but not to any nonhuman creatures. In fact, I am rather prone to think of the one that all sentient beings have in common: The ability to suffer and a desire to live.

“In most ways, human beings are not equal; and if we seek some characteristic that all of them possess, then this characteristic must be a kind of lowest common denominator, pitched so low, that no human being lacks it. The catch is that any such characteristic that is possessed by all human beings will not be possessed only by human beings. For example, all human beings, but not only human beings are capable of feeling pain; and while only human beings are capable of solving complex mathematical problems, not all humans can do this. So it turns out that in the only sense in which we can truly say, as an assertion of fact, that all humans are equal, at least some members of other species are also “equal” – equal, that is, to some humans.” (Peter Singer) [2]

And if there is no objective reason to assume that human interests are in any way more important than nonhuman ones, then the only justification that remains for our treatment of nonhuman creatures is their membership of a different species – and the argument, thus, a speciesist one.

So, if we acknowledge the right to live a life free of suffering to all humans, there can be no objective reason to refuse the same to nonhuman animals.

Wallaby Lilly and I - we are really not so different, you know!
Wallaby Lilly and I – we are really not so different, you know!

Personally, I hope that, like with other forms of discrimination, we will cease to mistreat other sentient beings on the grounds of their species and acknowledge their place as equals. Equal, in the ability to suffer, to feel pain and pleasure, to love; and the desire to live.

 

Footnotes:

[1] about the connection between empathy and compassion, cf. Nussbaum 2001: 327f.
[2] Singer (2009): 237.

References:

Nussbaum, Martha C. (2001): Upheavals of Thought. The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh, Madrid, Cape Town.

Singer, Peter (2009): Animal Liberation. HarperCollins Publishers: New York. First published 1975.

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Altruism and the Problem of Anthropomorphism

In my last post I have concluded that conservation in Australia is overall anthropocentric in the sense that it serves to legitimise human life activity rather than preserve nature for nature´s sake.

However, I believe that there are altruistic motives to conservation, as well.

I have been involved in wildlife rehabilitation efforts in Australia for four years now, and have met some wonderful individuals who care for wildlife simply because they love them. Scientifically speaking, this phenomenon could be explained by the concept of compassion-induced altruism. E.g., according to Matha Nussbaum´s moral philosophy, concern for another being´s wellbeing may be “motivated or supported by the imaginative exercise of putting oneself in that person´s place”[1]. Those compassionate individuals thus devote a great deal of their time and money to the rescue, care and rehabilitation of injured and orphaned wildlife. Volunteers restlessly attend emergency phone lines and provide first aid on reported cases before they are being distributed to nearby shelters for treatment and care. Carers set up their entire daily routine around the wellbeing of their fosterlings. Especially raising young requires frequent feeds and constant care; animals in care require different husbandry conditions according to species, development stage and kind of injury/treatment; hygiene is of utmost importance. Many individuals who take on this task are pensioners who are ready to adapt their daily life entirely to the care of the animals, but rely on a small income to fund this.

While many carers do a wonderful job at rearing and rehabilitating these animals, it is quite a difficult undertaking, as we cannot ask them how they feel, what they need and what they want. We always face the possibility of captivitiy-induced stress, in the worst case leading to fatal myopathy. In order to ensure the wellbeing of the animals we care for, we need to try and evaluate what is best for them. Intuitively, we do this by interpreting their behaviour according to our own standards – we anthropomorphise [2] them. Often, that can be helpful and in many cases the things we observe seem very obvious, e.g. a kangaroo standing in a hunched position may imply it is feeling unwell. Other notions are much more difficult to observe and misinterpretation can lead to long-term disadvantages for the animal.

For instance, how much love does an animal need in order to thrive? Experience has shown that orphaned kangaroos, like most marsupials, require a quality of care sufficient to substitute the close bond between the in-pouch baby, called joey, and its mother. That covers a great deal of both physical and emotional closeness between carer and joey. However, that closeness has to be slowly withdrawn later on, in order for the joey to be able to survive on its own once released back into the wild and not suffer from further shock from losing its substitute mother, as well. Also, being familial animals kangaroos thrive better being raised and released in groups. Therefore, it is established practice to buddy up joeys of similar age and developmental stages and rear them alongside each other.

Kangaroo Joeys in their surrogate pouches at a local Wildlife Shelter.
Kangaroo Joeys in their surrogate pouches at a local Wildlife Shelter. They are raised in a group to ensure their wellbeing both during rehabilitation and after release back in the wild.

Observation and interpretation can help us determine what´s best for the animals we care for, but being limited to our human experiences, misperceptions are frequent and even the best intentions can prove quite harmful.

For instance, people try to rear joeys unauthorised in their home. They feed them cow´s milk and humanize them, ignorant of the negative effects this can have on the joey. For one, kangaroos cannot tolerate lactose and are likely to suffer severe disabilities from exposure to the wrong diet, the most frequent being cataracts, blindness or even brain damage. A high degree of humanisation will make any wildlife unfit to survive in the wild, not recognising domestic pets and humans as dangerous.

Thus, when making decisions on behalf of the voiceless, we always have to ask ourselves whether our decisions are truly in the interest of the creature in question. The practice of anthropomorphising can help us uncover the needs of those we care for, but it is to be used with caution and self-reflection, if it is to serve those who cannot speak for themselves.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Nussbaum 2001: 342.
[2] About Anthropomorphism, cf. Sezgin 2014: 23-29.

 

References:

Nussbaum, Martha C. (2001): Upheavals of Thought. The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh, Madrid, Cape Town.

Sezgin, Hilal (2014): Artgerecht ist nur die Freiheit. Eine Ethik für Tiere oder Warum wir umdenken müssen. Verlag C.H.Beck: München.

Modern Speciesism – Anthropocentrism in Conservation

“Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to protect man.” – Stewart Udall

In my first few posts I have looked at human-nonhuman animal relations by introducing theoretical concepts such as anthropocentrism and speciesism. In the following sections, I want to apply these theories to the realms of experience in fields of human/non-human animal interactions in our contemporary world.

Over the past few months, I have experienced various human-nonhuman animal encounters whilst working in a wildlife rehabilitation facility in Victoria, Australia.

While the primary objective of such conservationist activities appears to be an altruistic one – preserving eco-systems and diversity of species – I had to note a lot of inconsistencies within this field. Often, it seems that even the best intentions leave a negative impact on the handled creatures in question or that any possible successes are made void by other, equally claimed as conservationist, actions.

Thus, I cannot help but wonder whether there is indeed a genuine interest to protect wildlife and our natural resources, or whether all such efforts are condemned to be anthropocentrictic and, therefore, serve solely man´s ends, after all?

There are many institutions concerned with animal welfare in Victoria. For instance, some review husbandry conditions for both stock animals and pets. Other authorities are specifically commissioned to ensure the welfare of wildlife, enforcing legislation regarding environmental conservation, such as the Wildlife Act 1975 [1]. Sadly, to my personal experiences, these practices often fall short in dealing with the complex situations that arise in human-nonhuman animal encounters in the expanding metropolitan region of Melbourne and surrounding country.

For example, it is the same department that organises wildlife rehabilitation authorising and overseeing wildlife shelter operators and carers, that also issues any permits to kill members of the same species concerned, sometimes even in the same areas, making the rehabilitation of such wildlife in these areas ironically vain.

Gang Gang Cockatoo
Male Gang Gang Cockatoo
Yellow-tailed black cockatoos
Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoos
Eclectus Parrot
Female Eclectus Parrot

Also, while the government offers grants to wildlife shelters for the care and husbandry of wildlife in rehabilitation, they themselves hold permits to cull any number of the same wildlife. These culls are often aimed at Eastern grey kangaroos and other macropod species, but not exclusive to them, involving even the killing of vulnerable and endangered species.

Typically, these events occur where urban development has confined habitats to the extent that they can no longer support the life of a population or the co-existence of several species. Although these creatures are in trouble due to human activity, i.e. urbanisation, road traffic and intensive farming, they are often demonised in the course of these activities, calling for their removal out of the areas concerned.

Kangaroos on farmland. Fences and roads keep them from migrating through their natural habitats.
Kangaroos on farmland. Fences and roads keep them from migrating through their natural habitats.

There is a striking ambivalence inherent in the relationship of the Australian public with their native wildlife. On one hand, the unique and ancient species are cherished and treasured, decorating the Australian coat of arms and featuring in tourism brochures and nature documentaries across the world, but at the same time their presence close to human living spheres is sometimes perceived as nuisance. They an integral part of the Australian identity, as well as a constant cause for dismay, for instance when involved in road accidents or due to competition on living space.

The Australian Coat of Arms featuring kangaroo and emu.
Frequent accidents involving kangaroos occur on contry roads due to draught and confined habitat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To me, it seems that the nonhuman dwellers of Australia, that have inhabited the land for millions of years before James Cook ever set foot on the East coast, provide a source of identity construction of the human self. Without them the Australian people could not be what they are, but at the same time, they are increasingly neglected for the sake of consolidation of the Australian way of (human) life, often under the pretence of conservationism. That is, if we were to truly preserve the Australian wildlife, human activity ought to cease from their lands. This not being a likely prospect, I am afraid, conservation as a whole is doomed to remain contradictory. One could say conservation is overall an effort to preserve human life and, therefore, anthropocentric.

 

Footnotes:

[1] See a fulltext of the act here.

 

References:

Chief Parliamentary Counsel of Victoria (2014):  Wildlife Act 1975. Authorised Version No. 100. available under:
http://www.legislation.vic.gov.au/domino/Web_Notes/LDMS/LTObject_Store/ltobjst8.nsf/DDE300B846EED9C7CA257616000A3571/84C427066CB742E2CA257D09000E89E7/$FILE/75-8699aa100%20authorised.pdf, last checked: 26/o5/2016.

Image source:

https://www.itsanhonour.gov.au/coat-arms/

A History of Difference – The Dissociation of Human and Animal in the History of Ideas

In my last post I introduced some contemporary approaches to conceptualizing human-animal relations. However, the established dichotomy between nature and culture that is manifested in the prevailing concept of human-animal relations goes back a long way in the history of ideas. Today I want to outline some of the main strands of philosophical history that helped reinforce and reproduce human and animal as conflicting parties, so that we can gain a better understanding of how we came to view our relationship to non-human animals as a binary one and the latter as inferior.[1]

Among philosophers throughout the history of ideas the differences between human and non-human beings have been emphasized, rather than their commonalities[2]. As early as for Aristotle, rationality was regarded the unique characteristic of man, making him almost god-like and all other organisms hierarchically subordinated. The stoics then radicalised the proposition that animals existed in favour of man and that the latter didn´t have any obligations toward the former due to their lack of rationality. [3] In the medieval age the rise of Christianity reproduced that narrative by adding the lack of an immortal soul in nonhuman animals (and therefore no chance for redemption) as the crucial criteria for their moral inferiority[4]. With the rise of Western modern philosophy and sciences, the tone got even more biting. René Descartes denoted nonhuman animals as insentient machines which act but randomly[5]. This is rather significant, as for the first time the alleged moral insignificancy of nonhuman animals was being used to legitimise not only killing and eating them, but also for the rising practice of animal testing.

All these narratives have a strongly anthropocentric disposition [6]. It was only in the early Modern Era that more moderate views slowly evolved. Utilitarians like Hobbes, Locke and Hume questioned the Cartesian Dualism and, for the first time, emphasize a common feature of human and animal – the ability to suffer[7]. This was elaborated by Bentham and Mill, who first stated that the capacity to suffer implied some sort of responsibility towards nonhuman animals[8]. And while Darwin finally did make a significant discovery by revealing the common origin of humans and other animals, he was all too often misinterpreted in a way that implies a teleological origin story in which man again surpasses the animal[9].

The othering undertaken by the founding fathers of Western philosophy can be seen as a strategy of constructing the human  identity. Referring to Sune Jensen, identity-construction can be understood as a dichotomous relationship between the “self” and the “discursive outside” or “other”[10]. These differences are being reproduced by referring to the other as inferior and subordinate. The philosophical narratives outlined are being used to reproduce the discursive identities of “human” and “animal” and with the ones holding the power to define these identities, being humans, they frame “man” in clear demarcation towards the – presented as morally inferior – “animal”, i.e. the other or discursive outside. A more fundamental, systematic critic about the exploitation of nonhuman animals has not emerged until the rise of critical theory with authors like Marx, Adorno and Horkheimer[11] or approaches to animal rights like Regan´s [12] or DeGrazias´[13].

We have seen in this post that, by dislocating “science” from its historical and cultural contexts, it becomes possible to make it seem “objective”, “neutral” or “natural. Through such narrative practices it becomes possible to reinforce the legitimacy of established binaries, such as the human-animal dichotomy. Donna Haraway amphasizes this, when she analyses the performative power of scientific narratives:

“[the natural scientific] narrative about progress is a method of tidying up politics by making some things exist inside and others outside a kind of “nature reserve” called science. The ideology about progress makes the sciences seem like wilderness preservation areas of the mind, free from the ravages of human culture and history”[14]. 

Footnotes:
[1] Cf. e.g. Haraway 1989: 373 about binarisms between antagonistic vs. complementary difference.
[2] Cf. e.g. Schmitz 2014 : 31.
[3] Schmitz 2014: 32.
[4] Schmitz 2014: 33.
[5] Schmitz 2014: 34f.
[6] Schmitz 2014: 43.
[7] Schmitz 2014: 38.
[8] Schmitz 2014: 38f.
[9] Schmitz 2014: 41f.
[10] Jensen 2011: 65.
[11] Schmitz 2014: 48.
[12] Bossert 2015: 26ff.
[13] Bossert 2015: 33ff.
[14] Haraway 1989: 125.

References:
Bossert, Leonie (2015): “Wildtierethik. Verpflichtungen gegenüber wildlebenden Tieren.”, Nomos: Baden-Baden.

Haraway, Donna (1990): “Primate Visions. Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science”, Routledge.

Jensen, Sune Qvotrup (2010): „Masculinity at the margins – othering marginality and resistance among young marginalized ethnic majority men“ NORMA 5(1): 7-26.

Schmitz, Friederike, Ed. (2014): “Tierethik – Eine Einführung” in Schmitz, Friederike (Ed.): Tierethik. Grundlagentexte. Suhrkamp: Berlin.

Within or Without the Cage – An Introduction to Animal Ethics

We use and employ animals in almost all spheres of our daily lives. They provide us with food, clothes and comfort every day. We do not only eat their flesh, but we consume the mother´s milk specifically designed for their young, we wear their skins and pelts and sometimes even pride ourselves on displaying parts of their bodies as trophies or souvenirs. We call them livestock as if they were a mere resource for us to utilise as we please. In the contemporary debate about the treatment of domestic and farmed animals there is a disaccord between the generally accepted recognition of non-human animals as sentient beings and the fact that we stick to intensive livestock farming, including all its negative effects on their health, mind and integrity. If anything, we talk about increasing husbandry facilities – adding a centimetre of living space here, removing a hazard there…. But we never question the practice of farming animals in itself – whether we need to and whether or not we should use animals for our own ends.

This is what animal ethicists call “cage ethics”[1]. We negotiate about size and shape of the cage, but we don´t question the cage itself. Instead we talk about breeding blind hens and cut they beaks, so they don´t peck on each other, we cauterise the horns of cattle, so they don´t fight each other and limit the abilities of almost all farm animals to exert generic behaviour, so they don´t hurt themselves or get dirty. An ethics like this completely disregards the key question of the legitimacy of our exploitation of non-human animals. This basic question, however, is crucial to disclose new opportunities for action and behaviour to us as responsible consumers.

The underlying constitutive thought for the prevailing concept of antagonistic human-animal-relations is anthropocentrism. This episteme has been dominating the humanities for centuries allowing a long time and many a philosopher to firmly establish and consolidate a human-animal dichotomy that has been serving as the authoritative source for legitimacy of the exploitation of non-human animals through man up to this day[2]. It basically means that we look at the world only from the perspective of our kind interpreting it in terms of human experiences and values. We do this not only with regard to the notion of man as the most significant species on the planet, but also we consider the human species to be of a higher moral status than all other beings. Consequently, we measure the value of the life of other organisms in regard to what (as we think) is necessary for a satisfied human life.

However, this is questionable, as unarguably quite different attributes may be required to live a fulfilled life for an ape, tiger, kangaroo, crocodile or honey bee… Famously, the utilitarian Peter Singer describes this as the argument of speciecism, i.e. the privileged treatment of beings belonging to our own species[3]. Singer emphasises the analogy between speciesist arguments and arguments on racism or sexism which seem to follow the same underlying mechanism of constructing something “other” as morally inferior to their own measurements. Therefore some contemporary philosophers call for a differentiated approach, evaluating the abilities of one individual according to whether they are able to live a fulfilled life in terms of their own species, rather than comparing them to a fulfilled human life. Representatives of this “abilities approach” are e.g. Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum [4] or Clare Palmer [5].

In closing, as speciesist arguments follow quite the same structure as other discriminatory discourses, I would like to draw a reference to Donna Haraway emphasising how the body is used to reinforce differences between races, sexes and classes in scientific discourse:

„The marked bodies of race, class, and sex have been at the center […] of knowledge in modern conditions. These bodies are made to speak because a great deal depends on their active management. The biological body is historically specific; the biological organism is a particular cultural form of appropriation-conversation, not the unmediated natural truth of the body. Functionalism emerged as the ruling logic of the discourses of bio-politics.“[6]

Footnotes:
[1] Cf. Kymlicka/Donaldson 2011.
[2] Cf. Schmitz 2014: 43.
[3] Cf. Bossert 2015: 20.
[4] See Bossert 2015: 50ff.
[5] See Bossert 2015: 73ff.
[6] Haraway 1989: 289.

References:
Bossert, Leonie (2015): Wildtierethik. Verpflichtungen gegenüber wildlebenden Tieren. Nomos: Baden-Baden.

Haraway, Donna (1990): Primate Visions. Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. Routledge.

Kymlicka, Will and Donaldson, Sue (2011): Zoopolis. A Political Theory of Animal Rights. Oxford University Press.

Schmitz, Friederike, Ed. (2014): Tierethik – Eine Einführung. In: Schmitz, Friederike (Ed.): Tierethik. Grundlagentexte. Suhrkamp: Berlin.

The “Other” Animal – The Dichotomy between Human and Non-human Animals as an Origin Story for the Human Identity

“In the beginning, there was difference, and so began the struggle of some individuals to gain advantage over others”[1] Donna Haraway

There is an inherent paradox contained in the relationship between „human” and „animal“. On one hand it involves a variety of features establishing an antagonistic, irresolvable distinctness, or “otherness” of the two, but on the other hand there are areas of overlap, where the two concepts touch and contest each other. Within this field of discursivity it is that we can feel the other aspect of this paradoxical relation most intensely as we are allowed to succumb to our desire to draw near our discursive adversary. In fact, “man” needs the “nonhuman animal” as a complement, as much as an adversary. As every given power relationship requires some framing in order to reproduce its legitimacy [2], the humankind, as a discursive entity, heavily relies on reinforcing the demarcation line towards nonhuman elements, i.e. nature, “the” animal etc.

Therefore, my hypothesis throughout my posts will be that we humans discriminate non-human animals as a means of (re-)producing the identity of the human species and securing their legitimacy by emphasising the differences between human and animal, i.e. by using the discursive mechanism of Othering[3]. I will understand Othering as „a process of differentiation and demarcation, by which the line is drawn between ´us´ and ´them´ – between the more and the less powerful – and through which social distance is established and maintained”[4], referring to a definition by sociologist Ruth Lister. The narratives in which these differences are expressed can therefore be seen as origin stories for the human identity[5].

Why though, if hegemonic imbalances are inherent to the constitution of identity, why should one even strive to deconstruct a concept so fundamental to our comprehension of the world, to our ability to manage our everyday-lives? I want to argue with Donna Haraway that it can help to retell narratives in order “to shift the webs of intertextuality and to facilitate perhaps new possibilities for the meanings of difference, reproduction, and survival […] on both sides of the bio-political and cultural divide between human and animal.”[6]. By displacing hegemonic structures and highlighting marginalisations within the discourse, we may open up new possibilities for redefining the identity of the human self.

I find it rather questionable, whether the othering of the nonhuman animal leading to exploitation and suffering of a multitude of beings in favour of satisfying human needs and comforts, really should be necessary to define what is human. Is it not ironic, that, while our notions of animals and nature are so deeply sedimented as inferior, less worthy and subordinate to us, on the other hand, the concept of humanity is connoted as that which inspires kindness, empathy and compassion?

However, if we view the concept of “nature” – here translated into “species” as the object of knowledge of consequence – within its respective cultural and historical context, i.e. taking away its universal, naturalistic and timeless connotation, we might find that this strategy of othering may no longer be necessary in order to reproduce the human identity. As feminist Donna Haraway puts it:

“When the human-animal boundary is not culturally crucial, two things change […]: First, „nature“ cannot be constructed as a health spa for the ills of industrial society” and, secondly, “the reliability of scientific knowledge does not depend on enforcing the boundary against the forbidden desire of touch with nature”.[7]

Stated in a more intuitive fashion, I want to look at why, when we are children we feel drawn to animals, we empathise with them, we feel connected to them; yet, as we grow up, we get taught to eat them, to wear them, to torture them or simply not to care about them – that we are superior to them and that they do not deserve our love, respect or even our compassion. It is quite curious, that we seem to think, that, in order to be, we must sacrifice the integrity of other beings. Or, to put it in the words of Pam Ahern, a pioneer in advocating kindness towards nonhuman animals, I have often been wondering:

“If we could live happy and healthy lives, without harming others – why wouldn´t we?”[8]

Footnotes:
[1] Haraway 1989: 376.
[2] Noakes/Johnston 2005: 18.
[3] The discourse-theoretical concept of Othering was first used by Gayatri Spivak deconstructing british archive material in postcolonial India in 1985.
[4] Lister 2004: 101.
[5] Cf. Haraway 1989: 288f. for the significance of origin stories.
[6] Haraway 1989: 377.
[7] Haraway 1989: 247.
[8] Pam Ahern is the founder of “Edgars Mission”, a farm sanctuary in Australia.

References:
Haraway, Donna (1990): Primate Visions. Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. Routledge.

Lister, Ruth (2004): Poverty. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Noakes, John A. and Johnston, Hank (2005): Frames of protest: A road map to a perspec-tive. In: Hank Johnston and John A. Noakes: Frames of protest. 18, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1985): The Rani of Sirmur: An Essay in Reading the Archive. Histroy and Theory, Vol. 24, No. 3 (Oct. 1985): 247-272.

http://www.edgarsmission.org.au/

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