Hipster Eugenics: Better Babies for Billionaires

Biopolitical Times
Artist’s impression of a transhumanist with a computer schematic diagram

Cropped from: “Decentralized_Transhumanism” by
Leonel Sohns, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The techno-utopian credos known as “effective altruism” and “longtermism” have recently gained wide notice, judging by Google searches, news articles, and personal experience. Far less attention has been paid to “hipster eugenics,” a term that brutally but accurately sums up the alarming trend previously known by the perhaps more anodyne “designer babies.” All are closely related.

Effective altruism has been defined rather politely as “a global philanthropic movement in which donors seek to maximize the impact of their giving for the long term.” In practice, it’s a harsher form of the utilitarianism espoused by Peter Singer, the provocative philosopher who supports animal rights but also infanticide and euthanasia (and is not on board with this program). It’s also more self-serving. Taken to an extreme, effective altruism is an excuse for getting as rich as possible, supposedly in order to give away as much as possible. It’s a post-modern mutation of charity, and the subtext behind most attempts at justifying billionaire philanthropy.

The topic did get some attention earlier this year with the publication of What We Owe the Future by William MacAskill. The author is a 35-year-old Oxford professor widely credited as an intellectual force since the 2015 publication of his Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and How You Can Make a Difference. At a conference that year, he met Elon Musk, who tweeted in August 2022 that MacAskill’s latest book was “a close match for my philosophy.” MacAskill connected Musk with Sam Bankman-Fried, the then crypto-billionaire, who considered joining Musk’s bid for Twitter before backing away. 

This was of course before the collapse of the cryptocurrency exchange company FTX, which in the course of one week made Bankman-Fried an ex-billionaire. It also drew attention to his lifestyle and financial goals, in particular his role as “the face of effective altruism.” In the aftermath, he admitted to Kelsey Piper of Vox that his professed devotion to balancing ethical imperatives was “not true, not really.”

Add longtermism to effective altruism, and the stew of confused self-justifications becomes exponentially more toxic. In short, that concept holds that “the welfare of future humans is as morally important – or more important – than the lives of current ones.” Moreover, if humanity survives climate change, there will eventually be many more future people than present ones, so what is a little mass starvation now if we can save the planet for later, engineer superior beings and colonize other planets too? 

On November 17, Insider published a well-researched article by Julia Black that ties these concepts together, originally titled:

Billionaires like Elon Musk want to save civilization by having tons of genetically superior kids. Inside the movement to take ‘control of human evolution.’

The use of Musk’s name is a defensible piece of puffery: The piece is not really focused on the world’s most notorious billionaire although he is the one of the loudest advocates of much that it describes. Presumably that is why the title was later changed to:

Can Super Babies Save the World?

The article features Malcolm and Simone Collins, a couple who were also the center of a Bloomberg article in May, to examine the implications of this alarming approach to the world: a combination of transhumanism, longtermism, and effective altruism. The Collinses are after a special kind of immortality as pronatalists (the concept dates back for centuries, but the pronatalist.org website is theirs). Their ambition is a twisted variant on eugenic thinking, which in its classic form presumes that some groups of people are intrinsically of more value than others. Business Insider explains their belief this way:

[A]s long as each of their descendants can commit to having at least eight children for just 11 generations, the Collins bloodline will eventually outnumber the current human population.

If they succeed, Malcolm continued, “we could set the future of our species.”

Well, 8^11 does equal 8.59 billion, and world population did reach 8 billion on about November 15, so the arithmetic works, though the assumptions are completely cuckoo. The extrapolations assume that every one of their descendants will be on board with the program; also that none of them will breed with another member of the clan, no matter how distantly related. Moreover, they assume that family life will remain much the same for 200 years or more. And finally that, despite their professed ambitions, most people will not follow their example; otherwise, global population might reach, oh, an inconceivable number. (Incidentally, it seems odd that business tycoons would so blithely ignore the concept of discounted future value.)

Simone’s response to the suggestion that they were “hipster eugenicists” was that Malcolm was going to want new business cards: “Simone and Malcolm Collins: Hipster Eugenicists.” Nothing like Nazi policies, she insists:

“I’m not eliminating people. I mean, I’m eliminating from my own genetic pool, but these are all only Malcolm and me.”

She has doubled down on this self-justification:

“What we advocate for is fairly vanilla—if aggressive—transhumanism: Improving and transforming the human condition with technology. Be against transhumanism all you want, but don’t call it eugenics.”

Unfortunately for her, that ship has long since sailed. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, arguably the first major transhumanist thinker, was a committed eugenicist. So was his contemporary Julian Huxley, who coined or at least popularized the term transhumanism. Yuval Harari anticipated in 2015 that the rich will become “some idea of a divine being” while the poor will “die out in droves.” Other supporters of both transhumanism and a new eugenics include Nick Bostrom, John Harris, Julian Savulescu, and Jeffrey Epstein. And the Collinses, aggressive transhumanists as they are, clearly demonstrate that it is possible to be part of a techno-eugenicist elite while remaining, in some particular ways, socially liberal:

The Collinses worry that the overlap between the types of people deciding not to have children with the part of the population that values things like gay rights, education for women, and climate activism – traits they believe are genetically coded – is so great that these values could ultimately disappear.

On the other hand:

The Collinses don’t expect – or even want – everyone in low-birth-rate countries to suddenly start having seven or more children. Instead, they see themselves as part of an elite subset of people responsible for growing their broods to offset all the Americans who will choose not to.

In May, the Collinses claimed that their approach was not to make designer babies, citing the movie Gattaca. But the movie was not about editing genes, it was about selection based on analysis of an individual’s genome. That is exactly what they did with their third child, described in November as a newborn female called Titan Invictus. The embryo they selected was said to have “an unusually good chance of avoiding heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and schizophrenia.” They decided not to take into account risk scores for autism, for which Simone has been diagnosed; she admits to struggling with some real-world situations but they both insist that she can “dramatically outcompete other people.” Indeed, Genomic Prediction, the company that performed the analysis, rated their choice of embryo 1.9 on a scale where zero reflects average risk and positive numbers are beneficial and the more the better. Another embryo, rejected of course, scored a suboptimal –0.96. 

The couple also had the genetic data analyzed by SelfDecode, which markets its services primarily to adults, billing itself rather bravely as:

The only genetic health testing & analysis that reveals your likelihood of experiencing specific health issues using ancestry-informed polygenic risk scores. … SelfDecode is the only place where you can get a completely custom supplement formula based on your genetic testing.

With a DNA kit included, the Health Insights Plan is $199 upfront and then $99 per year.

There are other options for the discerning consumer. Conception Bio focuses at present on turning stem cells into human eggs:

We want to help parents have kids, and we aspire to make future generations healthier. We are working on a technology that would give women the opportunity to have children well into their forties and fifties, eliminate barriers for couples suffering from infertility, and potentially allow male-male couples to have biological children.

The company has already leased space at theLAB [sic], an enormous and controversial development in Berkeley, and openly boasts about preparing to commit heritable human genome editing:

Long term, this technology could be a critical platform allowing for widespread genetic screening of embryos. If proven safe, it could even enable for genetic editing to eliminate and reduce the risk of devastating diseases for future generations – such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease and many different types of cancers.

This could become one of the most important technologies ever created.

They have competition in this arena of explicitly eugenic capitalism. Orchid launched in 2021 with $4.5 million to help couples “conceive with confidence” and its website still features an interview with bioethicist Jonathan Anomaly, the author of Creating Future People: The Ethics of Genetic Enhancement and a paper with the “deliberately provocative” title “Defending Eugenics.” He insists that “eugenics does not commit us to endorsing state-sponsored coercion” – Simone Collins might learn from his approach.

The idea of world-changing technologies has attracted some increasingly serious investments into genome analysis and what The Economist characterized as “the fountain of youth,” when Altos Labs raised $3 billion in January 2022. The company is slightly less florid in its self-description, describing its goal as “to transform medicine through cellular rejuvenation programming” and listing no fewer than four Nobel laureates as directors and/or advisors. Altos has competition from companies such as Life Biosciences, Turn Biotechnologies, AgeX Therapeutics, and Shift Bioscience, not to mention the techno-fantasies of the rich and famous we described in 2021:

At least four of the ten richest humans alive, according to Forbes, have put significant money into the search for immortality — Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, and Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Except for Business Insider’s article and a few other exceptions, most recent commentary has played down the eugenic ambitions of the Collinses, Musk, Bezos and the rest, focusing instead on the dramatic collapse of FTX and the chaotic activity at Twitter. For example, The New York Times published this op-ed by Anand Giridharadas:

This Week, Billionaires Made a Strong Case for Abolishing Themselves

Fyodor Urnov, however, kept his eye on the ball. Urnov is a long-standing pioneer of human genome editing, for many years at Sangamo Therapeutics and now at the University of California, Berkeley. He has been a consistent advocate for gene therapy and an equally consistent opponent of heritable human genome editing. His Twitter response to the Business Insider article about the Collinses was immediate, and an apt summary of the situation:

Let me be BRUTALLY clear.
The next step for this movement, superbly reported on by @mjnblack, is CRISPR "enhancement" of human embryos.
This will happen unless we face a stark reality: there is NO. UNMET. MEDICAL. NEED for embryo editing and thus ban it.

This post was updated on December 12 to reflect the evolving title of the Insider article.