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Daniel C. Dennett

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Description de l'ouvrage

12 juin 1996
In a book that is both groundbreaking and accessible, Daniel C. Dennett, whom Chet Raymo of The Boston Globe calls "one of the most provocative thinkers on the planet," focuses his unerringly logical mind on the theory of natural selection, showing how Darwin's great idea transforms and illuminates our traditional view of humanity's place in the universe. Dennett vividly describes the theory itself and then extends Darwin's vision with impeccable arguments to their often surprising conclusions, challenging the views of some of the most famous scientists of our day.

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Extrait

Chapter 1
Tell Me Why

1. Is Nothing Sacred?

We used to sing a lot when I was a child, around the campfire at summer camp, at school and Sunday school, or gathered around the piano at home. One of my favorite songs was "Tell Me Why." (For those whose personal memories don't already embrace this little treasure, the music is provided in the appendix. The simple melody and easy harmony line are surprisingly beautiful.)

Tell me why the stars do shine,

Tell me why the ivy twines,

Tell me why the sky's so blue.

Then I will tell you just why I love you.

Because God made the stars to shine,

Because God made the ivy twine,

Because God made the sky so blue.

Because God made you, that's why I love you.

This straightforward, sentimental declaration still brings a lump to my throat -- so sweet, so innocent, so reassuring a vision of life!

And then along comes Darwin and spoils the picnic. Or does he? That is the topic of this book. From the moment of the publication of Origin of Species in 1859, Charles Darwin's fundamental idea has inspired intense reactions ranging from ferocious condemnation to ecstatic allegiance, sometimes tantamount to religious zeal. Darwin's theory has been abused and misrepresented by friend and foe alike. It has been misappropriated to lend scientific respectability to appalling political and social doctrines. It has been pilloried in caricature by opponents, some of whom would have it compete in our children's schools with "creation science," a pathetic hodgepodge of pious pseudo-science.

Almost no one is indifferent to Darwin, and no one should be. The Darwinian theory is a scientific theory, and a great one, but that is not all it is. The creationists who oppose it so bitterly are right about one thing: Darwin's dangerous idea cuts much deeper into the fabric of our most fundamental beliefs than many of its sophisticated apologists have yet admitted, even to themselves.

The sweet, simple vision of the song, taken literally, is one that most of us have outgrown, however fondly we may recall it. The kindly God who lovingly fashioned each and every one of us (all creatures great and small) and sprinkled the sky with shining stars for our delight -- that God is, like Santa Claus, a myth of childhood, not anything a sane, undeluded adult could literally believe in. That God must either be turned into a symbol for something less concrete or abandoned altogether.

Not all scientists and philosophers are atheists, and many who are believers declare that their idea of God can live in peaceful coexistence with, or even find support from, the Darwinian framework of ideas. Theirs is not an anthropomorphic Handicrafter God, but still a God worthy of worship in their eyes, capable of giving consolation and meaning to their lives. Others ground their highest concerns in entirely secular philosophies, views of the meaning of life that stave oft despair without the aid of any concept of a Supreme Being -- other than the Universe itself. Something is sacred to these thinkers, but they do not call it God; they call it, perhaps, Life, or Love, or Goodness, or Intelligence, or Beauty, or Humanity. What both groups share, in spite of the differences in their deepest creeds, is a conviction that life does have meaning, that goodness matters.

But can any version of this attitude of wonder and purpose be sustained in the face of Darwinism? From the outset, there have been those who thought they saw Darwin letting the worst possible cat out of the bag: nihilism. They thought that if Darwin was right, the implication would be that nothing could be sacred. To put it bluntly, nothing could have any point. Is this just an overreaction? What exactly are the implications of Darwin's idea -- and, in any case, has it been scientifically proven or is it still "just a theory"?

Perhaps, you may think, we could make a useful division: there are the parts of Darwin's idea that really are established beyond any reasonable doubt, and then there are the speculative extensions of the scientifically irresistible parts. Then -- if we were lucky -- perhaps the rock-solid scientific facts would have no stunning implications about religion, or human nature, or the meaning of life, while the parts of Darwin's idea that get people all upset could be put into quarantine as highly controversial extensions of, or mere interpretations of, the scientifically irresistible parts. That would be reassuring.

But alas, that is just about backwards. There are vigorous controversies swirling around in evolutionary theory, but those who feel threatened by Darwinism should not take heart from this fact. Most -- if not quite all -- of the controversies concern issues that are "just science"; no matter which side wins, the outcome will not undo the basic Darwinian idea. That idea, which is about as secure as any in science, really does have far-reaching implications for our vision of what the meaning of life is or could be.

In 1543, Copernicus proposed that the Earth was not the center of the universe but in fact revolved around the Sun. It took over a century for the idea to sink in, a gradual and actually rather painless transformation. (The religious reformer Philipp Melanchthon, a collaborator of Martin Luther, opined that "some Christian prince" should suppress this madman, but aside from a few such salvos, the world was not particularly shaken by Copernicus himself.) The Copernican Revolution did eventually have its own "shot heard round the world": Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, but it was not published until 1632, when the issue was no longer controversial among scientists. Galileo's projectile provoked an infamous response by the Roman Catholic Church, setting up a shock wave whose reverberations are only now dying out. But in spite of the drama of that epic confrontation, the idea that our planet is not the center of creation has sat rather lightly in people's minds. Every schoolchild today accepts this as the matter of fact it is, without tears or terror.

In due course, the Darwinian Revolution will come to occupy a similarly secure and untroubled place in the minds -- and hearts -- of every educated person on the globe, but today, more than a century after Darwin's death, we still have not come to terms with its mind-boggling implications. Unlike the Copernican Revolution, which did not engage widespread public attention until the scientific details had been largely sorted out, the Darwinian Revolution has had anxious lay spectators and cheerleaders taking sides from the outset, tugging at the sleeves of the participants and encouraging grandstanding. The scientists themselves have been moved by the same hopes and fears, so it is not surprising that the relatively narrow conflicts among theorists have often been not just blown up out of proportion by their adherents, but seriously distorted in the process. Everybody has seen, dimly, that a lot is at stake.

Moreover, although Darwin's own articulation of his theory was monumental, and its powers were immediately recognized by many of the scientists and other thinkers of his day, there really were large gaps in his theory that have only recently begun to be properly filled in. The biggest gap looks almost comical in retrospect. In all his brilliant musings, Darwin never hit upon the central concept, without which the theory of evolution is hopeless: the concept of a gene. Darwin had no proper unit of heredity, and so his account of the process of natural selection was plagued with entirely reasonable doubts about whether it would work. Darwin supposed that offspring would always exhibit a sort of blend or average of their parents' features. Wouldn't such "blending inheritance" always simply average out all differences, turning everything into uniform gray? How could diversity survive such relentless averaging? Darwin recognized the seriousness of this challenge, and neither he nor his many ardent supporters succeeded in responding with a description of a convincing and well-documented mechanism of heredity that could combine traits of parents while maintaining an underlying and unchanged identity. The idea they needed was right at hand, uncovered ("formulated" would be too strong) by the monk Gregor Mendel and published in a relatively obscure Austrian journal in 1865, but, in the best-savored irony in the history of science, it lay there unnoticed until its importance was appreciated (at first dimly) around 1900. Its triumphant establishment at the heart of the "Modern Synthesis" (in effect, the synthesis of Mendel and Darwin) was eventually made secure in the 1940s, thanks to the work of Theodosius Dobzhansky, Julian Huxley, Ernst Mayr, and others. It has taken another half-century to iron out most of the wrinkles of that new fabric.

The fundamental core of contemporary Darwinism, the theory of DNA-based reproduction and evolution, is now beyond dispute among scientists. It demonstrates its power every day, contributing crucially to the explanation of planet-sized facts of geology and meteorology, through middle-sized facts of ecology and agronomy, down to the latest microscopic facts of genetic engineering. It unifies all of biology and the history of our planet into a single grand story. Like Gulliver tied down in Lilliput, it is unbudgeable, not because of some one or two huge chains of argument that might -- hope against hope -- have weak links in them, but because it is securely tied by hundreds of thousands of threads of evidence anchoring it to virtually every other area of human knowledge. New discoveries may conceivably lead to dramatic, even "revolutionary" shifts in the Darwinian theory, but. the hope that it will be "refuted" by some shattering breakthrough is about as reasonable as the hope that we will return to a geocentric vision and discard Copernicus.

Still, the theory is embroiled in remarkably hot-tempered controversy, and one of the reasons ...

Revue de presse

James Moore coauthor of Darwin A brilliant piece of persuasion, excitingly argued and compulsively readable. Its lucid metaphors and charming analogies are reminiscent of On the Origin of Species.

Carl Sagan The Washington Post Book World A breath of fresh air.

Richard Dawkins author of The Blind Watchmaker A surpassingly brilliant book. Where creative, it lifts the reader to new intellectual heights. Where critical, it is devastating.

Richard Rorty Lingua Franca One of our most original and most readable philosophers....Once in a blue moon an analytic philosopher comes along who redeems his subdiscipline by combining professional persnicketiness with a romantic spirit, a vivid imagination, and a sense of humor.

John Gribbin Sunday Times, London This is the best single-author overview of all the implications of evolution by natural selection available....Lucid and entertaining.

Jim Holt The Wall Street Journal Dennett is a philosopher of rare originality, rigor, and wit. Here he does one of the things philosophers are supposed to be good at: clearing up conceptual muddles in the sciences.

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Couverture | Copyright | Table des matières | Extrait | Index | Quatrième de couverture
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Amazon.com: 4.0 étoiles sur 5  186 commentaires
216 internautes sur 230 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 All of life as a simple algorithm 9 novembre 2005
Par Vincent Poirier - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Broché|Achat vérifié
Darwin's idea is very very simple; it goes like this.

1-Organisms pass their characteristics on to their descendants, which are mostly but not completely identical to their parent organisms.
2-Organisms breed more descendants than can possibly survive.
3-Descendants with beneficial variations have a better chance of surviving and reproducing, however slight, than those with non-beneficial variations.
4-These slightly modified descendants are themselves organisms, so repeat from step 1. (There is no stopping condition.)

That's it. That's all there is to Natural Selection: a simple four step loop; a mindless algorithm that displays no intent, no design, no purpose, no goal, no deeper meaning. This simple algorithm has been running on Earth for four billion years to produce every living thing, and everything made by every living thing, from the oxygen atmosphere generated by plants to the skyscrapers and music created by man. Dennett writes that it is the algoritm's complete mindlessness that makes Darwin's idea so dangerous.

Dennett devotes the major portion of his book to aggressively arguing the above. He reviews how the algorithm could have "primed life's pump" eons ago and spends some time on describing evolution and biology. He argues that biology is engineering and thus reducible to algorithms. He also explains how simple algorithms can lead to computers that play brilliant chess and here he makes an important distinction: brilliant chess doesn't have to be perfect chess.

There is in fact an algorithm to play chess perfectly: examine all possible moves and discard all moves that do not lead to a win. The problem is that the number of possible moves is Vast, and the number of good moves is Vanishingly Small; there isn't enough time in the universe to use this algorithm. Therefore, software designers have developed imperfect but powerful (i.e. heuristic) algorithms that play merely excellent chess. Dennett uses this nuance to refute Godel's and Penrose's objections to Mind as being something "special", something more than the result of a Darwinian process.

Having argued that mind can evolve through a Darwinian process, he goes one step further: ethics can too. Darwin's world is amoral, without good or evil. We have invented the concepts of good and evil and Dennett ends with this. He reassures us that while a mindless, godless, amoral Darwinian process is at the root of everything, we can embrace morality, ethics, and beauty. To quote Dennett, "the world is sacred".

Vincent Poirier, Tokyo
335 internautes sur 364 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Good but not for the faint of heart! 7 juillet 2002
Par Atheen M. Wilson - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Broché
An online friend with similar interests, Steven Haines, recommended Daniel C. Dennett's book Darwin's Dangerous Idea to me some time ago. (Last year, as I recall). So enthusiastic was/is he over it, that he actually sent me a copy! After reading the book--and it took me weeks rather than days to do it--I have to say that I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand I definitely found it dense with information, a thorough critique of Darwinism and its modern variants, and certainly a very interesting work. On the other hand I found it very slow and difficult reading.
The book doesn't simply lay before the reader the author's observations and research on his topic like so many others. In fact Dennett himself points out this fact in his introduction when he notes that the volume is a book on science not a work of science. As he rightfully notes, "Science is not done by quoting authorities, however eloquent and eminent, and then evaluating their arguments (p. 11)." What he does do is describe the topic of Darwinian evolution and its impact on society, then presents the observations and research of diverse professionals in the field, critically dissecting them for the benefit and edification of the reader. It should be noted that Dennett is not himself an anthropologist or biologist, but he is trained in critical analysis. As Distinguished Arts and Sciences Professor at Tufts University and director of that institution's Center for Cognitive Studies, he is considered a philosopher whose specialty is consciousness as high-level, abstract thinking and is known as a leading proponent of the computational model of the mind. As such he is also considered a philosophical leader among the artificial intelligence (AI) community. His credentials, therefore, give him more than adequate qualifications for performing the above noted dissection with precision and thoroughness.
It is sometimes difficult for the average person, especially one who is not specifically trained in a field of research or in the rules of logic, to be objective about the literature in an area outside their specialty. The power of the written word, the forceful current of a persuasive argument, and the care with which confirming evidence is presented and refuting evidence suppressed or camouflaged, all make it difficult to see the flaws in some of the popular works on evolution--or any other science. Therein lies the value of Professor Dennett's efforts in DDI. He carefully points out the errors and strengths of the authors he cites. As he writes, "There is no such thing as a sound Argument from Authority, but authorities can be persuasive, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. I try to sort this all out....(p. 11)." And he does so step by step so that the reader can follow the logic or illogic of the arguments under discussion. In doing so he takes on some pretty visible and popular authors, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins among the better known perhaps, and some very high level math-physics intellects, most notably Stuart Kaufmann and Roger Penrose.
I found that the work almost seemed like a collection of essays of varying length on assorted topics with all of them linked by a common theme. The book is probably best read with this in mind, since it's difficult to digest in a single sitting or even with a single read. (I tend to use post-it-note page markers to highlight points on pages I wish to review after finishing a book. There were so many post-it-notes marking my copy of DDI, that a friend at work pointed out that I might just as well re-read the entire book. He's probably right!) Part of the problem lies in the book's basic premis. As a critique of various works by diverse authorities, it demands that the reader more actively participate in the thought process of that criticism. And that participation requires a rather diverse background of knowledge: anthropology, architecture, artificial intelligence, biology, evolutionary theory, game theory, physics, philosophy, are among some of the topics covered under the cover of Darwin and evolution! It also requires some knowledge of the author's under discussion.
While I don't want to scare a prospective reader, I also think that this book might be a little more than most can or wish to handle. I do think that the person who undertakes to read it, devoting to the project the time and care that it deserves, will come away with, not only a good deal of solid information, but with a first rate training in critical thinking as well!
226 internautes sur 250 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 A can-opener for closed minds. 14 janvier 2001
Par Stephen A. Haines - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Broché
Recently, a poll on the most notable figure of the previous millennium placed Charles Darwin in fourth place. That's three short of the mark. No concept has been as wide-reaching and influential as the idea of evolution through natural selection. And this book should follow right behind. It is clearly the second most important book published. Dennett's approach deals with Darwin's idea in a philosophical and logical framework instead of a biological one. He declares it the 'universal acid'. Indeed, how does one contain the such a revolutionary notion of change over time? It has affected every aspect of the cosmos from astrophysics to quantum theory. Dennett points up better than anyone that if we truly wish to know what we are in the scheme of things, Darwin's idea is the place to start.
The point of this book is, of course, that Darwin's concept hasn't been universally accepted. Even those who acknowledge evolution may still contest Darwin's mechanism of natural selection through adaptation. Dennett's analysis of iconoclast Stephen Gould's 'punctuated equilibrium' is delightfully scathing, but precisely on the mark. The role of the heretic is to threaten orthodoxy, whether or not the orthodoxy is false. Gould, after trying for a generation to scupper orthodox Darwinism, is here demonstrated to have failed miserably. His attacks, however, have frightened the orthodox without weakening the structure of natural selection. Dennett's superb critique of "punctuated equilibrium" isn't a call for blind adherence to orthodoxy, but instead demonstrates the strengths of Darwin's analysis and why Gould's iconoclasm is misleading. Gould's response to Dennett's clear review of the reality of Darwinism has been petulant stubbornness rather than sound scholarship. That's a pity.
Dennett's prose is delightful. His analysis is direct and pointed in arriving at his conclusions. Taking you step by step through his presentations, it becomes unequivocally clear that his conclusions are iron-clad. Nothing is left hanging - you are brought to each point with a clarity any writer would envy. The book isn't brief, but as Mozart once responded to the criticism that there were 'too many notes' in his opera, what would you take out? Dennett builds his case with confidence, using numerous sources to support his contentions. Coupling a high degree of readability with an equally elevated scholarship is no mean feat, but Dennett achieves it with apparent ease. For contrast, try Michael Ruse's "Understanding Darwin", another philosophical view of the impact of Darwin's idea.
If there's a better book somewhere on the impact of the greatest concept in science, please point it out. Dennett's analysis shows how widely Darwin's idea of evolution through natural selection has permeated through all the sciences and society. The resistance to the concept remains high in the United States, the only facet Dennett is unable to address. He's not alone in that, but with the rise of Richard Dawkins' thesis of the 'meme' perhaps we may soon have an answer.
60 internautes sur 66 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Surprisingly Easy to Read, Heavy on Logic With Much Detail 27 novembre 2005
Par J. Robinson - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Broché
There have been many comments on this book in the ten years since it was first published. I think what Carl Sagan said about the book is perhaps the most accurate: "a breath of fresh air". Contrary to many other people I thought the book by Dennett was easy to read, very well written, very straightforward, and not some sort of heavy philosophical discussion. He has lots of examples and many references to real science. It even contains pictures and many schematics. The basic point of the book is that despite any rumour or suggestions to the contrary, scientific, social, religious, or otherwise, the basic tenants of Darwin's original ideas for the evolution of the species remains sound, and it is the only viable theory of evolution. If anything, it has solidified its standing as a durable and accurate theory of evolution.

Darwin's theory as we understand it should start with a definition, and here I quote a definition: " The process in nature by which, according to Darwin's theory of evolution, only the organisms best adapted to their environment tend to survive and transmit their genetic characteristics in increasing numbers to succeeding generations while those less adapted tend to be eliminated." Dennett points out in his discussions that many non-evolution scientists, that is, those in other fields of research, do not really understand this simple idea. They still seem unwilling to accept the theory, although adaptive change has been proven in the scientific literature through extensive DNA and protein studies - see for example a more recent article 7 years after the Dennett book: February 28, 2002, Nature, authors Nick Smith and Dr Adam Eyre-Walker. They measure (quantitatively) the adaptive changes.

There are a number of sub-themes here and one being Gould's theories of evolution. Gould was famous and in the public eye, but back behind the scenes in the evolution world among his peers - according to Dennett - it seems that the situation was a lot more turbulent and controversial for Gould. Dennett describes Gould's "punctuated equilibrium" theory, a sort of stop start idea of steps in evolution that was supposed to overturn Darwin. Dennett thinks that the elimination of small Darwin adaptive steps was a confused and half baked idea (my paraphrase). This of course contains much irony since Gould himself wrote Wonderful Life based on the errors of Walcott and the Burgess Shale. As pointed out by Dennett elsewhere, Dennett explained to Gould that he was writing the book and was commenting on the flaws in Gould's theory. He met with Gould and received all his publications from Gould. At first Gould was helpful, but when Dennett found the inconsistencies among them, Gould went silent in their communications for almost a year, and refused to answer questions pertaining to Dennett's questions. The problem is that Gould had flip-flopped and back-tracked over the years until Gould's sudden non-linear jumps, followed by periods of little genetic change, were in fact toned down to just "speed changes" in Darwin's theory of small adaptive steps. It was no longer a revolution in evolution by Gould.

This Dennett book is far ranging and covers many topics in genetics and evolution. It is 18 chapters long and covers the subjects in a chatty style. The book is not a quick read and would take about a week to read, on and off 3 or 4 hours per day. I read about a quarter in my first read and got excited when I got to pages 156 through 163. Here starting on page 156 he describes how the first molecules or structures of life were formed. He tells us about a possibly of a replicating parasitic macromolecule, or a type of partial or pre-virus. It is likely, or at least possible, that first life was based on fragments of proteins and RNA being attracted to silica surfaces or similar. It is all very interesting, especially the idea that catalysts might have increased the mathematical probabilities of interaction to produce life, and that it is based on just common inorganic molecules found in the silica rich clays of earth's streams and lakes. He has numerous other topics such as the tree of life, ideas about the species, Mendel, "the computer that learned to play checkers", so on and so forth.

I would like thank fellow reviewer Stephen A. Haines ("bigbunyip" - or see my profile page and go to Amazon friends) for bringing this book to my attention. I highly recommend this exceptional book. Here are some other sophisticated science books for the general reader:

Genome (1999) by Matt Ridley, The Fabric of The Cosmos (2004) a physics book by Briane Greene, and Life on a Young Planet: The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth (2003) by Andrew H. Knoll, and for a light treatment of genetics and society read: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1989 version updated from 1976), or the original book: The Origin of The Species, Charles Darwin, Modern Library (original 1859, reprinted 1993).
52 internautes sur 57 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
3.0 étoiles sur 5 A Bit Diffuse; 3.5 16 avril 2006
Par R. Albin - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Broché
This very ambitious book is aimed at delivering a comprehensive look at evolutionary theory and what Dennett thinks are its philosophical implications. For Dennett, Darwin's core ideas are among the most important ever formulated and have a transforming effect on many areas of philosophy. This book falls into 2 parts. The first half is essentially a description of evolutionary theory with Dunnett's elaboration of what he thinks are some of the most important aspects, particularly what Dunnett abstracts as the algorithmic nature of much of evolution. These sections are well done and Dennett is particularly good in scrutinizing some criticisms of mainstream evolutionary theory that have come from significant intellectuals. The late Stephen Gould gets close scrutiny and some of his dissents are refuted effectively. These sections contain little novel and other books, for example, Dawkins' Blind Watchmaker contain similar expositions that are at least as good and more concise. The second half of the book ventures more novelty and controversy. In these sections, Dunnett attempts to apply evolutionary theory to some important philosophical issues, especially those related to his prior interests in the philosophy of mind. This is were his emphasis on algorithmic effects becomes important. Dennett attempts to invoke evolutionary theory in an effort to buttress his prior claim that the human is a "strong artificial intelligence (AI)" type of architecture, an idea that has been resisted vigorously by a number of other philosophers. Some of Dennett's points are inarguable. That the human brain and mind are products of evolution is hard to contest, though some prominent individuals like the famous linguist Chomsky apparently disagree. Dennett also has a fairly conventional but at times confusing discussion of the meme idea and the implications of human learning capacity. When Dennett gets into discussions of his positions on the nature of meaning and the strong AI theory of mind, I don't think his evocations of evolutionary theory are very strong and some of his arguments seem based more on analogy than anything else. The book concludes with a set of chapters on ethics. Dennett has a very balanced view of what can and cannot be accomplished by "sociobiology" but his own excursion into evolutionary theory based moral philosophy is quite vague and more a statement of faith than anything else. If you're a neophyte looking for a good introduction to evolutionary theory, try Dawkins or a similar book. If you're interested in some of the philosophical issues discussed by Dennett and already familiar with evolutionary theory, just read the chapters related to philosophy of mind, the ethics chapters are hardly worth reading. This book is probably of greatest use to individuals with a strong background in philosophy, little knowledge of evolutionary theory, and an interest in philosophy of mind. For them, reading cover to cover makes sense.
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