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100 Years of Sri Aurobindo on Evolution: The dialectics of biology and culture; science, ecology & economics (part 6 of 6)
100 Years of Sri Aurobindo on Evolution
VI) The Dialectics of Biology and
Culture: science, ecology & economics
The previous sections of this paper explored the relationship of contemporary scientific and social perspectives on evolution with those of Sri Aurobindo in marking the one hundredth anniversary of the publication of his first essays on Yoga and Evolution. This final section concludes by exploring the relationship of science and society itself. The comparison given here will be between Sri Aurobindo's thoughts on this relationship and the perspective given in a constructionist approach to science and society that applies a dialectical methodology. The hope is to facilitate a dialogic platform which allows Sri Aurobindo to converse with several of today's most brilliant scientist and philosophers of science.
Perhaps it is best if the twain between science and religion do not meet. Trying to engage science and spirituality in a dialog has a long and troubled history. The incommensurable narratives of matter and spirit they both tell have proven time and time again troublesome for reaching any common understanding. In fact, if science and spirituality do share something in common it is that they all too often accuse the other of totalizing a universal narrative that usurps all ways of looking at the world that are inconsistent with their own.
Religion and science each have their own fundamentalist practitioners who would reduce the world solely to accounts told in their holy books or biology text books. One can not easily imagine an encounter between science and religion in which some violent reaction would not be triggered. Worse perhaps then the violent confrontation between science and religion is when either one appropriates the narratives of the other for the purpose of furthering their own ideological concerns. In the case of religion one example would be in their use of science to justify creationism, while in the case of science such appropriation usually results in one of the just-so stories of origins or cultural analogs of natural selection that Neo-Darwinism tells.
At their most extreme both religion and science utilize the authority vested in them by the church or the academy to suppress dissent. While religion has by far proven the worst offender of the two in expressing intolerance toward non-believers, science also has its methods of purging radicals from its ranks, who would dared to question the dominant scientific paradigm of the day. While not so extreme as to burn its dissidents at the stake the church of science often uses more subtle methods to show displeasure with its heretics, denying those who challenge the consensus view of normal science entrance into its congregation. This is done by passing over candidates for academic tenure or by the refusal of professional journals to publish research.
Given the polarization of science and religion and the heavy handed tactics the authorities of both constituencies have been known to employ against dissenters a direct confrontation between the two perhaps is not advisable. If we wish to get anywhere in trying to integrate the stories of science and spirit it would perhaps be better to hold their incommensurable narratives in a creative tension than to observe them engage in battle or superficially explain away the other in terms of their own ideology .
In spite of the unbridgeable gap between science and spirituality however, both do share one undeniable trait in common; both science and religion are embedded in culture. If the twain between science and spirituality does meet it is that they both perform their functions within a shared platform of society and culture. A dialog between science and spirituality may therefore best be facilitated by appealing to their shared communicative platform of culture.
This holds true also for any dialog one would wish to begin between integral yoga and science. It would perhaps be best to begin such a dialog by first exploring Sri Aurobindo's dialectic between yoga and culture and then to look for resonances with narratives told by credible scientist regards the dialectics of science and culture. Better yet, in Sri Aurobindo's own work one finds him at times also critically exploring the dialectic between science and culture. It would therefore seem best to arrive at a dialogic platform to engage science and integral yoga using their diffusion in the semi-permeable membrane of culture, rather then by a direct confrontation as a means to begin the conversation.
When one examines how Sri Aurobindos views the relationship between science and society one is struck by its resonance with constructionist narratives of science and society that applies both a dialectical method and systems theory. One such scientific approach is called Dialectical Biology a term coined by Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin of Harvard University. While systems theory can be defined as a way of knowing that:
Rather than reducing an entity (e.g. the human body) to the properties of its parts or elements (e.g. organs or cells), .... focuses on the arrangement of and relations between the parts which connect them into a whole (cf. holism). (Heylighen and Joslyn) Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/systheor.html
Applying a dialectical method to systems theory provides the additional insight that eliminates some of the problems involved in constructing a mental model often designed by systems theorist:
A dialectical approach to systems theory recognizes that the system is an intellectual construct designed to elucidate some aspects of reality but necessarily ignoring and even distorting others. The dialect method adds value by asking: what the consequences would be of different ways of formulating a problem and of bounding an object of interest (Levins p122)
While systems theory is heavily dependent on quantitative mathematical analysis, of pregiven variables within an abstract system, a dialectic understanding of processes embeds the system within the opposing forces acting upon it in the environment to develop a qualitative understanding of the phenomena. In other words a dialectical methods helep facilitate a way in which systems can be viewed
in their interaction with the environment. As such systems “acquire qualitatively new properties through emergence, resulting in continual evolution”. (Heylighen and Joslyn)
For instance in a study of the economy, systems theory may construct a model based on production, prices and profits in an attempt to explain their relationship and trajectory. While it may do this successfully it is still incomplete because it neglects to comprehend the social relations intrinsic to economics.”Systems theory quantifies the dynamics of the elements of the system, while dialectics translates the the results into qualitative language that leads to a holistic understanding” (Levins p122)
With regards to the theory of evolution:
Whereas the ultra-Darwinian view of evolution focuses nearly exclusively on the external (while Darwin himself was somewhat more pluralistic), modern geneticists analyzing the developmental processes of individual organisms (ontogeny) often focus nearly exclusively on the internal in their acceptance of genetic determinism. Counter to this genetic determinism (and narrow reductionism), Levins and Lewontin, in The Dialectical Biologist, explain:
An organism does not compute itself from its DNA. The organism is the consequence of a historical process that goes on from the moment of conception until the moment of death; at every moment gene, environment, chance, and the organism as a whole are all participating....Natural selection is not a consequence of how well the organism solves a set of fixed problems posed by the environment; on the contrary, the environment and the organism actively codetermine each other. (89)
A dialectical relationship exists between a subject, such as an organism, or even human society, and the environment. They exist as one (in tension), given that an organism is part of nature. The former is dependent upon the latter for its existence, and both realms are transformed throughout their relationship, but “do not completely determine each other” (136). http://monthlyreview.org/0505clarkyork.htm
Notwithstanding the knowledge by identity that is peculiar to Sri Aurobindo's way of knowing the world, in comparing Sri Aurobindo discourse to the scientific approach of dialectical biology one finds that both employ an epistemology that follows the particular through to its countless interconnections in the whole (world.) Both agree about the importance of appreciating difference (multiplicity) while simultaneously apprehending holism (unity). Both share an integrative view of organism and environment, science and culture, individual and society, whole and part. Both are suspicious of uncritical notions of human progress. Both agree that when the economic function of science is exploited by the marketplace the impact on human societies can be devastating. In so doing both share a certain symmetry in thinking about the role of economics and science with Karl Marx.
Like Marx both view the practice of science as mediated in society by its economic function. “Marx’s treatment of scientific progress is consistent with his broader historical materialism. Just as the economic sphere and the requirements of the productive process shape man’s political and social institutions, so do they also shape his scientific activity at all stages of history. Science does not grow or develop in response to forces internal to science or the scientific community. It is not an autonomous sphere of human activity. Rather, science needs to be understood as a social activity which is responsive to economic forces” (Rosenberg)
Before going further it should be clarified that although Sri Aurobindo perspective converges with Marxist thought in considering the impact of economics on science they diverge radically in how they perceive the roots of the problem and its ultimate solution. Moreover, both Marx and the biologist examined here employ a dialectical method and while Sri Aurobindo's view in many ways reflects a dialectical approach to spirit and matter, his method of resolving the relationship between the two can more properly be called integral. If one wishes to read an exhaustive comparison between Sri Aurobindo and Marx one should read Sri Aurobindo and Karl Marx by Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya who remarks that one fundamental agreements between the two is that: they expressed their profound and studied concern from the alienated man in an age dominated by matter, machine and money (Chattopahhayaya 1988 p13).
In Sri Aurobindo's view the impact of economics on science becomes problematic when it is appropriated for the self-aggrandizement of the titans of capitalism. Sri Aurobindo, never afraid to call a spade a spade, refers to this appropriation of science by the titans of capitalism as economic barbarism. He states the case that science solely in the service of the machinery of titanic capitalism poses a threat to human life itself. He goes so far as to state that when science is exploited by the vital power demands of the capitalist it threatens to collapse not only the common good but poses a risk to life itself. This dangerous dialectic here is between the quest for knowledge and a vulgar will to power. Here is Sri Aurobindo:
“But if science has thus prepared us for an age of wider and deeper culture and if in spite of and even partly by its materialism it has rendered impossible the return of the true materialism, that of the barbarian mentality, it has encouraged more or less indirectly both by its attitude to life and its discoveries another kind of barbarism, —for it can be called by no other name,— that of the industrial, the commercial, the economic age which is now progressing to its culmination and its close. This economic barbarism is essentially that of the vital man who mistakes the vital being for the self and accepts its satisfaction as the first aim in life. and aim, so the vitalistic or economic barbarian makes the satisfaction of wants and desires and the accumulation of possessions his standard and aim. His ideal man is not the cultured or noble or thoughtful or moral or religious, but the successful man. To arrive, to succeed, to produce, to accumulate, to possess.. He values education for its utility in fitting a man for success in a competitive or, it may be, a socialized industrial existence, science for the useful inventions and knowledge, the comforts, conveniences, machinery of production with which it arms him, its power for organization, regulation, stimulus to production. The opulent plutocrat and the successful mammoth capitalist and organizer of industry are the supermen of the commercial age and the true, if often occult rulers of its society. (Aurobindo HC 1972)
The essential barbarism in all this is the pursuit of unfettered accumulation, possession, enjoyment, as the enlarged vital being replaces the soul of man. This results is the colonization of the environment by the desiring machine of hyper-capitalism. He continues:
Therefore in a commercial age with its ideal, vulgar and barbarous, of success, vitalistic satisfaction, productiveness and possession the soul of man may linger a while for certain gains and experiences, but cannot permanently rest. If it persisted too long, Life would become clogged and perish of its own plethora or burst in its straining to a gross expansion. Like the too massive Titan it will collapse by its own mass, mole ruit sua. (Aurobindo HC 1972)
While this warning given between 1916-1918 in the Human Cycle was dire when written, the passage of time seems to have done nothing to mitigate Sri Aurobindo's concerns. He wrote the following lines in the 1940s in the last chapter of The Life Divine. If anything it appears that his perspective seems to have hardened. In a passage quoted also in the previous section he expresses his concerns for the survival of the human race because the pettiness of the human personality can not accomplish the changes required of it to positively assimilate the “colossal forces” co-extensive with the huge mechanical organization of life and scientific knowledge which it has evolved.
“because the burden which is being laid on mankind is too great for the present littleness of the human personality and its petty mind and small life-instincts, because it cannot operate the needed change, because it is using this new apparatus and organization to serve the old infraspiritual and infrarational life-self of humanity, the destiny of the race seems to be heading dangerously, as if impatiently and in spite of itself, under the drive of the vital ego seized by colossal forces which are on the same scale as the huge mechanical organization of life and scientific knowledge which it has evolved, a scale too large for its reason and will to handle, into a prolonged confusion and perilous crisis and darkness of violent shifting incertitude. Even if this turns out to be a passing phase or appearance and a tolerable structural accommodation is found which will enable mankind to proceed less catastrophically on its uncertain journey, this can only be a respite. For the problem is fundamental and in putting it evolutionary Nature in man is confronting herself with a critical choice which must one day be solved in the true sense if the race is to arrive or even to survive. " (1054/55)
One can not help to see that part of the problem is the nature of the hyper-capitalist economy, the unregulated marketplace where a vital struggle of competition of all against all takes place. We do not know how Sri Aurobindo would view today's global capitalism, but from his writings above it is clear that he would not approve of unfettered free markets in which nature, life, and labor were exploited by the the vital will of the opulent plutocrat, the successful mammoth capitalist and organizer of industry. In all likelihood therefore, he would view science in the service of today's unregulated free markets as bound to end with mixed results for the common good.
In fact, contemporary science in service of the neo-liberal economy has been thoroughly critiqued in post-modern scholarship and stands accused of exploiting the common good for its own financial gain. In Marxist terms the inability of science to fully serve the common good is an inevitable result of the inequalities that govern class based societies. If anything the inequality of society has only been exacerbated since Sri Aurobindo concluded the Life Divine.
In the book Biology Under the Influence, a collection of dialectical essays on ecology, agriculture and health by Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, Levins asks straight forwardly: Is Capitalism a Disease? In the essay Levins demonstrates that the best facilitator of disease is poverty:
“Rates of death and other harmful outcomes increase with the level of poverty in illness like coronary heart disease, cancer of all forms, obesity, growth retardation in children unplanned pregnancies and maternal mortality.”(Levins 2006)
In fact, in determining the epidemiology of many illnesses economic conditions often can not be separated from biological causality. For example, Levins asks: Is tuberculosis cause by Mycobacterium tuberculosis or by the conditions of poverty and lack of sanitation in which these germs breed?
The impact of class on mental health is also dramatic. Recent Harvard studies have shown that among groups of teenagers from high school all of whom did equally well academically, working class kids showed prolonged rises in the hormone “cortisol” under any kind of stress while upper class kids showed a quick rise and then decline.
Moreover the phenomena of economic globalization can also make us ill:
Reductionist science would state the cause of cholera is the byproduct of the cholera bacteria, but cholera live among plankton along the coast. The plankton blooms when the sea get warm and when runoff from sewage and from agricultural fertilizers feed the algae. The products of world trade are carried in freighters that use seawater as ballast that is discharged before coming to port, along with beat that live in the ballast water. The small crustaceans eat the algae, the fish eat the crustaceans, and the cholera bacterium meets the fish eaters.. Finally, if the public health system has been gutted by structural adjustments to the economy then the full explanation of the epidemic is jointly, Vibro cholera and the World Bank (Levins 2006 p21,22)
Levins deconstruction of the relationship between organism/environment, class/health, culture/biology
all demonstrate those condition under which “Life would become clogged and perish of its own plethora or burst in its straining to a gross expansion” In some ways the revelation Levins makes regards public health in an era of hyper-capitalism and neo-liberal global markets extends Sri Auorbindo's critique of the exploitation of the life-world by the titans of capitalism in an industrialist economy.
Another critique of science that is shared by Sri Aurobindo and dialectical biology is of its myopic reductionist view of the world that reduces life to a series of narrow material causes. Although Sri Aurobindo may understand the reason science pursues this particular epistemology he does not look favorably on its ability to diagnosis the true source of societal ills. While not introducing spirituality into their consideration Lewontin and Levins also despair at the ability of reductionist science to diagnosis problems plaguing society.
Levins extensive critique of the public health system challenges not only the manner it has been ill served by the inequalities fostered by unregulated capitalism but also calls into question the ideological manner in which science often frames problems. Among other things this scientific ideology focuses too narrowly on biological causes while often neglecting proper consideration of the wider natural ecology and historical processes that it is embedded within. When one frames the challenges posed by this neglect of the wider ecology the resultant feedback loop calls into question the notion of scientific progress itself. The reductionist method employed by science that focuses too narrowly on the cause of disease creates blind spots that fails to anticipate others diseases.
In his study, Levins considers the failure of traditional scientific epistemology to anticipate the wider sweep of the dangers to public health. In doing this Lewontin and Levins reveals the mixed results science has had in its successes in extending human life expectancy while simultaneously failing to anticipate the outbreak of infectious diseases:
The scientific tradition of the "West," of Europe and North America, has had its greatest success when it has dealt with what we have come to think of as the central questions of scientific inquiry: "What is this made of?" and "How does this work?" Over the centuries, we have developed more and more sophisticated ways of answering these questions. We can cut things open, slice them thin, stain them, and answer what they are made of. We have made great achievements in these relatively simple areas, but have had dramatic failures in attempts to deal with more complex systems. We see this especially when we ask questions about health. When we look at the changing patterns of health over the last century or so, we have both cause for celebration and for dismay. Human life expectancy has increased by perhaps thirty years since the beginning of the twentieth century and the incidence of some of the classical deadly diseases has declined and almost disappeared. Smallpox presumably has been eradicated; leprosy is very rare; and polio has nearly vanished from most regions of the world. Scientific technologies have advanced to the point where we can give very sophisticated diagnoses, distinguishing between kinds of germs that are very similar to each other.(Lewontin, Levins 2006)
And below they continue by considering the failures of the public health system in coping with diseases that mostly impact the poor:
“But the growing gap between rich and poor make many technical advances irrelevant to most of the world's people. Public health authorities were caught by surprise by the emergence of new diseases and the reappearance of diseases believed to be eradicated. In the 1970s, it was common to hear that infectious disease as an area of research was dying. In principle, infection had been licked; the health problems of the future would be degenerative diseases, problems of aging and chronic diseases. We now know this was a monumental error. The public health establishment was caught short by the return of malaria, cholera, tuberculosis, dengue, and other classical diseases. But it was also surprised by the appearance of apparently new infectious diseases: the most threatening of which is AIDS, but also Legionnaire's disease, Ebola virus, toxic shock syndrome, multiple drug resistant tuberculosi, arid many others. Not only was infectious disease not on the way out , but old diseases have come back with increased virulence and totally new ones have emerged.” (2006)
The failure to take a longer view of human history and the impact that environmental changes have had on human health they conclude is a major part of this problem:
So what was wrong with our epidemiological assumptions? We need to recognize that the historical mindset in medicine and related sciences was dangerously--and ideologically--limited. Nearly all who engaged in public health prediction took too narrow a view, both geographically and temporally. Typically, they looked only at a century or two instead of the whole sweep of human history. Had they looked at a wider time-frame, they would have recognized that diseases come and go when there are major changes in social relations, population, the kinds of food we eat, and land use. When we change our relations with nature, we also change epidemiology and the opportunities for infection.
In considering the dialectic relationship between the natural environment, culture and disease Levins weaves a complex web of associations that often escape the consideration of the problem solving techniques employed by scientific reductionism:
Waves of European conquest spread plague, small pox, tuberculosis, Deforestation exposes us to mosquito borne, tick borne, rodent carried diseases. Giant Hydroelectric projects and their accompanying irrigation canals spread snails that carry liver flukes and allow mosquitoes to breed. Monocultures of grain are mouse food , and if owls and jaguars and snakes that eat mice are exterminated the mouse population erupts with its own reservoirs of diseases. New environments such as warm chlorinated circulating water in hotels allow Legionnaires bacteria to prosper. It is.... usually rare because it is a poor competitor, but it tolerates heat better than most, and it can invade the larger but still microscopic protozoa to avoid chlorine. Finally, modern spray showers provide bacterium with droplets that can reach the furthest corners of our lungs (Levins 2006)
In their book both Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin seem to be saying that advances in medicine and bio-technology may not so much result in “scientific progress ' as they do in shifting disease and other human ills to other locations in the environment or human body.
Levins and Lewontin share a view of society and biology that is not only dialectic but holistic as well. Here again convergences can be found with Sri Aurobindo writing. Whatever divergence there may be that separate Levins/Lewontin from Sri Aurobindo, epistemological, historical, experiential, or belief all these seem to shrink in their systemic apprehension of the relationship between society, science and economics.
The similarities of Lewontin and Levins with Sri Aurobindo's social thought regards it symmetry with Marx, is of Marxism in its most idealized form. For example, Levins views a Marxist practice of health science as an attempt to integrate the insights of ecosystem health, environmental justice, health care for all, and alternative medicine. Although Sri Aurobindo would no doubt add an integration of spiritual practices as well into the above equation it is hard to see him disagreeing with Levin's idealized view of the health sciences.
Moreover, in a move that makes possible
a dialog with non-western epistemology, Lewontin and Levins rather
than attempting to colonize indigenous knowledge forms with
scientific ways of knowing, do as good constructionist do and credit
experience as the true source of knowledge. Anchoring knowledge in
experience leads them to construct a world view that does not
privilege any particular European understanding of the world, nor
attempts to reduce mind to mere genetic predisposition or to explain
away culture using analogs of Darwinian natural selection. It also
allows them to appreciate the diversity of knowledge that can be
gained through the worlds indigenous traditions. Below Richard
Lewontin considers the similarities between intuitive and scientific
goes on to explain how the methods of indigenous medical practices
mirror those of Western medicine:
It is not only just similarities in social thought that Sri Aurobindo shares with dialectical biology but there is a philosophical resonance as well. In what only can be called an integral move Lewontin expresses an epistemology that assesses wholes in terms of difference yet simultaneously views difference through a holistic interconnectedness. He does this however, by avoiding the historical traps that have been set by previous attempts to order Holism into hierarchical systems and teleology. “Dialectics appreciates the prereductionist kind of Holism (Hegel) but not its static quality, its hierarchical structures with a place for everything and everything in its place, nor the a priori imposition of purposefulness that may or may not be there, Thus it negates the materialist reduction's negation of the earlier holism, a negation of a negation. (2006)
The holism Lewontin advocates for can be demonstrated by natural ecology:
Ecology has brought to pubic consciousness the realization that all things are inter-connectedness in theworld The powerful impact of the realization that things are connected sometimes leads to claims that we can not separate body from mind, economics from culture, the physical from the biological, of the biological from the social. Much creative research has gone into showing the connectedness of all phenomena that are usually treated as separate. It is said that because of this interconnectedness they are all “One” an important element of mystical sensibility that asserts oneness with the Universe.
Holism so seen follows a process of deconstruction and reconstruction:
(but) Of course you can separate the intellectual constructs “body” from “mind” “physical” from “biological” from “social”.We do so all the time as soon as we label them. We have to in order to recognize and investigate the world. But it is not sufficient. After separating them we have to join them again, show their interpenetration, their mutual determination, their entwined evolution, and yet also their distinctness; “
The manner in which Lewinton present a picture of the whole by first appreciating it differences through disentangling part from whole, and then reintegrating them in a way that makes their interpenetration explicit, their mutual determination transparent, their evolution entwined, is similar to the way Sri Aurobindo formulates integrality in his work and is apparent in the dialectical method he often uses to argue for it.
It is apparent that in their systemic view of science and culture that both the dialectical methods of scientist who take a constructionist rather than a reductionist view of the world and Sri Aurobindo integral perspective on science and culture have notable points of convergences.
I would suggest it is at these points of convergence that we may find a common platform to harmonize, otherwise diametric poles of experience that science and spirituality represent. To totalize either spirituality or science or privilege one over the other in a conversation would be to reduce
our experience to all too narrow terms and collapse the multi-dimensional perspective in which we experience the world to a singular linear vision of causality.
It is true constructionist accounts of science such as those given by dialectical biology do not reference metaphysical teleology nor do they attempt to explain origins by invoking the idea of God. However, unlike the reductionist narratives of Darwinian Fundamentalist they do not automatically dismiss spirituality as irrelevant. Although they do share an aversion to Creationism and its “scientific models” of intelligent design, they do not denounce spirituality or privilege science in terms of human experience. They would grant both sovereign rule over their own domains of experience and meaning. This perspective can perhaps best be expressed in the words of Stephen Jay Gould - a scientist strongly influenced by dialectical biology- who in granting science and spirituality equal value in telling narratives that covered their respective fields of experience nevertheless viewed science and religion as two “Nonoverlapping Magisteria” .
This view honors spirituality and science as distinct ways of making sense of the world. A peaceful coexistence between faith and science is thought possible as long as one domain does not intrude on or try to colonialize the other.
While the agnosticism of Gould and others who share his view would not accept a spiritual narrative as an ultimate cause of things but still see spirituality as serving a meaningful function in society so too Sri Aurobindo -who accepts a spiritual narrative of the world- expresses a similar regard for the materialistic outlook of science:
“ Physical science must necessarily to its own first view be materialistic, because so long as it deals with the physical, it has for its own truth's sake to be physical both in its standpoint and method” (1915)
So although science and spirituality may not directly enjoin in an intimate embrace, if we accept the validity of both approaches for making sense of the world it is possible to facilitate their peaceful coexistence in culture. But is it possible that in the future that the twain between science and spirituality will meet?
Whether science will come to parse the subtle realms of consciousness that are non-physical or occult to us now and open its narratives to things that express the mystery of spirit or will retain its materialist view of the world forever, is hard to know with certainty, as Richard Levins reminds us.
“Science is often wrong because we study the known by making believe it is the known. Physicist in the late 1930s were lamenting the end of the atomic physics. All the fundamental properties were known – the electron, the neutron , and the proton had been measures- What more was there ? Then came neutrinos, positrons, mesons, antimatter, quarks, and strings. And each time the end was declared”
It is hard to determine to what ends science may lead us, the jury it seems will forever be out to lunch and no final verdict may ever be reached.
(thank you for indulging these perspectives)
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