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Stephen Hawking is No Albert Einstein

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May 18, 2011 Tags: Science & Worldviews

Today's entry was written by Alex Berezow. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Stephen Hawking is No Albert Einstein

Today's entry was reposted with permission from the site RealClearScience. The original can be found here.

The brilliant astrophysicist Dr. Stephen Hawking, who your correspondent personally admires, has become less lovable these days. It's no secret that Dr. Hawking does not believe in God, but for some reason, he has decided to become progressively more obnoxious about it. He said to the Guardian:

I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

That is perfectly fine for him to believe. Intelligent people for millennia have disagreed on the existence of God. But what Dr. Hawking is doing is different; by calling religious belief a "fairy story for people afraid of the dark," he's essentially calling believers childish, perhaps even stupid.

What's worse is that he is still a well-respected and beloved figure, not just by scientists but by everybody. It's not an exaggeration to say Stephen Hawking is probably as popular as Albert Einstein. Most likely, Einstein didn't believe in God, either -- at least not in the same way that most Americans believe in a personal God. But, Einstein didn't go around telling people how childish they were; Hawking is. Why?

It's easy to speculate, but nobody except Dr. Hawking knows the answer to this question. It is worth noting, however, that some famous scientists, toward the end of their careers, behave in ways that make them look foolish. For instance, Linus Pauling, who won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, spent the latter half of his life peddling the idea that vitamin C could treat both cancer and the common cold.

One wonders if Dr. Hawking is on a similar path. Perhaps he is simply scratching a philosophical itch. Or, at the age of 69 and recently recovering from a serious illness, perhaps he is confronting his own mortality -- and lashing out at the very universe he has so beautifully described in his books. We'll never know.

But, it would be a shame if Dr. Hawking, instead of being remembered for his earth-shattering contributions to physics, is remembered as the man who spent the twilight years of his life insulting other people. Einstein would likely not approve.


Alex B. Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience. He is the co-author of Science Left Behind. His work has appeared in CNN, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Forbes, and The Economist, among other publications. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, and several radio programs. In 2010, he earned a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Washington. Originally from southern Illinois, he currently lives in Seattle.


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Kenneth Taylor - #61386

May 18th 2011

Even though I agree with much of what is written here, the tone of this article is somewhat petulant, which unfortunately may have the unintended effect of reinforcing some of Hawking’s recent statements.

Whatever the case may be, it seems like you very well understand that scientists ARE generally remembered for their contributions to science.  Their personal lives, especially in their twilight years, are generally forgotten by everyone but historians.  The name Einstein invokes brilliance, and rarely does anyone speak of his bizarre romantic life as somehow tainting his theories.  Same with Newton and alchemy.  Or Pauling and his vitamin C.  I’m not sure why you would think the case would be any different for Dr. Hawking.


erik.barbara - #61388

May 18th 2011

I agree with the above. The tone of the above post I believe is counter-productive to the cause of this website.


There are more respectful and productive ways to critiquing the venomous views of Hawking, and biting back with a venomous tone in return is not one.

Elliot Nelson - #61400

May 18th 2011

I also agree.  The statement of Hawking quoted here, while perhaps expressing a feeling of superiority to religious people, need not be taken as an insult.  Responding in this way is unhelpful - I am surprised BioLogos has reposted this.


Jordan - #61412

May 18th 2011

Ditto the above.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #61401

May 18th 2011

I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers.

This is clearly untrue and reflects the shallowness of Hawking’s thinking on this topic.  Most everyone knows that broken down computers do have an afterlife.  One can and usually does transfer ther information and many of the programs out of the old computer into the new one. 

Other than this I agree with the other posters.  It is a mildly interesting question, but there is no light shed on it.  My guess is that he likes the spotlight and sees how much attention Richard Dawkins receieves.  It seems that the British are developing a Christian vs antiChristian industry over there.  Maybe another way to get back at the Yankees for declaring “All men are created equal.”  


mmccants - #61568

May 23rd 2011

“This is clearly untrue”

My opinion is that your opinion of reality is incorrect.  Your attempt to refer to the “information” processed by computers as the same as the computer itself is ridiculous.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #61856

May 31st 2011

The information and programs in the computer are the psyche or soul of the computer, which can and often does live on after the hardware is “dead.”


Tim - #61407

May 18th 2011

I agree that abrasively and aggressively insulting theists is less than becoming of public figure like Steven Hawking.  But is this criticism applied evenly?  I hear high-profile and, arguably, respected Christians demean atheists as if it were a sport.  I would like to see postings on sites such as Biologos call out these figures as well, so as only to be fair.


Mike Gene - #61408

May 18th 2011

Roger,

Most everyone knows that broken down computers do have an afterlife.  One can and usually does transfer ther information and many of the programs out of the old computer into the new one.

Good point.  As a Christian who believes in a bodily resurrection, his analogy fails.  

Yet Hawking’s opinion really means nothing to me.  After all, if he had instead said that he thinks the brain is more than a computer and expects to find an afterlife, it would not add anything to my own beliefs or the level of their conviction.  All that matters is whether Hawkings has ever shown there is no heaven and afterlife.  And he has not.  

As for all the “concerned” comments from Eliot, Kenneth, and erik, I have not seen them here before and note their first (and only) comment to BioLogos was this expression of “concern.”  Perhaps they should all comment more often to help set the tone they demand from others.


erik.barbara - #61415

May 19th 2011

That’s a fair calling out, Mike. I often enjoy the content of this website. It took me months of what felt like standing alone on the theological and intellectual ground of theistic evolution before I found this website. What made that experience so lonely and disheartening was the often vehement responses I received from many against this position. 


BioLogos has always struck me as a place where both intellectualism and faith could stand on their solid ground without insecurity. I feel that often we as humans strike back or thrash out in anger when that very nerve of insecurity has been struck. I guess my comment above is a cringe out of fear of BioLogos becoming a place where it is people instead of the institutions and thoughts behind them that are dismantled.

I will try to chime in every now and then with encouragement and exhortation as well in the future.

Kenneth Taylor - #61413

May 19th 2011

“As for all the “concerned” comments from Eliot, Kenneth, and erik, I
have not seen them here before and note their first (and only) comment
to BioLogos was this expression of “concern.”  Perhaps they should all
comment more often to help set the tone they demand from others.”

Fair enough.  I really do love this site, and despite my comments, I do appreciate the fact that there are people with the credentials and backbone to speak up when remarks like Hawking’s are making news.  It just really surprised me to see this article posted here, and my negative reaction to it unfortunately provoked a stronger need to respond than all of the great articles I’ve read here ever have.  Although I stand by my comments, I will definitely try to speak up more in the future about all the really great things that go on here.


Darrel F - #61426

May 19th 2011

We at BioLogos are pleased to have the reputation of an organization that is respectful of all even when they hold positions different from our own.  We really appreciate the fact that several people were taken aback by the fact that we have posted a piece that is decidedly edgy.  Hold us accountable! We need that.


Here’s why we chose to post this.  Certain leading scientists use the prestige that science provides to advance beliefs that are based more on philosophy than they are on scientific data. BioLogos exists in no small part to protect individuals, especially young people, from the impression that it is childish to maintain their faith in the Christian God once they become more scientifically astute.  When leading scientists use the platform that science has provided them to put forward views that are not grounded in scientific investigation, but rather are embedded in personal philosophy, we think it is important to request that they admit that they have left their scientific platform.

Having said that though, BioLogos needs to be well known for holding Christians accountable also.  Far too frequently we Christians overstep our bounds.  We attempt to use scientific tools to “prove” in a scientific sense our personal faith in the Creator.  Far too often Christians use poorly conceived scientific arguments to support truth claims that are based in a realm outside of the world of scientific testability.  These individuals also have stepped off the platform where they rightfully belong, one grounded on the Solid Rock. Too often we watch with embarrassment as they step off their rightful platform to mount one anchored only in the sinking sand of scientific mediocrity.  Here too it is wrong for BioLogos to be silent.

There is much at stake.  However, you are right to remind us that all must be said and done in the spirit of mutual respect and love—for those who believe…but also (especially) for those who don’t.

Alan Fox - #61435

May 19th 2011

Dear me, appreciating Darrel Falks’s remarks, but honestly! I have to concur with other commenters who think equating expression of a personal opinion to a personal insult is just rather cheap.



Mike Gene - #61438

May 19th 2011

Here’s is Stephen Hawking’s interview:

What is the value in knowing “Why are we here?”

The universe is governed by science. But science tells us that we can’t solve the equations, directly in the abstract. We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value.

You’ve said there is no reason to invoke God to light the blue touchpaper. Is our existence all down to luck?

Science predicts that many different kinds of universe will be spontaneously created out of nothing. It is a matter of chance which we are in.

So here we are. What should we do?

We should seek the greatest value of our action.

You had a health scare and spent time in hospital in 2009. What, if anything, do you fear about death?

I have lived with the prospect of an early death for the last 49 years. I’m not afraid of death, but I’m in no hurry to die. I have so much I want to do first. I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.

What are the things you find most beautiful in science?

Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations. Examples include the double helix in biology, and the fundamental equations of physics.”

I’m curious.  What if Hawking gave the same answers to the same questions without using his name?  What if you found these answers and questions on a Facebook page run by someone who calls himself “Dr. Steve” who offered this as a FAQ for his readers.  Is there anyone out there who would read this and conclude, “I don’t know who this Dr. Steve is, but by golly, whoever he is, he’s an Einstein!”   Anyone?  


Alan Fox - #61451

May 19th 2011

Einstein played his personal opinion cards pretty close to his chest so comparisons of Einstein’s personal opinions on the meaning of life to those of Hawking are problematic. And, who cares?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #61460

May 19th 2011

And, who cares?

To answer your question, Alan, many people seem to because books about Einstein seem to sell well, and I have no problem with that.

However I agree that we must all decide for ourselves what we believe to be true, not determined by what others think.


Mike Gene - #61480

May 20th 2011

And, who cares?

Not me.  But the folks at the Guardian care, as they sought Hawking out to get his opinions and a lot of other people care, as their article generated 3000 comments and over 2000 tweets.  What I am simply noting is that just because someone is very smart with physics does not mean they are very smart when it comes to topics outside of physics.  The Linus Pauling example from above is actually quite helpful.
 
As Kenneth notes above, “The name Einstein invokes brilliance.”  Yet there is really nothing brilliant about Hawking’s opinions on the meaning of life.  Like I said, if was just “Dr. Steve” offering up those answers to those questions, no one would care or think they were brilliant.  But because the media have turned Hawking into the smartest man on the planet, lots of people care about those opinions.


Alan Fox - #61484

May 20th 2011

And, who cares?

Not me.  But the folks at the Guardian care, as they sought Hawking out to get his opinions and a lot of other people care, as their article generated 3000 comments and over 2000 tweets.


Is that a lot? The interview didn’t cause much of a ripple in the mainstream in the UK. I don’t understand why anyone should think Hawking’s personal opinion on the afterlife matters much to anyone else. As far as I am concerned he is entitled to whatever belief he is comfortable with. He is not entitled to impose it on others and, if he expresses a view publicly, he is thus exposing himself to criticism or otherwise. Hawking has kept himself within these guidelines. That ought to apply to everyone else, too.

Your “smartest man on the planet” jibe seems spiteful but whatever.

Mike Gene - #61528

May 22nd 2011

Yep, it’s a snarky jibe aimed at the media.  Hawking himself is scornful of their framing:

Asked how it felt to be described as the world’s smartest man, he said it was “very embarrassing. It is rubbish. It is just media hype. They needed somebody to fill the role model of disabled genius. At least I’m disabled.”

http://www.washington.edu/doit/Press/hawking2.html


Roger A. Sawtelle - #61448

May 19th 2011

Steven Hawking:

The universe is governed by science.

Is Science a Person that can think and govern?

We need to use the effective theory of Darwinian natural selection of those societies most likely to survive. We assign them higher value.

It sounds as if he is saying that we must use the Darwin’s Theory to determine which cultures are “most likely to survive” and make them our examples.  Doubtlessly Hawking is thinking that the world should model itself on him and secular European society.   

However, it seems to me that Darwin said that fitness is determined by biological survival and reproduction.  Thus it seems that the societies where the population is growing faster than others must have a higher value than others.  Generally speaking the population growth of Europe is slower than other parts of the world, so European societies are least likely to survive according to science.

Again the thinking is shallow, although it does reveal the influence of the concept of Darwinism on people who are not biologists.  I do not see Christian bashing, but it is true that it would not recieve the attention that it does without Hawking’s name and prestige attached the interview.  

Of course BioLogos is concerned because it says rightly that science and Christianity should not in conflict, while important scientific figures say otherwise.   


Alan Fox - #61452

May 19th 2011

Roger;


I do not see Christian bashing…

Nor me!

Eric Ross - #61471

May 19th 2011

Christians frequently use cosmology in support of their beliefs.  For example BioLogos co-founder Francis Collins said in The Language of God:

The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.

Thus, it is disingenuous to suggest that one of the world’s leading cosmologists has no relevant expertise.  If you are tempted to retort that Christians do not use cosmology in support of heaven, you are also being disingenuous, as heaven is simply part of the package deal that is Christianity.

As far as concern about “insulting other people” goes, Collins also had this to say in The Language of God: “of all the possible worldviews, atheism is the least rational”.  Never mind that elite scientists are disproportionately atheist.  According to Collins, they are less rational than such luminaries as Fred Phelps, the good folks at Scientology’s Sea Org, and the Vanuatu cargo cultists.  Furthermore, your very own Bible says, not just once, but twice (Psalms 14 & 53): “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God ’.  They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deed; There is no one who does good.”  So please, let’s not the pot be calling the kettle black.


Eric Ross - #61476

May 20th 2011

Dr. Falk,

In light of the passage I quoted from The Language of God regarding the Big Bang (see comment 61471 above), is Francis Collins one of those Christians who “use poorly conceived scientific arguments to support truth claims that are based in a realm outside of the world of scientific testability” and need to be held to account?


Robert Byers - #61587

May 24th 2011

Stephen Hawkings has shown courage and strength in continuing and advancing his career despite his great physical problem.

Its a great morale and fun story to see people like this prevail over their problems.
yet despite his fame I ask what has he patented???
What has he done that a kid will read about 50 years from now in a book of the advances in knowledge?
Einstein easily is read and remembered about his stuff.
Whats Hawkings M equals something equation that all will quote?
if nothing notable then why does he have anything more to influence then someone who did something smart?!
i don’t agree with the concept of brilliance or intelligence or genius.
i see the divisions of intellect as the bible sees it. Knowledge, understanding, wisdom.
Hawkings has knowledge and perhaps understanding but where is the wisdom.
Anyways why does one subject have any bearing on a unrelated subject?

  Perhaps Hawkings smells he’s not contributing anything important and so throws in his two cents about God and Christianity.
indeed its wisdom that is needed to cure diseases like Hawkings.
This would be more smart then this physics stuff that is over rated for being smart. Thats why small circles long ago started it. it was more simple then biology.


liminal - #67053

January 13th 2012

A word about Stephen Hawkings Physical condition: From someone who works closely with people confined to wheelchairs, due to conditions acquired - they are often dificult people to get on with (not always of course), they tend to be difficult because they fight for their independence. Just remember their is nothing wrong with Hawkings brain!! Give him the respect due - don’t be fooled by the appearance.


Uncle Bonobo - #61603

May 24th 2011

“What has he done that a kid will read about 50 years from now in a book of the advances in knowledge?”

I hope your’re jesting.

Do you know any children who are interested in black holes?  I sure do.

The term “black hole” is synomymous with Steven Hawking.  Kids are entralled with concept of a “black hole.”  50 years from now, Hawking’s name will be in every grade school science book.  Hawking radiation is one of the coolest conncepts ever.  His work on black holes cements his palce as one of the greatest physcists of all time.

In the meantime: 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George’s_Secret_Key_to_the_Universe

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George’s_Cosmic_Treasure_Hunt


Hawking is not Einstein.  Eistein patented a refrigerator.  Hawking writes children’s books and immensly popular science books explaining extremely complex scientific concepts to the general public. 

Steven Hawking is No Einstein  as Abraham Lincoln was no Thomas Jefferson.

I also would like to see a response to Eric’s question. It appears there is a double standard in play here.




gcomeau2013 - #61613

May 24th 2011

“But, Einstein didn’t go around telling people how childish they were; Hawking is. Why?”

Since Einstein expressed his opinions on the shortcomings of people who believe in the afterlife in considerably more blunt and derogatory terms than Hawking did, your question is meaningless.

Hawking called people who believe in an afterlife afraid… Einstein called them fearful, egotistical and/or feeble. The exact quote would be:

“I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes
his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves.
An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my
comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or
absurd egoism of feeble souls.” - Albert Einstein - The World As I See It

So you can think Hawking is no Einstein if you like… but on this particular issue there isn’t really any space between their positions. So, care to reconsider your article’s title and closing sentence?


Robert Byers - #61615

May 24th 2011

Uncle bonobo

Well if this black hole stuff is proven like Einsteins stuff then it still would be a minor point.
I don’t know if Hawkings discovered black holes or not.
However I never hear his name associated with any discovery or invention.
one would have to show me this, if accurate, black hole thing is at all a notable deed. 
anyways it still must be a smaller accomplishment.
 50 years?! Well is his name today in science TEACHING books as a discover etc like the ones they usually catologue in explaining the advance of knowledge in nature?
If your saying he’s a great scientist etc then what would you rank him?
Above and below whom?

Uncle Bonobo - #61637

May 25th 2011

Well, ranking scientists doesn’t seem to make much sense after a certain point—say, the top one half of one per cent.  Picking the “top scientist” at that point is like picking the “Most Beautiful” Miss Wold Contestant.  They’re all beautiful and minor variations in indivduals, after a certain point, are matters of opinion with no meaningful distinction.  Of course, many worthy candidates don’t even bother to enter the competition.

Hawking holds two rare distinctions that put him in the scientific elite.  First, he is a past holder of the Lucasian Chair, the most famous academic chair in the world.  There have been only 18 Chair holders since the Chair was established in 1663.  The second holder of the Chair was Isaac Newton.  Hawking was seventeenth.

He was also a mmeber of the Royal Society, founded in 1660.  Members ascend a podium and sign a ledger as they are inducted into the society. In Hawking’s case, the Ledger was removed from the podium and brought to him.  Hawking describes signing the ledger, dating back to 1669 and placing his own signature below the signature of Isaac Newton.

However you measure it, Hawking is a scientist of the first order.  If I had to pick other great scientists, a non-exclusive list would include Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Marie Curie, and my personal favorite, Richard Feynman.

 The history of science is a fascinating subject.


Robert Byers - #61697

May 27th 2011

Science is not fascinating as its just people thinking about things.

A few figure things out and the rest don’t.

I ask why Hawkings is in any way a achiever in science and you tell me about chairs.
Thats not a patent or a discovery.
Its irrelevant.
you confirm he has done nothing of gain for knowledge of importance.
You make my point.
i wiki him and they mention minor details of math or radiation from black holes.
Trivil things.
I don’t see he deserves any comparison to actual achievers .
In fact he seems to have done nothing notable.
so why does what he think matter on origin issues?
Why is he being said to be smarter?
I think you and lots of people just like the story of a famous scientist and with his books or acting career it gave a allusion of accomplishment in “science”.
Yet i say he has done almost nothing and less then the guy who invented the microwave. Not all that.
I wish him well and health but I insist he is not worthy of any list of men who used wisdom or understanding worthy to be remembered 50 years from now.


Paul Burnett - #61756

May 28th 2011

Byers’ scientific illiteracy (of which he is so proud) and his utter inability to understand Stephen Hawking’s importance in the world of science are disturbingly illustrative of the populist ignorance that is rampant in America today. 

Byers’ revealed monumental ignorance of science in general and Stephen Hawking’s well-deserved place in science in particular is insulting - and sad.

Byers’ repetitive “I don’t understand it, therefore it’s useless” mantra might get him an elective office in some of the tea-bagger states - but I don’t recall that Byers has any patents, either.

Tell us, Byers: How many books have you had published?  And how many patents have your name on them?


Robert Byers - #61882

June 1st 2011

Wrote a book? So what? Why should that persuade anyone that Hawkings has done a notable contribution, or even close, to put him on a list of people who are famous for their contributions to science?

I plead ignorance indeed of what he has done that gives him any claim to know better or matter if one seeks those who were a cut above others in these fields of study.

You say well=deserved place in science then whats the place and why.
What did he discover, invent, figure out, patent, that is more then thousands or tens of thousands of people in the sciences in the last decades?
What prizes, like Noble, should he of got for this or that?
Chairs and books and a acting career are not accomplishments worthy to be noted decades from now by kids reading about men who made scientific advances.
I did wiki him and it was about minor points of math or black hole speculations.
I am not being dismissive of him but am asking what has he done to have any claim to be listened to if achievement in physics is his calling card.
i hope he’s healed and contributes cool stuff.
all anyone here has to do is itemize his ideas that advanced knowledge.
What’s the hold up?  

Roger A. Sawtelle - #61702

May 27th 2011

The problem as I see it is you have a scientist, perhaps even a grat scientist, expressing opinjions which perport to be based on science but they are not.

The universe is not governed by science.

Computers do have a mind/soul (software/data) which can and often does live on after the death of the hardware.

Science does not have an “effective theory of Darwinian natural selection” which can pick winners and losers from societies. 

Certainly one cannot say that the multiverse theory is proven nor can it be proven.
 
No statement in his interview is based on good science    


mmccants - #61853

May 31st 2011

“The problem as I see it is you have a scientist, perhaps even a great
scientist, expressing opinions which purport to be based on science.”

Not exactly.  His opinion is based on a scientific world view - reality is matter and energy - nothing more.  You can express a contrary view.  But you have no “evidence”.

“The universe is not governed by science.”

If the universe is matter and energy only, then science explains everything.

“Science does not have an “effective theory of Darwinian natural selection” which can pick winners and losers from societies.”

That’s not exactly what he said.  If Malthus was right, there are going to be such “winners and losers” in the future.  He said we need to “use” such a theory to help us decide which societies deserve to survive.  It’s an interesting political statement.  The “losers” probably will not be “happy”.  I’m glad I won’t be here to see what happens.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #61871

May 31st 2011

mm: His opinion is based on a scientific world view - reality is matter and energy - nothing more. You can express a contrary view. But you have no “evidence”.

Response:  I am not sure that this is The scientific world view.  I always thought that science was based on natural laws.  Natural laws are not matter/energy, because they govern matter and energy.  In other words, laws have to be independent of what they govern, or they would be subject to themselves.  

Roger: “The universe is not governed by science.”

mm: If the universe is matter and energy only, then science explains everything.

Response: I do not think that science can and does explain everything.  Science cannot expalin how ideas work.  Can it explain the economic meltdown in physical terms or the election of Barack Obama? 

Roger: “Science does not have an “effective theory of Darwinian natural selection” which can pick winners and losers from societies.”

mm: That’s not exactly what he said. If Malthus was right, there are going to be such “winners and losers” in the future. He said we need to “use” such a theory to help us decide which societies deserve to survive. It’s an interesting political statement. The “losers” probably will not be “happy”. I’m glad I won’t be here to see what happens.

Response: What he said was we need to apply this Darwinian scientific theory to societies, just as Social Darwinism and Eugenics proposed before Nazism made these concepts taboo. 
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