Questionable Motives

May 31, 2010

What has David Sloan Wilson misplaced?

I get tired of the same old crap from religious apologists who claim to be atheists but respectful of religion. The two notions, like so many other notions snuggled up against religion, are simply incompatible. Be that as it may, the religious apologist tends to miss the point of their own atheism: non belief. And one maintains non belief because the reasons and justifications for the belief are held by the atheist to be insufficient to be considered probably true, probably correct, probably accurate.Wilson seems to have misplaced that notion regarding other atheists.

Most of us don’t apologize if we think the followers of astrology are wrong in their beliefs about the effects of stars and planets guiding our destinies. Most of us don’t grant respect to the idea that because some people believe lead can be made into gold by the incantation of magic words, the idea has merit simply by the fact that these folk find comfort in believing in transubstantiation. Most of us don’t lend credence to dowsing because of the utility the belief brings to those who wish to dig to the water table and who – miracle! – find water. Yet there is a veritable army of people who use this kind of flimsy thinking to excuse those who wish to maintain their religious beliefs and enter them into guiding public policies that directly affect the rights and freedoms of others.

One such apologist is David Sloan Wilson who proposes that that natural selection can operate on traits that improve the success of groups rather than individuals. Groupthink is a sociologist’s wet dream and I have always found those who construct mental definitions based on selected group criteria who then in turn define the ‘group’ behaviour as an explanation for that common group criteria to be sloppy thinkers. Sloan does not disappoint me. He responds to a question about why those like he is who argue the evolutionary utility of religion helps to explain its value in terms of group advantages are treated with less deference in the scientific world of biology than he believes they ought. The entire article is here, but the part that pisses me off is his answer to the question:

Does your approach annoy atheists?

I piss off atheists more than any other category, and I am an atheist. One of the things that infuriates me about the newest crop of angry atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, is their denial of the beneficial aspects of religion. Their beef is not just that there is no evidence for God. They also insist that religion “poisons everything”, as Christopher Hitchens subtitled his book. They are ignoring the scientific theory and evidence for the “secular utility” of religion, as Émile Durkheim put it, even though they wrap themselves in the mantle of science and rationality. Someone needs to call them out on that, and that person is me.

Angry atheists? We deny benefit to those who share religious belief? Our beef? Ignore secular utility? Wrap ourselves in science and rationality? What nonsense.

How does this intentional gross misrepresentation of some of the New Atheists deal with what matters most to honest atheists: is the notion being brought forth as a truth claim actually true, and if so, based on what good reasons with evidential support? Sloan doesn’t tackle this point because he can’t; instead, he call more famous atheists names. Yes, what a champion of the droll.

Put another way, Sloan is undermining exactly that approach concerned about inquiring into what is true and focuses on these piddling caricatures of those who do so with more groupthink that has no bearing on truth claims. For example, he seems to think that the inquiry into what is true needs to lend some weighted value to a ‘happy’ factor. He thinks if a belief has some benefit, that must increase it’s truth value. Surely if an idea has utility, he insists, that has to grant some weight to its truth value. And obviously those who insist that truth be determined in as objective way as possible must do so out of some hidden egoism. Regarding what is true, what atheists actually care about, Wilson shoots off his mouth well wide of the mark and thinks himself a real champion of the religious underclass for doing so.

What bunk.

With willing minions like Wilson to tackle the job of undermining atheism by intentional misrepresentations and really stupid and weak arguments like these, David Sloan Wilson becomes just another religious apologist aiding and abetting those who don’t care about what’s true. Although I have no doubt that in Wilson’s mind he has ‘called out’ these atheists who own up to caring about what is true, all he has really accomplished is called into question his own intellectual integrity with such proud prattle. But that will happen when you disconnect from your own higher faculties.

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36 Comments »

  1. I am not sure I agree or disagree with the evolution of groups – sort of stinks of racism… but I will keep an open mind on it for now as I can see some merit in the hypothesis.

    I loved the comments though – check this one out, which is just brilliant:

    What I can’t fathom is why some folks w a n t to swallow/believe/embrace the theory of evolution. Just look at the diversity and simply meditate on the stunning beauty of living organisms. Whether you’re stoned or sober, the only logical response is “My GOD! –You are totally awesome!!” — and not, “Now that’s a helluva lot of lucky breaks!” Next time you enjoy a mango, or whatever your favorite fruit might be, t h i n k: ‘Why did it have to be this good!!!??’ Simple answer: because He wants you to know that He loves ya, ya dummy!

    Report this comment2010-05-26 10:56:37 AM
    Posted by: Tony Davidson

    *******************************************************************************************

    @Tony Davidson: Have you tasted wild fruit? Tastes ‘orible and bitter. All modern fruit have been selectively bred – in fact they have been bred so much for flavor that they can no-longer breed on their own.

    References:

    http://www.phoenixtropicals.com/mango.html
    “Mango trees can be grown from seed, but like many fruit trees a seedling will not reliably yield a fruit like its parent tree (unless it is from a polembryonic seedling, see propagation section below). Since the highest quality mangoes are the result of hundreds if not thousands of years of selective breeding, a seedling mango is most likely to be inferior to its high quality parent. For this reason, it is best to buy a grafted mango tree.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selective_breeding

    Report this comment2010-05-26 12:08:06 PM
    Posted by: Thomas Grainger

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — May 31, 2010 @ 5:37 pm | Reply

    • Does that mean – gasp! – that perhaps the imaginary sky father doesn’t love ya quite so much as all the human entrepreneurs who wished to ‘improve’ what nature provided?

      Comment by tildeb — May 31, 2010 @ 8:43 pm | Reply

  2. I honestly couldn’t give a rat’s ass whether religion is beneficial. The only concern is whether a claim – religious or not – is true. We act on what we believe. If we act on a belief which we have not shown to be at least supported by evidence, we are far likely to act in a manner which is harmful. I think it can be shown that the benefits of religion are available without religion, and that the harm it has done to society far outweighs the good.

    Comment by Shamelessly Atheist — May 31, 2010 @ 10:44 pm | Reply

    • We act on what we believe.

      Exactly right, and that’s why whether or not our beliefs are true matters so much. And that process is dependent on how we determine what is true… a point seemingly lost on Sloan.

      Although it would be terrific if all truth claims could be placed in one of the two categories – true or not true – truth claims are often found settling somewhere between the two, introducing the notion of probability (probably true, probably correct, probably accurate) and thus increasing the importance of justification for that probability. If a truth claim has strong justification, then it is an informed claim; if it has weak or poor justification in terms of support for its probability placement, then it is unjustified. Unjustified beliefs are the bane of humanity because people act on them and cause effect (think of the anti-vaccine movement and the unnecessary deaths its acceptance is causing) just as much as actions based on justified beliefs (proper inoculations). So what is of central concern, then, is whether or not a belief claim about what is true is justified more towards the true end of the spectrum than the false.

      As you point out, what justifies a belief’s truth claim is not benefit to the believer, not comfort to the believer, not the emotional state from happy to sad of the person making a truth claim, not utility of the belief to the believer. None of this matters a tinker’s damn to the probability of a claim’s truth value and in no way adds anything worthwhile to justifying the truth claim. All these other considerations Sloan introduces is aimed squarely at excusing the believer from justifying the belief and apologizing for those who have the audacity to act (through critical questioning and debate) on the notion that what is true actually matters enough to be passionate about it (like Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Dennett, Blackford, Grayling, Onfrey, et al), that what informs our beliefs needs to be justified to have any legitimate merit on placing that claim honestly on the spectrum of probability between what is and is not true. Circumventing this honest appraisal of truth claims by excusing and apologizing drivel from atheists like Sloan on behalf of religious people who do not care about justifying their truth claims by merit is an intellectual capitulation whose first casualty is truth. And that’s why Sloan continues to fail to grasp why he is wrong in his approach and why these other atheists are right in theirs.

      Comment by tildeb — June 1, 2010 @ 7:58 am | Reply

  3. I should say I own a copy of the debate he did with Christopher Hitchens. With every sentence I read of Wilson’s I could feel the IQ draining from my brain…. But I got better.

    Comment by Shamelessly Atheist — May 31, 2010 @ 10:47 pm | Reply

  4. That doesn’t mean that the evolution of groups is not true – and religion being a group, may have contributed to the evolution of the human animal, or that religion is a product of the human mind that was allowed to foster to provide social benefits which benefited the individual.

    I don’t contest that in our enlightened age religion is blight on humanity, or that it has caused great harm during history, but for many years it may have provided a social fabric that made life tolerable, and therefore allowed us to pass on our genes – religion could therefore be a product of our evolved brains, in the same way that mathematics and language are.

    However, I take your point that it is doesn’t mean that ‘god exists’… and you can discredit religion as just a meme (which is most likely).

    There is also another issue which may help with this debate – which is that it may open the minds of the religious, as it softens the threat – if they can understand a material reason for religion occurring in humans then they are far more likely to accept that evolution is true. Sometimes I do think that Dawkins et al get blocked out by religious people because of their approach to the debate – it must be humiliatingly hard to find out that the thing you believed in all your life is false, and I am not sure Dawkins makes it easy for these people – sometimes Atheists forget that critical thinking is a skill that we are taught, we learn to learn and think and it is the fact that we have learnt to think for ourselves that has driven us to non-belief in god.

    The biggest problem Atheists face are the religious that close their eyes and ears to evidence of evolution – and deny it as a conspiracy – this I have the biggest problem with because it is just dishonest and damaging to future generations – it slows down the advancement of society. However, I do not have problem with religious people who accept that evolution must be true, because they have looked at the evidence, but put down the creation of the universe (on which evolution is incumbent) to the fancy work of a deity – they are free to believe in what they want to – personally I think there are better alternatives… but that is another debate.

    The debate between non-believers and believers is about the winning of hearts and minds, and hitting people over the head with our arguments is sometimes not the right approach.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — June 1, 2010 @ 4:03 am | Reply

    • I’m not a fan of group selection since anything which might act on groups as selection pressures can still be reduced to selection pressures on behavioral traits. At least, I can’t think of an example where the group is the smallest unit upon which a selection pressure can act.

      However, I do not have problem with religious people who accept that evolution must be true, because they have looked at the evidence, but put down the creation of the universe (on which evolution is incumbent) to the fancy work of a deity – they are free to believe in what they want to – personally I think there are better alternatives… but that is another debate.

      Indeed they are free to believe what they wish, but I do still have a problem with those that have shifted the goalposts in a tacit acknowledgement that science has shown religious explanations of origins as false- excuse me, according to ‘liberal theology’, religious explanations have become allegory, not false. Yeah. Right.

      It is these liberal Christians that serve as a source of the more fundamentalist types. These more liberal types are allies of convenience and as such are not deserving of accommodationism. I’m glad to have Ken Miller on board when it comes to fighting for evolution as science, but I will also not hesitate to criticize the lack of substantiation of his religion-based belief in a sort of directed evolution that resulted in humans. Some people think we should be more accommodating. “Poppycock,” I say. Even these more liberal types still believe in a monster god and claim it is love incarnate (I’ve never figured that one out), claim to obey the moral rules set out by said deity (they don’t- much of what is allowed biblically is quite illegal) and try to shoehorn an antiquated two-millennia moral zeitgeist into a modern technical society for which it was never designed. This last is the worst, since it leads to all sorts of nonsense for which the bible simply is incapable of handling. Our very freedoms of speech and religion, and even democratic government, are very unbiblical concepts.

      I’m not interested in converting people, though I would rather people believed things which can be demonstrated to be true, or at least justified beyond ‘because god says so’ or ‘because it’s in the bible’. I want the religious to leave me alone and not foist their values – some of which I share and some I do not – on all of us. If they think I will sit silently while they hijack whole nations, they have another thing coming.

      Comment by Shamelessly Atheist — June 1, 2010 @ 10:38 am | Reply

      • A kindred spirit!

        The problem with asking to be left alone is that it can’t happen as long as others act on their unjustified religious beliefs. So by necessity there must be a sustained attempt to play whack-a-mole every time religious belief raises its head and is offered up as a reason to act. And granting accommodation to any religious means to gain a favoured end is a form of capitulation and a failure to maintain intellectual integrity to support what is true. We cannot afford this luxury because entire nations are being hijacked in the name of piety. And that end result is brought about one bit at a time by the slow insertion of religious accommodation into public policies.

        Comment by tildeb — June 1, 2010 @ 11:27 am

      • Bang on, brother. Silence is not an option. Give a fundie an inch, they take a mile. And when you point out that they are imposing their will on those who do not share their belief system, they play the martyr card and any attempt to even point out that they are infringing on the rights of others results in wailing and gnashing of teeth as they exclaim that they are being oppressed.

        Screw that. There is one thing that Dawkins, Harris et al have contributed to atheism, and that is that religion must no longer be allowed to have free reign without scrutiny. The pope is finding that out the hard way…

        Comment by Shamelessly Atheist — June 1, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

    • I think the biggest problem all of us face is not knowing – nor how to know – the difference between unjustified and justified belief, which I attribute to a failure of our education system. Have you ever noticed that it’s a very small shift for creationists, for example, to dismiss global warming and the AIDS epidemic? Because it’s seemingly okay to dismiss evolutionary biology if it directly challenges our religious assumptions, it is nothing to feel equally justified to then dismiss climate science and medical science if its consensus also confronts one’s preferred opinion. And Shamelessly Atheist makes a very astute point that such people come from the ranks of the more moderate and liberal religious believers. If that wider and more moderate umbrella of rational believers had their ethereal generalized beliefs examined more seriously and skeptically for the inherited incompatibilities of fitting the square peg of religious belief in woo with the round hole of acceptable epistemology, then the ranks of wing-nuts would be severely thinned long before they shifted over to wing-nuttery.

      So I take issue with your proposition that accepting evolutionary theory is any kind of benchmark to some acceptable level of religious belief. If anything, I tend to agree with Hitchens that the more admirable religious believer is the fundamentalist whose wing-nuttery at least has the merit of being an honest reflection of the incoherent religion in question.

      I don’t want to win hearts; I want religious belief to become as quaint an identity as the batshit crazy aunt who lives with hundreds of cats.

      Comment by tildeb — June 1, 2010 @ 3:51 pm | Reply

  5. I agree we need very strong people in the debate like Dawkins, Hitches et al – but we also need to encourage people to think – to question, and most importantly to listen – you will not do that for everyone by chastisement alone, sometimes you have to show them the handles to an idea before they pick it up, and sometimes they will only pick up half an idea.

    I take the long term view; religion is a spell, many religious people are brainwashed through indoctrination, they think that religion is their friend, it is a kin to nicotine addiction. The way to achieve the goal of removing religion from society is to educate – it is to offer alternatives to religion, and to explain religion, its origins as well as why it is bunk.

    Religion ‘probably’ is just a crap idea (I say probably because there are no absolutes – everything is a probability) – but the fact that religion exists also motivates atheists to prove that it is just a crap idea, in turn this promotes discovery, and debate. The debate and the discovery has done more to shrink the influence that religion has on society than anything else – and therefore it should be taken to as wider audience as possible.

    There is no magic bullet, you’re not going to be able to wipe out religion over night – it will take generations, and generations more to banish supernatural beliefs to the history books.

    This means we should take our time to explain alternatives to religious beliefs not at the level of Dawkins – but on the ground in the community – people must choose not to be religious like we have done and when they do the Popes of this world will disappear. Atheism can convert people into rational people (and it does daily), and even if this is only partly successful – the chances are they are going to be less likely to indoctrinate their children with the same level of enthusiasm that they were indoctrinated. Obviously this isn’t always the case, but what we should be aiming for is a shrinking trend in believers over decades.

    Many religious people are vulnerable – not everyone has had the benefit of a balanced education and upbringing – and frankly some of them just are not ready, and perhaps will never be ready not to believe in crap – this means we have to wait for them to die out. For other people it just isn’t important they just don’t give a shit – and will just go with the flow the public consensus – these people are the worst kind in my opinion, because it is mob mentality – the lowest common denominator, these types you will have to wait to evolve out.

    I know that the majority of my dead grand parents were religious, and it is almost a certainty that their parents were religious to the barking mad level – I would wage you that this is a theme that most families in the UK share, including the Darwin family. Yet the spell is being broken and weakened by each generation that passes; not one of the decedents of my grandparents are religious (without exception!) and it is extremely unlikely that my children will be religious – how has this happened?

    By the spreading of group thinking, by the taking of some rational thought and seeding it in the minds of others; by the advancement of educational tools and techniques, access to media, libraries and universities. Has it benefited society – yes massively, is it more likely that I can pass on my genes as result, yes certainly. Is it always good – no not always; sometimes group thinking restricts ideas, but this fact alone is important to understand.

    If there is one thing we should learn from religion it is that a serious conflict regarding belief never solved anything – it just makes people dig in or fight back – there are plenty of people on the verge of changing their minds, but have no way out of the trap or just need the comfort that their questions have been answered – one of the jobs of atheism is to show the way out – that there is a better way, that their questions can be answered truthfully without the need to make up bullshit.

    Just like nicotine addiction there is a leap of faith to becoming an atheist; some smokers fear that giving up cigarettes will end their social lives (when contrasted with the fact that they are more likely to loose their actual life this almost impossible to comprehend but smokers don’t see that they are blinded by their faith in nicotine). Some smokers believe that apart of their personality will be erased if they stop smoking – some think that quitting will cause them to be anxious. Only those smokers who are brave enough to quit the habit for a lengthy period of time realise that they have been under a spell and they do not need their crutch, and those who have and understanding of the science and psychology of nicotine addition are far more likely to succeed in quitting. This is also true of religion, we not only have to debunk it scientifically, but we have to be able to explain it as well – how it happened, why people have desire to invent gods etc. One thing is for sure – forcing people to stop smoking rarely works, they have to make the choice – they have to see and experience the truth themselves, and this I think is also true of religion.

    As for not winning hearts – I am afraid that is exactly what society will have to do – the seeking of truth is an emotive one – people who are motivated to learn will learn, people who are not will not.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — June 1, 2010 @ 6:55 pm | Reply

  6. What an anti-intellectual psot.

    1. Individuals do not and cannot evolve. Their genetic code is fixed for life and cannot undergo evolution. Are you actually advocating Lysenkoism? Populations evolve. Of course, you call them ‘groups’ rather than populations as a matter of obscurantism.

    2. The hypothesis that religion evolved because it confers the benefit of group cohesion on a population (supporting altruism, for instance), is perfectly legitimate. Don’t believe me?, ask PZ:

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/02/religion_adaptation_or_by-prod.php

    He doesn’t support it, but he accepts it as a legitimate scientific hypothesis.

    The incredible sloppiness in this post makes me think you may have been reading too many creationist blogs.

    Comment by Helena Constantine — June 1, 2010 @ 8:15 pm | Reply

    • Which sloppy post are you referring to, HC?

      Regarding #1: It’s my understanding that each of us has on average about 1200 mutations from the shuffling of the genes from Mom and Dad. Evolution occurs when the physical traits that allowed Mom and Dad to reproduce successfully are passed to the offspring, which may include some of those mutations. Evolution only occurs with individuals. The ‘group’ may or may not benefit from this individualized evolution.

      Regarding #2: of course the hypothesis is legitimate. But as SA correctly pointed out, the smallest unit of evolution occurs at the level of the individual. Some of the problems applying evolution to religion as a generic ‘thingie’ itself that provides reproductive benefit is made abundantly clear in the PZ post. But that’s not what I take issue with in the Sloan interview; I take issue with Sloan’s position that the New Atheists aren’t paying enough attention to the utility of religion within an evolutionary framework and that Sloan feels it’s his job to rein them back on to this track. The point he’s missing about the New Atheists is that their raison d’etre is all about whether any religious belief is justified on the merit of being probably true. And it fails this most basic test. If Sloan can provide evidence that religious belief creates reproductive benefit for individual genes then I’m sure his peer reviewed paper will gain appropriate attention. But until then, attacking and misrepresenting atheists for focusing on whether or not religious truth claims are legitimate when in direct conflict with scientific findings rather than focus more on religion’s generalized social and historical hazy effects that may or may not confer group benefits is hardly a strong position of defending good science.

      Comment by tildeb — June 1, 2010 @ 11:22 pm | Reply

    • I think you have misunderstood something. No one here has stated that individuals evolve. What has been said is that evolution operates at the level of the organism (individual). Those are not the same thing. We were discussing whether group selection (yes, it is a proper term) occurs over traits in populations of individuals. I have no idea where your comment is coming from as it has been very poorly expressed. There ar many problems with group selection and I was simply stating my opinion that what appears to be group selection is an illusion.

      And yes, religion may be behavior which evolved in order to promote interpersonal cooperative behavior, but this still involves individuals and not groups as the basic unit. This hypothesis is unlikely to be correct and recent work by Marc Hauser has provided evidence that religion is a byproduct of other traits.

      Comment by Shamelessly Atheist — June 2, 2010 @ 12:32 am | Reply

      • This Sloan fellow states that religion confers an advantage, no to individuals, but to the group, in evolutionary terms. The original poster denies that this is possible, evidently because he thinks that evolution is not a group process, but an individual one. Then the first responder here says that evolution is the random mutations that individuals have in their genomes. All of this is terrible wrong-headed.

        Evolution is the change in allele frequencies over time in populations. allele frequencies cannot change in individuals, only from individual to individual, which means in the population as a whole. Populations are the only things that can undergo evolutionary change. This is conveniently ignore so that the hypothesis that religion could confer an evolutionary advantage can be denied–not disproved, but denied. This is a creationist tactic. Here it seems that the animus against evolution is so great, the need to deny that it might have some benefit of any kind so burning, that reason seems to be discarded along the way.

        Comment by Helena Constantine — June 3, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

      • Evolution is the change in the inherited traits of a population of organisms through successive generations. We can measure that change by allele frequencies. Evolution is not the measurement we use but the inherited change – which I called mutations – so I fail to grasp how this “all terribly wrong-headed.”

        A population is not an individual thing but a term we use to describe an aggregation of individuals. Populations don’t inherit anything; individuals do. Therefore, I think it is “wrong-headed” to think that only populations undergo evolution as I understand the term to mean. That religious belief shared by a group of individuals may yield benefit to the reproductive capability of those individuals may sound quite reasonable but you (and Sloan as far as I know) have not shown how this benefit – religious belief – is inherited by individuals. To me, that’s like claiming that the internal combustion engine offers an ‘evolutionary’ benefit to those who use the technology; I think the descriptor – evolution – is the wrong term.

        Comment by tildeb — June 3, 2010 @ 4:52 pm

      • Oh, hell ya. Wilson is an idiot using the standard creationist arguments. But this is no surprise since Sloan is a creationist. He and Christopher Hitchens published a debate they had and the utter inanity of Wilson’s position is so transparent. Mind you, I was disappointed with Hitchens in that debate. He did not explain the biological origin of altruistic behavior very well. Wilson seems to think we are the only species that exhibits such behavior, which is complete nonsense. We just happen to have the most sophisticated form of it. People like Wilson seem to think that co-operative behavior is impossible even though it is painfully obvious how such behavior can confer survival advantages. Why evolution deniers can’t see this is a complete mystery to me.

        Comment by Shamelessly Atheist — June 4, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

  7. “To me, that’s like claiming that the internal combustion engine offers an ‘evolutionary’ benefit to those who use the technology; ”

    But it does – the technology is a product of our evolved brains, we would not have evolved the ability to design tools (technology) if it didn’t provide us with an advantage. Our technologies do secure the ability for us to pass on our genes – nothing shows this up more than the trend extended life expectancy. And when we do pass on our genes they evolve, so those who are more likely to pass on their genes are more likely to evolve.

    I agree that the bulk of technology is an idea that is passed to other people – but the mechanism that allows us to pass ideas to each other, store them and modify them is most certainly an evolutionary one. For me it stands to reason that these abilities can be selectively breed like any other in groups. It is almost like our evolved brain has tried to cheat evolution and find a ‘mental’ short cut to allow ideas to evolve outside of the biological framework (i.e. via the use of memes).

    The misunderstanding here is that the religious think that this is evidence for god or that evolution is wrong; it isn’t, it is more evidence for evolution not less. The invention of supernatural agents by the human brain was most probably away of the brain protecting itself from the unknown by keeping it alert (we have all had shivers down our spines when walking in the dark – or that feeling of being watched), a way of comforting itself so that it got rest and didn’t waste energy unnecessarily. Religions are nothing more than the organisation and communication of these feelings, which were enriched by our active imagination (again a product of our evolved brain) and combined with language – this could have created groups of people in tribes, which would have provided advantage to the individual.

    The trouble is that Christianity thinks that they invented religion they didn’t – all modern religions are based on the superstitions that lead before them.

    I think it is foolish to say that religion is not part of our evolution – it is, but not because god put it there – it is part of our survival armory – in the same way that dogs learnt to hunt in packs, and like our desire to hunt, fight or flight; it is relic of our past and no longer needed. So I welcome any research into this – because it will provide the real answer to why people are religious – because at the moment they think they are religious because god told them to be.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — June 4, 2010 @ 4:59 am | Reply

    • MUR, I’ve been thinking about what you wrote, I have to disagree with your framing.

      The evolutionary aspect is – in the case of the internal combustion engine example – the adaptive brain itself and not any of its products. Its products may be on the whole beneficial (technology delivered by means of the internal combustion engine also allows for efficient mass killing, let’s not forget) but none of the products is evolutionary in the sense that, unless the specific meme itself can be genetically inherited, it is a learned behaviour or concept. And this is exactly the point I think negates much of the merit of thinking about evolution in terms of group benefits, although I can appreciate the peripheral notion that higher rates of fertility for a specific group can be produced by certain group behaviours even if learned rather than inherited. But I still think calling this group behaviour based on learning ‘evolutionary’ is a misnomer.

      Comment by tildeb — June 4, 2010 @ 3:45 pm | Reply

  8. I am glad I made you think – this subject has made me think as well.

    “The evolutionary aspect is – in the case of the internal combustion engine example – the adaptive brain itself and not any of its products.”

    I agree – it is a meme, but it is a meme that is a product of evolved brains, I don’t think a brain that has evolved in the same way as our species could understand a design it unless it had the capability to understand it.

    “Its products may be on the whole beneficial (technology delivered by means of the internal combustion engine also allows for efficient mass killing,…”

    And I agree that technology can allow mass killing to be done more efficiently – but what you are describing here is someone else’s idea that has been use for a different purpose – you still need the equipment in your head to understand the idea and the ability to apply it to something else, without that equipment the idea makes no sense. Our early ancestors would have been like a different species to us – maybe not physically, but mentally.

    “but none of the products is evolutionary in the sense that, unless the specific meme itself can be genetically inherited,”

    I am not saying that – I am saying that memes are inherited without biology, but only because our brains have the equipment to be able to communicate ideas; the meme isn’t encoded in DNA but the capability to store, retrieve and modify ideas is; and as ideas and communication proved more useful, our brains evolved greater capabilities to handle ideas and therefore evolved, allowing new and better ideas to evolve as well.

    Without that evolved brain memes can not be inherited – many animals teach their young with early life skills, eventually those animals will evolve better equipment and eventually more advanced (and most likely better)ideas, techniques and methods for survival will be created. We can actually see this in the modern species we have – who are all at different levels of mental ability, which is ultimately based on need – a need created by natural selection.

    “although I can appreciate the peripheral notion that higher rates of fertility for a specific group can be produced by certain group behaviours even if learned rather than inherited.”

    And the same genes also contain the instructions to build you brain – right? The same genes that would be bred within the island of a group or tribe.

    “But I still think calling this group behaviour based on learning ‘evolutionary’ is a misnomer.”

    I think the evidence for it would be hard to prove until we know a lot more about the human brain – but the way I see it is that it may be a valid prediction, eyes evolved for the purposes of seeing light, colour came later, our brains evolved for basic control and function (like a cow), our ability to think came later as a result of needing to think more.

    I understand why it disturbs you – but it really shouldn’t.

    I think of it like a computer – you can’t run Windows 7 on 286 – it is not possible, and I don’t believe early humans would understand our modern technology – I don’t think they would have the benefit of all that time to evolve the equipment that modern humans have.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — June 4, 2010 @ 5:05 pm | Reply

    • I don’t think a brain that has evolved in the same way as our species could understand a design it unless it had the capability to understand it.

      And this leads us right back to the chicken/egg dichotomy about the brain and its conceptualization of the world, which is why understanding that what the brain does is build a better brain is so ‘cool’. That memes stimulate brain growth is one thing: it’s a biology ability to create memes and communication with them that is part of our genetic make-up and has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with any one particular meme like, say, the internal combustion engine… or a particular religious belief. That a significant segment of a population uses a particular meme does not make that particular meme part of evolution; rather, the use of creating and communicating memes is. I still think the confusion here is about what evolution means – change in the inherited traits – and looking at products of that change as responsible for that change rather than look at the changing traits that allow for the change in products.

      Clear as mud, right?

      Comment by tildeb — June 4, 2010 @ 7:02 pm | Reply

  9. “That memes stimulate brain growth is one thing: it’s a biology ability to create memes and communication with them that is part of our genetic make-up and has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with any one particular meme like, say, the internal combustion engine… or a particular religious belief.”

    Agreed – However, humans appear to have evolved to such a standard that they can now modify their environment significantly via the application of technology – the meme (and the process to exchange memes) now has the ability to modify the biology, genetic engineering is the extreme proof of this.

    I think to deny religion from our evolution is foolish – we wouldn’t deny that language or cooking is not part of our evolution – and it is no different with religion, and war – we are animals, and we do evolve and everything we do from breathing to building nuclear power stations is a product of our evolutionary path. War – has provided a benefit to the gene pool, yes it killed millions but billions more have benefited from the space race, medicine; the technical advances we have made since the beginning of the second world war have been unprecedented and profound and have changed our living environment in which we evolve.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — June 5, 2010 @ 5:44 am | Reply

    • Well, MUR, then it falls on you to show how religious belief itself is an inheritable trait.

      Comment by tildeb — June 5, 2010 @ 3:09 pm | Reply

  10. “I don’t think a brain that has evolved in the same way as our species could understand a design it unless it had the capability to understand it.”

    But the brain was not ‘designed’ – it evolved, and the process of evolution is a simple process that we can program, we can already produce programming code that can write its own programming code, resulting in computer logic that we don’t understand or produce easily. Therefore, I think we will be able to create computers that can program themselves to evolve software that can be conscious, the speed of computers should allow this to happen; computer power doubles every two years according to Moore’s Law – and that is just one set of technologies using traditional silicon processors. Quantum computers will be even more powerful, so I think we will find out if this is possible during this century.

    I think the biggest driver for this type of technology will be health care and care for the elderly, and of course the military. The Japanese are making huge progresses with robotics – stuff that was considered impossible just 15 years ago is possible – stuff like this:

    http://asimo.honda.com/

    It walks, it dances, it runs and climbs stairs – and I have seen prototypes that can recognise objects in a class of objects – i.e. any mug, any pen, any chair – etc. etc.

    Now imagine what sort of impact one of those with a brain is going to have on our environment… oil leak deep under sea – no problem send in the bot, life on mars – no problem send the bot.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — June 5, 2010 @ 3:17 pm | Reply

  11. “Well, MUR, then it falls on you to show how religious belief itself is an inheritable trait.”

    I don’t think that religion is a genetically inheritable trait – but then neither is cooking – yet the cooking of food almost certainly allowed us to grow bigger brains and therefore played a part in our evolution. The fact remains – as a species we are prolific with our ideas (of which religion is one of them) – the question is why? Why do we have ideas at all, especially crap ones? The other question is what was needed in order to have ideas, and do other animals have those specific parts?

    I think it is a similar question to why we have morals, and why we have consciousness…

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — June 5, 2010 @ 5:48 pm | Reply

    • I think you are using various meanings under the single word ‘evolution’. As I have written evolution is the change in the inherited traits of a population of organisms through successive generations. I sum that up to mean that if it ain’t an inheritable trait, it ain’t evolution.

      As for your ‘why’ questions, they may be misdirected in the sense that there may be no way to determine an ‘answer’. For example, why do we have ideas? The ‘answer’ lies only by first assuming there is some other condition possible for the human brain.

      Is cooking an instinct? Can humans survive and grow their brains without cooking their food? I think so. Unless and until the products of thinking can be shown to become a heritable trait, then I think using the descriptor ‘evolutionary’ will continue to be a misnomer. If we call everything humans do that can be beneficial to humans as ‘evolutionary’ then I think we are losing the word’s meaning and are misdirecting our inquiry into the ‘hows’ and ‘whats’ and even ‘whys’ into genes rather than better understanding of the interactions we as individuals have with our various environments.

      Like everything else involved with sociology, I tend to find the good stuff common sense, stolen from a legitimate field of inquiry like anthropology or psychology and re-termed, or simply lies presented as pseudo-science; the faculty itself should be relabeled GroupThink of Inventive Terminology. I am not a fan.

      Comment by tildeb — June 5, 2010 @ 8:21 pm | Reply

  12. I don’t have problem with group thinking at all – the ability for humans to group think is an astonishing attribute to our species. With regard to cooking – I think you have missed the point some what – it is not whether we can survive without cooking, it is whether we can survive better with cooking. Is evolution just about survival is it about being the fittest?

    Cooking allowed us to eat meat easily, which allowed us to survive on less food. There have been experiments performed that show that if we eat a diet that other apes eat which is mainly based on veg we get sick – our guts have therefore evolved – this is also seen in the development of teeth in hominids. Cooking isn’t a matter of convenience or a matter of pleasure – it is a matter of survival. Again it may have had roots in the discovery of fire, which is another trait that not only gives us comfort, but the ability to survive better – we don’t need fire to live. Either way we have done amazing things with cooking, and have advanced it to a state where we actually inbreed animals to provide better food yields, and can farm plants and mill them to provide easier to digest foods that are high in energy – such as bread. At some point there must have been an intermediary species of of ancestors that didn’t cook and was afraid of fire.

    The notion of ‘common sense’ is method of group thinking – you only understand the concept of common sense because you have the ability to share ideas in the first place.

    My point is that of course you can survive just on instinct many animals do, but for some reason our instincts evolved into thought and I think the ability to think came as a result of it giving us a competitive advantage against other hominids or ourselves or our predators or all of them. Our brain has the ability it has because it needed it.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — June 6, 2010 @ 3:00 am | Reply

    • The point remains that I don’t see how you can show inheritable changes with your examples of useful memes. And without these inheritable changes shown in in populations, I think framing useful memes as if they were ‘evolutionary’ does not accurately reflect the genetic mechanism by which these changes in populations take place. And without genetic changes, we don’t have evolution because we don’t have any changes to the frequency of alleles. Thus, I think it is a disservice to start co-opting the term to mean something along the lines of behaviours and attitudes that are classified as useful and assume that therefore they must be ‘evolutionary’ in the sense of being beneficial to the population.

      Comment by tildeb — June 6, 2010 @ 10:44 am | Reply

  13. From Wiki (which explains what I am trying to say better): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme

    “Dawkins emphasizes that the process of evolution naturally occurs whenever these conditions co-exist, and that evolution does not apply only to organic elements such as genes. He also regards memes as having the properties necessary for evolution, and thus sees meme evolution as not simply analogous to genetic evolution, but as a real phenomenon subject to the laws of natural selection. Dawkins noted that as various ideas pass from one generation to the next, they may either enhance or detract from the survival of the people who obtain those ideas, or influence the survival of the ideas themselves. For example, a certain culture may develop unique designs and methods of tool-making that give it a competitive advantage over another culture. Each tool-design thus acts somewhat similarly to a biological gene in that some populations have it and others do not, and the meme’s function directly affects the presence of the design in future generations. In keeping with the thesis that in evolution one can regard organisms simply as suitable “hosts” for reproducing genes, Dawkins argues that one can view people as “hosts” for replicating memes. Consequently, a successful meme may or may not need to provide any benefit to its host.”

    All I am saying is that if we are a host for memes, we must have developed the equipment to create them – and the need to create them was based on our primitive ideas, and since morality and religion are primitive memes, they must have helped to develop our brains further – we didn’t stop evolving when we invented imaginary gods, and I strongly believe that we continue to evolve today and we will continue to do so until we become extinct. This may explain why some people have genetic mutations that change brain function and ability.

    I think what you are saying is that the evolution of memes evolves outside of the biology totally – therefore if our ancestors from say 300 thousand years ago transported one of their new born offspring into the 21st century and we brought it up as one of our own children it would be comparable in cognition to one of own children.

    I don’t think that – because it’s brain would be different to ours (as it has missed out on 300 thousand years of evolution).

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — June 6, 2010 @ 4:55 pm | Reply

    • The problem – as is so often found in sociology and groupthink conclusions – is that when one tackles the terms and figures out what they mean in actuality, at best one is usually left with simply an abstraction but then used as if were actual. And this is the case you are presenting.

      For example, what is the meme called ‘religion’? What is ‘it’ actually? What is its code? (think of genetic ‘code’ for DNA) How does this meme specifically mutate and thus evolve?

      All we really have is an abstract idea about some hazy supernatural agency believed to be operative in the natural world as some kind of fuzzy mechanism linking cause with effect. Because the term itself is merely an abstraction, calling it a meme and then presenting it as if were an actual idea is a highly dubious proposition. To then state that this meme (as if it were actual) is 1) primitive (since morality and religion are primitive memes) and 2) evolving (they must have helped to develop our brains further) are at best highly dubious conclusions. And without the means to show a code that has undergone change by natural selection, one is quite justified I think to be highly skeptical of conclusions made in its name as if they were subject to actual ‘evolutionary’ selection.

      You presume to suggest that brain changes are ’caused’ by memes… memes in the form of notions like religion and morality. I’m sorry, but until there is a way to measure the so-called evolutionary changes of memetics, I will remain highly skeptical of any conclusions based on this assumption. Ideas do indeed change over time based not necessarily on any kind of ‘natural’ selection as Wilson suggests but on informed selection. Useful ideas are transmitted and incorporated, but so too are many ideas that are counter-productive to the hosts carrying and transmitting them. If these ideas are simply a part of some ‘natural evolution,’ then I have yet to come across any ‘natural’ mechanism that explains this dichotomy. And I need look no further than how easily unjustified beliefs find a willing home in those hosts who fail to apply critical reasoning and appropriate skepticism.

      Comment by tildeb — June 6, 2010 @ 8:02 pm | Reply

  14. (Ideas do indeed change over time based not necessarily on any kind of ‘natural’ selection as Wilson suggests but on informed selection)

    Dawkins thinks memes evolve as well based on rules a kin to natural selection.

    In biology useful DNA is encoded, and so is junk and even genes that degenerate and cause genetic disorder and disease – however, evolution deals with the trend and not a single instance of the encoding – that we do know, and so it is with ideas – take X-Rays, when they were discovered they were used for everything – we now know better because they are harmful, this doesn’t mean that X-Rays are a bad idea only that they provide us with a technical advantage if used wisely – as a trend we have used them more and more not less and less.

    Religion did indeed evolve – it became organised, and embedded itself in our social structure on a global scale from many points of origin, as indeed did science and technology. Religion is bad idea in the modern world – certainly, but that does not distract from the fact that it exists, and while it exists it has influence over the human population both negatively and positively – our human minds not only allowed it to exist, but created it in the first place – if we didn’t create it where did come from? And if it didn’t provide anything positive at all then why does it persist?

    Even if we take your view that it is informed selection – then this is a kin to artificial selection – and is no different than breeding dogs for their physiological attributes (I am not sure about this statement even though I have made it ;o). If we breed humans for academic capability then I would say that the offspring are likely to be academic – in fact there is research that supports this finding, albeit it is very controversial (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Race_and_intelligence).

    (All we really have is an abstract idea about some hazy supernatural agency believed to be operative in the natural world as some kind of fuzzy mechanism linking cause with effect. Because the term itself is merely an abstraction, calling it a meme and then presenting it as if were an actual idea is a highly dubious proposition.)

    Again you are forgetting that in order to invent the supernatural agency – you need to have the capability to do it, something evolved to allow this to happen – if the brain didn’t evolve it wouldn’t have happened. What I am saying is that religion didn’t just spring into existence – it had a long development, over a long period of time. We have recently observed that chimps morn their dead – perhaps this is similar behaviour to early humans, from which an early form of supernatural belief was created.

    If religion is not a meme – then what is it? If it is a belief – then what is it a belief in? Certainly not something that is real, and therefore it must be a figment of our imagination – which is an idea, and ideas are manufactured in a brain. Therefore it stands to reason that religion is a belief in an idea that replicates.

    It seems to me that if you say it is not an idea then you are either elevating it to something more advanced (the word of god), or demoting it to something more primitive. Personally I think religion is a set of ideas, that built upon each other – that have the ability to replicate between beings that have the capability to comprehend them.

    “To then state that this meme (as if it were actual)”

    Are you saying that religion is not actual – it doesn’t exist? Clearly it does – whether atheists like it or not some religious people believe in their mumbo jumbo as if it were real – which is why it is so hard to break (I admit some religious people are just liars). I think this is because they have no understanding of the origin of religion. I think I do understand the origins of religion, which is a further reason why I don’t give religion any special meaning. The fact that I can diffuse a religious idea for the reasons for the existence of religion is a strength in critical thinking, not a weakness.

    (evolving (they must have helped to develop our brains further) are at best highly dubious conclusions.)

    This I admit is weak – but not that much weaker than early technical advancements that allowed us to evolve – such as tool making and cooking. The only difference here is that these technologies have empirical evidence to support them. It is much harder to link sociological advances to evolution – but this doesn’t mean we should not attempt it just because religion may have to be included in the reckoning.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — June 7, 2010 @ 4:36 am | Reply

    • Your kind of shooting all over the board here with your points, but I’ll take a few of them and comment.

      I have asked you to think about what the term ‘religion’ actually is. I have written that it is an abstraction based on unseen agency. Perhaps I should have added that the practice of religion is the paying of homage to this hypothetical agent with a hypothetical intent. The practices are actual; the agency is not. The practices do not make the agency actual. Because the agency is not actual, it is not a thing; it remains an abstraction (which I maintain is not susceptible to any natural evolutionary mechanism). Perhaps you can explain the natural mechanism (actual) by which this abstraction ‘evolves’ without dipping into the pond of practices?

      I see no change from modern versions of paying homage to an unseen agent or agencies to older versions of paying homage to unseen agencies; it is simply a brain function to first assign agency (usually hostile just to be better prepared) to changes in the environment before secondary (higher brain) investigations can be applied. It’s exactly backwards to assume (as you and Wilson do) that this particular abstraction (religion) self-replicates because it offers some evolutionary benefit to the human population; rather, I say it is a biological process of our brains to assign agency and intention to all environmental changes, of which the religious abstraction is but one example. It’s not a question of the religious meme ‘evolving’ or being ‘replicated’; it’s a question of our brains giving in to the impulse to assign agency (and then intention), generation after generation, where no actual agency has been shown to exist. Because there is nothing actual in religious belief other than its practices, there is nothing there to evolve, although it can certainly appear to replicate. But appearances can be deceiving. The abstraction remains the same over time, through the generations, meaning that our biological impulse to assign agency and intention to changes in the environment provides us with more benefit than harm. I suspect that impulse is very slowly being relegated to earlier stages of development by the beneficial use of methodological naturalism in better understanding changes to our environment by natural mechanisms but the danger is that the pace of our understanding (think of software) is far exceeding our evolutionary pace (think of hardware). This dichotomy causes anxiety (learning and constant change and acceptance of indifference by nature to our existence are difficult aspects of an accurate ‘worldview’ for our biology to deal with) so it is perfectly ‘natural’ to simply rely on the old software that better meshes with the old hardware (assigning intention to unseen agencies). I think that’s why religion hangs around: it pretends to present ‘eternal answers’ to many of our questions and concerns – especially how vitally important each of us to the well-being of the agent that runs the entire universe no less – which is very comforting to our anxiety ridden biology. No ‘evolution’ is needed for the abstraction we call religious belief to have an ongoing function in human concerns: it’s just a matter of neurobiology doing what neurobiology does: mapping the world and our place in it.

      Comment by tildeb — June 7, 2010 @ 10:06 am | Reply

  15. “I have asked you to think about what the term ‘religion’ actually is.”

    You are missing my point a little – I don’t care what religion is, I know what it is – what I care about is where it came from, what allowed religion to happen, and how was it used – religion particularly organised religion is far more than waving around a lamp and wearing a funny hat. Religion ruled people, and that ruling required order and control – did the order an control that religion brought advance human behaviour?

    “I suspect that impulse is very slowly being relegated to earlier stages of development by the beneficial use of methodological naturalism in better understanding changes to our environment by natural mechanisms but the danger is that the pace of our understanding (think of software) is far exceeding our evolutionary pace (think of hardware).”

    My question was does the software trigger the hardware to evolve? You seem to agree that it may do.

    I agree, that the brain gear could have been provided by other environmental factors – and the religion just happened to start running on that gear, it is the most likely outcome. But can we really truthfully state that religion has had no bearing at all on human evolution, I seriously doubt it. Atheists shouldn’t be afraid of acknowledging that religion helped to organised large groups of people – because it did and still does. Yes other ideas and systems could have developed around the same time and doubtless they did also (and have, and do) – but there is a lot of religion of all different types all over the world, and everywhere you see it, it becomes more organised and structured into monstrosities, and society structured itself around it – so did the human animal use religion as a tool to bring social order? And did that social order change the environment in which we live and behave?

    “This dichotomy causes anxiety (learning and constant change and acceptance of indifference by nature to our existence are difficult aspects of an accurate ‘worldview’ for our biology to deal with) so it is perfectly ‘natural’ to simply rely on the old software that better meshes with the old hardware (assigning intention to unseen agencies). I think that’s why religion hangs around: it pretends to present ‘eternal answers’ to many of our questions and concerns – especially how vitally important each of us to the well-being of the agent that runs the entire universe no less – which is very comforting to our anxiety ridden biology. No ‘evolution’ is needed for the abstraction we call religious belief to have an ongoing function in human concerns: it’s just a matter of neurobiology doing what neurobiology does: mapping the world and our place in it.”

    You seem to have confused my argument – here, I am not arguing that religion is true or accurate – that doesn’t concern me here. My hypothesis is simply: Can ideas cause our biology to evolve?

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — June 7, 2010 @ 2:43 pm | Reply

    • But that’s exactly the rub about religion and evolution: one must first clearly define what is actually being evolved if one wishes to enlist the aid evolution as the mechanism for that change. You write I don’t care what religion is, I know what it is. If one fails to establish a clear and succinct meme that is actual rather than a mere abstraction, then all the conclusions about evolution derived from that abstraction are just so much assumption… which can sound very logical and appealing and explanatory even when, at its heart, it is fuzzy conjecture. Belief in supernatural cause and effect, for example, I suspect can and does alter brain development but I suspect one could not isolate religious belief from, say, superstitious belief in the power of talismans.

      Comment by tildeb — June 7, 2010 @ 5:24 pm | Reply

  16. Steve Pinker has something important to add to this notion, I think:

    1. Though there’s much we don’t understand about the evolution of human intelligence, nothing about it is especially mysterious. A specific ability to do physics, abstract philosophy, higher math, and the other problems that vexed Wallace never evolved in the first place – they require millennia of accumulated knowledge in a culture, and decades of education and honing in an individual. A more generic ability entertain concepts of number, objects, living things, causality, and so on, and to combine them into lawful generalizations, is patently adaptive, as we see in the ways that all human cultures depend on acquired technological know-how for their survival, outsmarting the fixed defenses of local flora and fauna. While human-level intelligence is species-specific (as are many zoological traits, such as the elephant’s trunk), impressive levels of numerical cognition and cause-and-effect reasoning have evolved several times, including in corvids, cetaceans, cephalopods, and primates.

    2. Nor is morality any mystery. Abstract, universal morality (e.g., a Kantian categorical imperative) never evolved in the first place, but took millennia of debate and cultural experience, and doesn’t characterize the vast majority of humanity. More rudimentary moral sentiments that may have evolved – sympathy, trust, retribution, gratitude, guilt – are stable strategies in cooperation games, and emerge in computer simulations.

    3. No feature of consciousness has ever been discovered that does not depend 100% on neurophysiology. Stimulate the brain with chemicals or an electrical current, and the person’s experience changes; let a person’s experience vary, and you can measure the changes in chemistry or electrophysiology. When a brain is damaged, the person’s mental life is diminished accordingly, and when the brain’s activity ceases, the mind goes out of existence – Wallace’s séances notwithstanding, no one has found a way to communicate with the dead. The very existence of a subjective correlate of brain activity may not be understood (if it’s an intellectually coherent problem at all, which some would deny), but positing a “soul” simply renames the problem with no insight, and leaves the perfect correlation between consciousness and neurophysiology unexplained.

    Comment by tildeb — June 12, 2010 @ 12:41 pm | Reply


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