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3 SETI, Cultural Evolution, and Civilization

3 SETI, Cultural Evolution, and Civilization

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Science, Culture and the Search for Life on Other Worlds

akin to religion (funerary ritual), art (they made jewelry), social organization

through which they governed themselves, and had sufficient science to build

stone points and other tools. But the Neanderthals are not a group that we

normally equate with civilization.

Maybe a more useful definition of civilization can be found in Wikipedia

(believe it or not):

Civilization or civilisation generally refers to polities which combine three

basic institutions: a ceremonial centre (a formal gathering place for social and

cultural activities), a system of writing, and a city. The term is used to contrast

with other types of communities including hunter-gatherers, nomadic pastoralists and tribal villages. Civilizations have more densely populated settlements,

characterized by a ruling elite, and subordinate urban and rural populations,

which, by the division of labour, engage in intensive agriculture, mining, smallscale manufacture and trade. Civilization concentrates power, extending man’s

control over both nature, and over other human beings.

This definition provides an emphasis on structural elements of social organization and power relationships and contrasts civilization with societies that

may lack physical and organizational technologies associated with large-scale

populations as well as the tendencies to employ power structures and build

social hierarchies that are common among large-scale societies that are much

more extensive and stratified than what is typically found in human societies

such as bands or tribes.

The idea of trying to define civilization by those who think they are living

in one actually has an established history, and this tends to create rather biased

ideas about what might be the best definition. Scholars in the nineteenth

century often had a very clear sense of what civilization is and what it’s not.

For example, American lawyer and pioneering anthropologist Lewis Henry

Morgan, like other social Darwinists of his time, developed a scheme for clasTable 3.1 Morgan’s evolutionary model of human cultural evolution from savagery to


Type of society

Technological features

Lower savagery

Middle savagery

Upper savagery

Lower barbarism

Middle barbarism

Fruit, nut subsistence

Fish subsistence and fire

Bow and arrow


Domestication of animals (Old World), cultivation of maize,

irrigation, adobe, and stone architecture (New World)

Iron tools

Phonetic alphabet, writing

Upper barbarism



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sifying human forms of social organization in such a way that civilization is a

product of cultural evolution over long periods of time in much the same way

many at that time (as well as now) saw biological evolution to lead to more

complex and advanced organisms. Morgan viewed human history as a process

of evolution through three major “ethnical periods” he identified as savagery,

barbarism, and civilization. The lower of these—and yes Morgan and other

Social Darwinists like Spencer and Tylor see these as primitive, less progressed

forms of social organization—can be divided into smaller stages so that we get

this sort of schema for the evolution of human societies (Table 3.1):

The important thing to understand about this approach to thinking about

human social organization is that it has a telos. By this, I mean that it’s seen as

directional and assumes the improvement of humans over time; that improvement being expressed in what are perceived as better forms of social organization and associated better forms of technology. And for Social Darwinists

like Morgan and Herbert Spencer, the rise of civilization also brought with it

improved moral capabilities in humans. Spencer believed humans, as a part

of Nature, are constantly immersed in a process of evolution in which each

successive cultural or technological product spawns additional influences that

modify all future results. This is how Spencer saw progress, which he viewed as

a basic feature of Nature that is also evident in the ongoing changes in human

technologies and social structures that result from an underlying law that

determines a future for humans, assuming nothing changes, in which evolutionary modifications over time end in complete fitness for the social state, where

evil and immorality fade away. Put another way, the predestined outcome of

biological and cultural evolution is the ultimate perfection of humanity.

Indeed, Spencer saw human social or cultural evolution in terms of progress that is directional and within which certain “primitive” kinds of behaviors

and attitudes are historically prior, uncivilized and ultimately morally inferior.

Uncivilized humans, for Spencer, are people (races from his perspective) who

lack sympathy, or only have the beginnings of it, because this is the only way

to deal with the fundamental destructiveness of lower iterations along the

evolutionary ladder. Spencer believed that those races that were “savages” had

to acquire fitness for social life quickly in order to conquer the Earth, because,

obviously, a thoroughly civilized community could be only arise through the

actions of men able to wage war against their inferior co-occupants of the

planet. This would require a lack of sympathy for those lower forms of life.

These “baser” uncivilized forms of humans, according to Spencer, are cruel—

they engage in all manners of uncivilized behaviors like torture, cockfights,

and Roman gladiatorial games. Spencer sets up a clear contrast between these

lower races of humans, and argues that modern, civilized Europeans were


Science, Culture and the Search for Life on Other Worlds

motived by kindness and a desire to reduce human misery, even among inferior creatures. Of course, we all know that nineteenth century Europeans

never tortured anyone—they were a really nice, civilized people devoted to

making the world a better (read European) place and treated people from

other societies, like those in Africa and the Indian subcontinent, with magnanimity and warm, fuzzy kindness. Right.

Spencer was a racist and the evolutionary schemas of Social Darwinists

were discredited long ago, although remnants of that kind of thinking can be

seen in books like Richard J. Hernstein and Charles Murray’s 1994 volume

The Bell Curve, which was criticized as politically motivated or even racist by

scholars such as Stephen J. Gould and Noam Chomsky for its scientifically

questionable approach to linking race, genetics, and intelligence (problematically measured via IQ tests), among other things.

These types of arguments continue to arise, despite the fact that early

anthropologists like Franz Boas and his students wrote extensively and convincingly against the racist social science of thinkers like Spencer and Morgan.

In his book The Mind of Primitive Man, Boas discredits the idea that there are

innate differences between savages and civilized humans. It was history and

culture that led to differences in custom and practice, rather than biological

differences that were expressed in higher and lower forms of social organization. Boas clearly recognized that although social change is obvious and as

populations increase we see increasingly complex forms of social organization,

normally associated with increased layering and specialization of social functions and occupations, there is nothing better about one form of human social

organization over another. In short, change in human social organization does

not imply improvement or progress.

This is important for our discussion here because in many ways it’s the

social Darwinist concept of civilization that lurks in the assumptions of SETI

researchers when they opine about potential civilizations on other worlds or

when they imagine how human civilization might compare with that of an

extraterrestrial intelligence. I want to be careful here, because I’m not claiming

that SETI scientists are closet Social Darwinists. Rather, the manner in which

they tend to conceptualize civilization draws on assumptions about social and

cultural evolution that have the same sort of telos found in the ideas of the

Social Darwinists. This generates a biased and empirically questionable way

of thinking about both our own world and the ways in which intelligent life

might exist on other worlds.

For example, Jill Tarter, former director of the Center for SETI Research

and holder of the Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI at the SETI Institute in

San Jose, has argued that our extraterrestrial interlocutors are likely to have


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outgrown organized religion. Tarter develops this assumption from the oft-cited

idea that any extraterrestrial civilization with which we might come into contact is necessarily going to be much older than our own. Why? Well, it has

to do with both technological development and social stability over time.

Tarter tells us that it’s highly likely that any non-human technology we detect

anytime soon will be more advanced than we are, in part because a technology

more primitive than our fledgling effort will not be detectable and, also, because

it seems pretty unlikely that we would just happen to hit on another world with

technology at the same stage of development that we see on Earth.

This brings us back to the Drake Equation and the question of the length

of time a civilization has been releasing detectable evidence of technology into

the cosmos that we might intercept. The argument, which is often repeated in

SETI circles, goes that any extraterrestrial society whose technology we could

detect with our primitive technology necessarily will be far older than we are,

and far older is likely to be measured in the tens of millions of years for any

solar-type star that is relatively nearby, meaning within 1000 light years or

so. This means that the technologies, and the civilizations that make those

technologies, must be very long-lived and, therefore, must have developed a

stable form of social structure that is unlike what we currently have on Earth.

Beyond this, according to Tarter, said long-lived civilization is likely to either

never have had or have outgrown organized religion. Finally, Tarter argues

that as long as contact with us does not somehow threaten the continued

longevity and stability of their society, ET is likely to act in the best interests

of humans. In other words, ET is likely to be altruistic unless we appear to be

a threat, which seems unlikely since we will be comparatively primitive from

a technological perspective.

There are quite a few problems with this argument. First, the types of terms

Tarter uses to describe us and them are reminiscent of the Social Darwinist

perspective associated with those nineteenth century scholars like Spencer.

This is most notable in the idea that an extraterrestrial civilization would have

likely outgrown organized religion. Our experiences here on Earth suggest that

as civilization has become more complex and stressful, depending on how one

thinks about it religion may actually be increasing in strength even while religions

like Christianity have been challenged by scientific knowledge. It’s very difficult to measure the influence or strength of an ideology like Christianity or

Islam, but the experiences we are having right now with ideologies like those

found among right-wing Christians in the US and fundamentalist Muslims

in several parts of the world, make it clear that religion on Earth, at least, is

unlikely to go gently into the dark night.


Science, Culture and the Search for Life on Other Worlds

And, then, we get back to the problem of defining religion and determining how, and whether or not, it can or should be separated from spirituality.

Many modern Americans claim to dislike organized religion, while retaining

the idea that having some form of spirituality or belief in a deity is important.

Indeed, a survey of the religious landscape of the US in 2014 showed that

while there has been a modest decline in the percentage of Americans who

claim they believe in God (from 92 to 89 %) since the Pew Research Center

conducted its first study of this issue in 2007, there is also evidence that those

who are religiously active (70 % of the population) may be more observant

than religiously active people were in the past and that it may be that more

Americans are becoming spiritual rather than religious, understood as meaning

that they belong to traditional institutional religions.

Then, we might ask if an advanced civilization with an organized religion

like Buddhism would have any real need to outgrow it. Buddhism is quite

amenable to the idea of modern science, so why would it be necessary to

shed the spiritual side—organized religion and science are not inherently in

conflict in the Buddhist world. In Tarter’s perspective, we find a rather ethnocentric conceptualization of organized religion built on the Abrahamic traditions—she defines religion in a very simplistic way that really only includes

Western-style religious traditions.

As it turns out, the issue of the relationship between religion and science

is complicated and ethnocentric assumptions about that relationship serve to

do little more than make things worse. Empirical evidence from the history

of religion across cultures prevents us from claiming any clear directionality

among our own civilizations when it comes to the influence or prevalence of

religion (again keeping in mind that it’s quite hard to define religion), so it

would be specious to argue that there is any necessary reason to think more

advanced civilizations out in the galaxy would be less, or more, religious than

our own. In the end, there is no way to know if a far more advanced civilization

would or would not have organized religion—perhaps they would actually be

a theocracy—but the evidence we have from our own world does not support

Tarter’s hypothesis.

While an ethnocentric perspective on religion is quite problematic, another

serious issue with this proposition lurks in Tarter’s frequent use of the term

“outgrown,” which points to an assumption that as civilizations evolve they

get better, they progress. This is a concept of social and cultural evolution

that reflects the same type of teleological assumptions found in the Social

Darwinist model, even if it lacks the kind of racism that was implicit in those


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models. Elsewhere, Tarter,1 argues in response to Stephen Hawking’s claim

that there is a reasonable chance ET will be very nasty, that a long-lived alien

civilization might have figured out how to stabilize their society for the purposes of survival into old age. In the process of doing this, maybe they outgrew any aggressive and belligerent tendencies they had in their societal youth.

Again, we see similar types of assumptions in the notion that aggressive and

belligerent behavior characterizes the “youth” of a civilization, while altruism

and general niceness hopefully will characterize the qualities of a long-lasting

advanced extraterrestrial civilization.

Maybe Tarter’s right, but we don’t have any empirical evidence to support

her belief. In fact, I would argue that most of the evidence throughout the

history of Earth is the opposite. The larger and more technologically advanced

a society gets in comparison to its neighbors, the more belligerent it tends

to become. The US is a pretty good example of this in the modern world

and over the past 15 years or so, particularly in response to perceived threats

from terrorists. Think a bit about Ted Cruz the Presidential Candidate who,

as I write this just won the Republican Iowa caucus and who has publicly

stated he will carpet bomb those people we don’t like in the Middle East. Or

we might think about Bob Knight’s endorsement of Donald Trump on the

grounds that he would be willing to use nuclear weapons. There have been

many wars throughout human history, but the most destructive of these is

among the more recent ones in World War II, with between 65 and 80 million lives lost as a result of the actions of highly organized, authoritarian societies like Nazi Germany and Japan. We have also seen a connection between

increasing power and increasing threat with China. As China has become

more economically powerful over the past 30 years, it has become increasingly intransigent and even belligerent in its interactions with its immediate

neighbors like Japan and Taiwan.

There are other assumptions and problems lurking in this way of thinking

about the nature of extraterrestrial civilizations. In terms of longevity, Tarter

assumes that the rate of cultural evolution, and thus technological innovation,

is constant throughout the universe and that these two are necessarily tied

together. This is the same basic assumption about the linkage between technological advancement and moral advancement that we see among the Social

Darwinists of the nineteenth century like Morgan. However, as noted in the

previous paragraph, nothing on Earth would suggest that improvements in

technology are accompanied by higher levels of altruism, increasingly responsible behavior on the part of individuals or groups, or just general niceness.




Science, Culture and the Search for Life on Other Worlds

Let me make this very clear: there is no evidence on Earth that technological advancement is in any way linked with moral or social advancement. At the

core of this problem is our lack of an agreed on basis for determining what is

inherently morally good behavior or even simply advanced cultural practice.

In the US, we tend to believe that egalitarianism is a moral good; our ideology emphasizes the notion of equality for all and frames that idea in terms of

our society being better than societies that don’t value equality or at least don’t

value it in the same way we do. This is a basis for viewing the US as a politically (and morally) advanced society, despite the fact that we often don’t come

very close to living up to these ideals. However, if we rely on the moral ideals

associated with egalitarianism, tribal and band societies would be identifiable

as morally superior to state-level societies like ours because decision-making is

usually diffuse and shared, and there is very limited differentiation in wealth

and social status.

The point here isn’t really which type of social organization is better or more

advanced. In fact, it’s relative; there’s no one form of social organization that is

clearly better than other forms. Rather, the point is that there are differences

and there is no necessary linkage between technological advancement, complex social structure, and morally good behavior either among individuals or

societies as a whole. And when it comes to behaviors and concepts like altruism, we are really talking not about simple biological elements of behavior,

but about conceptual categories about moral behaviors that are highly shaped

by culture. One society’s altruism may not be the same as that of another

society and altruism itself has the potential to shift from being a positive to a

negative influence on human behavior, as has been well shown in the work of

Barbara Oakley and others doing research on pathological altruism.

Having written the above, I recognize that there is a biological basis for

altruistic behavior that has been widely researched in the areas of sociobiology and physical anthropology, and that is often used by SETI scientists to

support the belief that ET will be nice. Altruism is often connected to what

is known as kin selection or the fact that some organisms sacrifice themselves

or put themselves in danger to protect others. Normally, when this happens

the “sacrifice” is made for closely related (genetically) kin because the sacrificial behavior for a relative has the potential to ensure that one’s own genes

get passed on. A child has about 50 % of its parents’ genes, so there may be

situations in which it makes sense for a parent to protect all of its children

and put herself at risk in order to insure that her genes get the opportunity

to reproduce (through her offspring). While this is sometimes referred to

as altruism, it can also be seen as a kind of selfish behavior in that it’s really


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motivated out of self-interest in reproducing one’s own genes through the

reproduction of the genes of kin.

We might counter that humans do engage in selfless altruism, but it can

be difficult to determine what is actually selfless behavior. If I die pushing

someone out of the way of an oncoming bus, did I do so to sacrifice myself or

because I wanted to be remembered as a hero, which, in turn, might benefit

my offspring economically in the future? It’s very difficult to determine motivations behind any behavior, altruistic or otherwise. The point here is that

that genetically driven behavior that we might term altruism is not clearly

altruistic in the sense that humans think about it as a form of kindness toward

others. And, among humans, behavior defined as altruistic is heavily shaped

by culture.

As odd and repulsive as it may be, there are those who argue that historical

characters like Hitler were actually practicing a form of altruism. For example,

in an opinion piece published in MIT’s The Tech, David Honig (http://tech.

mit.edu/V105/N53/honig.53o.html) argued that Hitler could be viewed as

altruistic because he demanded that individuals put the good of others, whose

will was expressed in the ideology of the State, above personal interests. I personally find it difficult to see Hitler as altruistic, but the logic here is understandable in the idea that a totalitarian dictatorship operates on the mandate

that individuals sacrifice personal interests for the social whole. We should

take away from this the understanding that altruism is difficult to define in

a universal way, and it’s possible to conceptualize actions that many view as

monstrous as being altruistic depending on your viewpoint. This isn’t simple.

Tarter’s ideas are by no means unique in the SETI community. Many

astronomers and others have discussed, debated, and argued in favor of the

notion that ET will be morally superior to humans and that this is causally

linked to the time scales and technological progress associated with very longlived societies. In an article entitled “Encoding Altruism,” from the newsletter

Science and Spirit (http://archive.seti.org/seti/projects/imc/encoding/altruism.

php), Frank Drake strongly supported the notion that we should expect altruism form ET:

Should altruism be expected, perhaps be ubiquitous, even universal? There

seems to be an easy answer to this question—yes. As noted by many writers,

altruism can be expected in intelligent creatures simply as a Darwinian imperative. Communities of mutually supportive individuals, practicing altruism, will

possess greater potential for survival than the same individuals acting alone.

Even greater survivability accrues when individuals have the will to endanger

their own well being for the good of the community.


Science, Culture and the Search for Life on Other Worlds

A deep analysis of culture and history on Earth show that the answer to

the question Drake poses at the beginning of this paragraph is anything but

an easy “yes.” First of all, Drake shows a rather weak understanding of the

mechanisms of evolution. Most of the time, evolution is a pretty selfish thing;

it works at the level of genes and the phenotypic expression of those genes

through individual organisms. If a particular behavior, such as warning kin

predators are nearby, helps to get one’s own genes reproduced, then natural

selection will favor the genes that generate that behavior. Natural selection

does not work at the community level, so there is little reason to think that

communities of altruistic individuals will possess greater potential to survive.

Whether or not that is the case depends on the environmental context in

which organisms live and how those organisms are adapted to that context—

but regardless evolution works at the level of genes, not communities.

Take, for example, the case of the Neanderthals. The sudden demise of the

Neanderthals is one of the more debated issues in paleoanthropology. We are

unclear about why when there had been at least three hominin species living

on Earth at the same time about 100,000 years ago, and 40,000 years ago the

Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans (Cro-Magnons) were occupying overlapping areas, the Neanderthals relatively quickly disappeared, leavening only one hominin species standing. Although Neanderthals have been

depicted as slow-witted, big-boned oafs who were just too stupid to compete

with modern humans, these stereotypes don’t fit our current understanding of

the species. Keep in mind a few key points. First, there is a rich fossil record of

Neanderthals showing they lived for a span from 350,000 years ago to about

40,000 years ago. That’s an impressively long time—much longer than modern humans—to successfully survive.

Their habitat included areas today we call Portugal, Central Asia, and Israel

and after thriving for so long, they suddenly vanished from the fossil record at

a point in time congruent with the arrival of modern humans. So what happened? Interdisciplinary scientist and popular science writer Jared Diamond,

extending a hypothesis that goes all the way back to 1912 and the work of

French paleoanthropologist Marcellin Boule, thinks that there is an inescapable conclusion to explain why within only a few 1000 years Neanderthals

were gone: The arrival of modern humans must have caused the Neanderthal

extinction and they did so through violence. According to Diamond, our

ancestors engaged in a Middle Paleolithic (about 300,000–30,000 years ago)

version of genocide, wiping out the Neanderthals at the end of this era with

their better weapons and subsistence strategies. He also thinks that the elimination of the Neanderthals was intentional. Maybe our ancestors hunted the

Neanderthals to their extinction.


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Archaeologists Paola Villa and Wil Roebroeks argue that this picture of

the Neanderthal demise is not supported well by the archaeological record—

the technological, social, and intellectual abilities of the Neanderthals don’t

appear to have been different enough to explain their sudden demise on the

grounds of being inferior beings. What we do know is that Neanderthals had

slightly larger brains than modern humans, which does not mean that they

were smarter, only different, from us. Furthermore, they crafted advanced

tools (despite showing relatively little innovation over their long history),

were capable big game hunters, and may have engaged in funerary rituals.

The last of these suggests that they may have had a sense of symbolic meaning

and language.

Villa and Roebroeks believe that single-factor explanations like genocide

are an unlikely way to account for what the fossil record shows us about

that period. Instead, current genetic data suggest that somewhere between

1 and 4 % of DNA among humans living outside of Africa is linked to the

Neanderthals, which suggests that complex processes of interbreeding and

assimilation may have been responsible for the disappearance of the specific

Neanderthal morphology from the fossil record. In other words, our ancestors

were the Borg of the Middle Paleolithic. And for the Neanderthals, resistance

was clearly futile.

We don’t know for sure what happened between our ancestors and the

Neanderthals, but it’s clear that in a world where there were two hominin

species competing for the same resources, greater survivability accrued when

individuals of our species either killed off or assimilated their Neanderthal

peers. It’s difficult to see where altruism fits into this moment of interspecies competition as the processes of natural selection did their thing. But the

mechanism of natural selection isn’t the only problem here. Among humans,

at least, how one defines the good of the community is largely cultural rather

than biological. If Group X determines that killing members of Group Y

will give their own members greater access to resources—and keep in mind

resources can be things like food and water, but also things like power, status,

and prestige—then from the perspective of Group X it’s good for that community to kill members of Group Y. It’s not so good for Group Y, but from

the perspective of natural selection that doesn’t matter at the biological level

and it doesn’t have to work that way at the cultural level, either. Good, in

terms of natural selection, is what gets your genes or your memes reproduced

more than other genes and memes.

Beyond this, we also have to recognize that altruism is anything but a simple feature of human behavior. Barbara Oakley has made this abundantly

clear in her work on pathological altruism. While recognizing the possible


Science, Culture and the Search for Life on Other Worlds

evolutionary advantages and social benefits that come with a biological bias

for altruism, she also points out that altruism involves tradeoffs that can take

a decidedly negative turn. Pathological altruism, according to Oakley, can be

understood as behavior that seems nurturing or beneficial on the surface, but

ends up having evolutionarily unsuccessful consequences. Indeed, evidence

for antecedents of such behavior in humans can be seen in other parts of the

animal world in examples like the behavior of the wood thrush that devotes

substantial resources to raising the offspring of cowbirds. Humans, very frequently, engage in altruistic behavior that is ultimately not beneficial to the

target of that behavior. For example, social welfare programs on the surface can

look like good ways to insure that people don’t fall into debilitating poverty, but

these programs also can generate multigenerational classes of impoverished

people who have little hope of improving their situation and who experience

discrimination and oppression. I’m a supporter of social welfare programs

and believe that they can be motivated by altruistic intentions on the part of

those who administer them (if not necessarily by politicians), but even the

best intentions can lead to bad results and sometimes they do depending on

how a social welfare program is developed and administered. And even well

intended, designed, and administered programs can lead to bad results.

In short, altruism is not an unambiguous good that we should expect to find

in morally and socially advanced societies. When it comes to thinking about

the relationship between altruism and progress, the fact is that humans have

been doing “civilization” for thousands of years and we have not outgrown

our tendency to be belligerent and nasty, despite the fact that we probably

would have better lives if we were to uniformly cooperate and act altruistically

toward each other.

There is a final assumption that I want to raise that floats around in the

writings of astronomers like Tarter and Drake. That is the idea that stability

and social unity are likely to be present in advanced civilizations and that

they are necessary for the survival of a civilization (whatever that means) over

a long period of time. Like altruism, stability and unity are very complex

concepts. The US has been a “stable” democracy for the past 240 years, while

experiencing a civil war, numerous other wars, and a fair amount of internal

conflict outside of our civil war. We’ve also managed, so far, to get through

nuclear competition with enemies like China and the Soviet Union without

annihilating the planet. To argue that we will need to get past these behaviors

in order to survive is, like when we speculate about the future, grounded in a

lack of knowledge. For all we know, it may be that humans will teeter on the

brink of extinction for centuries without actually pulling the trigger.

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3 SETI, Cultural Evolution, and Civilization

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