A stealth creationist in Santa Barbara

May 3, 2011 • 6:13 am

Yesterday I got an email from one Tam Hunt, complaining that my popular book on evolution left out what he called “the warts that accompany the Modern synthesis [i.e., modern evolutionary theory developed beginning about 1935].”  He referred me to an article he wrote in the Santa Barbara [California] Independent touting a “middle path” between evolution and creationism.  His particular beef was natural selection, which he sees as “little more than an assumption that evolution has resulted from natural causes rather than supernatural causes. As such, the theory of natural selections explains nothing in itself – it is a very loose framework that needs filling in rather substantially.”

As you might expect, Hunt fills the gap with complete nonsense. If you’d like, have a gander at his essay “On natural selection and the universal Eros” at the Independent.

He begins with a disclaimer,

This essay continues my extended critique of “absent-minded science,” the tendency in modern science to ignore, intentionally or through oversight, the role of mind in nature. I want to be clear up front that I am not a supporter of “intelligent design” or any religiously-motivated critique of natural selection. Rather, I approach these very difficult problems primarily from the point of view of a hard-nosed philosopher and scientist trying to make sense of it all – and finding that many mainstream approaches could be significantly improved. . .

He then characterizes natural selection as tautological, because it’s “survival of the fittest,” and the fittest are defined as “those who survive. ” This, of course, is an old creationist canard, which completely ignores the fact that hundreds of biologists are trying to understand those particular traits that promote survival and reproduction.  Saying that natural selection is tautological is like saying that putting flour through a sieve is tautological, because “only the lumps survive” and the lumps are defined as “those parts of the flour that don’t go through the sieve.” Ergo, we conclude that a sieve can’t work. (For more sophisticated refutations, see this essay by Steve Gould or this discussion at Talk Origins. Does Hunt not know how to Google?)

Hunt goes on to make a criticism familiar to readers of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s (F & P-P) dreadful critique of Darwinism, What Darwin Got Wrong (it’s no surprise that he praises that book):

Natural selection is, in the final analysis, simply a postulate and not a theory. It is the postulate that evolution has happened naturally, without supernatural influence. “Natural selection” stands as the counter to the long-held view of “supernatural selection,” that is, the various theories of creationism or intelligent design. To be a theory of evolution, however, the theory must say something about how and why historical changes occurred and make meaningful predictions about what kind of changes we may see in the future. And natural selection, a logically empty theory, is clearly not that theory.

As if evolutionary biologists aren’t trying to figure out how selection acts on different traits!  As I pointed out in my review of the F & P-P book, there are now hundreds of studies trying to relate specific features of animals and plants to their differential survival and reproduction in the wild.  These include the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant on beak shape in Galápagos finches (documented in Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch), historical changes in color of the peppered moth, Biston betularia, and a whole host of more recent studies.  Anyone who makes this argument against natural selection is either completely ignorant of the literature or willfully ignorant in service of an agenda.

The latter seems to be the case for Hunt. He sees the solution as a teleological force driving evolution, a “basic force in all things that leads to greater connection, thus greater complexity, and thus greater awareness of our universe around us.” Listen to this teleological gobbledygook:

The panpsychist solution is to recognize that mind and thus purpose are inherent in all of nature – but extremely rudimentary in most cases. However, as matter complexifies in macromolecules like amino acids (which form spontaneously in many situations), this innate mind and purpose starts to play an increasingly significant role in evolution. It is, thus, a bootstrapping process that has no end in sight. . .

. . . In evolution, then, God is indeed in the details – literally. The “dispersed” God that Margulis and Sagan refer to is the mind contained in each thing, in each organism, that exercises some degree of choice – no matter how small – in how it manifests.

. . . To sum up this series of essays to this point: We cannot adequately explain matter in physics or evolution in biology without re-naturalizing mind. We needn’t appeal to an archaic notion of God as omniscient designer to provide adequate explanations. Rather, we can appeal to the dispersed god of panpsychism, the god manifested in a million million little pushes from each entity making its own choices (though we shall have a role for a non-dispersed God later in this series of essays).

I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of Hunt’s essays.  Before we require an alternative theory to natural selection, we must show how this well-established idea, instantiated in hundreds of cases, is inadequate to explain adaptation.  Hunt hasn’t.  And his alternative—to posit that things like amino acids have minds that actually drive evolution—is not only without evidence (the data show no single “drive” in evolution—certainly not one towards greater complexity and awareness), but is also so mush-headed as to be opaque.  When Hunt tells me in precise detail how amino acids and proteins have minds that drive evolution in ways not encapsulated by natural selection, I’ll start to listen to him.  I don’t anticipate this happening soon.

The Independent describes Hunt as “a philosopher, lawyer and biologist who was lucky enough to land in Santa Barbara and stay.”  The worse luck for Santa Barbara! However, the University of California at Santa Barbara website (where Hunt is a visiting lecturer), describes him as “a renewable energy law and policy expert” who has a law degree from UCLA. I can’t find any evidence that Hunt has any higher degrees, training, or practice as a “biologist.”  Neither can I find any papers by a Tam Hunt in the ISI science citation index.

Indeed, I suspect Hunt isn’t a “biologist,” for no biologist who has absorbed his craft could make statements as idiotic as his.  I only hope he’s not teaching biology at UCSB, and I mourn the fact that the city newspaper has given him a platform to spout anti-evolutionary nonsense.

73 thoughts on “A stealth creationist in Santa Barbara

  1. … and I mourn the fact that the city newspaper has given him a platform to spout anti-evolutionary nonsense.

    The folks who run the paper like controversy, and do not care whether they are promoting a false cause. Their job is to sell newspapers.

    1. this is why promoting science is left to champions like jerry, sam and a few others and this is why we all should do our best of science education for general public

      the sooner science is the shepherd of human condition the more chances we have to meliorate the upcoming collapse

      1. Really not so hard to believe in Santa Barbara. The crystal-gazing, patchouli-scented crowd eats this sort of
        nonsense up, and they are well-represented there.

  2. Why is natural Selection so hard for people to understand & accept? It happens all over the place! It is simple – it just means that things that replicate successfully will replicate more than things which do NOT replicate successfully.
    “To be a theory of evolution, however, the theory must say something about how and why historical changes occurred and make meaningful predictions about what kind of changes we may see in the future”… all we can do is connect the dots left by the past. Broad generalisations could be made about future life forms but they depend on what niches are available. The situation is hopeless to predict in detail as there are so many variables & so many interacting life forms. It is like asking a meterologist to say what the weather will be like in Paris at 6am on 1st of April 2021. We think it will be spring time (climate change permitting) & could hazard a range of possible temperatures but if it will rain or snow or be dry we have no idea.

    “panpsychist solution”? Give me a break – “is to recognize that mind and thus purpose are inherent in all of nature”? This is a better explanation than Natural Selection? If I subscribed to Private Eye this would go in Pseud’s Corner.

    1. Natural selection may explain how bodies evolve but it is useless to explain how souls develop – and we all agree they exist, right?
      Once there are non evolving souls, all with the power of thought, understanding and purpose then evolution is simply not so important in the scheme of things.
      I think you need to tackle the pervasive acceptance of dualism in society at large before you can neutralise these sorts of silly attacks on evolution.

      1. When a self-aware being dies, its self-awareness dies with it. That scares the shit out of self-aware beings, so they come up with abstract ‘souls’ that live on after death.

        Accepting death is easier if you don’t really die, don’t you agree? Even if it’s a lie.

    2. Why is natural Selection so hard for people to understand & accept?

      Religion. Or were you looking for more insight than that?

      1. Oh no, this isn’t religion. Not at all. Nothing like religion.

        It’s spirituality. That’s totally different — because spirituality has ancient intuitions and science behind it. It’s on the cutting edge of discovery.

    3. Some people just find it disappointing that the Universe isn’t full of demons, souls, gods, intrinsic natures, etc…

  3. I agree with your criticism of Tam Hunt. This is a person who doesn’t understand evolution and should never be taken seriously.

    However, there’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that natural selection and adaptationism are being oversold to the general public (and to scientists). Nowhere is this more obvious than the pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology.

    Your essays would be more effective, in my opinion, if they mentioned that there’s much more to evolution than just natural selection. This means that some of the criticism of extreme adaptationist thinking is valid.

    Surely you don’t want to be put in the position of defending “Darwinism” as the only scientifically valid form of evolution? Do you?

    I don’t think Dick Lewontin would be happy if you did that. 🙂

    Here’s one paragraph from Hunt’s essay.

    Whereas Darwin’s vision was “pluralist” because he suggested many agents for evolution, today’s mainstream evolutionary theory is generally “adaptationist” in that it invokes natural selection as either the only significant cause of evolution (adaptation) or, at least, its primary agent. (“Genetic drift” and many other agents are also recognized by mainstream biology but the large majority of biologists still stress natural selection as the key agent). Adaptationists see all, or almost all, traits as the result of natural selection acting on the random evolution of different traits.

    Jerry, do you agree with that one thought or do you disagree with everything that Hunt says? Your posting seems to imply that you disagree with everything.

    1. Larry, I was careful to say that natural selection is the best explanation for adaptation. I have always mentioned genetic drift as an important engine of molecular evolution (though how important it is in phenotypic evolution remains to be seen). Neo-Darwinism, of course, includes drift as a mechanism of evolutionary change.

      I realize that you think drift has been underemphasized, but on both my website and in my book I have written about genetic drift. Do you see, in the paragraph above, that Hunt equates “evolution” with adaptation? That’s not right, of course, but if you are talking about adaptation, genetic drift is at best a minor player, rarely forcing populations between adaptive peaks. And that idea–the shifting balance theory of Wright–I find almost completely unsupported.

      When you talk about ADAPTATION, the only player is natural selection. When you talk about evolution, it’s both selection and drift (and other forces like meiotic drive.)

      1. Sure. Exactly.

        I used to argue with Dr. Moran’s tilting at the windmill of Extreme Adaptationist Thinking but it got tedious. He and Steve Gould think drift might be super-important even at the phenotypic level so everybody else (including those of us who study organisms funcitoning in environments!) is Wrong About Evolution.
        He is awesomely persistent, I’ll say that.

        Dr. Moran, have you read Hochachka & Somero yet?

        1. Sven DiMile says,

          He and Steve Gould think drift might be super-important even at the phenotypic level so everybody else (including those of us who study organisms funcitoning in environments!) is Wrong About Evolution.

          That’s not my position. My position is that there are respectable scientists on both sides of the issue. It’s a legitimate scientific controversy and pretending that there’s only one “correct” way of looking at it is wrong.

          It’s similar to the position I hold in the accommodationist wars.

          In both cases I have a strongly held opinion about which competing view is correct but my main beef is with those who deny that there’s even a respectable opposition point of view.

      2. I agree that Hunt is confused about the difference between adaptation and evolution. That’s a serious mistake but it’s one shared by a great many evolutionary biologists.

        I think it’s a good idea to remind people whenever possible that a lot of legitimate evolution has nothing to do with adaptation and natural selection. In my opinion, this blunts some of the attacks by admitting that there’s more to evolution than just adaptation. A criticism of the Hunt essay could have been seen as a teachable moment.

        We need to be more up front in acknowledging that some criticisms about the beliefs of modern evolutionary biologists are legitimate. That’s part of the excitement of modern science.

        The question, as you know, isn’t about whether random genetic drift plays a role in adaptation—it doesn’t. The question is about whether a given trait is really an adaptation or not.

          1. @Thanny,

            Have you ever heard of evolutionary psychology?

            That’s just one of the groups who try to explain too much using natural selection.

            You’re perfectly correct that nobody believes that every trait is adaptive but there are plenty who believe that almost every visible phenotype is adaptive.

            In their everyday writings, many biologists use “evolution” and “natural selection” (Darwinism) as synonyms even though, when pressed, they admit they know better. Why do they do that?

      1. And, of course, since he’s a regular over here, he can’t possibly have missed all of the other times when such topics have been discussed.

        Including Dr. Coyne’s flaying of evolutionary psychology.

        It’s not merely tilting at windmills — it’s accusing someone of a crime they haven’t committed.

  4. Crimony – “Macromolecules like amino acids…” They’re the monomers, dude.

    Um, how far is Santa Barbara from Disneyland (“Fairy tales, can come true, they can happen to you…”)?

  5. I don’t think he is talking about amino acids having minds, but a “panpsychic” mind controlling them, isn’t he?

    But anyway, how exactly is this mind supposed to guide evolution? Perhaps by shaping the environment in which species find themselves (i.e. pepper moth, Mexican Tetra)? If so then perhaps we can explain simple phenomenon and do away with the panpsychic mind altogether?

    So, the first subject: Why it is dark in caves…

  6. He forgets that predation also leads to a
    “greater awareness of our universe around us” — especially when looking for a place to hide from Smilodon.

  7. Yeah, “god the mutagen”, like Behe’s. god demoted to the role of UV rays.
    I guess this creationist isn’t familiar with the “Occam’s razor”.

  8. What the hell evidence is there for supernatural selection? What has that “mechanism” ever explained?

  9. That didn’t take long. Hunt is the new king of Gibberish.

    I was laughing out loud and long over “…as matter complexifies in macromolecules like amino acids…” and “…We cannot adequately explain matter in physics or evolution in biology without re-naturalizing mind…”

  10. #2, I think one of the holdups why many (not me) don’t accept natural selection is because human selection hasn’t generated thumbs on dogs.

    We haven’t got that mutation to select for yet (as far as I know).

    Seriously. I think that until Fifi and her offspring develop paws that aren’t paws, or ears that aren’t dog ears, or tails that have feathers, many will not buy into natural selection.

    1. How about pigs with human livers?

      Or mice with human immune systems? Or mice with severely compromised human immune systems? Or onco-mice, that grow human cancers?

      Cows that give human milk? (Her name was Rosie.)

      Goats that produce spider-web silk in their milk? (Yes, really. This was accomplished 10 years ago!)

      If someone offers such objections, they’re just not keeping up.

      1. Yes, of course, but ‘We’ injected the mutations, so they will argue that they were intelligently introduced.

        Until Bessie gives birth to a calf with fins and primate ears, I fear it’s going to continue to be an up hill battle with the history deniers.

        The lizards on that island that developed a novel internal organ in 30 years isn’t enough to appease the natives… it’s not a cool enough event. “It’s still a lizard.”

  11. As I’ve said before, it’s easy to mistake natural selection for a tautology, because once it’s pointed out you realize it more or less has to work that way. The stuff that there’s more of… well, there’s more of it.

  12. Natural selection, as a theory, explains nothing and predicts nothing.

    I suppose you must be a ‘hard-nosed philosopher and scientist’ to be able to spout such nonsense. Just one counterexample will suffice: natural selection explains why neotropical cacti and certain African Euphorbia species look almost identical. It predicts that plant species living in an increasingly arid climate will give rise to species that possess various means to store and economize the use of water (including spines to deter herbivores).

  13. To be a theory of evolution, however, the theory must say something about how and why historical changes occurred and make meaningful predictions about what kind of changes we may see in the future.

    So what meaningful predictions does “supernatural selection” make? That we will “evolve” to have glorified bodies in the afterlife? Does Hunt expect biologists to predict exactly what path evolution will follow? Is he familiar w chaos theory?

    Didn’t Darwin predict the existence of a moth w a very long proboscis?

  14. Can someone explain what “panpsychism” is, please? I read in wikipedia: “all matter has a mental aspect, or, alternatively, all objects have a unified center of experience or point of view” but does matter mean matter like in wood or chlorine, and does object mean object like table or book? That sounds so unthinkable, I doubt someone can tell that. So, I’d like to know what I don’t grasp.

    1. It looks like a weird sort of reductionism. “My mind is in my brain. My brain is made of neurons, so each neuron must have a little bit of mind in it. And each neuron is made of proteins, so the proteins must have an even smaller smidge of mind in them.” It’s a naive way of explaining the existence of consciousness by people who apparently can’t grasp epiphenomena.

      1. Wouldn’t it even have to go to the ridiculous level of being also apportioned to atoms and subatomic particles ad infinitum?

        1. Yes. But it reached the ridiculous level way before it got to subatomic particles.

          It’s a bit like saying that because my car’s engine has horsepower, every atom in it has to have a little bit of the essence of horsepower.

    2. Gabrielle,

      The most worked out and scientifically compatible version of panpsychism was developed by the mathematical physicist Alfred North Whitehead in his books “Science and the Modern World,” “Process and Reality,” “Adventures of Ideas,” and “Modes of Thought,” all published between 1925 and 1937. The idea is very similar to, or at least has similar implications to, the neuroscientist Giulio Tononi’s “integrated information theory.” No, books and tables are not conscious. Only animals with very sophisticated nervous systems are properly conscious. Whitehead distinguishes between full blown consciousness (like what you and I have) and experience as such. All conscious beings are experiential, but not all experiential beings are conscious. The idea is that experience is present even in the simplest forms of material organization, and as this organization increases in complexity, experience increases in intensity. A book is not self-organizing, and so has no experience ‘as a rock.’ But the atoms and molecules that make it up may be considered to be self-organizing systems, and as such, to be experiential beings that in some minimal sense can feel their environmental context.

    1. You all should visit some of his other articles; we could use some further intelligent rebuttal to the prolific Mr. Hunt.
      Here’s his reading list, by the way:
      “But I’ve realized since my initial infatuation that Whitehead is one in a long line of comprehensive thinkers that includes Heraclitus, Aristotle, Plato, Plotinus, Spinoza, Leibniz, Kant, Schopenhauer, Locke, Russell, James, Royce, etc., all the way to the modern era with such key figures as Ken Wilber, David Chalmers, etc. I’ve also realized that thinkers who I at first dismissed as silly, such as the idealists Berkeley, Hegel, Schelling, etc., were actually getting to many of the same truths. They just use different language.”

    2. Actually, I think he needs to stop smoking … whatever it is he is smoking.

      Tam Hunt: You’re not a biologist. When you try to disprove evolution (or natural selection) and substitute your own crazy-ass theory, it makes you a laughing stock.

  15. …mind and thus purpose are inherent in all of nature…

    When Richard Dawkins comes up with one of his wonderful metaphors (carefully explaining for the language-challenged that “Selfish Gene” is a metaphor), he is made fun of for thinking that molecules have emotions. When Tam Hunt proposes non-metaphorically that molecules have mind and intention, he gets published in the paper as a so-called “hard-nosed philosopher.”

    We can add Tam Hunt and a lot of other people to the list of things that, like molecules, lack intelligence.

    1. The term “selfish gene” is the best argument I can think of why scientists shouldn’t use metaphors. I get equally uncomfortable when people talk about natural selection being a designer. Scientists and evolutionary biologists in particular have to be scrupulous about keeping agential metaphors out of their work.

          1. Hey Mike.You seem really talented at making cute little remarks about other peoples posts.Why don’t you man up,and write a book,or make a significant contribution to human knowledge.My personal opinion is that you must have a lot of time on your hands,that MAYBE could be put to more constructive uses.

        1. I really think they should try. How much nonsense has been written about the Higgs boson simply because somebody was foolish enough to call it the God particle?

          Although I’ll grant Dawkins a dispensation for “The Selfish Gene” cause he had to have a snappy title for his book.

      1. scientists shouldn’t use metaphors

        Metaphors and analogies can be very useful in understanding something new. Bad metaphors are confusing not because they are metaphors but because they are bad metaphors. I find concepts like “selfish gene” and genetic “fingerprint” to be helpful. Those who cannot understand (or chose not to understand) such things would be just as ignorant without the metaphor, and those who do want to understand are often helped by the metaphor.

        1. I just don’t buy it. What does the inaccurate metaphor buy you that the accurate statement doesn’t? Just write the damn equation and make up a new word to describe your theory if you want one. It’s one of the best argument I know for jargon. Jargon is infinitely better than metaphor because it means exactly what you want it to mean. Please, scientists, stop with the Pop Sci metaphors and analogies.

          1. No.

            If I’m trying to describe what crystallographers do to a non-scientific audience, I sometimes use this metaphor. Think of a disco mirrorball. A light shines on it and little dots of light are reflected onto the walls of the room, and as the ball rotates the dots move around.

            If you didn’t know the shape of the ball, but you know where the light source is and where all the reflected dots are and how they move as the ball rotates- you could work out the exact shape of the mirrorball, using geometry.

            X-ray crystallography is kind of like that, with X-rays instead of light, and a crystal instead of the mirrorball; and we’re working out exactly how the atoms are arranged in the crystal from the way X-rays get reflected out of the crystal.

            This metaphor is flawed on a number of levels, but it works in conveying the basic concepts to an audience; launching into Bragg reflection would not achieve anything at all in this situation.

            A metaphor gets you partial understanding in situations where the fully detailed explanation gets you no understanding.

  16. As far as the “mind and purpose” of amino acids, I’ll cut him some slack and say that what he’s trying to say is that the physicochemical properties of the individual amino acids, assembled into the protein chain, relative to an aqueous environment, are of course in aggregate and/or in local segments what determine folding.

    But for an intro and somewhat personalized sense of amino acid residue properties I recommend Jane & David Richardson, Principles and Patterns of Protein Conformation (Chapter 1 in Prediction of Protein Structure and the Principles of Protein Conformation, GD Fasman, ed; 1989, Plenum). There, you can learn amid more detailed physicochemical information that “Asparagine and Glutamine share a capacity for local side-chain-to-main-chain hydrogen bonding…, which makes them occur frequently in non-repetitive loops. …Glutamine is a relatively indifferent, plain vanilla residue that goes reasonably well with almost anything [= any secondary structure] and has no extreme properties or violent preferences or aversions. In marked contrast, asparagine is an interesting, quirky, opinionated residue with many unique properties. The single methylene [CH2] group by which they differ has remarkably profound consequences…”

    Only Jane Richardson could pull that off, which helps explain why she may be unique in modern times and at the level of the institution (Duke), of someone getting tenure without a PhD.

  17. “I can’t find any evidence that Hunt has any higher degrees, training, or practice as a “biologist.””

    No, most people who plan to go into environmental policy/law get environmental science degrees where they have some biology courses but generally not comparative zoology or evolutionary biology courses where you’d really get exposed to evolution.

    I agree, it’s an attempt by the paper to stir the pot. Except the pot is cracked in this case…

  18. Templeton BioLogos strategy:

    “The invitation-only workshops will bring scientists and evangelical leaders together to seek a theology more accepting of science, specifically evolutionary biology. These projects will allow the BioLogos Foundation to build a reputation as a source of sympathetic, authoritative, and accessible thought on matters of science and faith.”

    Disco Wedge strategy:

    “Alongside a focus on influential opinion-makers, we also seek to build up a popular base of support among our natural constituency, namely, Christians. We will do this primarily through apologetics seminars. We intend these to encourage and equip believers with new scientific evidence’s that support the faith, as well as to “popularize” our ideas in the broader culture.”

  19. As a recent UCSB grad and Santa Barbara resident, I’ll just add this: dont worry about anything printed in the Independent, no one reads it (expect for a laugh) or respects it.

  20. I feel privileged to be part of this email list to watch the battle between the clear thinkers on the side of evolution and the woolly thinkers, often pure poetry on the side of the deists. One appealing to the intellect, and another to the part of us that wants to believe in fantasies. Its only a step up from birtherism.

  21. Tautologies are likely to be true. I’d venture that a tautology is normally tautologically true, as it otherwise wouldn’t be a tautology. It’s more important to say if the tautology is relevant to the discussion.

  22. It is a well-known strategy of ideologues to think in such black and white terms: either you’re a hard-nosed scientifically literate neo-Darwinist materialist, or you’re a muddle headed religious nutcase explicitly or implicitly defending creationism. Reminds me of George Bush after 9/11: “Either you’re with us or against us; either you’re one of the good guys, or you’re an evil doer.”

    No, there are many shades of gray here. Tam Hunt is drawing upon a long tradition of philosophical thinkers who strove to find some middle ground between reductionistic materialism and supernaturalist creationism. One of his favorites, the mathematical physicist Alfred North Whitehead, developed a “panpsychist” cosmology not in spite of but BECAUSE of his deep understanding of the implications of quantum, relativity, and evolutionary theories. If life and mind are obvious features of the material universe at some of its scales, then he wagered these phenomena must have been latent in matter all along. Otherwise, we are left with having to explain a miracle. Science doesn’t deal in miracles. Therefore, Whitehead realized the standard materialist ontology needed to be re-worked to make room for experience as a fundamental aspect of reality. This is not gooblygook, or at least it is no more so than most scientific papers are to those without a PhD in the relevant field. For those with some basic philosophical literacy, a panpsychist ontology makes perfect sense. You can disagree with its premises and arguments, but you only make yourself seem bigoted and ideologically driven when you dismiss it as nonsense.

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