God

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After all, the Bible doesn’t just contain internal inconsistencies, in which it disagrees with itself; it also contains external inconsistencies, in which it disagrees with realities of the outside world. Some of these errors are pretty minor (albeit still problematic for the claim that the Bible is perfectly inerrant); for instance, Leviticus 11 says that hares “chew the cud,” and that bats are a type of bird, and that beetles and grasshoppers only have four legs (none of which is true, obviously). But a lot of the scientific and historical mistakes are much more significant.

Just to take one example, consider the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. According to the story, all the humans on Earth originally shared a single common language – but one day, about 4,000 years ago, they decided to build a tower tall enough to reach Heaven itself, and God responded by cursing them so that they would all start speaking different languages and would therefore be unable to finish their task; and that’s why we have all the different languages around the world that we have today. But leaving aside some of the obvious questions here, like why this story considers Heaven to be a literal physical location in the sky, or why God would feel threatened by a species that was able to coordinate well enough to build such a tall tower, the central flaw of this story is the fact that it simply isn’t how all the world’s different languages came to exist. The story is just factually false. Different languages didn’t abruptly appear one day out of nowhere; they evolved and branched into different variations over the course of thousands of years. Everything that has ever been written reflects this – if you look at something written by Shakespeare, for instance, the English he uses is noticeably different from the English we use today; if you go back even further and look at something written by Chaucer, the language becomes even less recognizable as English; and if you go back further still and read Beowulf, you can’t even tell that it’s English at all. You can even trace linguistic evolution in this way using old translations of the Bible; the Middle English used in Wycliffe’s Bible is starkly different from the English used in modern translations. And you can do this for every other language too, not just English – you can trace their evolution through literary works, backtrack etymology, compare their grammar and syntax with those of other languages, and so on. The entire field of historical linguistics consists of cataloguing where these languages came from and how they evolved; and the verdict is conclusive – languages didn’t just appear all at once some 4,000 years ago. The Tower of Babel story isn’t a historical one. At best, it’s a convoluted metaphor. More realistically, it’s just a legend, handed down from a time when such legends were ubiquitous. Maybe it was loosely based on some real event, like the construction of the 300-foot Etemenanki ziggurat in Babylon, which was interrupted at around the same time as a general decline in literacy in the region due to Babylon’s fall. But if that’s the case, then the Tower of Babel story can only be called “true” in the same sense that Game of Thrones (which is loosely based on the historical Wars of the Roses) can be called “true.” There was no divine intervention there; it was just a normal historical event that happened in the same way that historical events normally happen.

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And the same applies to nearly all of the Bible’s other key stories; whatever their value as allegory might be, a literal reading of them just isn’t tenable. Let’s take a few minutes to look at the story of Noah’s flood, for instance – which supposedly happened about a hundred years before the Tower of Babel. Already, this chronology should be raising some red flags; are we to believe that the mere three fertile couples who survived the flood (Noah’s sons and their wives) were able to repopulate the entire earth in only a hundred years? According to Genesis 10, there were apparently enough people just three generations after the flood not only to build a tower to Heaven, but to populate the cities of Erech, Accad, Calneh, Ninevah, Rehoboth, Calah, Resen, Sidon, Gerar, Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboim, Lasha, Mesha, and Sephar – despite the fact that Noah’s family tree of descendants only consisted of a few dozen people.

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Leaving aside that particular plot hole, though, the other problems with the flood story are so numerous that it’s hard to even know where to begin. For starters, there are just all the logistical impossibilities. A wooden ship the size of Noah’s ark (450 feet) would have been unable to remain afloat, because the flexural strength of wood just isn’t sufficient to prevent separation between the seams at that scale. Various attempts have been made to build seaworthy recreations of Noah’s ark using only the materials mentioned in the story, but all have failed; the only wooden ships in history that have even come close to 450 feet have required metal reinforcement and constant use of mechanical pumps to keep their hulls from flooding.

What’s more, even if Noah had somehow been able to fell tens of thousands of massive timber-quality trees, haul all that lumber to a construction site (about 7,400,000 pounds worth), build a 450-foot ark, and ensure that it was perfectly watertight – all by himself, and all at the age of 600 (as Genesis 6 describes) – that still leaves the question of how on earth he could have gathered a pair (or seven) of every single animal in the world and fit them all onto that one boat. After all, 450 feet might be very large for a vessel made of wood, but it’s still pretty small in absolute terms – only about half the size of the Titanic (maximum capacity: 3,547) – and the number of animal species on Earth is literally in the millions. To put that into perspective, below is a picture of one million dots. (Keep in mind, this is only a fraction of the total number of animal species estimated to exist – even the most conservative estimates put the total at several million – but just for simplicity’s sake (and because a lot of them are insects that don’t take up much space), we’ll stick with a measly one million here.) Imagine that each of these dots is a different kind of animal. Now mentally double (or septuple) that image in your mind, since there was supposedly a pair (or seven) of each animal brought onto the ark. And now consider not only that Noah would have had to fit this many animals onto a single boat, but that each of them would have required enough food and fresh water to last them an entire year. Just one pair of those dots – the elephants alone – would have required 300,000 pounds of food and 30,000 gallons of water; two giraffes would require 50,000 pounds of food; two lions would require 15,000 pounds of meat (which, even with the best preservation techniques available at the time, would have gone bad barely a quarter of the way into the voyage); and so forth. On top of all this, each of these animals would have produced a commensurate amount of waste, which would have had to be disposed of somehow. Does it really seem plausible, then, that Noah would have not only been able to fit this many animals and provisions onto a single boat, but that all the necessary food, water, veterinary care, and waste disposal could have been delivered to every one of these animals, every day, for an entire year, by just eight people?

Faced with the obvious logistical impossibilities here, some biblical literalists will try to reconcile them by suggesting that the definition of “two of every kind” might not actually mean two of every species, but two of some broader taxonomic category, like family or order – i.e. two cat-like animals, two dog-like animals, two deer-like animals, etc. So instead of having reindeer and white-tailed deer and Chinese water deer and pudús, you’d just have one pair of reindeer; instead of having gazelles and impalas and oryxes and ibexes, you’d just have one pair of gazelles; and so on. (All the other species would be killed in the flood but would re-emerge later.) But as Mark Isaak points out, that doesn’t seem to fit with what the Bible itself describes:

The Biblical “kind,” according to most interpretations, implies reproductive separateness. On the ark, the purpose of gathering different kinds [in male-female pairs] was to preserve them by later reproduction. Species, by definition, is the level at which animals are reproductively distinct.

In response to this, then, some literalists will say that it wasn’t just that Noah only took one species from each family or order, but that there was only one species of each family or order that even existed back in Noah’s time – so that instead of there being (for instance) lions and tigers and leopards, there would have just been one generic species of proto-cat, from which all modern varieties of cat would eventually descend (and only one species of proto-dog, and only one species of proto-deer, and so on).

But by trying to rationalize that there must have been fewer “kinds” of animals at the time (or that some of them went extinct and re-emerged later), literalists paint themselves into a corner – because by saying that there were originally only a handful of species, they’re also forcing themselves to conclude that the animals, after leaving the ark, must have undergone extraordinarily rapid evolution and speciation in order to account for the existence of the millions of species we know today. And this isn’t just ironic because literalists are so anti-evolution in general – it’s also flatly indefensible in light of everything we know about biology and genetics. There simply wouldn’t have been enough time for such a small handful of species, in a mere couple thousand years, to accumulate enough mutations to account for the vast genetic diversity we see today; animals’ reproductive cycles are just too long for that.

Besides, regardless of biology, the “fewer species” explanation is a non-starter simply because we know from ancient texts, sculptures, and artwork that a wide range of different species of the same “kind” have been here all along – before, during, and after the time frame given for the flood. Cave paintings from 30,000 years ago depict lions, leopards, and other feline species, along with different varieties of horses, deer, bison, and other herd animals; carvings and sculptures from ancient Egypt (pre- and post-flood) depict still more varieties of cats, birds, and other animals; and so on.

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So no matter how you frame it, getting all those animals onto the ark still would have presented a logistically unworkable problem, just in terms of sheer numbers. But on top of that, it would have been unworkable in practically every other sense as well. Getting every kind of animal onto the ark would have meant assembling animals from every corner of the planet, most of them separated by thousands of miles. How would the penguins and elephant seals have gotten from Antarctica all the way to the Middle East? How would the koalas and echidnas have gotten there from Australia? How would the sloths and snails of the Amazon have traveled all the way there by foot – a trip that, given how slowly these animals move, would have taken longer than their natural lifespans? How could they have crossed thousands of miles of treeless deserts and saltwater oceans with nothing around to eat or drink? And for that matter, how could these animals have even survived once they actually reached the ark? Arctic species often require a cold environment to survive, desert reptiles require a hot environment, tropical species require a humid environment, and so on. What’s more, a lot of animals can only eat very specific kinds of food found exclusively in their native parts of the world – koalas, for instance, subsist entirely on eucalyptus plants that can only be found in Australia – and if they try to leave those habitats where their food grows, they starve to death. How would these animals have managed? And once they disembarked, how would they have so precisely found their way back to their home habitats, such that all the marsupials would end up back in Australia, all the lemurs would end up in Madagascar, all the species native to the Galapagos Islands would return straight there and nowhere else, and not a single one of these species would leave even the slightest trace of evidence that they had migrated to or from the Middle East (or anywhere else outside their native habitats) during the time frame in question?

There’s also the issue of Noah supposedly taking one male and one female of every species onto the ark. Aside from the fact that this would result in most species becoming so horrendously inbred that they would immediately go extinct (the minimum viable population size for most vertebrates is about 4,000 individuals), there are a number of animal species that don’t even reproduce sexually, so bringing one male and one female wouldn’t even make sense. Several species of lizard, for instance, are all-female and reproduce parthenogenically – so it wouldn’t have been possible to bring one male onto the ark, because males don’t exist. Other species, like earthworms, snails, and slugs, are hermaphroditic – meaning that each individual has both male and female characteristics and can serve either role in reproduction – so again, it wouldn’t have been possible for Noah to collect one male and one female of each of these species, because different sexes don’t exist for them.

Similarly, there’s the question of eusocial species like bees, ants, and termites, for whom just having one queen and one male drone wouldn’t constitute a viable hive or colony; those species need the entire nest to survive. And speaking of invertebrates, what about those species with extremely short lifespans? As Isaak points out, “Adult mayflies on the ark would have died in a few days, and the larvae of many mayflies require shallow fresh running water. Many other insects would face similar problems.”

We haven’t even mentioned all the world’s aquatic species, which would face some of the biggest problems of all. If the whole world flooded, then all the salt water would mix with all the fresh water, and the result would be a brackish mixture in which most fish would be unable to survive. Aside from a few rare species that can withstand rapid changes in salinity, freshwater fish can’t tolerate salt water, and saltwater fish can’t tolerate fresh water. The Bible doesn’t seem at all concerned with the survival of these species; it seems the authors of Genesis either assumed that they’d be fine in any kind of water, or they simply failed to account for them. But if Noah’s flood had actually happened, the aquatic animals would have met the same fate as those still on land – mass eradication.

And this leads to one of the biggest problems of all with the flood story: the fact that it leaves no room for any life outside of the ark to have survived the deluge. Genesis 6:17, 7:4, and 7:23 all make it exceptionally clear that “every living substance” outside the ark was utterly destroyed, with no survivors of any species. If that were the case, though, then what would have happened once the animals that were on the ark finally disembarked and went out into the world again? There would have been nothing but ravaged wasteland stretching across the entire globe – so what, for instance, would the carnivores have eaten? Would they have just eaten all the herbivores that had just gotten off the ark, and then turned on each other once they ran out of those? The herbivores themselves wouldn’t have been any better off in terms of food supply; if the world really had been underwater for an entire year, with the water level reaching five and a half miles high (as the Bible claims), plant life would have been utterly wiped out. In theory, it might have been possible for the seeds of a few coastal species like mangroves and coconuts to survive a year-long global flood, but that wouldn’t have counted for much if every other living substance on Earth truly was destroyed. And it certainly would have been – not only would the extreme turbulence, high salinity of the water, and avalanches of sediment have killed and buried all the plants on Earth (not to mention ruining the soil), the sheer depth of the waters would have made it impossible for any life-sustaining sunlight to reach them even if they somehow did survive everything else. In fact, as Charles Templeton points out, if there had been enough water “to cover the entire globe to a height more than five and a half miles high, the weight of it would [have collapsed] the surface of the earth.”

The biblical authors couldn’t have known all this, of course – which is why Genesis 8:10 describes Noah sending out a dove after the floodwaters recede and having it return to him with an olive leaf in its beak, as if there wasn’t even an issue. The authors had probably experienced plenty of small local floods before in which the trees and bushes had survived just fine – so why should a global mega-flood be any different? There would have been no reason for them to think that the world’s olive trees couldn’t have survived the flood perfectly intact. But for us who know better, this plot hole requires an actual explanation – as do all the other plot holes in the flood story.

In light of all these problems, then, a lot of biblical literalists will just bite the bullet and admit that there’s no practical way these things could have all been accomplished by normal means – but then they’ll add that no practical explanation is necessary anyway, because God could have just performed miracles to solve all these problems. The way that all the animals could have gotten to the ark is that God could have just miraculously transported them there; the way that they could have all fit on board is that God could have just miraculously expanded the ark’s interior dimensions; the way they could have survived the voyage is that God could have miraculously sustained them; and so on. But if you’re just going to hand-wave away every problem in the story by saying that God could have solved it with miracles, then what would have been the point of flooding the earth in the first place? Why bother with the whole ordeal of gathering every animal species onto a boat, causing it to rain for 40 days, waiting for the floodwaters to dry up, and so on, when God could have just as easily snapped his fingers and miraculously caused all the evil people in the world to instantly vanish, accomplishing the same goal without any fuss?

Maybe God would have had his reasons, who knows. But such speculations are a moot point regardless – because practical logistics aside, the biggest reason why we know Noah’s flood never happened (and when I say “know,” obviously I don’t mean 100% certainty – that’s impossible – I just mean “know” to the extent that we can reasonably say we know anything) is because every piece of physical evidence we have shows that it never happened. As Ken Feder points out, if there actually had been a global flood, “the archaeological record of 5,000 years ago would be replete with Pompeii-style ruins – the remains of thousands of towns, villages and cities, all wiped out by flood waters, simultaneously.” If every civilization on Earth had been simultaneously eradicated and only eight people were left to restart the human race from scratch, the archaeological record would show a massive discontinuity in cultural development. But instead, as Feder notes, “it would appear that the near annihilation of the human race, if it happened, left no imprint on the archaeological record anywhere.”

According to the literalist biblical chronology, Noah’s flood destroyed all life on Earth in 2348 BC. But if this was the case, then apparently nobody told the Egyptians, or the Akkadians, or any of the other thriving civilizations of the time. Around 2348 BC, the Egyptians were busily constructing a pyramid for the pharaoh Unas and inscribing it with hundreds of ritual texts and spells (keep in mind, this is a full century before the Tower of Babel story says that the Egyptian language should have even begun to exist) – and they would keep right on constructing it until it was finished and Unas himself was buried there, after which his successor Teti would take over and continue to rule. At no point in that timeline did any great flood obliterate the entire civilization.

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Likewise, in 2348 BC Sargon the Great was ruling over the Akkadian Empire, conquering cities, building temples and statues, and inscribing them with cuneiform script in his own culture’s language (which, again, shouldn’t have existed for another century according to the Tower of Babel story) – and he too would keep right on doing so until his son Rimush took over for him, around 2280 BC. None of them were wiped out by any massive world-destroying flood either. And neither was the Indus Valley Civilization, as it perfected its urban sanitation systems in trade cities like Harappa and Mohenjo-daro; neither was the Shijiahe culture in China, as it went on crafting its jade artifacts; neither were the tribal Europeans, as they continually constructed new additions to Stonehenge. None of these civilizations experienced any interruption in their cultural continuity that would suggest anything close to a mass extinction event; they all just kept right on existing the whole time. And we have detailed records of all of it – not just the written records that these civilizations kept themselves, but all the archaeological evidence independently corroborating those written records.

On top of those lines of evidence, there’s also the geological record, which provides some of the best evidence of all. As Hal Hackett and AronRa point out:

If there was a worldwide flood, salt flats would dot the continental basins, most of which would then be unusable for centuries. Large sections of them would remain unusable, and all of them would share geochemical traces. None of them would have natural soil horizons. The biblical authors didn’t know that, because they didn’t know how any of these things work. [And although literalists may say] that we have no idea what a global flood would look like, we actually do. There are some megaflood deposits in eastern Washington State – ripple marks hundreds of meters long. They happened when an ice dam broke at a nearby glacial lake. Strange, then, that such landforms are not typical on every continent. With water catastrophically washing all over the earth from the oceans, surely these megaripples should mark their progress. Unfortunately for flood geology, megaripples only happen when glacial lakes break, and megafloods are not broadly responsible for Earth’s landforms.

Isaak raises more questions that would need to be answered if the flood had really happened:

Why is there no evidence of a flood in ice core series? Ice cores from Greenland have been dated back more than 40,000 years by counting annual layers. [Johnsen et al, 1992,; Alley et al, 1993] A worldwide flood would be expected to leave a layer of sediments, noticeable changes in salinity and oxygen isotope ratios, fractures from buoyancy and thermal stresses, a hiatus in trapped air bubbles, and probably other evidence. Why doesn’t such evidence show up?

How are the polar ice caps even possible? Such a mass of water as the Flood would have provided sufficient buoyancy to float the polar caps off their beds and break them up. They wouldn’t regrow quickly. In fact, the Greenland ice cap would not regrow under modern (last 10 ky) climatic conditions.

Why did the Flood not leave traces on the sea floors? A year long flood should be recognizable in sea bottom cores by (1) an uncharacteristic amount of terrestrial detritus, (2) different grain size distributions in the sediment, (3) a shift in oxygen isotope ratios (rain has a different isotopic composition from seawater), (4) a massive extinction, and (n) other characters. Why do none of these show up?

Why is there no evidence of a flood in tree ring dating? Tree ring records go back more than 10,000 years, with no evidence of a catastrophe during that time. [Becker & Kromer, 1993; Becker et al, 1991; Stuiver et al, 1986]

This last question raises still another interesting point against the idea that a global flood wiped out all life on the planet 4,400 years ago: namely, that we actually have organisms alive today – trees, sea sponges, and others – that are considerably older than that. There are bristlecone pine trees in California and Nevada that are 5,000 years old – meaning they would have already been hundreds of years old at the time of Noah’s flood. There are clonal trees like quaking aspens and Norway spruce trees that are over 9,000 years old. There are even glass sponges estimated to be over 10,000 years old (although determining their exact age is trickier than with the trees). If Noah’s flood had wiped out all life on Earth 4,400 years ago, then none of these organisms should exist today – but they’re all right here for us to see for ourselves.

There’s also evidence against the flood in the genetic codes of certain modern terrestrial animals. Take cheetahs, for instance. The global cheetah population went through a severe population bottleneck about 10,000 years ago, in which their numbers were so dramatically reduced that the species almost went extinct. It didn’t get quite as low as just two individuals, of course, but it was still bad enough that the species was forced to carry on with only a handful of mating adults – and as a result, today’s cheetah population is highly inbred. With such a small gene pool, the genetic variability within the cheetah population became far lower than among other big cat species; so consequently, cheetahs suffer from things like lower sperm quality, birth defects, dental problems, and greater vulnerability to infectious diseases. Now, if there had been a worldwide flood that had reduced every species’ population to just one male and one female, this is the kind of thing we might expect to see. But the thing is, we wouldn’t just see it in the cheetah population; we would see every species suffering from the same lack of genetic diversity, because every species would have gone through the same population bottleneck. And it wouldn’t just be as severe as in the cheetahs’ case; it would be much worse, since it would have happened more recently and with far fewer individuals of each species. Again, this isn’t something that the biblical authors could have known when they wrote the flood story, since they had no knowledge of population genetics. But that’s the whole point – what may have seemed plausible at the time just doesn’t hold up anymore given what we now know about the world.

It’s sort of like how the flood story purports to explain the existence of rainbows. According to Genesis 9, God invented the rainbow in the aftermath of the flood as a token of goodwill, to symbolize his promise not to destroy the world again. From then on, God promised, he would put a rainbow in the sky whenever it was cloudy, to remind humanity of his pledge. But yet again, we know that this just isn’t the factually correct explanation. The reason why rainbows exist is because they’re a necessary result of water in the air (whether it be rainwater or mist from a waterfall or whatever) refracting light from the sun at a certain angle. They existed for billions of years before humanity ever existed, and they’ll continue to exist long after we go extinct – because they weren’t just invented by God 4,000 years ago to symbolize his goodwill toward us; they’re a byproduct of the irrevocable laws of physics. For the biblical authors to say that the rainbow was a symbol of God’s covenant was like some other ancient religion saying that thunder was the sound of the gods warring with each other in the sky – it was just a legend that was made up to explain concepts that weren’t understood by science yet.

Of course, none of this is to say that the flood story, like the Tower of Babel story, couldn’t have actually been based on some lesser real-life event. As Bob Riggins writes:

There is genuine archaeological evidence of one or more real, catastrophic floods in the valleys of the Fertile Crescent (where the myth originated). To tribes who thought Sumeria was pretty much the whole world – or all of it that mattered – it would have seemed that their whole world was indeed flooded.

Recently, another possible source of the legend has been recognized. Thousands of years ago a sort of natural dam at the Bosporus gave way, allowing seawater to rapidly pour into a huge basin and lake north of Turkey (the region near Ararat! hmm…), flooding out thousands of square miles of fertile land, villages, and cities. The result is the Black Sea, where even now marine archaeologists are finding the drowned communities on the former lake shore.

Take some legends of the day their world ended, brought by Black Sea refugees, add to them a horrific flood or two from the Tigris-Euphrates region, conflate it with some exaggerated tales of the guy who saved some of his goats on a raft – and you’ve got the “Genesis Flood.” Many myths have those ingredients: some probable but untraceable basis in fact, exaggeration, combination with other tales, adoption and adaptation by other tribes with other gods. In that sense, Noah is in the same boat as Odysseus.

And in fact, we can be even more specific about the literary origins of the Noah story if we look at the other Middle Eastern flood legends that were popular at the time. The best evidence suggests that the Noah story was based largely on Mesopotamian stories like the Epic of Gilgamesh, the legends of Atra-Hasis and Ziusudra, and others – all of which predate Genesis by a millennium – which describe angry gods flooding the earth and destroying humankind, but not before instructing one of their followers to save himself by building a boat and riding out the deluge. The similarities between these myths and the Genesis narrative are too numerous to be coincidental; as B.A. Robinson writes:

In both the Genesis and Gilgamesh stories:

  • The Genesis story describes how mankind had become obnoxious to God; they were hopelessly sinful and wicked. In the Babylonian story, they were too numerous and noisy.
  • The gods (or God) decided to send a worldwide flood. This would have drowned all men, women, children, babies and infants, as well as eliminate all of the land animals and birds.
  • God (or one of the gods) knew of one righteous man, Ut-Napishtim or Noah.
  • One of the gods (or God) ordered the hero to build a multi-story wooden ark (called a chest or box in the original Hebrew).
  • The ark would be sealed with pitch.
  • The ark would have many internal compartments.
  • It would have a single door.
  • It would have at least one window.
  • The ark was built and loaded with the hero, a few other humans, and samples from all species of other land animals.
  • A great rain covered the land with water.
  • The mountains were submerged under water.
  • The ark landed on a mountain in the Middle East.
  • The hero sent out birds at regular intervals to find if any dry land was in the vicinity.
  • The first two birds returned to the ark. The third bird apparently found dry land because it did not return.
  • The hero and his family left the ark, ritually killed an animal, offered it as a sacrifice.
  • God (or the gods in the Epic of Gilgamesh) smelled the roasted meat of the sacrifice.
  • The hero was blessed.
  • The Babylonian gods seemed genuinely sorry for the genocide that they had created. The God of Noah appears to have regretted his actions as well, because he promised never to do it again.

So in all likelihood, the story of Noah’s flood was derived from this earlier legend, not from an actual world-destroying flood. The legend may have reflected a widespread cultural memory of some less extreme event that did actually happen – but whatever that event may have been, it didn’t happen as described in the Bible. The Genesis account of God wiping out all life on Earth in a massive flood, metaphorically resonant as it might be, is just historically untrue.

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