Darwinian evolution for culture

Following on from my piece about songs and scientists, underverse (Chris Schoen) has taken me to task:

… it becomes easy to see one of the flaws in memetic thinking. Changes in “culture” differ from changes in biology in that they are not random; they are directed toward a specific challenge or concern.

underverse has made a couple of conflations here that are rife in the literature, and the reason is that it is really hard to disentangle the issues. So allow me to try.

First of all, it doesn’t follow that because one is a cultural evolutionist, one is committed to meme theory, most especially that one is not committed to the Blackmore view that human selves do not exist, and that memes are somehow propagated independently of intentions. That is one view, but not the only one. It may be that we intentionally propagate those cultural items that we do because they are somehow more adaptive to our cognitive dispositions; in other words, they make us want to propagate them.

Intentions in biology are not empty, but neither are they something that evolution depends on (which was Butler’s Word Game Error). Lions have intentions to eat gazelles. Gazelles have intentions to not be eaten. What ends up working depends on factors that are independent of the directionality of the intentions – that is, in how well gazelles evade lions and how well lions hunt. And then there’s the famous quote about whales:

“The species of whale known as the black right whale has four kilos of brains and 1,000 kilos of testicles. If it thinks at all, we know what it is thinking about.” [Jon Lien, “Whale Professor” at St. John’s University, Newfoundland, speaking to the Norwegian Telegram Agency (spring 1995)]

So intentions are a red herring here. Cultural evolution occurs, as does biological evolution, upon all factors, including intentions. If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride. Intentions are not enough.

If we strip the term “meme” of its Dawkinsian connotations, and as a matter of cultural evolution that is exactly what has happened, it stands as a useful stand-in for “cultural items that are passed on with variable fidelity, including ideas, rituals, institutions, traditions, practices, etc.”. In other words it becomes a name for the things in culture that evolve. This is not malign.

Second, it is a fallacy to think that evolution of the darwinian kind (I lowercase the term as an adjective for evolution by natural or other selection) must involve equiprobability of all possible variants. Mutations need not be equally likely. You may have biases in what mutants can form, from, say, constraints in development or in replication of genes, and the end result – selection based on what of the actual variants are the fitter in that circumstance – is still darwinian. So another red herring is that if variation is biased this makes it non-darwinian. So long as there is some variation with respect to fitness, there will be selection (ceteris paribus*).

So biasing the sorts of potential “solutions”** does not undercut the darwinianness of cultural evolution. Intentionally biased variation that was unreasonably successful without selection would do, but this we do not see, contrary to what engineers may think. Engineers may think they come up with solutions by introspection, but they still have to test them out in the real world. And the solutions they come up with by introspection are the heirs to centuries of tradition, trial and error, and instruction. There are no magical inferences here.

Third, the speed of cultural evolution is pretty much the same as the speed of biological evolution. The problem is that the “rate” is not absolute. Speed in evolution is always relative to generations, not to years. I feel that cultural evolution will tend to be roughly the same relative rate as biological, if only because error rates tend to be at or about the same general level in transmission processes.

Finally there is this comment:

There is a reason why cultural evolution happens so much faster than biological evolution, and that is because it is a function of intelligence. It need not rely on random occurrences to proceed.

Intelligence is not magic. The reason why cultural evolution occurs more quickly is that the generation time between instances of the memes is orders of magnitude greater than that of human biology. We have a new generation of human beings every 33 years or so; we have a new generation of memes in a matter of hours or days, in the case of interpersonal discussion and experiment. No special process or properties are required to explain why intelligence works. Since Hume we have known two things: we discover by induction, which is trial and error generalised; and induction works by what has worked in the past. If things change, induction can fail. This is not any different to a darwinian process. Intelligence does nothing miraculous here but apply rules and knowledge that have been applied successfully in the past, along with variations that arise for all kinds of ways.

One aspect of intentional behaviour underverse hasn’t addressed that makes intentionality itself a darwinian process is that it is probably the end result of a quorum of partial neural activities – Minsky’s notion of a “society of mind” (see also Plotkin). Agents do not have immediate epistemic access to the solution – they run through a series of solutions in their heads, based on the accrual of either past experience or of dispositions that were successful in the past. The key lies in finding the right level of darwinian description.

underverse then, in a second post, attempts to make the Baldwin Effect a non-darwinian solution to this conundrum of his own making. He misreads the effect as being a reconciliation of conflicting ideas, but I fail to see why. Certainly Mayr had little time for it, but generally, both Baldwin and the other two codiscoverers of it, Henry Fairfield Osborne and C. Lloyd Morgan didn’t exactly set up the effect in a clear manner, so that is understandable. Later, Simpson wrote that it was possible but unlikely, giving a clearer view. Eventually later work made it clear under what conditions it would occur, and that they were rare.

However, underverse conflates the Baldwin Effect with Waddington’s “canalization”. This is a serious mistake. Canalization is the view that certain developmental trajectories are buffered against change in genes, so that they come out “right” even when there are perturbations. The Baldwin Effect is the view that behaviour can deform the fitness landscape such that variants (which may be themselves biased) that arise later will be fit. That the Baldwin Effect can occur is, I think, unremarkable and certainly not nondarwinian. The question is how often behaviour persists relative to number of generations, to make genetic evolution likely to occur.

Canalisation (the right spelling!) is less unlikely – developmental trajectories are likely to become buffered against change if they occur long enough in a variety of environments, and this is very likely to have occurred. Each of us is the end result of milliards of developmental events, and the range of environmental perturbations are certainly going to have been great. Developmental systems that can withstand such changes will evolve almost certainly under such conditions. To conflate the tow is a sign of misunderstanding.

I fail to see why he writes this:

It is tempting to invoke memes where genic explanations falter, but such an invocation amounts to a deus ex machina of the kind Dennett dubs a “skyhook.”

It would be a skyhook if intelligence were able to overcome the limitations of evolution, and Hume’s Problem, as underverse claims. But a simple cultural evolutionary view is not a skyhook by definition, but a classic Dennettian crane. We learn by trial and error and transmission without prior knowledge of what will work. We do this by building up our knowledge piecemeal. This is a crane. The idea that intelligence is somehow able to clairvoyantly identify what needs to be known, presumably by Putnam’s “noetic rays“, is as sky hookish as it gets.

So even before we get what is shaping up to be a misreading of Lamarck in the next post, I think that there is no case to answer. Cultural evolution is a process that truly explains what is going on in epistemology (but not, I hasten to add, what should happen – evolution is not a teacher about the future).

To conclude, let me say that I greatly appreciate the opportunity underverse has provided to discuss these mistakes, and I am not having a go at him particularly. Even Gould made some of these errors of reasoning; and people continue to do so. It is important to identify what the fitness bearers are in any evolutionary process, and the cultural agents often aren’t the biological agents. I am many cultural agents, for example, but I am at best one biological one. Failing to distinguish the two is where much of the trouble arises.

* To avoid a potential misunderstanding here, note that this is only true if the fitness differential between variants is great enough to overcome sampling error, which in genetic terms is either drift or neutrality. If you have a small population or the fitness differences are small, then you get no selection.

** Evolution is not a problem solver. It does not find solutions. It is a process whereby variants that survive to reproduce more effectively than other variants in the environment of a population will tend to develop into the majority or totality of the makeup of the population. Using intentional terms to describe evolution sounds like a nice idea until it systematically misleads you in your thinking about evolution. In the case of social evolution, however, we do try to find solutions to problems some of the time. So when that happens, evolution of cultural variants, a process exactly analogous to natural selection, will take our proffered solutions and if they are fitter they will tend to be passed on.

Damn! I misnamed the person/blog I was responding to. I had been reading Siris and thought that was who I responded to. My apologies to underverse!

17 thoughts on “Darwinian evolution for culture

      1. No worries.

        I thank you for such a thoughtful response in any event. As I write in reply at my place, I think you are projecting assertions onto my argument that I do not make–and I think some inconsistencies remain in your commitment to the concept of memes, however heterodox you mean it to be. But I certainly could have been clearer in my explication, and your response has helped my shape my argument much more pointedly.

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  1. Here’s an investigation of the “xanadu” meme:

    http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/article/one_candle_a_thousand_points_of_light_moretti_and_the_individual_text/

    Roughly, it goes like this:

    1. S T Coleridge introduced it into the modern world in his poem, “Kubla Khan,” which was first published in 1816. It developed some presence, but then

    2. Orson Welles quoted the poem in his 1941 Citizen Kane and named Kane’s mansion, Xanadu. Think of this as a dispersal event that gave the meme a much wider presence.

    3. Starting in the late 1960s Ted Nelson used “Xanadu” as the name of his concept of a hypertext system. He got the term directly from “Kubla Khan.” That put the meme into wide circulation in tech circle.

    4. In the early 80s Olivia Newton-John had a hit song and a movie called “Xanadu.” The movie quotes from “Kubla Khan.”

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  2. It seems to me that Mr. Schoen is deeply confused on this topic. Take for instance, this claim:

    It would seem contradictory, then, for this process to be able to violate one of the most important principles of Darwinian selection: namely, the enormous ratio of failed or neutral mutations to “successful” ones, and the subsequent long durations of time needed for changes to occur.

    I wouldn’t call that “one of the most important principles”, but whatever. That’s not my point. My point is that this is followed a couple paragraphs down by this:

    For most of the history of human culture that we have access to, we can assume human agency in the form of consciousness. Ideas without a context never make it to the “phenotype.” They are discarded by the mind to whom they make no sense before they are ever allowed to live in behavior. They are, in short, not visible to natural selection at all, but rather to a kind of human filtering more closely related to artificial selection.

    So, culture can’t evolve by a darwinian mechanism, because it lacks a filtering process to screen out all the deleterious mutations. To demonstrate this, look at this filtering process culture has which screens out deleterious mutations. See? No natural selection at all.

    “Artificial” selection is a subcategory of natural selection. They are not mutually exclusive.

    Similarly, an intelligent organism does not randomly run through each possible variant of a behavior until it seizes upon the right answer.

    And neither does natural selection. You’re engaging in creationist thinking here. Natural selection is not a process of trying out every possible mutation until you stumble upon the right one. It is always acting on pre-existing, organized structures which have a determinate form due to their history. Intelligence is no different in this regard.

    There is a reason why cultural evolution happens so much faster than biological evolution, and that is because it is a function of intelligence. It need not rely on random occurrences to proceed.

    What?

    What do you think culture is? Remember, “culture” includes everything from Pokemon to Jesus Christ. It includes GameBoys and fighter jets. It includes the Louvre and the Creation Museum. It includes Schindler’s List and Dramatic Chipmunk.

    Culture includes jokes, racial prejudices, superstitions, songs, science, technology, national identities, history, clothing fashions, dances, religions, fads, moral precepts, traditions, sexual preferences (to some extent), social and political organization, family structure, and on and on and on.

    Culture is much, much more than just a “function of intelligence”, whatever that means. Take, for instance, how a joke spreads. My guess is that the jokes that spread are the ones that strike the fancy of the people in the culture in which they originate. It’s not just a matter of goal-oriented intelligences deliberately seeking out the best jokes. That does not give a full account of why some jokes catch on while others are forgotten.

    And again, by setting up an opposition between “intelligent” and “random” you’re committing the very same kinds of errors that prevent creationists from understanding how natural selection works. Mutation is random, but the selection process is not. So when you point out that the selection process carried out by human minds on cultural entities is not random, you have not put this process in opposition to natural selection.

    Oh, and one other technical error:

    Mutation of DNA is still imperfectly understood, but it is generally thought to be the result of copying errors during mitosis, or exposure to mutagens. Most mutations are either deleterious or neutral, which is why evolution takes such vast spans of time to show noticeable effects.

    I believe you mean meiosis. Mutations which occur in mitosis cannot be passed on to later generations in plants and animals.

    Also, evolution by natural selection does not necessarily require “vast spans of time” in all cases. For instance, lizards transported to the island of Mrcaru in the Adriatic were able to evolve a ceccal valve in their stomachs in about 30 years.

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  3. Wes,

    A couple of clarifications.

    First, yes, I meant meiosis not mitosis. Thanks for the catch. I’ve made the correction.

    Second, artificial selection is a subset of natural selection in only a nominal, mundane sense. Artificial selection involves mind, and intention. It is anything but blind, which was supposed to be the revolutionary things about Darwinian theory in the first place.

    This is the reason why there is a science of memetics: to try to cordon off mind so that it is no longer a cause of culture, but rather an effect. It is in essence a resurgent behaviorism, and suffers the same logical defects.

    You make the same mistake in your analysis of my discussion of intelligence. Darwinism was an answer to the question of how evolution could have occurred without the mind of god. Its enduring strength is that it is inherently “mindless.” We therefore have a problem when we talk about human activities–which have everything to do with minds–in a darwinian context.

    Third, if you read my response to John, posted today, I actually agree that both biology and culture are contingent on, or constrained by, what happened before. But it’s important that we either take the blind, undirected nature of darwinism seriously, or we don’t. Biases and constraints reduce the number of possible mutations, but the set remains formidably large.

    Note that I am not arguing with the facts of evolution, but with the explanations of these facts. Birdsong mutations seem to have evolved in short order, as did, apparently, the changes in the lizards you mention. My question is how well do these facts accord with classical neo-Darwinism, and are the systems theorists of mid-last century who were overshadowed by the “selectionists” perhaps not due for some vindication?

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    1. Hi Chris.

      Second, artificial selection is a subset of natural selection in only a nominal, mundane sense. Artificial selection involves mind, and intention. It is anything but blind, which was supposed to be the revolutionary things about Darwinian theory in the first place.

      Actually, a key component of Darwin’s original argument was that he characterized artificial selection as being blind. He called it “unconscious selection” and used the concept to bridge the apparent gap between natural selection and domestic breeding.

      I strongly suspect that there is no qualitative distinction between natural and artificial selection. What we call “artificial selection” is really a form of co-evolution between us and several other species. It doesn’t just change them–it changes us too (think of the advent of lactose tolerance in human adults).

      Sure, we select the animals we like for food. Bees select the flowers they like for nectar, and thereby selectively breed the flowers, but no one would say that this is not natural selection. Humans selectively breeding animals is still an environmental interaction between two species, and still falls under the scope of natural selection.

      Does the fact that we “know” that we can change the animals by selectively breeding mean it’s no longer natural selection? I don’t think so. For one thing, we didn’t know this for a long time, and yet the process worked without our knowing. For another, our ability to gain knowledge is itself an evolved capacity which we use to improve our lot in our environment(s).

      This is the reason why there is a science of memetics: to try to cordon off mind so that it is no longer a cause of culture, but rather an effect. It is in essence a resurgent behaviorism, and suffers the same logical defects.

      Well, there’s a pseudoscience of memetics, for sure. Little of what goes on under the heading of “memetics” has impressed me. However, the failures of memetics do not entail that darwinian processes are not at work in human culture. Memetics is far from being the only option on the table.

      Its enduring strength is that it is inherently “mindless.” We therefore have a problem when we talk about human activities–which have everything to do with minds–in a darwinian context.

      What we call the human mind resulted from these processes. Humans are organisms. The “mindlessness” of darwinian processes is in the beginning of the sequence. No mind kicked off the process. But that doesn’t mean that minds can’t result from it, and that those subsequently resulting minds can’t be part of the process.

      But it’s important that we either take the blind, undirected nature of darwinism seriously, or we don’t. Biases and constraints reduce the number of possible mutations, but the set remains formidably large.

      Again, no mind or thought initiated natural selection. But that doesn’t mean that mind-possessing beings which result from it aren’t part of the process. You seem to be confusing ultimate and proximate causation here.

      Also, it does not matter how large the set of possible mutations is. The point I’m making is that the process which sifts through these mutations is not random. You seem to be excluding intelligent action by humans from natural selection on the basis that intelligent, rational action is non-random. Well, natural selection isn’t random either. The non-randomness of human intelligent behavior does not mean it is not part of natural selection.

      My question is how well do these facts accord with classical neo-Darwinism, and are the systems theorists of mid-last century who were overshadowed by the “selectionists” perhaps not due for some vindication?

      If the systems theorists want vindication, then they can develop a working research program and apply it. That’s how you get vindication in science. Sitting at home watching “Mind Walk” doesn’t cut it.

      Certainly the naive selectionism of 50 years ago is out of date. I’m no panadaptationist, and I won’t argue with you on that. But that does not mean that there are no darwinian processes at work in culture. Also, it does not change the fact that the fact that human intelligence is not exempt from natural selection merely because it is a non-random behavior of an evolved organism.

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      1. Oh, and by the way. I’m at a loss as to how to pronounce your last name. Is it pronounced like “shin”, or like “shown”, like “show in”, like “shurn”?

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      2. Wes,

        Actually, a key component of Darwin’s original argument was that he characterized artificial selection as being blind. […] I strongly suspect that there is no qualitative distinction between natural and artificial selection.

        You’ve moved from talking about “artificial selection” in the broad sense, meaning humans-as-agents managing their own culture, to the specific sense of humans modifying other species through husbandry and horticulture. It is fair game to call taming, or co-evolution, “unconscious.” But it is not accurate to call human development of culture unconscious, unless you are prepared to embrace moral nihilism.

        Let’s back up a step, to Paley. Paley argued by analogy that because pocketwatches are the products of human minds and intentions, that all complex structures are likewise the product of divine mind and intention.

        Darwin responded, in effect, that there was a “mindless” alternative, namely a slow, steady accretion of complexity where natural (i.e. purposeless) selection takes the place of mind. (Darwin does not, because he could not, given the zeitgeist, challenge the basic idea inherent in Paley that organisms and their parts need to be “made”. But this is a digression for another day).

        However: When all is said and done, it’s still true that pocketwatches are the products of human minds and intentions. Human culture, unlike biology, is teleological, even if that teleology lacks the perfect foresight of the one imagined by Aristotle or later Christian theologians.

        One might respond that a pocketwatch is just a “variation” of a full-sized clock, just as clocks are variations of earlier machines, and this much is true. But–crucially–the pocketwatch existed in a human mind as an idea or visualization before it existed in physical reality. This is something we cannot say for any changes in the genome, or ensuing phenotypic change.

        We also have to consider culture in its negative aspect. The minds that visualize cultural forms before they are realized have the capacity to abort them before they become actual. There was nothing inevitable about the invention of the atomic bomb, or the writing of Mein Kampf. This is also a statement we cannot make about biology. Intelligent, conscious organisms can make the Kantian distinction between the possible and the actual. For nature, there is only the actual (at least if we cleave to the Darwinian view), which is why nature cannot be immoral, though culture can.

        Well, natural selection isn’t random either. The non-randomness of human intelligent behavior does not mean it is not part of natural selection.

        I never argued it was. I wrote that the mutations that give rise to the variation that selection acts upon must be random, and it is this that I find no explanation for in invocations of cultural evolution.

        If the systems theorists want vindication, then they can develop a working research program and apply it. That’s how you get vindication in science.

        Ideally. But more scientific luminaries than we can count on both hands–Mendel, Copernicus, to name a couple of biggies–were not embraced in their own lifetime. There’s more to the promotion of good science than getting it right.

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  4. his is a messy messy issue and, having gotten deeply into it in the past, I have no desire to dig into it now. If you’re curious, you can find my major systematic statement here, with modifications here. I’ve also got some comments on memes and cultural phenotypes in my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil (Basic 2001). That’s my most recent statement and I pretty much stick by it, even now. But it’s specific to music. I don’t know how to do the generalization, though I think it’s doable.

    Now, I think animal culture can be handled within the Boyd-Richerson gene-culture coevolution model.

    Human evolution needs something else. Let’s just forget about how you theorize it (as the lit critters would say). Consider things like books, recorded music, movies, TV programs, etc. These things are all the objects of intense and highly skilled human intentions. And where distribution is handled by for-profit corporations the intention is to sell lots of copies and make lots of money. But, to a first approximation, it’s pretty much of a crapshoot just which titles succeed (Art De Vany’s Hollywood Economics is the definition statment of this for movies). The coupling between the intentions of the producers and the preference dynamics of the audience populations is very weak. The simplest way of finding out whether or not there is a demand for a given title in the target population is to make the title available and see if people buy it.

    I think there’s room for a darwinian dynamic in there. Just how to conceptualize it, that’s another matter. But I’m quite sure there’s no room for homuncular memes flitting about from brain to brain. The only agents we’ve got are human beings and, perhaps, groups (my book on music manages to make sense of that without getting mystical).

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  5. FWIW, I think one can draw a clear distinction between artificial and natural selection. What is distinctive about artificial selection is that it involves an effective intention to influence the distribution of heritable traits. Natural selection isn’t intentional in this way. But even though I think there is a clear difference, I’m not convinced it has any theoretical import.

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  6. I don’t see how you could argue that art is anything other than an organic and evolutionary processes.

    Nor is it totaly intentional, it also partly develops as a chance reaction to external circumstances. You then make the intentional choice to reject or deploy the new possibility.

    But you have to get it up on it’s feet and do it in order to stumble and learn. Thought is not enough.

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    1. Jeb,

      I’m not sure who you are responding to here (maybe Benzon?), but I agree. I never argued for “total” intentionality. What I argued is that conscious agents with the ability to postulate alternatives have a variety of choice or decision that nature does not have.

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  7. Responding to myself Chris. I think my perspective has just evolved slightly in response to some of they questions you raised. I found myself in the odd situation of sharing youre concerns but agreeing broadly with many aspects of Johns approach.

    Where he touches on areas that are in my own field of study I can see the work and thought that has gone in and his grasp of the subject is sophisticated and subtle.

    I also have a tendancy to ignore secondary commentary as I do not wish to bias the sources I work with at this stage.

    With Dennet I have heard him speak and as a result choose not to read him. It was far from impressive. He opened with a subject I had been looking at for sometime and choose to present only one aspect of a wider picture.

    I have just discoverd that Dennet the writer and Dennet the public performer are not the same thing.

    I understand that some birds have a diffrent pattern of inflection depending on the enviroment they find themselves. Human actors do the same thing. It’s refered to as over hitting.

    I can do it myself at times. My interests are not unsimilar to youre own, and youre concerns look oddly familiar. But my targets would be different.

    I think it is how the argument is inflected at times particularly with regard to religion that causes me concern. But John goes a long way to address my concerns. He is clearly putting in the work on the ground and it is very apparent.

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  8. p.s Chris

    The meme Dennet used that I don’t like is the talking tree. I think in his explanation during his performance he uses the power of the meme to dramaticaly make his point.

    Talking tree = supernatural.

    Talking tree = supernatural= mindless

    Dennet makes the decision to utilize a feature of the meme to strike home the message but omits to emphisis that it is a feature of the meme which he is exploiting. He simply uses it to give emphisis and make his performance more memorable.

    Talking tree=entertainment

    Talking Tree+supernatural= flying haggis.

    Talking tree= funny

    I am of course putting words in Dennets mouth to make my own point dramaticaly. The flying haggis is an entertaining meme pure and simple.
    The talking tree can be deployed in a number of ways as Dennets use of memes in performance to illustrate his point demonstrates.

    Meme theory is too meme like. I can’t throw of the feeling that it becomes in-it’s-self a meme in the hands of some performers.

    This however does not undermine the whole of his argument. That is not my intention.

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  9. Nitpicky biologist here: meiosis only occurs once per generation, and the germ-line cells do in fact undergo a number of mitoses: about 30 (from memory) per generation in human females, and a much larger number, increasing with age, in human males. The germline cells that give rise to sperm undergo mitosis every 10 days (or somesuch – don’t have my textbook handy) during sexual maturity

    There is evidence that the sperm of older men has more mutations, so in fact mutations during mitosis make a significant contribution to inheritance.

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