A review of Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini, Beacon Press, 256 pages (May, 2019)
The races differ also in constitution, in acclimatisation, and in liability to certain diseases. Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct…
~Charles Darwin, 1871, The Descent of Man
Angela Saini’s new book, Superior, is a cautionary tale about the historical legacy, and putative return, of what she calls “race science.” As far as we can determine, there are four main theses running through the book:
- ‘Race’ is not a meaningful biological category
- Genes can only contribute to population differences on certain “superficial” traits
- Studying whether genes might contribute to population differences on non-superficial traits is tantamount to “scientific racism”
- Almost everyone interested in whether genes might contribute to population differences on these other traits is a “scientific racist”
To be blunt, we disagree with all four of Saini’s main theses, as we shall explain in this article. (Note that since the book is quite poorly structured, and in some places contradictory, it is not always easy to discern what Saini is or is not asserting. Nonetheless, we believe that the four propositions above comprise a fair summary of her main arguments.)
Our article begins by briefly reviewing the strengths of Saini’s book. It then provides a detailed discussion of the book’s weaknesses. We divide our discussion of the book’s weaknesses into two subsections: scientific misunderstandings and logical fallacies. Overall, while Superior is timely and covers a multitude of interesting topics, it ultimately fails to deliver on its core arguments and is likely to leave the general reader confused, as well as misinformed.
First, Superior is admirably succinct at a mere 256 pages, meaning that—in principle—it can be finished in a single day. Second, despite not requiring more than a day of the reader’s time, the book does manage to cover plenty of interesting material. To her credit, Saini reached out to experts in a wide range of fields, including some who work at the cutting edge of human biosocial science. During the course of Superior, the reader is treated to commentary from historians such as Evelyn Hammonds, anthropologists such as Gilles Boëtsch, psychologists such as Richard Haier, and geneticists such as David Reich. Saini even contacted several individuals whose views are obviously antithetical to her own (although she does not always interpret their remarks charitably).
In addition to including commentary from these experts, Superior reports a number of rather interesting facts. In Chapter 1, for example, we are told that many indigenous Australians favour the multi-regional theory of human origins over the more commonly accepted Out of Africa theory “because it sits closer to their own belief that they have been here from the very beginning.” And in Chapter 7 we learn that 90 percent of Britain’s gene pool was replaced in a series of migration events beginning around 2500 BC. This means that modern white Britons are primarily descended from the so-called Bell Beaker people, rather than from the Neolithic people who built Stonehenge.
A third strength of Saini’s book is that she aptly describes how aspects of “race science” have been misused in pursuit of commercial and political agendas, particularly from the mid-19th to the mid-20th Century in Europe. For example, as late as 1907, two million visitors flocked to the Grand Colonial Exposition in Paris, where—among other attractions—they could marvel at one of the “human zoos”: mini-villages set up to give curious onlookers a glimpse into the lives of “primitive” foreigners. And of course, few readers will need reminding that the Nazis justified their genocidal policies of “racial hygiene” by appealing to the supposed superiority of an Aryan “master race.”
Furthermore, Saini points out that it is not only Europeans who have sought to rewrite history, and indeed genetics, for their own political purposes. For example, despite overwhelming evidence that humans evolved in Africa around 250,000 years ago, some Hindu nationalists fiercely maintain that Hindus have no ancestry from outside India. Hence, in order to avoid sparking controversy, one team of Indian geneticists found it prudent to use the euphemism “Ancestral North Indians” when referring to an ancient population with ancestry from the western part of Eurasia.
We now turn to the weaknesses in Saini’s book, beginning with her scientific misunderstandings. The most important of these, which corresponds to the first of her four main theses, is her misunderstanding of race. Although Superior is about the putative return of “race science,” Saini does not actually provide a coherent definition of ‘race.’ In the Prologue, she writes:
No place or people has a claim on superiority. Race is the counter-argument. Race is at its heart the belief that we are born different, deep inside our bodies, perhaps even in character and intellect, as well as in outward appearance.
This definition inextricably binds up race with morality, making it an affront to human dignity and a threat to metaphysical equality. (We will say more about this later).
Saini proceeds to make several familiar objections to a more reasonable and less ethically charged concept of race, contending that genetic variation between human populations is trivial, and that—as one British geneticist told her—human populations can be classified in “any way we like.” According to Saini, human races correspond to “arbitrary” divisions of population variation that are “politically and economically useful,” but that fail to capture the complex realities of genetic diversity. This contention is a common one, officially endorsed by a number of professional organizations and espoused by many celebrated intellectuals. Race is seen as an illusion—one that humans are seduced into believing because they trust the superficial evidence of their senses, and because of their desire to rank and dominate others. (Saini grants, for example, that classifying people by their ancestral continent is something that humans “can often do equally well by sight.”) In reality, however—according to this line of reasoning—genetic variation between human populations is miniscule compared to the variation within them, and what little variation does exist between them is mostly clinal, not discrete.
Despite the popularity of these arguments, they are either false (e.g. the claim that divisions are arbitrary) or approximately true but largely irrelevant (e.g. the claim that variation is not discrete). The first thing to notice about them is that they transform their ostensible target (‘race’) from a humble biological concept into something elaborately implausible or even metaphysical. For example, according to the philosopher Antony Appiah, race is the view that:
there are heritable characteristics, possessed by members of our species, that allow us to divide human beings into a small set of races, in such a way that all the members of these races share certain traits and tendencies with each other that they do not share with members of any other race. These traits and tendencies characteristic of a race constitute, on the racialist view, a sort of racial essence
This, we believe, is consistent with Saini’s difficult-to-comprehend (and somewhat contradictory) view of race as something “deep in our bodies.” Race, in other words, is turned into an improbable Platonic essence, which is then used as a rhetorical piñata to demonstrate the foolishness of those who believe that racial differences are interesting and worth studying.
- When humans began leaving Africa around 75,000 years ago, they dispersed across a much greater range of environments than they had previously inhabited.
- The humans that settled in different geographic regions subsequently came under different selection pressures (e.g. temperature, seasonality, altitude).
- Natural barriers such as oceans (e.g. the Atlantic), deserts (e.g. the Sahara) and mountain ranges (e.g. the Himalayas) impeded gene flow between different populations for substantial periods of time.
- When there is limited gene flow between populations that have come under different selection pressures, we would expect them to gradually diverge from one another over via the processes of genetic drift and natural selection.
Races therefore correspond to human populations that have been living in relative isolation from one another, under different regimes of selection. This means that racial categories identify real phenotypic differences, and reflect real genetic variation. Despite the various selective quotations to the contrary in Superior, many experts who have urged that we eschew the term ‘race’ would agree with all four of the propositions listed above, even if they sedulously avoid using the term ‘race’ because of its negative political connotations. In fact, Saini herself seems to recognise this point, when she writes in Chapter 6:
The word “race” had been prudently replaced by “population,” and “racial difference” by “human variation,” but didn’t it look suspiciously like the same old creature?
We are not particularly wedded to the word ‘race’ and would be happy to use ‘human population’ or ‘biogeographic ancestry group’ instead. But whatever term is used, the substantive arguments are important, and Saini’s muddled account of human variation deserves refutation.
The primary reason that natural philosophers began to classify humans into different races is that human populations look different from one another. Their skin colors, hair textures, facial structures, and stature all differ, often in predictable ways. Furthermore, these differences reflect their divergent geographical origins. In fact, researchers can classify human variation by continent quite accurately using only data from the human skull. (They are able to correctly classify human skulls into black and white Americans with about 80% accuracy, using only two variables.) Therefore, despite the common charge that racial classification is ipso facto racist, and that most Enlightenment typologies of human variety were motivated by prejudices and a desire to rationalize imperial domination, ordinary people and Enlightenment philosophers also took to classifying human differences for the mundane reason that such differences actually exist.
Of course, for a long time philosophers had no idea why races varied (which didn’t stop them from speculating). We now know that human population variation is ultimately caused by evolution (genetic drift and natural selection), and is proximately caused by genes. Although some modern intellectuals obfuscate, kicking up dust with abstruse arguments so that nobody can see, the simple truth is that genetic evidence strongly supports many everyday intuitions people have about human populations: they are somewhat (not very) different from one another, and while their differences are often geographically gradual (no two races are totally distinct), they are sometimes discontinuous (humans really do group together).
In a well-known study, Noah Rosenberg and colleagues found that human genetic variation largely corresponds to broad geographic regions and, more compellingly, that it closely matches Johann Blumenbach’s 1781 classification of human morphological variation into five races: Caucasians, Americans (Amerindians), Ethiopians (Africans), Mongolians (East Asians), and Malaysians (Oceanians). When Rosenberg’s article was first published, it came under a certain amount of criticism. However, he and his colleagues responded robustly to these criticisms in a follow-up article. Among the most compelling findings reported in their follow-up is that if one samples subpopulations from the five major genetic clusters, those separated by a given geographic distance tend to be more genetically similar if they are from the same cluster than if they are from different clusters. This indicates that, although human genetic variation is mostly clinal, it is partly discontinuous. (Blumenbach’s typology is one of those Saini dismisses as “arbitrary” without offering any evidence or argument.)
In an article ultimately sceptical of the term ‘race,’ the geneticists Sarah Tishkoff and Kenneth Kidd write, “The emerging picture is that populations do, generally, cluster by broad geographic regions that correspond to common racial classification.” Numerous scholars have found similar results, which—it seems safe to conclude—reflect a real pattern of genetic variation that emerged after humans began migrating out of Africa around 75,000 years ago. Of course, human population structure can be observed at multiple levels, and we are not claiming that there is something ‘special’ or ‘natural’ about the continental level.
Nonetheless, Saini consistently maintains that these very same genetic data have dismantled “the idea that race was real,” and that Ashley Montagu’s famous dismissal of race as a pernicious myth “has been vindicated.” They have done this, according to Saini, by showing that most variation exists within and not between major continental populations. Saini defends her interpretation by appealing to Richard Lewontin’s famous analysis of human genetic diversity, and also by appealing to Rosenberg’s study (cited above), which actually found that human genetic variation largely conforms to Johann Blumenbach’s classification. Lewontin’s paper did show that human genetic variation is mostly within and not between human populations. But Lewontin made a crucial mistake when he dismissed the explanatory power of racial classifications. (Saini notes that there has been “one critique” of his analysis, but doesn’t tell her readers anything about it, not least that the critique has given rise to the term ‘Lewontin’s fallacy.’)
In brief, Lewontin ignored the fact that differences among human populations are correlated. Although population variation at any one genetic locus tends to be small, global population structure becomes clear if one examines correlated differences across loci. For a simple analogy, consider men and women’s faces. If one takes any particular characteristic, say nose size, there is likely to be more variation within a sex than between the sexes (and it would be nearly impossible to classify faces by sex with any accuracy using only nose size). However, if one considers all facial characteristics together (which is, after all, how we actually experience human faces), then sex differences become sufficiently clear that an observer can guess the correct sex more than 95 percent of the time.
Notwithstanding truisms about within-group variation exceeding between-group variation, human populations differ in important and fascinating ways. Some differences can be observed at the level of major continental populations, whereas others can be observed at finer-grained levels: accepting that race is a meaningful biological category does not mean ignoring differences between more localised subpopulations. For just a couple of examples: some human populations possess adaptations that allow them to survive and reproduce better at high altitudes (in which barometric pressure decreases effective oxygen levels); while other populations possess adaptations that allow them to digest lactose into adulthood, a trait that many take for granted, but which evolved relatively recently. These differences were not invented by “scientific racists,” and although they stem from small genetic alterations, they are important and worthy of scientific inquiry. Here are several of many other examples:
- Adaptations to diet and extremely cold weather
- Adaptations to high arsenic concentrations
- Adaptations to a high starch diet
- Adaptations to different levels of UV radiation
- Adaptations to an aquatic way of life
Admittedly, Saini does not deny that there are some genetic differences between human populations. (She even mentions the Bajau study in Chapter 9.) But she insists that any differences are limited to what she calls “superficial” traits (and a few disease-resistance genes). For example, in Chapter 7 she claims that “no scientific research has been able to show any average genetic differences between population groups that go further than the superficial, such as skin color, or that are linked to hard survival, such as those that prevent a geographically linked disease.” (This assertion corresponds to the second of the four main theses we laid out in the introduction.) Since Saini never specifies which traits are “superficial” and which ones are not, nor why one would make such a distinction in the first place, we cannot be sure exactly what she believes. A remark in Chapter 7, referring to comments made by David Reich, suggests that “superficial” does not simply mean “non-psychological.” Saini writes, “He suggests that there may be more than superficial average differences between black and white Americans, possibly even cognitive and psychological ones” [italics added].
Throughout the book, Saini expresses particular horror at the idea that human populations might vary psychologically, calling it a road that is “paved in blood.” Saini, of course, is not alone. Many scholars have denounced those who have put forward hypotheses about human psychological variation, often contending—like Saini—that the mere act of espousing these hypotheses is dangerous. Because of this, and because Saini’s presentation of the literature and arguments about human psychological variation is highly selective, the theory and evidence relating to such variation are worth addressing in detail.
Contrary to the characterisation given by Saini, humans are just another animal species: there is little reason to believe that they are fundamentally different from wolves, deer, or chimpanzees. Like other animals, their bodies and brains were sculpted by natural and sexual selection. And they vary from one another for straightforward Darwinian reasons. In diverse environments and niches, different selective pressures prevail, favoring some characteristics and disfavoring others. For an obvious example, humans have darker skin in environments with more intense UV radiation than they do in environments with less intense UV radiation. Dark skin appears to protect against folate photodegradation, and light skin appears to facilitate cutaneous vitamin D synthesis.
Given the myriad ways in which human populations vary morphologically, it is reasonable to hypothesize that they might also vary psychologically. Human cognitive processes are not caused by a ‘ghost in the machine’; they are caused by the brain. And the brain is not in some special category, uniquely impervious to selective forces; it is a product of evolution—just like bones, blood, and skin. Therefore, it would be rather surprising if human populations that evolved in different environments over thousands of years had not diverged (to some extent) psychologically. For example, the invention (or discovery) of agriculture greatly changed humans’ relationship with their environment, as well as with each other, allowing for more sedentism, greater population density, and eventually greater social specialization. It probably also rewarded self-control and delayed gratification, because immediately killing animals for food was often less productive in the long run than keeping them alive. Shinobu Kitayama and his colleagues have suggested that even different kinds of farming (e.g. wheat versus rice) selected for slightly different proclivities, which in turn gave rise to different modes of culture (e.g. independent versus interdependent). Nicholas Wade, in his widely (and we believe unfairly) condemned book, A Troublesome Inheritance (2014), made similar arguments and applied them to a variety of cultural differences.
The single most controversial area of “race science” is research into population differences in cognitive ability. When dealing with this topic, it’s useful to step back from any definitive assertion to contemplate a less divisive question: is it possible that human populations could differ in cognitive ability, at least in part, because of their different evolutionary histories? It seems nearly impossible to avoid the conclusion that of course they could. In principle, cognitive ability is no less amenable to selection than stature, skin colour, muscle-fibre density, or any other trait. And there are reasons to believe that some environments may have presented ancestral humans with more cognitive challenges than others (although this is certainly a matter of ongoing scientific dispute).
Saini does not, of course, consider this kind of reasonable argument, and she equivocates about facts that command near unanimous consent within the literature. For example, in Chapter 9 she notes that “much heat still surrounds the nation’s apparent black-white IQ gap” [italics added]. Readers might infer from this passage (and others like it) that researchers have simply posited, and then attempted to explain, an IQ gap that may not really exist. But this is untrue. Psychometricians do not dispute the existence of a 10-15 point IQ gap between black and white Americans; they only debate its causes. Consider what some experts have written in mainstream textbooks:
- Nicholas Mackintosh: “It should be acknowledged, then, without further ado that there is a difference in average IQ between blacks and whites in the USA and Britain.”
- Nathan Brody: “There is a 1-standard deviation difference in IQ between the black and white population of the U.S. The black population of the U.S. scores 1 standard deviation lower than the white population on various tests of intelligence.”
- Earl Hunt: “There is some variation in the results, but not a great deal. The African American means [on intelligence tests] are about 1 standard deviation unit […] below the White means.”
Although the purpose of our article is not to debate the causes of the black-white IQ gap, it is worth noting that Saini’s arguments against hereditarianism (the hypothesis that at least part of the gap is due to genes) are selective, and fail to give the reader a sense of why many experts in the field are in fact hereditarians. To take just one example, she cites Eric Turkheimer’s argument that “in studies of people with the lowest socioeconomic status, environment explains almost all the variation researchers see in IQ, with genes accounting for practically nothing,” and concludes by noting that “for Turkheimer, it beggars belief that anyone should assume that cognitive gaps psychologists now claim to see between racial groups […] could be biological” (Chapter 9). However, even if the effect that Turkheimer mentions were as large as his original analysis suggested, a claim of which we are skeptical, it is irrelevant to the causes of the black-white IQ gap. This is because studies generally find that IQ is about equally heritable in blacks and whites. In fact, equal heritabilities were found in the same sample (but also including non-twin siblings and half-siblings) that Turkheimer used in his original analysis.
On top of the scientific misunderstandings outlined above, the book contains numerous logical fallacies, some of which are rather serious. First, Saini criticises particular sources of evidence on the basis of their origins, a fallacy known—ironically enough—as the genetic fallacy. For example, in Chapter 9 she writes:
By observing the similarities between identical twins, researchers have for decades thought they might be able to discern whether certain traits might be more heritable than others. But twin studies, too, are tainted by a toxic past. Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi doctor who trawled concentration camps for involuntary subjects, had picked out young twins to deliberately mutilate (via amputations) and dissect.
Later in the chapter, she does concede that twin studies might have something useful to tell us, when she writes, “let’s just assume for now that Robert Plomin and his twin studies are reliable.” However, it is unclear what it would even mean for a particular scientific method to be “tainted by a toxic past.” Twin studies are simply a way of partitioning the variation in some trait into genetic and environmental components, a feat they accomplish by comparing the degree of phenotypic similarity in pairs of identical and non-identical twins. Nazi scientists also measured quantities precisely, under controlled conditions. Does this mean that the scientific method itself is “tainted by a toxic past”?
Second, Saini frequently engages in the fallacy of incomplete evidence—commonly known as cherry-picking. In Chapter 5, for example, she gives the impression that any research attempting to “link economic development to intelligence” can only be found in certain “fringe” journals, of which she personally disapproves. However, she fails to mention that such research has been published in leading journals like Psychological Science, as well as in recent books by Cambridge University Press and Stanford University Press. (Note: we are not agreeing with Saini that research published outside of ‘leading’ outlets should be judged less favourably, just pointing out that she doesn’t give her readers the full picture.)
Likewise, she claims that “The Bell Curve  was widely panned after it was published,” and notes in passing that “an article in American Behavioral Scientist described it as ‘fascist ideology’.” However, she fails to mention that 52 researchers signed a public statement in the Wall Street Journal entitled ‘Mainstream Science on Intelligence’ which endorsed many of The Bell Curve’s central claims. According to a recent paper dealing with inaccurate coverage of intelligence research, The Bell Curve actually contains “very little information that has since come into question by mainstream scholars” and “most of the book is not about race at all.”
Third, on more than one occasion Saini employs double standards. For example, in Chapter 9, when an Indian geneticist suggests to her that people from a particular region of India might be naturally predisposed to athletics, Saini is nonplussed:
This casual speculation surprised me, coming as it did from a respectable geneticist. It showed that more than half a century of research into human variation hasn’t eliminated prejudice within science, wherever it’s done. Old stereotypes are still being projected onto people, but perhaps in new ways.
Dismissing his conjecture as “casual speculation,” she proceeds to advance her own hypothesis, which is no less speculative: “lifelong training could just as easily explain the prevalence of athletes as any innate ability.” Saini does not explain why the default position should be to assume that the difference is environmental. In the absence of any specific evidence, it would make more sense to say, “We do not yet know what explains this difference. It could be genes, it could be environment, or it could be some combination of the two.” Note that the Indian geneticist’s conjecture is by no means implausible: there is already substantial evidence that genes contribute to population differences in athletic achievement.
Fourth, Saini commits the fallacy—long since debunked—of assuming that if genes play a role in something, then we have to blindly accept the status quo. In Chapter 9 she writes:
The logical consequence of insisting that IQ gaps between races are biologically determined is that nothing in human society can really be changed.
Not only is this statement hyperbole (even if one couldn’t change racial IQ gaps, there would be plenty of other things one could change), but it also seems to imply that scientific findings should dictate our political choices. In reality, these choices are influenced not only by certain empirical facts, but also by whatever value system society decides to adopt. Under some value systems, such as ‘luck egalitarianism,’ confirmation of a genetic contribution to racial IQ gaps could actually strengthen the case for redistributive taxation. For example, Ronald Dworkin argued that material inequalities are unjust if they arise due to circumstances beyond an individual’s control. Since individuals cannot control which genes they will inherit, material inequalities arising due to genetic differences are unjust and should therefore be reduced through egalitarian social policies.
Finally, by far the most prominent fallacy in Superior, one which lies at the very heart of Saini’s book, is the fallacy of equating any claim that genes might contribute to population differences on non-“superficial” traits with racism. (For the sake of brevity, we shall refer to this as ‘the fallacy of equating hereditarian claims with racism.’) Indeed, this fallacy encompasses the third and fourth of the theses that we laid out in the introduction.
By way of illustration, Saini employs the terms “scientific racism” or “scientific racist” 17 times in the book, and she employs the terms “intellectual racism” or “intellectual racist” an additional 11 times. In Chapter 1 she describes the supposition that population groups “may have evolved into modern human beings in different ways” as “unconscionable.” And in Chapter 6, when discussing the work of famed geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, she writes, “as he saw it, racism was just a scientific idea that turned out to be incorrect.”
Before proceeding, we should be clear about what we are not saying. First, we are not denying that research into the genetics of human differences has been misused for appalling purposes at various points over the last two centuries. Second, we are not denying that some of the scientists who have undertaken such research were motivated by racial animus or by a desire to subjugate other people. Hence we understand the temptation to assume the worst about anyone who might be willing to entertain what we have called ‘hereditarian claims.’ Nonetheless, equating hereditarian claims with racism is a fallacy, and one that we believe is likely to end up doing more harm than good.
As Steven Pinker argued at length in his book The Blank Slate, those who equate testable scientific claims with various ‘isms’ (sexism, racism, fascism, etc.) are effectively holding our morals hostage to the facts. By using the word ‘racist’ to describe a claim such as ‘genes may contribute to psychological differences between human populations,’ they are implying that:
- The claim must be false; but also that
- If the claim were ever shown to be true, then racism would be “scientifically correct.”
Yet as Pinker notes, this is a complete non-sequitur:
I hope that once this line of reasoning is laid out, it will immediately set off alarm bells. We should not concede that any foreseeable discovery about humans could have such horrible implications. The problem is not with the possibility that people might differ from one another, which is a factual question that could turn out one way or the other. The problem is with the line of reasoning that says that if people do turn out to be different, then discrimination, oppression, or genocide would be OK after all.
The argument that we should not hold our morals hostage to the facts has been made over and over again by scholars interested in the genetics of human differences. As far back as the 1960s, one of the 20th century’s leading biologists, Ernst Mayr, said the following:
Equality in spite of evident non-identity is a somewhat sophisticated concept and requires a moral stature of which many individuals seem to be incapable. They rather deny human variability and equate equality with identity […] An ideology based on such obviously wrong premises can only lead to disaster. Its championship of human equality is based on a claim of identity. As soon as it is proved that the latter does not exist, the support of equality is likewise lost.
In other words, equating hereditarian claims with racism is not merely logically fallacious, but could be considered irresponsible as well. Many of the ideas that Saini classifies as “scientific racism” are empirical claims that have not been conclusively tested. Some of these claims may turn out to be wrong, but others may turn out to be right. If we label them all “scientific racism” and some of them do turn out to be right, there is a much greater risk that they will be taken as scientific proof that “racism is okay after all.” A more ethically robust stance would be to recognise that granting people equal rights, and treating them with respect, does not depend on whether genes make a contribution to population differences in psychological traits.
Superior is a timely book that attempts to grapple with the science of human biological and psychological diversity. It is reasonably entertaining to read, and does make some valid points about the misuse of “race science.” Unfortunately, it is also tendentious, dogmatic, and seriously misleading about the current state of scientific knowledge. The truth, as we see it, is that human populations differ in important and fascinating ways, and they do so for straightforward evolutionary reasons: such populations have been living in different environments from one another, under different regimes of selection, for thousands of years. Saini wants us to ignore the basic tenets of Darwinism. Moreover, she wants us to equate any claim that genes might contribute to psychological differences between populations with racism. This is a logical fallacy, and one that we believe it is irresponsible to promote given the current trajectory of research in the human biosocial sciences.
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