About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

D.S. Wilson replies to Massimo on atheism as stealth religion

Below is a response I got from David Sloan Wilson about my comments on his multi-part blog on atheism as a stealth religion. I have added my commentary to David’s, so that readers of this blog will get a feeling of what the in-person discussion we are soon going to have may feel like. Except that the two of us will be doing it over a beer...

Dear Massimo,

As you know, we will be seeing each other tomorrow when I travel to Stony Brook to give the Darwin Day lecture. This reply to your blog will give your readers a taste of what we will be discussing—cordially and constructively, of course, and hopefully over a beer!

YOU SAY: Wilson has simply rediscovered a well known foe: ideology, a phenomenon for which we don’t need a new term, and which, in fact, does describe very well both standard religions and cult-like movements like Rand’s.
I SAY: OK, but you must admit that much of the current discourse naively assumes that atheism stands for science and reason, while religion stands for blind faith. If the New Atheists are ideological in the same way as Rand, we need to know about it.
MASSIMO: Yes, I agree that some atheists far too easily ally themselves to reason and science, when in fact they can be irrational and anti-science. I am pretty sure Dawkins and Dennett do not fall into this category, while Harris likely does (see his sympathy for eastern mysticism). I am agnostic on Hitchens, who I think just enjoys pissing off people.

YOU SAY: Wilson is afraid that Dawkins, Dennett …are interested in propagating an ideology, not furthering critical thinking…I don’t buy it. …they are not dogmatic.
I SAY: I have a lot of respect for Dan, who I regard as a valued colleague. Nevertheless, “Breaking the Spell” does not have the academic caliber of his previous books. He writes about the scientific study of religion as if it’s all in the future, which gives him free rein to interpret religion as a cultural parasite or a maladaptive byproduct, when in fact there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Dawkins is even worse. He is out of touch with the scientific study of religion (much more than Dennett) and judging from his response to my Skeptic article, doesn’t think that he needs to be held scientifically accountable for what he says about religion. I call that dogmatic.
MASSIMO: I call that sloppy. I agree with you that Dennett’s book is better than Dawkins’ and that they may both suffer from the problem you point out. Still, it’s a far cry from not being up to date on the study of religion (a new and controversial field) to being Rand-like...

YOU SAY: Moreover, a movement isn’t an ideology (or a stealth religion), unless we are prepared to regard, say, the civil rights movement as pernicious as well.
I SAY: Please! I did my best to make it clear in my Stealth blogs that not all forms of atheism (and not all movements) are stealth religions. It’s perfectly possible for a movement to work hard to get the facts right and then base action on consideration of the facts. Alternatively, they can distort the facts in their drive to motivate a given suite of behaviors. This is true for any movement, such as the environmental movement, the civil rights movement, or atheism.
MASSIMO: Agreed. Indeed, I would add to the mix certain types of Libertarianism and of feminism (oh, darn, I’m gonna get into trouble again!).

YOU SAY: Perhaps the most interesting part of Wilson’s blog so far is his summary of six hypotheses concerning the nature and origin of religion..This is interesting, though I’m sure he left out other scenarios that, say, a psychologist, a philosopher or a cultural anthropologist may have proposed.
I SAY: No, I actually think that most theories of religion that have been proposed without using the E-word can be categorized in terms of the six major hypotheses, plus the proximate/ultimate distinction. I invite you and your readers to think of a plausible counterexample.
MASSIMO: Fair challenge, and I do agree on the importance of the proximate/ultimate distinction (see, for instance: Pigliucci, M. 2002. "Are ecology and evolutionary biology "soft" sciences?" Annales Zoologici Finnici 39: 87-98). However, I consider more troublesome my objections to the search of ultimate explanations for human behaviors. Not because they are not there, but because that sort of historical hypothesis testing is exceedingly difficult in the case of human evolution (too few closely related species for comparison, no possible measurement of selection in past environments, and lack of a relevant fossil record).

YOU SAY: But then Wilson tells us at the same time that all of the above are probably true and that he prefers option (a), a super-organism. He doesn’t tell us why the super-organism hypothesis is “more relevant than the others” and he doesn’t present any evidence that would favor that hypothesis over the others.
I SAY: I object! In my blog, I judiciously acknowledge that evolution is a messy process and the religion is a fuzzy set of traits, but then I make a strong statement about the primacy of the superorganism hypothesis, so much that it will be regarded as obvious in retrospect (if it isn’t already to some of your readers). As for evidence, how much evidence can fit into a blog? The best that a blog can do is serve as a portal to more detailed treatments of a subject, such as my book (Darwin’s Cathedral), numerous articles on my website, and a second website designed to promote the new scientific discipline of Evolutionary Religious Studies. I dutifully refer readers of my blog to these sources, so please don’t casually say that I fail to present evidence!
MASSIMO: OK, readers will have to check the link and your book, but my general objections to the testability of most hypotheses about the evolution of human behavior (see above) stand. Let me clarify that these aren’t objections of principle: I have absolutely no trouble with the general idea that some cognitive traits and behaviors in humans evolved, sometimes by natural selection. I just think that humans happen to be terrible model organisms for this sort of study, relegating most of this literature to the status of interesting (possibly even true) historical narrative, but not science. But I see below that you strenuously object to this!

YOU SAY: Indeed, it is hard to imagine how most of these could actually be tested, considering they all suffer from the standard problem of evolutionary psychology: we have an abundance of reasonable ideas, but a paucity of data to discriminate among them.
I SAY: I strenuously object! Evolutionary hypotheses about religion and other aspects of human behavior are no more difficult to test than other hypotheses. Like Dan Dennett, you are implying that all of the promise of scientific inquiry is in the future, when in fact there are mountains of data lying all around us, waiting to be organized—just as Darwin was able to organize the mountains of data about the natural history of plants and animals. The “just-so” story complaint is often used to achieve something close to post-modernism, in which we are all free to think whatever we like, because the data isn’t in yet. Check out the work of Richard Sosis (listed in the directory of the ERS website) for an example of excellent scientific research on religion that comes to decisive conclusions.
MASSIMO: I strenuously object to being accused of post-modernism! Just check out some of my rants on the subject in this blog, not to mention the book I’m writing now for Chicago Press (OK, you won’t be able to check the book until some time in 2009, when it comes out). But I actually go further than Dennett on this: I don’t think this sort of science is in the future, I think it will simply not come. There are epistemic limits on our ability to find things out, and I think this is one area where we may have reached them. As Lewontin once put it: “I must say that the best lesson our readers can learn is to give up the childish notion that everything that is interesting about nature can be understood. ... It might be interesting to know how cognition (whatever that is) arose and spread and changed, but we cannot know. Tough luck.” (“The evolution of cognition: questions we will never answer,” 1998) Of course, only the future will tell...

YOU SAY: More puzzlingly, I’m not sure what it means to say that something like religion is a super-organism.
I SAY: A group is a superorganism when its members work together to achieve common goals, which requires both cooperation and coordination (division of labor). Anthropologists often speak of human groups as “corporate units” (especially during the early and middle 20th century) as it if was common sense. Religious believers frequently compare their communities to single bodies and beehives. Religions make most sense when studied in the context of actual religious communities, such as congregations. Studying religion at a larger scale, such as major religious traditions, is a bit like studying a taxonomic unit such as a phylum. If a religion does a really good job of helping its members survive and reproduce by fostering cooperation and coordination, it counts as a superorganism. There are interesting things to say about biological fitness vs. cultural fitness, but the fact is that most enduring religions help their members survive in purely biological terms. Judaism is a sociobiologist’s dream, for example.
MASSIMO: I agree that the most interesting studies of religion are done within religious communities (a very comparative anthropology-like approach). But I am still not clear whether you are using “super-organism” as a metaphor (which is fine, but beware of the power of metaphors to mislead), or as a direct analog to biological super-organisms, as in the case of ant colonies. In the latter case, one immediately faces serious obstacles, such as precisely the problem of translating between reproductive and cultural fitness that you allude to. Biologists have enough trouble with the concept of fitness, both operationally and conceptually; I can only begin to imagine the mine field that results by taking literally the concept of cultural fitness. This doesn’t mean it can’t be done, of course.

YOU SAY: Finally, Wilson asks the very good question of what do we do with religions. He argues that in order to answer that question we need to have the right idea about what sort of things religions are…I’m not convinced of this either.
I SAY: I’ll try to convince you of this in Stealth V and VI. You speak as if there is a straightforward relationship between religion, ignorance, and poverty, but this relationship would need to be established by empirical scientific research and would need to have a theoretical explanation. I doubt that the relationship is as straightforward as you seem to think and we’ll definitely need both theory and empirical research to work out the more complex relationship, for religion as for any other subject.
MASSIMO: No, I don’t think at all that the relationship amongst religion, poverty and ignorance is straightforward, which of course means that the problem of religion is even more difficult to solve (what would such a solution look like?). Regardless, I am simply not convinced that an evolutionary perspective is going to be of any use, even if correct. But I await to see further elaboration on this point.

YOU SAY: What Wilson calls “the ecological/evolutionary paradigm” of human inter-group interactions may be telling us the right historical narrative about how certain things came about (wars, religions), which is intellectually satisfying, though it may be hard or impossible to test empirically.
I SAY: There you go again with your “hard or impossible” mantra!
MASSIMO: It’s not a mantra (as in a mindlessly repeated phrase), it’s my assessment of the above mentioned epistemic limits of science. There is no question that plenty of people in the past have said that X or Y could not be done, and it was. My favorite example is an astronomer who stated categorically that humanity would never be able to put an artificial satellite in orbit around earth. Sputnik was lunched a few months later. Nonetheless, I find the inability of many scientists to accept that there will be, as Lewontin says, things about which we simply won’t be able to say much, rather strange. To acknowledge science’s limits is not the same as to diminish science’s accomplishments, and I’m certainly not suggesting that there are better, non-scientific ways to find things out (a la intelligent design nonsense).

YOU SAY: But to cure the disease -- if it is possible at all -- we need to understand and tinker with the more proximate mechanisms that are the province of the social, not biological, sciences.
I SAY: As one of the world’s most distinguished evolutionists, I’m sure you will agree that evolutionary inquiry requires equal attention to proximate and ultimate causation, as complementary explanations that mutually inform each other. Also, I reject your distinction between the biological and social sciences as separate “provinces.”
MASSIMO: Thanks for the compliment :) I’m not trying to arbitrarily separate intellectual domains here, but you yourself agreed that there is a distinction between proximate and ultimate causes. Sometimes knowledge of one does illuminate knowledge of the other, but I can’t think of too many cases. Indeed, it’s easy to come up with examples of long periods of time where scientists working only within one framework have made huge progress (molecular biology through the second half of the 20th century). Nonetheless, I agree that from an intellectual perspective one is satisfied only when we integrate both perspectives on a given problem. But my point was more modest: having an explanation for something doesn’t necessarily lead to a practical solution. We have a pretty good understanding of why we die, but I doubt science will give us immortality any time soon (and, of course, whether immortality would be a good thing is a philosophical, not a scientific, question -- another separation of intellectual domains!).

YOU SAY: A good analogy here is provided by so-called Darwinian medicine… Unfortunately, religion as a cancer of the mind is much more difficult to understand, not to mention cure, than physical cancer.
I SAY: If you are using the metaphor of religion as cancer, then you are informally subscribing to the “cultural parasite” hypothesis about religion, which is least supported by evidence. Efforts to “remove” religion based on the idea that it is a “cancer” will almost certainly either fail or have unforeseen consequences, just as frontal lobotomies turned out to be a bad idea, based on false understanding. In general, complex problems require detailed scientific understanding to find effective solutions. It’s hard to argue with this general statement, so why should we resist it for the study of religion?
MASSIMO: You read too much into what I wrote. I was not subscribing to the theory of religion as a cultural parasite hypothesis, but merely providing an example of where understanding of ultimate causes (the evolutionary basis of cancer), though intellectually satisfying, does little or nothing to help us solve the problem.

Incidentally, this is an excellent example of intellectual exchange between scientists, where though we differ in our positions we are both interested in making progress and understanding each other’s ideas. Let me know if you find anything like this in the creationist literature...


  1. Thanks for the great discussion!

    It just so happens I am reading Wilson's Evolution for Everyone. Now I will be able to get a lot more out of the book.

  2. Excellent discussion. I enjoyed Prof. Wilson's book too, and think he offers a lot of new ways to look at religion and its development.

  3. I disagree with the characterization of Harris as falling into the cult category, a la Rand.

    For starters, his "sympathy for Eastern mysticism" is indepedent of any alleged dogmatism with regards to athiesm. One does not have anything to do with the other.

    But he is not dogmatic about athiesm, he simply rejects theism as a bad idea. He even saw the need to warn Athiests about aligning their identities around atheism. Here is a Harris quote from a speech he gave:

    I'm speaking from a somewhat unusual and perhaps paradoxical position because, while I am now one of the public voices of atheism, I never thought of myself as an atheist before being inducted to speak as one. I didn't even use the term in The End of Faith..... as I argued briefly in Letter to a Christian Nation, I think that "atheist" is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don't need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people "non-astrologers." All we need are words like "reason" and "evidence" and "common sense" and "bullshit" to put astrologers in their place, and so it could be with religion.

    Another quote that is counter to any suggestion of a cult or dogma:

    We should not call ourselves "atheists." We should not call ourselves "secularists." We should not call ourselves "humanists," or "secular humanists," or "naturalists," or "skeptics," or "anti-theists," or "rationalists," or "freethinkers," or "brights." We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.

    Now, it just so happens that religion has more than its fair share of bad ideas. And it remains the only system of thought, where the process of maintaining bad ideas in perpetual immunity from criticism is considered a sacred act.

    Secondly, with regards to Eastern Mythology, Harris does not accept Eastern metaphysics, but simply acknowledges value in attempting understand what makes up happy, thriving, balanced, purposeful beings.

    The absence of religion does necessarily provide answers to those questions.

    Leaving aside all the metaphysics and mythology and mumbo jumbo, what contemplatives and mystics over the millennia claim to have discovered is that there is an alternative to merely living at the mercy of the next neurotic thought that comes careening into consciousness. There is an alternative to being continuously spellbound by the conversation we are having with ourselves.

    In other words, through perfectly scientifcally and material explanations, it may be that meditation and/or other Eastern practices may have practical emotional and societal benefits.

    I, myself, think that we may not need new words for that either as "thinking" or "contemplating" or "self-reflection" may suffice without the other conotations of Eastern mysticims.

    Anyway, here is the Harris speech:


  4. "Incidentally, this is an excellent example of intellectual exchange between scientists, where though we differ in our positions we are both interested in making progress and understanding each other’s ideas."

    Very nice, M. But you are virtually on the same page regarding most of your core interests. And that makes a horrendous difference to how you choose to discuss the issues. in this particular case, you guys are just basically flogging each other with ways of approaching problems that are extremely temporal. What is the guiding principle here? Get rid of both beliefs and therefore PEOPLE? And is if we could stop people from believing, period. If they don't believe in x they will certainly believe in y. But I think we all know that.

    "Let me know if you find anything like this in the creationist literature..."

    Tons of it. In my mind this is not truly exceptional. The old order orders of scientists and philosophers of different points of view did this all the time.

    Now take two fellas remarkably different in their core views and have them discuss and articulate without insult or attempts to disarm or emotionally injure their opponent, that would be truly exceptional.

    I'm the only guy I know who can do that. ;)


  5. Now take two fellas remarkably different in their core views and have them discuss and articulate without insult or attempts to disarm or emotionally injure their opponent, that would be truly exceptional.

    Not to harp on Harris, but he and Andrew Sullivan did have such a discussion. It occured over a period of weeks and is one of the most civil and intelligent debates I seen between a Christian and an Athiest:


    I highly encourage you or anyone else to read it.

  6. You're right, Alan. It's a good exchange.

    I was looking at the following comment of Harris' and noted that Sullivan did too.

    "Where I think we disagree is on the nature of faith itself. I think that faith is, in principle, in conflict with reason (and, therefore, that religion is necessarily in conflict with science), while you do not."

    The only problem with what he is saying is that the original Greek did not separate concepts of faith and belief at all. There was merely a noun and a verb pisitis(noun, faith) / pisteuo , (verb, believe) of the same word. (In the same sense that love can be a noun or verb.)
    It was a decision made about the English language that caused the distinction and confusion between beliefs in general vs. just faith alone in God. But not truly an accurate one.

    The fact is that now that the flawed version of interpretation "works" for some people, whether it is a proper use of original languages or not does not seem to matter to anyone. Sometimes I think that scholars could be a lot more scholarly.

    thanks tho for the link.

  7. Great discussion, guys! I only wish there were more of this. Sadly, as Massimo pointed out, the creationists are unwilling and/or unable to do just this, to see another side.

  8. It's interesting that you don't consider the sloppiness of Dawkins and Dennett as evidence of being dogmatic. Of course, people can be sloppy without being dogmatic, but when the slops tend to go in a common ideological direction, that tends to point to dogmatism. I'd also say that Dawkins' Godwinesque appeaser rhetoric also points in that direction.

  9. Alan shows too much sympathy for Sam Harris' pseudoscientific, pseudo-rational views:

    "Secondly, with regards to Eastern Mythology, Harris does not accept Eastern metaphysics, but simply acknowledges value in attempting understand what makes up happy, thriving, balanced, purposeful beings."

    Bullshit. Read him carefully, and you can find signs that he supports various pseudoscientific, pseudo-rational positions. Sam Harris says "but the truth is that we simply do not know what happens after death". Huh. Then: "the idea that brains produce consciousness is little more than an article of faith among scientists at present."

    If I recall correctly, there are other places where Sam Harris has shown clear sympathy for pseudoscientific beliefs. However, he doesn't pick them randomly. Why does Harris show sympathy for reincarnation, rather than UFOs, dowsing, or Tarot? What an easy question to answer! The reason is that Sam spent the first ten years of his adult life as a mystic.

    In an interview with Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein, the interviewer said "the atheist Sam Harris, who's a neuroscientist by training, says he's not at all sure that consciousness can be reduced to brain function. He told me he's had various uncanny -- what some would call telepathic -- experiences."

    So, Harris has had some telepathic experiences. Again, go figure; why else would he lean towards Eastern bullshit?

    He also attaches moralistic overtones to his beliefs:

    "It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the feeling we call 'I' is one of the most pervasive and salient features of human life: and its effects upon the world, as six billions 'selves' pursue diverse and often incompatible ends, rival those that can be ascribed to almost any other phenomenon in nature. Clearly, there is nothing optimal-or even necessarily viable-about our present form of subjectivity."

    That's right: Sam Harris considers the very experience of self to be one of our most serious dangers. It is something to be removed at all costs.

    I could also point to page 216 of The End of Faith, where Harris quotes a Buddhist piece of writing, expecting us to ghasp with awe at its profundity. Yet what trite nonsense it really is! Is this what Harris wasted a decade of his life on?

    When I consider Harris' sympathetic views towards reincarnation, his ill-formulated beliefs about the nature of self, and his moralistic beliefs about the powers of Buddhism, I can hardly think of him as a champion of reason.

  10. Come on people, Wilson is an dullard with NO scientific achievements whatsoever, except maybe disguising kin-selection as a form of group selection.

    Wilson's 'scientific' strategy:

    1) make some hot claim
    2) draw big shot scientists like Trivers or Dawkins (and now Massimo) into a controversy
    3)back out playing the 'friendship' and 'we agree in the fundamentals' card.

    He rants and rants, you are SO wasting you time Massimo! These guys should be ignored.

  11. Huinca is right!

    My prof showed me a passage in one of Wilson's books on group selection (years ago now, forgive my memory - or lack thereof) where he stated that X "did not mention any of this in his book of kin selection" and the he showed my in X's book that passage. Did I mention also my prof is rather anal about such things - but it just told me to not trust too much Wilson is doing or saying...

  12. Hi all!

    I am not sure Harris's attempt at naturalizing spirituality is really where he moves from science to mere polemics ... indeed, that was one part of his book - The End of Faith - I thought was more balanced and reasonable! Where I think Harris is irrational (not necessary anti-science, but weak science) is via his narrow understanding of religion itself, and of religious people, and - especially - on what to do about religious fundamentalism. His "religion is the root of most evil" hypothesis is superbly naive, and his particular attack on Islamic Fundamentalism ignores the origins and reasons for "political Islam" including the introduction of Zionism into the region (of which he seems fairly apologetic about).

    As for Dawkins, his entire "scientific" understanding of evolution (his 'selfish gene' ideology) is the key as to why he can't understand the evolutionary landscape of religion and why his only solution to fundamentalism and other problems with religion - besides insulting all religious people with terms like delusion and sheep, etc. - is the education of the 'poor stupid masses' by we "Brights." How condescending and how foolish - and how unscientific - is that?

    indeed certain forms of Libertarianism (or Randian Objectivism) are like stealth religions while others are not. It is key to understand, however, that "libertarianism" was born in the mid to late 19th century in Europe and Russia as another term for anarchism (so that anarchists would be less persecuted by statists and capitalists), and it was not until the 1970s that American Libertarianism was born.

    However, American Libertarianism (what most in the U.S. call libertarianism) is really individualist anarchism infected with capitalism(anarcho-capitalism) which most real libertarians (anarchists) consider an oxymoron! It is such an oxymoron that American Libertarians even welcome a minimalist state, which is not libertarian at all (but is needed to partially regulate capitalism)!

    And so I suppose it is easy to become a 'stealth religion' when your core philosophy is an oxymoron, rather than, as David says, "A movement to work hard to get the facts right."

    Now, while I don't doubt that some things in nature may forever be out of our reach (scientific understanding), I think this does not mean we don't try anyway. Consciousness is perhaps the only thing which really falls in to this category (besides understanding "ultimate reality" or "ultimate origins" kind of stuff).. Because here we are trying to understand our own ability to understand.. etc. Still, people like Penrose, Honderich, Edelman, Metzinger, and others are doing good work to understand even this, and to solve the "hard problem."

    But I agree with David.. I do not see religion as complicated at the "hard problem." No matter what biological clues we learn to interpret, religion is also a sociological thing as is other aspects of human behavior; and while the brand of evolutionary psychology which Pinker is a part may be wrong in many ways.. really "just so" stories as philosopher David Buller argues in Adapting Minds*, we can still understand much of human behavior in an evolutionary manor. But that does not just include biology or adaptation, but all of politics and economics too (that is, culture).

    Anyway, I don't even think we HAVE to have a "science of religion" fully worked out (if there ever will be one), to find out better ways of dealing with fundamentalism and other religious problematic traits of which none of the "new atheists" have.

    * http://books.google.com/books?id=dQ5MGDvn8eIC&dq=adapting+minds&pg=PP1&ots=6a9M2TsGmf&sig=6FvbvxO3lj01vrL5462kmIsJllg&hl=en&prev=http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&rlz=1B2RNFA_enUS205US207&sa=X&oi=spell&resnum=0&ct=result&cd=1&q=adapting+minds&spell=1&oi=print&ct=title&cad=one-book-with-thumbnail

    But Massimo, if we come to scientifically understand (create good theories) regarding even 50% of what David is trying to, we already have many more possible solutions than any of the new atheists have on what to do about religion, right?


  13. Massimo,
    since you are a practitioner of evo-devo, I guess you might have some reservations about the power of the proximate/ultimate distinction, which in some quarters has been employed to assert the irrelevance of development to evolution. I think that similar cautions would apply to the discussion of religion as well.

    I agree with you (or so it seems to me) that an explanation of religion does not fall (primarily) within the domain of biology. My reason for thinking this is that in order to understand religion one has to consider a lot of other social arrangements. I very much doubt that, for present-day religious phenomena, if you start from biology you can get further than (or even close to) the "classical", Hegelian or Marxian, critique of religion. Which is at the same time a critique of society and of its necessary illusions, not just the "opium of the masses" slogan.

    I am not denying that the group selectionist approach to religion is insightful and can be useful to our current concerns. But I don't expect that any time soon we will get an answer to the question of which social arrangements could be considered proximate or ultimate causes of religion as we know it: nations, the market, the environment, corporations, social classes, money, our brains?

    Thank you for sharing.


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