Guns, Germs, and Steel

Infobox Book
name = Guns, Germs, and Steel

image_caption = Paperback cover
author = Jared Diamond
country = United States
language = English
subject = geography, social evolution, history of civilization, ethnology, cultural diffusion
publisher = W. W. Norton
release_date = March, 1997 (1st edition, hardcover)
media_type = Hardcover, Paperback, Audio CD, Audio Cassette, Audio Download
pages = 480 pages (1st edition, hardcover)
isbn = ISBN 0-393-03891-2 (1st edition, hardcover)

"Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" is a 1997 book by Jared Diamond, professor of geography and physiology at UCLA. In 1998 it won a Pulitzer Prize and the Aventis Prize for Best Science Book. A documentary based on the book was broadcast on PBS in July 2005, produced by the National Geographic Society.

According to the author, an alternative title would be "A short history about everyone for the last 13,000 years". cite book | author=Diamond, J. | title=Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies | publisher=W.W. Norton & Company | date=March 1997 | isbn=0-393-03891-2 |url=|accessdate=2008-08-05] But the book is not merely an account of the past; it attempts to explain why Eurasian civilizations, as a whole, have survived and conquered others, while attempting to refute the belief that Eurasian hegemony is due to any form of Eurasian intellectual, moral, or inherent genetic superiority. Diamond argues that: the gaps in power and technology between human societies originate in environmental differences amplified by various positive feedback loops; and that, if cultural or genetic differences have favored Eurasians (for example Chinese centralized government, or improved disease resistance among Eurasians), it is only so because of the influence of geography.

The book's title is a reference to the means by which European nations conquered populations of other areas and maintained their dominance, often despite being vastly out-numbered - superior weapons provided immediate military superiority, and European diseases weakened the local populations and thus made it easier to maintain control over them. Hence the book attempts to explain, mainly by geographical factors, why Europeans had such superior military technology and why diseases to which Europeans were immune devastated conquered populations.

Diamond highlights two major environmental advantages of Eurasia over other areas in which farming apparently developed independently. The various Eurasian inventors of farming, and especially those in "South West Asia" (roughly Mesopotamia and Turkey) had by far the best natural endowment of crops and of domesticable animals in the size range from goats or dogs upwards - the superiority in domesticable animals was the more extreme, as other areas had at most two and often none. Eurasia's other big advantage is that its mainly East-West axis provides a huge area with similar latitudes and therefore climates. As a result it was far easier for migrating Eurasian populations to use in their new homes the plants and animals to which they had become accustomed; by contrast the Americas' North-South axis forced migrating Native Americans to adopt new crops and, where available, animals because they found a wide variation in climates as they migrated from North to South.

Diamond also touches very briefly on why the dominant powers of the last 500 years have been West European rather than East Asian (especially China). The Asian areas in which major civilizations arose had geographical features conducive to the formation of large, stable, isolated empires which faced no external pressure to correct policies that led to stagnation. On the other hand Europe's many natural barriers divided it into competing nation-states and this competition forced the European nations to encourage innovation and avoid technological stagnation.

The book has met with several criticisms, even from reviewers who are sympathetic to its aims and approach. Diamond attempted to anticipate some of these in the book and has answered some of them more recently.



The prologue to the book opens with an account of Diamond's conversation with Yali, a New Guinean politician. The conversation turned to the obvious differences in power and technology between Yali's people and the Europeans who dominated the land for 200 years, differences that neither of them considered due to any genetic superiority of Europeans. Yali asked, using the local term "cargo" for inventions and manufactured goods, "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?"(p. 14)

He says that the same sort of question seems to apply elsewhere: "People of Eurasian origin... dominate the world in wealth and power." Other peoples, having thrown off colonial domination, lag in wealth and power. Still others, he says, "have been decimated, subjugated, and in some cases even exterminated by European colonialists." (p. 15) He says that, unable to find a satisfactory explanation from the best-known accounts of history, he decided to make his own investigation to seek the root causes of Eurasian dominance.

Before stating his main argument, Diamond considers three possible criticisms of his investigation. These are covered in detail below.

The theory outlined

Diamond argues that Eurasian civilization is not so much a product of ingenuity, but of opportunity and necessity. That is, civilization is not created out of sheer will or intelligence, but is the result of a chain of developments, each made possible by certain preconditions.

In our earliest societies humans lived as hunter-gatherers. The first step towards civilization is the move from hunter-gatherer to agriculture with the domestication and farming of wild crops and animals. Agricultural production leads to food surpluses and this in turn supports sedentary societies, rapid population growth, and specialization of labor. Large societies tend to develop ruling classes and supporting bureaucracies, which leads in turn to the organization of empires.

Although agriculture arose in several parts of the world, Eurasia gained an early advantage due to the availability of suitable plant and animal species for domestication. In particular, the Middle East had by far the best collection of plants and animals suitable for domestication - barley, two varieties of wheat and three protein-rich pulses for food; flax for textiles; goats, sheep and cattle provided meat, leather, glue (by boiling the hooves and bones) and, in the case of sheep, wool. As early Middle Eastern civilizations began to trade, they found additional useful animals in adjacent territories, most notably horses and donkeys for use in transport. In contrast, Native American farmers had to struggle to develop maize as a useful food from its probable wild ancestor, teosinte. Eurasia as a whole domesticated 13 species of large animals (over 100lb / 44kg); South America just one (counting the llama and alpaca as breeds within the same species); the rest of the world none at all. Diamond describes the small number of domesticated species (14 out of 148 "candidates") as an instance of the Anna Karenina principle: many promising species have just one of several significant difficulties that prevent domestication. For example horses are easily domesticated but their biological relatives zebras and onagers are untameable; and although Asian elephants are tameable, it is very difficult to breed them in captivity.

Eurasia's large landmass and long east-west distance increased these advantages. Its large area provided it with more plant and animal species suitable for domestication and allowed its people to exchange both innovations and diseases. Its East-West orientation allowed breeds domesticated in one part of the continent to be used elsewhere through similarities in climate and the cycle of seasons. In contrast, Australia suffered from a lack of useful animals due to extinction, probably by human hunting, shortly after the end of the Pleistocene; the Americas had difficulty adapting crops domesticated at one latitude for use at other latitudes (and, in North America, adapting crops from one side of the Rocky Mountains to the other); and Africa was fragmented by its extreme variations in climate from North to South: plants and animals that flourished in one area never reached other areas where they could have flourished, because they could not survive the intervening environment. Europe was the ultimate beneficiary of Eurasia's East-West orientation: in the first millennium BC the Mediterranean areas of Europe adopted the Middle East's animals, plants, and agricultural techniques; in the first millennium AD the rest of Europe followed suit.

The plentiful supply of food and the dense populations that it supported made division of labor possible, and the rise of non-farming specialists such as craftsmen and scribes accelerated economic growth and technological progress. These economic and technological advantages eventually enabled Europeans to conquer the peoples of the other continents in recent centuries - using the "Guns" and "Steel" of the book's title.

Eurasia's dense populations, high levels of trade, and living in close proximity to livestock also made the transmission of diseases easy, and so natural selection forced Eurasians to develop immunity to a wide range of pathogens. When Europeans made contact with America, European diseases ravaged the indigenous American population, rather than the other way around (the "trade" in diseases was a little more balanced in Africa and southern Asia: malaria and yellow fever made these regions notorious as the "white man's grave"; cite journal | title=The Fight against Malaria: An Industrial Necessity for Our African Colonies | author=Ross, R., and MacGregor, W. | journal=Journal of the Royal African Society | volume=2 | issue=6 | date=Jan 1903| pages=149–160 |url= ] ; and syphilis may have spread in the opposite directionThe origin of syphilis is still debated. Some researchers think it was known to Hippocrates: cite web |url = |title = English syphilis epidemic pre-dated European outbreaks by 150 years |author = Keys, David |accessdate = 2007-09-22 |publisher = Independent News and Media Limited |date = 2007 Others think it was brought from the Americas by Columbus and his successors: cite web | title="Columbus blamed for spread of syphilis" | url= | date=January 2008 | news service | author=MacKenzie, D. ] ). The European diseases - the "Germs" of the book's title - decimated indigenous populations so that relatively small numbers of Europeans could maintain their dominance.

"Guns, Germs, and Steel" also offers a very brief explanation of why western European societies have been the dominant colonizers, and not other Eurasian powers (especially China):
* Other advanced cultures developed in areas whose geography was conducive to large, monolithic, isolated empires. In these conditions policies of technological and social stagnation could persist - until Europeans arrived. China was a very notable example, for example in 1432 a new Emperor outlawed the building of ocean-going ships, in which China was the world leader at the time.
* Europe's geography favoured balkanization into smaller, closer, nation-states, as its many natural barriers (mountains, rivers) provide defensible borders. As a result, governments that suppressed economic and technological progress soon corrected their mistakes or were out-competed relatively quickly. As an example of this national Darwinism, Diamond offers the disappearance of the counter-progressive Polish regime. He argues that geographical factors created the conditions for more rapid internal superpower change (Spain succeeded by France and then by England) than was possible elsewhere in Eurasia.Diamond examined European dominance in more detail with further examples in a later article. cite web | title=How to get rich | url= | author=Diamond, J. | date=July 1999 ]

Intellectual background

Diamond was not the first to argue that environmental factors had a decisive influence on human history. In the late 1850s Henry Thomas Buckle sought to discover laws that governed history, and wrote that favorable climate and soils, and the plentiful food they produced, were important contributors to a population's accumulation of wealth, and that freedom from natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods made people less prone to superstition and therefore more likely to make rapid intellectual progress. cite book | title=History of Civilization in England | date=1861 | author=Buckle, H.T. | publisher=Appleton & Co. | url =| accessdate = 2008-07-09]

In the 1930s the Annales School in France undertook the study of long-term historical structures by using a synthesis of geography, history, and sociology, for example examining the impact of geography, climate and land use. Although geography had been nearly eliminated as an academic discipline in the USA after the 1960s, several geographically-based historical theories were published in the 1990s. cite news| title= Geography Redux: Where You Live Is What You Are | publisher = The New York Times | date=March 21, 1998 | author=Cohen, P. | url= | accessdate = 2008-07-09 ]


"Guns, Germs and Steel" met with a wide range of response, ranging from generally favorable to outright rejection of its approach. In 1998 it won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction and the Royal Society's Rhône-Poulenc Prize for Science Books. [ cite web | url= | title=The Pulitzer Prizes for 1998 ] [ cite web | url= | title=Prizes for Science Books previous winners and shortlists | publisher=The Royal Society ] A documentary based on the book was broadcast on PBS in July 2005, produced by the National Geographic Society. [ cite web | url= | title=PBS Previews: Guns, Germs & Steel ]


Some critics of the book argue that it is derivative of the work of such cultural evolutionists as Leslie White, Julian Steward, and Ester Boserup, who analyzed the relationship between agriculture and economic and political growth; and such historians as William McNeill and Alfred Crosby, who analyzed the relationship between agriculture, European expansion, and disease.

Criticism can be grouped into three main lines of reasoning, as follows.

Eurocentrist determinism

James Blaut has criticized "Guns, Germs, and Steel" for reviving the discredited theory of environmental determinism, and described Diamond as an example of a modern Eurocentric historian.cite book | last = James M. Blaut| authorlink = | title = Eight Eurocentric Historians |edition= August 10, 2000|pages= 228 | publisher = The Guilford Press| isbn= 1572305916|date=2000|url=|accessdate=2008-08-05] Blaut also criticizes Diamond's loose use of the terms "Eurasia" and "innovative," which he believes misleads the reader into presuming that Western Europe is responsible for technological inventions that actually took place in the Middle East and Asia. Blaut also states that Diamond ignored or underestimated the nutritional value of several staple crops that grow naturally outside the temperate parts of Eurasia, overestimated the difficulty of adapting crops to new conditions by selective breeding and ignored the separation of agriculturally productive regions within Eurasia's temperate belt by deserts and mountains.cite journal | author = Blaut, J.M. | year = 1999 | title = Environmentalism and Eurocentrism. | journal = The Geographical Review | volume = 89 | issue = 3 | url = | accessdate = 2008-07-09 [ full text] ] Blaut also pointed out examples of North-South diffusion of crops, notably the cultivation of maize in both Peru and North America and that in Europe the major economic and technological developments of the last 500-600 years took place in Northern and Western Europe, which is generally flat, which casts doubt on Diamond's suggestion that Europe eventually outstripped China because Europe's natural barriers prevented the development of monolithic empires that were under no external pressure to correct mistaken policies.

Political factors

Historian and conservative political columnist Victor Davis Hanson agrees with Diamond in that he rejects a racial explanation for Western dominance, but Hanson argues that certain fundamental aspects of Western culture are responsible, specifically political freedom, capitalism, individualism, republicanism, rationalism, and open debate. Hanson has written that Diamond seems "terribly confused" about history, and that environment was "almost irrelevant" to Western success. Supporters of Diamond, however, have argued that these cultural aspects were created because of the environment and resources at Europe's disposal. In fact, Diamond specifically cites the evolution of complex socio-political structures as a yield of the increased resources and environment which was being experienced by western Europeans.

Clifford Pickover pointed out that in the 15th century, the Turks closed lucrative trade routes between the Orient to Europe. Merchants responded by developing new routes, primarily by sea, to restore trade with the Orient. This process accelerated the development of cartographic and navigational technologies, which allowed Europeans to dominate the globe in less than a century.cite web |date=5-12-97|url =|title = Why Did Human History Evolve Differently on Different Continents for the Last 13,000 Years? (comments) |format = HTML |publisher =| accessdate = 2008-03-14 ]

Weaknesses in arguments

There are also critics who, whilst not refuting the thesis of "Guns, Germs, and Steel", feel that the underlying arguments are weak. Even admirers of the book point out some weaknesses.

Some researchersFact|date=November 2007 point out that Diamond’s "law of history" regarding the dominance of agricultural societies over their non-agricultural neighbours does not always hold true, such as the spread of hunting and gathering Inuits in Greenland at the expense of the agricultural Norse; in fact Diamond himself raises this point and this specific example in his book. While it has historically and prehistorically been the case that agricultural societies dispossess hunter gatherers, Diamond's "law" highlights his oversimplification of the past. However, Diamond is careful to point out that many of his generalizations only apply to larger areas incorporating many groups of people. (Diamond's specific comment refers to the American Indians.)

In fact his argument about Inuit survival while the Norse in Greenland starved cite web |date=2007 |url =|title = The Bookshelf talks with Jared Diamond|format = HTML |publisher = pub| accessdate = 2008-03-14 | last= Amos Esty|quote=I would say "yes" to both of your questions. When I say "us," it's we Americans, and partly it's we around the world. Are there things that we're doing today? It seems to us just crazy that the Norse wouldn't eat fish, even when they were starving.] was out of date when he wrote it. Far from having any taboos about fish eating or not exploiting the maritime wealth around them, "from the 1300s the Greenland Norse had 50-80% of their diet from the marine food chain." [ [ C-14 dating and the disappearance of Norsemen from Greenland] ] The Norse were able to adapt to a changing environment--although, as Diamond notes in his subsequent book "Collapse", examination of Greenland middens shows that the primary food source was seal meat, which is from the marine environment but not fish. cite book | title=Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive | author=Diamond, J. | publisher=Penguin Books Ltd | date=2006 | isbn=0140279512 ]

In a review of "Guns, Germs, and Steel" that ultimately commended the book, historian Professor Tom Tomlinson admitted that, "Given the magnitude of the task he has set himself, it is inevitable that Professor Diamond uses very broad brush-stokes to fill in his argument," but regarded Diamond's very sketchy coverage of social, political and intellectual history (a handful of pages), especially in the last 500 years, as a notable weakness: Diamond's approach ignored "much of the current literature on cultural interactions in modern history" and Diamond omitted "almost all of the standard literature on the history of imperialism and post-colonialism, world-systems, underdevelopment or socio-economic change over the last five hundred years." Tomlinson also stated that "The European empires of conquest in Asia, especially those of the British in India and the Dutch in Java, were not based on clear technological superiority in armaments, nor on the spread of disease."cite web |date=May 1998|url =|title = Review:Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies|format = HTML |publisher = Institute of Historical Research | accessdate = 2008-03-14 | last=Tom Tomlinson |quote=]

Another historian, Professor J. R. McNeill, was on the whole complimentary but nevertheless found weaknesses: cite journal | title=The World According to Jared Diamond | url= | author=McNeill, J.R. | journal=The History Teacher | volume=34 | issue=2 | date=February 2001 ]
*In a sense Diamond may have been trying to explain something that was rather simple. Eurasia has accounted for the great majority of the human population for at least the last 3,000 years, and pure chance would make it extremely likely that at any particular time the world's most powerful and advanced civilization would be somewhere in Eurasia.
*Logically it is questionable to try to explain the temporary dominance of particular societies by "permanent" features such as geography (permanent relative to historical timescales; on geological times scales geography is not permanent).
*Political fragmentation has been a disadvantage, for example in West Africa, at least as often as it has been an advantage.
*For over 5,000 years Egypt maintained high populations and a complex society, yet its fortunes varied enormously from one period to another. Diamond's analysis fails to explain this.
*Diamond's emphasis on the advantage of an "East-West axis" over a "North-South axis" is at best an over-simplification: parts of Eurasia at similar latitudes have very different climates.
*The spread of useful crops and animals was determined at least as much by human activities, notably trade and migration, as by purely geographical factors.
*People can alter their environments for the worse; for example Mesopotamia, which Diamond presents as the cradle of Western civilization, "committed ecological suicide" (by using irrigation techniques that caused the soil to become salty and infertile).

This review was followed by a pair of short articles in "The New York Review of Books". Diamond's emphasized that "Guns, Germs, and Steel" had a much longer time-scale than most histories and was trying into explain why, for example, in 1492 Eurasia was almost entirely populated by settled societies with governments, literacy, iron technology and standing armies while the other continents were almost entirely populated by stone age tribes of hunter-gatherers. On this time scale, he wrote, the factors historians usually examine are inadequate. For example Australia had hundreds of independent Aboriginal tribes, with very different cultures; some built villages with canals and fish farming; but none developed agriculture, armies, or metal tools. Therefore, Diamond argued, one must look at environmental factors, and failure to do so would leave a gap that might be filled by racist assumptions. He admitted that cultural factors were usually very relevant to issues over shorter time-scales, such as the causes of World War II. McNeill replied that some historians were trying to "explain history's broadest and patterns," "with more respect for natural history than Diamond has for the conscious level of human history." [ cite journal | title="Guns, Germs, and Steel" | journal=The New York Review of Books | volume=44 | issue=11 | date=June 26, 1997 | author=Jared Diamond; Reply by William H. McNeill | url= ]

Responses to criticism

Anticipation of criticism

Before stating his main argument, Diamond considers three possible criticisms of his investigation (page 17): ; "If we succeed in explaining how some people came to dominate other people, may this not seem to justify the domination? Doesn't it seem to say that the outcome was inevitable, and that it would therefore be futile to try to change the outcome today?" : His answer is that this is a confusion of an explanation of causes with a justification of the results. " [Psychologists, social historians, and physicians] do not seek to justify murder, rape, genocide, and illness." Rather, they investigate causes to be able to stop the results.; Doesn't addressing the question "automatically involve a Eurocentric approach to history, a glorification of Europeans ..."? : But, according to Diamond, "most of this book will deal with peoples other than Europeans." It will, he says, describe interactions between non-European peoples. "Far from glorifying peoples of European origin, we shall see that the most basic elements of their civilization were developed by peoples living elsewhere and were then imported to Europe." And Diamond specifically and repeatedly states that the advantages that Eurasians had in development were primarily due to a fortuitous mixture of climate, crops, and animals, and not due to any inherent advantages of the people themselves. Given time (without exposure to Eurasian culture), he posits that other societies would have eventually made the same technological leaps, they just didn't get to the starting line at the same time due to the above factors.; "Don't words such as 'civilization,' and phrases such as 'rise of civilization,' convey the false impression that civilization is good, tribal hunter-gatherers are miserable, ...?" : On the contrary, according to Diamond, civilization is a thoroughly mixed blessing, in ways that he describes. In addition any preconceived semantic boundaries of the words civilization and the spatial to mental apprehension of the meaning rise will all be individually encountered.

Response to criticism of Eurocentrism and determinism

"Guns, Germs and Steel" frequently anticipates that some critics will accuse it of eurocentrism. Diamond notes, in the third sentence of the prologue, that "the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies." But he almost immediately says that most accounts of world history focus too much on Eurasia, too much on western Eurasia and too much on the tiny fraction of human history that follows the invention of writing. In particular, he says, "a history focused on Western Eurasian societies completely bypasses the obvious big question. Why were those societies the first that became disproportionately powerful and innovative? ... Why did those ingredients of conquest arise in western Eurasia, and arise elsewhere only to a lesser degree or not at all? ... Why didn't capitalism flourish in Native Mexico, mercantilism in Sub-Saharan Africa, scientific enquiry in China, ... and nasty germs in Aboriginal Australia?"

Later in the book Diamond very briefly examines why some of the "founder" civilizations that discovered agriculture, specialization and urbanization did not become dominant on a world scale. He says for example that SW Asia's intense agriculture damaged the environment, encouraged desertification, and hurt soil fertility. He argues that because central China has fewer geographical barriers (i.e. mountain ranges or bodies of water) than Europe, China was unified relatively early in its history (see Qin Dynasty), and that political homogeneity led to stagnation, particularly because there were no external competitors that might have forced it to reverse mistaken policies. The book is mostly concerned with developments from prehistory up to about AD 1500, and understandably does not dwell on colonialism, post-colonialism, or other developments in the modern period. Furthermore, Diamond's arguments are that "Eurasia" (as opposed to Europe) would inevitably be dominant.

In a later article Diamond notes that circa 1500, during the Ming Dynasty, China's naval superiority over anything Europeans could field was terminated by a single political decision (the hai jin, which means "ocean forbidden"); in a Europe fragmented into hundreds of kingdoms and nation-states, no such authority existed. Similarly Japan learned about guns from Portuguese explorers in 1543 and by 1600 had the world's best guns; but these threatened the power of the Samurai class, which restricted and finally banned their production. Diamond concludes that such bans could be imposed only in politically unified and isolated nations such as Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate. He also says that India on the other hand may have been too fragmented for a monumental rise in power similar to Europe's.

Diamond has answered the critique of historical counterexamples (in differing growth rates unrelated to material endowments) by claiming that these cases represent short-term growth over (at most) fifty year time windows. In the case of rapidly expanding economies (such as the "East Asian Tigers") the rapid growth is usually explained (in economics) as one country "catching-up" to the rest (cf. endogenous growth theory), through trade and technological transfer (which would have been very difficult between continents in the pre-1500 period the book concentrates on). Instances of civilizations stagnating or being conquered despite having access to superior resources than their neighbours are mentioned several times in this book; in Professor Diamond’s view these reversals of fortune support his thesis, providing a mechanism for the spread of cultural dynamism and technology within continents but not (until the "Age of Exploration") between them. (His later work, "Collapse," tied environment and the fate of individual civilizations together more closely, but in "Guns, Germs, and Steel" his argument is made at the continental level, rather than the level of specific societies.)

Diamond's view is largely "deterministic", in that "Guns, Germs and Steel" argues that Eurasian dominance was inevitable, or at least very likely (sometimes called Geographical determinism). Although Diamond later cites the effects of specific decisions by governments, he suggests that geographical isolation was what made their effects so long-lasting (for example Ming China's ban on ocean-going ships). Nevertheless, Diamond explicitly asks (on page 17) whether this inevitability would "justify the domination", and whether it renders futile modern attempts to "change the outcome". He denies that it does because the effects of proven environmental determinism could be easily nullified by contemporary transport and communication, whereas the effects of proven racial determinism might be used to justify genocide.

Response to criticism of theory of history

In the epilogue Diamond discusses "The future of human history as a science", pre-empting the criticism that he fails to understand what history is about by defining what he thinks part of it should be. He contrasts various styles of historical interpretation, and compares these to the practice of other academics who call themselves "scientists". He says he is "optimistic that historical studies of human societies can be pursued as scientifically as studies of dinosaurs".

See also

*Climatic determinism
*Cultural ecology
*Cultural materialism
*Ishmael (novel)
*Marvin Harris
*Population history of American indigenous peoples
*Scramble for Africa
*Origins of organized religion


External links

* [ Official Guns, Germs, and Steel Site at PBS]
* [ ABC Radio Transcripts: "Why Societies Collapse: Jared Diamond at Princeton University"]

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