On the origin of the specious: Jesuit magazine says that Darwin was both an evolutionist and an advocate of “intelligent design”

February 23, 2022 • 10:45 am

The article below (click on screenshot), is from the magazine America, a “Jesuit Review”. and it’s by Christopher Sandford, a writer who, while he may be religious, is certainly no padre. Here’s his bio from MacMillan:

Christopher Sandford has published acclaimed biographies of Kurt Cobain, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Imran Khan, Harold Macmillan, John F. Kennedy, Steve McQueen, and Roman Polanski. He is also the author of Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. He has worked as a film and music writer and reviewer for over 20 years, and frequently contributes to newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. Rolling Stone has called him “the pre-eminent author in his field today.” Sandford divides his time between Seattle and London.

But the article below, with its provocative title, suggests expertise in the history of science. Sadly, little is evident in the piece, as Sandford is setting up a straw man and then burning it down.

Click on the screenshot to read:

What he means by saying that we’re reading Darwin “all wrong” is that we read Darwin as an icon of atheism, a man who had no truck with any species of the divine, and deliberately designed his works to demolish the idea of God. As I’ll show below, that’s not true. Darwin simply didn’t care much about God so long as he could explain biological design by a theory that didn’t invoke God.

Sandford also states that, after writing the Origin, Darwin had two ideas in his head at the same time: a materialistic evolution but also one mixed with some intelligent design.  This is not true. Insofar as Darwin thought of “intelligent design,” he merely suggested in passing that perhaps the “laws of the universe” were designed. He rejected the idea of God held by his contemporaries (see below). We know this because Darwin told us this. He was at best an agnostic.

But he was also canny: he knew very well the implications of evolution for the religious—the implications of giving a purely materialistic explanation for phenomena that for several millennia had been seen as the strongest evidence for God: design in nature. This is why Darwin devoted only a single weaselly sentence to human evolution in The Origin: “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”.

But then he put his cards on the table in 1871 with the publication of The Descent of Man.  But his continuing reluctance to discuss the theological implications of his theory is simply because he wanted his theory to be accepted, and accepted by people who were Bible-believing Christians. This reluctance has been interpreted by some as equivocation, but is seen by Sandford is seen as Darwin believing both in evolution and “intelligent design.”

Sandford’s thesis is summed up in a paragraph near the end (my bolding):

For many people today, Darwin has become a sort of secular deity, an icon for atheism who at a stroke swept away the antediluvian superstitions of his age and ushered in an invigorating new era of scientific logic and rationalism. A close reading of On the Origin of Species, however, strongly suggests that the work was not only an argument against the concept of miraculous creation but also a theist’s case for the presence of intelligent design, broadly in keeping with Albert Einstein’s subsequent aphorism that “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Well, those who see Darwin as an icon for atheism have some justification, for he is an icon for atheism by having replaced divine explanations with materialistic ones. But the last sentence, implying that there was intelligent design in the universe, is not justified by Darwin’s writings. He rejected the idea of a personal God, and as for a Higher Power who created the laws of Nature, Darwin was pretty mute. This letter to Asa Gray in 1860 shows that while Darwin rejected a beneficent God, he just didn’t know if there was any higher power. Bolding in the quote below is mine:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.—   Let each man hope & believe what he can.—

Now one could, as Sandford apparently does, take the words “designed laws” as evidence for a higher power who designed those laws. I’m not so sure, for in the next sentence Darwin famously punts, saying that he gives up on the whole subject as “too profound for the human intellect”—”a dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton   . . ”  (That’s an excellent sentence!) I think Darwin just didn’t want to discuss the theological underpinnings of his theory because he wasn’t interested in theology and couldn’t come to any answers about gods.  In that sense, he was a true agnostic, and it’s proper to read him as such.

And, as we see below, while Darwin still believed in “laws” towards the end of his life, the idea that they were “designed” laws seems to have disappeared.

Yet Sandford makes several game tries to show that Darwin was more than just a straight-up agnostic. For example, Sandford says this:

To take another example: Charles Darwin himself would almost certainly not have endorsed the views of many of his spiritual heirs today that the biblical story of creation and the evolution of the physical universe are mutually exclusive rather than twin manifestations of a divine act of self-revelation.

Note Sandford’s claim that Darwin wouldn’t have seen “the biblical story of creation” and the “evolution of the physical universe” as mutually exclusive. That’s almost certainly wrong: Darwin’s Origin was “one long argument” against the biblical story of creation. Time after time he compares what one would expect to see in the biological world if biblical creationism be true, and he shows that you don’t see that: you see what you’d expect if evolution be true.

As for “twin manifestations of a divine act of self-revelation,” I don’t know what that means. Either the Biblical story is true or it’s not. It’s not, and, as far as we know, Darwin’s theory of evolution was true. And how did “a possibly divine origin of the laws of physics” suddenly turn into an acceptance of “the biblical story of creation”?

Sandford also, for some reason, lays at Darwin’s feet the use of his theory by eugenicists, particularly Hitler:

“With savages,” Darwin wrote, in perhaps the most striking passage in the text,

the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. The aid we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy.

This passage is not perhaps what most modern adherents of Darwinian thought have in mind when extolling their hero’s rigorously materialist approach to evolutionary biology. Nor, to be fair, is it entirely representative of 1871’s The Descent of Man as a whole. Even so, this was the partial reading of Darwin’s theory seized upon by Adolf Hitler and his like-minded crew of genocidal fanatics in their quasi-scientific musings on the evolutionary process.

Here is Hitler, for instance, speaking at Nuremberg in 1933: “The gulf between the lowest creature which can still be styled man and our highest races is greater than that between the lowest type of man and the highest ape.”

Nope. Hitler rejected Darwinism, and his views on Jews, genocide, and the superiority of Aryans were derived from elsewhere—certainly not from Darwin! To see an expert refutation of this claim, read my colleague Bob Richards’s definitive article, “Was Hitler a Darwinian?” And here’s Richards’s answer:

In order to sustain the thesis that Hitler was a Darwinian one would have to ignore all the explicit statements of Hitler rejecting any theory like Darwin’s and draw fanciful implications from vague words, errant phrases, and ambiguous sentences, neglecting altogether more straight-forward, contextual interpretations of such utterances. Only the ideologically blinded would still try to sustain the thesis in the face of the contrary, manifest evidence. Yet, as I suggested at the beginning of this essay, there is an obvious sense in which my own claims must be moot. Even if Hitler could recite the Origin of Species by heart and referred to Darwin as his scientific hero, that would not have the slightest bearing on the validity of Darwinian theory or the moral standing of its author. The only reasonable answer to the question that gives this essay its title is a very loud and unequivocal No!

Sanford mentions that Darwin had a quote in the frontispiece of The Origin that was sympathetic to religion. Well, actually, there are two quotes in that frontispiece that are both sympathetic to religion:

. . . [Darwin] acknowledged the intellectual debt himself by opening On the Origin of Species with a quote from Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise about the consistency of scientific evolutionary theory with a natural theology of a supreme creator establishing laws:

But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.

Indeed. And there’s another religion-friendly quote there, too!:

“To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.”

BACONAdvancement of Learning.

Knowing Darwin’s own views at this time, it’s nearly impossible to believe that these quotes are there because Darwin really thought there was not only a divine creator establishing laws—that’s a dog speculating on the mind of Newton—but that one should also diligently study “the book of God’s word” or “the book of God’s works” (does he mean biological works?).  I suspect, and I’m not alone in this, that Darwin knew perfectly well that the book following these opening quotes would hit Christians in the solar plexus, and these quotes are there to leaven his arguments—to make people think that Darwin saw the Bible was the word of God, and that world showed the Works of the Word.

Here’s one last passage from Darwin’s Autobiography showing, over his life, how his disbelief in the conventional idea of God increased (again, my bolding):

By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported,—that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become,—that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us,—that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events,—that they differ in many important details, far too important as it seemed to me to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eye-witnesses;—by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can hardly be denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories.

But I was very unwilling to give up my belief;—I feel sure of this for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.1

Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws. 

1 Mrs. Darwin annotated this passage (from “and have never since doubted”…. to “damnable doctrine”) in her own handwriting. She writes:—”I should dislike the passage in brackets to be published. It seems to me raw. Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief—but very few now wd. call that ‘Christianity,’ (tho’ the words are there.) There is the question of verbal inspiration comes in too. E. D.” Oct. 1882. This was written six months after her husband’s death, in a second copy of the Autobiography in Francis’s handwriting. The passage was not published. See Introduction.—N. B. [Nora Barlow, the editor]

Note that in the last sentence the “fixed laws” are NOT imputed to God. So, at the end, we have no indication that even the “fixed laws” were of God’s devising. Note as well that the Autobiography was published five years after Darwin’s death. We can take it, then, as the cumulation of his views.

In the end, we are reading Darwin right so long as we realize that:

a.) He did not believe in the Christian personal God, a good God, that was prevalent in his day.

b.) He did not accept the Biblical story of creation. The “design” he saw in nature, which his predecessor Paley thought was strong evidence for God, came instead from evolution by natural selection.

c.) He was not an antitheist, nor an atheist in the sense of one who says “the evidence for a divine being is almost nonexistent”.  He was an agnostic who thought, “I don’t know if there’s a divine power and it’s beyond my ken to figure this out.” (Some people would call this atheism, but I don’t.


d.) Darwin’s views may have been coopted by eugenicists, but not by Hitler, and few people fault Darwin for eugenics laws and acts after his time. Darwin, of course, wasn’t responsible for the misuse of his ideas.

Sandford’s claim that “we’ve been reading Darwin all wrong” is, in the end, a strawman argument. It depends, of course, on who “we” represents. Most people have never read a word of Darwin, and get what they know about him from rumor, so they can’t have been “reading Darwin all wrong.”They might have been getting Darwin wrong, but that’s not Sandford’s argument, which seems to be directed at scientifically-minded laypeople.

For those who do read Darwin, those familiar with his books and letters could never conclude that he saw harmony between his theory of evolution and any form of “intelligent design”. For even if you accept (and I don’t) that Darwin thought that only the laws of nature were designed, he still saw the evolution of life as the result of deterministic processes operating on material protoplasm. By and large, the views that most modern people have about Darwin, and I refer to people who have read Darwin, are correct.


h/t: Karl, Andrew Berry

23 thoughts on “On the origin of the specious: Jesuit magazine says that Darwin was both an evolutionist and an advocate of “intelligent design”

  1. That “eugenics” quote ending with: “The aid we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy.”

    Well let’s continue with the very next sentence shall we?

    “Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. […] Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; …”.

    And anyhow, eugenics didn’t really come from Darwin at all, it came from farming. Everyone then would have been aware (much more so than today, when many of us are divorced from the practice of farming) of how farmers select which animals to breed. It was inevitable that some people would ponder the merits of doing the same with people.

  2. When Sandford cites Albert Einstein as having said “God does not play dice with the universe.”, he is using a very fast ans loose translation of the original German quote. A better translation is, “God is clever but he is not perverse.”

    There is some question even to that translation since there is a German term that caould be rendered in English as either “malicious” or “perverse”, and it is my own personal preference to use the latter word.

    However, I feel that to use the “dice” version of the quote puts a more theistic spin on Einstein’s attitude, which is why theists like to use it. It also has the dubious value of being a snappier sound bite.

  3. Aren’t those 2 separate quotations? My German is many decibels down, but the usual translation is “Subtle is the Lord, but malicious he is not.” The caption here about sums it up and also gives Bohr’s famous response, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do.” The Wikipedia article here also thinks they are 2 separate quotations.

  4. I’ll be disappointed if our resident former Jesuit, and practicing poet/playwright, Gary Miranda, doesn’t weigh in here.

    1. “I’ll be disappointed if our resident former Jesuit, and practicing poet/playwright, Gary Miranda, doesn’t weigh in here.”

      I have the right to remain silent.

      1. As ol’ Silent Cal was wont to allow, if you don’t say anything, you won’t be called upon to repeat it. 🙂

  5. The point is Darwin and Einstein did what they could to explain aspects of our existence and a god wasn’t needed to do that, anything else was speculation on their part.

      1. It is used as an example of early explanation for speciation by blending and that is why it fails. I believe Jerry often notes that discretization of genes is a necessary condition.

        It was a long journey after Darwin before polynucleotides and their genetic properties were discovered and understood. Maybe we should take it as a sensible enough first attempt, I know the textbooks often do.

  6. Almost sounds like Sandford reached out to the DI or some other ID creationist source for his info on Darwin.

    Anywho, two brief thoughts spring to mind:

    1. I care as much about Darwin’s personal theological beliefs as I do his taste in music. Worst case scenario, my opinion might be “Well your taste in X stinks, but that’s a damn fine theory you have there Sir.”

    2. Geez, talk about missing the easy target. If he wants to highlight a famous 18th century evolutionist who thought design played a part, why not just discuss Alfred Russell Wallace? Contemporary, co-discoverer…and spiritualist who thought the human brain could not have evolved. It’s like Sandford went out of his way to pick the wrong guy when the right guy was standing next to him.

    1. “Almost sounds like Sandford reached out to the DI or some other ID creationist source for his info on Darwin.”

      Well, he does “divide his time between Seattle and London.” Perhaps he’s vying for some Templeton dosh.

  7. What I always find odd is that people think that what Darwin believed is somehow relevant to whether there is any evidence for intelligent design or supernatural intervention TODAY – a time when a bright student in any decent evolution class could give Darwin a tutorial on how evolution and (especially) genetics actually work. Ditto for Wallace, and for Einstein’s loose usage of the word “god” in discussing the basic laws of physics. I think there is a mindset extrapolated from those who view religious scriptures as the final, correct stance on everything – to think science works the same way, and we must pay close attention to every viewpoint of the important contributors. Any close reading of the Origin will reveal that, while Darwin’s contribution to biology was immense, he was of course WRONG on many (mostly little) things owing to the state of scientific knowledge at the time, when there was essentially zero knowledge of genetic mechanisms. One silly example: in the absence of radiometric dating, Darwin thought the Cambrian was 65 million years ago – he was off by an order of magnitude. Even if Darwin were a religious person, that does not mean that modern science and religion are compatible (as our host has so ably refuted), or that they are complementary “ways of knowing” that will yield the truth. As important as Darwin, Newton, Einstein, etc., were in the history of science, it is quite silly to pore over their views on this or that, given the state of knowledge when they lived.

    1. Yes, theists who themselves use the argument from authority will likely think it a strong argument to attack the ‘authorities’ of science – even if their scientific-minded audience doesn’t.
      But then again, maybe we aren’t the real audience. Most apologetics is written for believers, to help them maintain their faith. Sandford is writing in a Jesuit review magazine. So he’s probably writing with a Catholic audience in mind, maybe the ‘evolution and old earth…but God intervened’ type of believer. Who can read his article and (now, wrongly) think to themselves ‘I don’t have to give that up because see, even Darwin thought that!’

      1. There is absolutely nothing inconsistent between them. The random in ‘random mutation’ refers to the fact that the phenotypic change a mutation will produce has no causal impact on whether it will occur – it manifestly does *not* mean ‘random’ in any sense of defying what we understand about physics.

        1. Only a philosopher can take two natural processes and perversely claim that they are incompatible in nature or in our theoretical description, based on empirically irrelevant philosophical concepts.

          Physics is manifestly relativistic on any scale we can observe it, in everyday quantum field physics phenomena or in cosmological general relativistic LCDM expansion. And of course evolution happens on relativistic physics Earth. We don’t specifically need to have quantum phenomena to have contingence and mutations. And as eric notes in other words, mutational and other variation is indifferent to subsequent selection. Or we would have an unphysical time travelling, non-relativistic, process.

          The philosophical block universe is merely that, and we now have results that show that the inherently random phenomena of quantum wavefunction collapse may be caused – or at least is eminently consistent with – relativity.

          … we show how “conservation per no preferred reference frame (NPRF)” answers that challenge. In short, the explicit conservation that obtains for Alice and Bob’s Stern-Gerlach spin measurement outcomes in the same reference frame holds only on average in different reference frames, not on a trial-by-trial basis. This conservation is SO(3) invariant in the relevant symmetry plane in real space per the SU(2) invariance of its corresponding Bell spin state in Hilbert space. Since NPRF is also responsible for the postulates of special relativity, and therefore its counterintuitive aspects of time dilation and length contraction, we see that the symmetry group relating non-relativistic quantum mechanics and special relativity via their “mysteries” is the restricted Lorentz group.

          [“Answering Mermin’s challenge
          with conservation per no preferred
          reference frame”, W. M. Stuckey*, Michael Silberstein, Timothy McDevitt & T. D. Le, Nature Scientific Reports, 2020 https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-72817-7.pdf ]

          It’s not a very reputable journal – think PLOS One [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_Reports ] – but the paper doesn’t seem to erroneous and have been cited.

          The paper show that we can repeat “Einstein’s trick” of making light speed in vacuum, observed to be universal, the universal speed limit on the Planck constant. In other words we can understand wavelength collapse as no less and no more mysterious or common sense defeating than time dilation and length contraction. They can, for all we know, all be relativistic phenomena of having same laws but different observational frames.

          Where will a philosopher fish “Relativity … deterministic” philosophy out of that!? That, too, boggles the mind.

  8. While I agree with all the general points here I am reading the Origin right now for a class so I figure it’s worth pointing out some small interesting details and corrections.

    Darwin is coy about human evolution in the Origin but there isn’t literally only one sentence on it. He also states in his sixth chapter “the differences between the races of man…some little light can be thrown on the origin of those differences, chiefly through sexual selection of a particular kind”. Darwin even states that he won’t enter into “copious details” on this but he’s explicitly saying humans undergo sexual selection (a mechanism of evolution) and this predates elaborated ideas in the Descent of Man. I assume there are similar snippets, which could be better found with a concordance. This is in the first edition by the way, so it’s not a retroactive change when he might’ve been feeling more confident in his ideas.

    I also wonder if the frontispiece quotes about God are in the first edition? I own a first and sixth edition, I only have the frontispiece in the latter though that same page is marked with a date for the first and sixth edition, so maybe just a particular error with my copy of the first edition.

  9. Reading Darwin: all right!

    Darwin was wrong about how “savages” treated their weak and infirm. There is evidence from burial sites tens of decades old that, for example, a toothless older person had someone chew their food for them.

    1. By-the-by, I was amused to read an article in the Canadian press about the parlous state of senior care homes in the far north, with elderly people needing nursing home care having to move south to where a place might be found for them. Obviously unsatisfactory, yet it may not be possible to keep seniors close to their homes with a small and scattered population.
      But then a wicked thought struck me: given the traditional way the Inuit are said to have dealt with their elderly, perhaps whatever we do is better. Being abandoned on an ice floe doesn’t sound like fun.

  10. “Designed laws” with their effects left to chance sounds like deism to me. My impression is that Darwin went from being a conventional young man of his era, to being an older, wiser type who lost his simple faith and as the Gray letter shows, came to the point once having done that he was not sure what to believe. But that letter alone can be cherry-picked to claim he believed whatever you like, as it expresses eloquently his uncertainty and confusion.

  11. Very thorough and helpful analysis.

    Three points:

    1. Noether showed that physical laws derive from natural process constraints. That is for instance why an electric charge potential tends to be symmetric, or why a chemical equilibrium tend to be.

    One can go on and analyze that further, but for all practical purposes the everyday laws we have unfolded by the now known cosmological process of space expansion. Since there were phase transitions involved, it is almost certain that the result was random (which seems best consistent with observations of the process and various cosmological parameters resulting from it).

    2. Einstein was a self declared agnostic too. He reified abstract concepts by religious terminology.

    “He clarified, however, that “I am not an atheist”,[183] preferring to call himself an agnostic,[184][185] or a “deeply religious nonbeliever”.” [Wikipedia]

    “The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”

    3. Hitler was a Catholic supporting organized superstition, though according to the opinions of close individuals he got such inspirations from many sources.

    “Hitler was born to a practising Catholic mother and an anticlerical father; after leaving home Hitler never again attended Mass or received the sacraments.[381][382][383] Speer states that Hitler railed against the church to his political associates and though he never officially left it, he had no attachment to it.[384] He adds that Hitler felt that in the absence of organised religion, people would turn to mysticism, which he considered regressive.[384] According to Speer, Hitler believed that Japanese religious beliefs or Islam would have been a more suitable religion for Germans than Christianity, with its “meekness and flabbiness”.”

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