The transhumanist philosopher, Silicon Valley money, and lab-made gametes

Biopolitical Times
Nick Bostrom talking with a white button up. His hands are gesturing in front of him.

"ECOSOC 2013" by UN Geneva is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

An overlapping set of movements— effective altruism, longtermism, and transhumanism, all with strong links to eugenics—have recently made news, thanks to the antics of high-profile proponents including Elon Musk and former cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried.

The latest leading figure in these movements to come under media scrutiny is Oxford University philosophy professor Nick Bostrom. Bostrom is known for his research on “existential risk” and his advocacy of both longtermism and human enhancement. A blatantly racist email that Bostrom posted to a listserv in the 1990s recently surfaced; the odd and insufficient apology he issued failed to actually repudiate the racist pseudoscience on IQ that his initial email endorsed.

For readers of this blog and others familiar with Bostrom’s work, his statements should hardly come as a surprise. Bostrom not only consistently ranks the worth of individuals based on their “cognitive ability,” but also advocates for the use of reproductive technology, including the production of artificial gametes and genetic engineering, to “enhance” humanity.

It’s worth taking a closer look at Bostrom’s central role in this toxic stew of eugenic thinking, emerging reprogenetic technologies, and billionaire investors. Of particular note is the connection between Bostrom’s thought and the rapid development of and attempts to commercialize in vitro gametogenesis—the production of human gametes from stem cells for use in reproduction.


Longtermism and Existential Risk

Bostrom is a leading thinker and spokesperson for the interrelated philosophical ideas of existential risk, longtermism, and transhumanism. The study of existential risk, or X-risk, speculates about future catastrophes that could lead to human extinction. As Bostrom puts it, X-risk philosophy is concerned with “events that would cause the extinction of intelligent life or permanently and drastically cripple its potential.”

As this quote suggests and as many who share his ideas about transhumanism make plain, Bostrom’s views include a deep fear of disability. The worst fate for humanity would be widespread disability, but he also fears a “plateau” of human evolution, meaning that humanity does not keep making advancements in health and technology at the same rate as in the last several centuries.

Bostrom has also contributed to the study and advocacy of “longtermism”—itself a central idea of the effective altruist movement. Effective altruism provides the elite with a justification for making as much money as possible under the theory that doing so maximizes their ability to do longterm good through philanthropy. The qualifier “longterm” points to their focus on the well-being of the potentially enormous number of people who could exist far in the future, especially if humans eventually colonize space.

In this worldview, efforts to increase the chances of future humans’ existence and to improve their lives almost always outweigh concerns about present-day risks and actually existing inequality. A mode of thinking that justifies enormous expenditures on speculative technologies that might help reduce “X-risk,” while sidelining concerns about present day injustices, clearly appeals to the Silicon Valley elite who pour money into the sprawling web of institutes dedicated to propounding this way of thinking.


Eugenics to Guard Against Apocalypse

Among the speculative technologies that Bostrom and his fellow transhumanists would like to see developed are reproductive biotechnologies that would permit genetic selection and genetic engineering of embryos, particularly to “enhance” human capacities. Such “enhanced” humans would be “healthier, wittier, happier people” who could produce far more value than unenhanced humans.

The primary goal is to use genetic technologies to produce more intelligent humans. According to Bostrom, creating more intelligent humans is crucial for reducing “X-risk” because they would make an outsized contribution to the kinds of scientific innovations that we need to address long-term issues.

Bostrom uses this justification to sidestep widespread concerns that heritable genetic engineering is almost certain to exacerbate inequality. He claims that “improving” humanity is necessary for our continued existence and flourishing. Bostrom’s discussion of genetic “enhancement” is, of course, rife with reliance on deeply flawed, subjective claims about IQ measurements and harmful hierarchical rankings based on “cognitive ability.” Though more scholarly in tone, these ideas are very much like his 1996 email and his recent pseudo-apology.

Bostrom often claims he is not a eugenicist—because he disapproves of state-mandated use of genetic technology—but he clearly endorses eugenic beliefs regarding the heritability of intelligence and the ability to objectively measure it. These beliefs, evident in his scholarship, are deeply intertwined with the eugenics movement’s racism and its pseudo-science.

And while Bostrom’s objection to eugenics hinges on upholding parental choice and autonomy, he expresses hope that social and economic pressure will lead more prospective parents to choose genetic selection for enhancement. Selection, he believes, might become “the thing responsible enlightened couples do,” thus achieving eugenic ends without state coercion.


X-Risk Philosophy and Emerging Reproductive Biotechnology

Bostrom’s enthusiastic endorsement of “enhancing” human genetics, is tempered by his doubt that “improvements could be accomplished in a practically meaningful time frame through selective human breeding.” In order to significantly speed up the process of “improving” human capacities, he proposes using emerging reproductive biotechnologies for genetic selection.

To achieve this, Bostrom and co-author Carl Shulman support the development of “stem-cell derived gametes,” or in vitro gametogenesis (IVG), for use in “iterated embryo selection” (IES). Here is their proposal for combining these currently speculative procedures:

       1. Genotype and select a number of embryos that are higher in desired genetic characteristics;

       2. Extract stem cells from those embryos and convert them to sperm and ova, maturing within 6 months or less;

       3. Cross the new sperm and ova to produce embryos;

       4. Repeat until large genetic changes have been accumulated.

Bostrom and Shulman make the unfounded and ludicrous claim that IES could lead to gains of over 100 IQ points, resulting in either an “intellectual renaissance” or “posthumanity” if the practice becomes widespread.

Others have also noted the potential for IVG to alter the landscape of genetic selection by making available an unlimited supply of embryos. As reporter Antonio Regalado has said, “because [IVG] could turn eggs into a manufactured resource, it could supercharge the path to designer children.”

In addition to a handful of research labs, at least three new startups—Gameto, Ivy Natal, and Conception—are trying to develop IVG in humans (although there is no indication that they are planning to pursue IES) and are already applying for patents on their work. These companies hype the benefits of using IVG for the laudable goals of addressing infertility or someday enabling same-sex couples to have children genetically related to both partners. But other uses—and markets—are in the works. Regalado reports that Conception recognizes the potential for its technology to permit “wide-scale genomic selection and editing in embryos.”

Recognizing these prospects is especially urgent because the same funders are bankrolling both X-risk philosophers like Bostrom and IVG startups. The Open Philanthropy Project, to which Bostrom’s coauthor Shulman is an advisor, has provided funding to Bostrom’s Future of Humanity Institute as well as speculative reproductive biotechnology research. Cari Tuna and Facebook cofounder Dustin Muskovitz founded the Open Philanthropy Project and run the connected organization Good Ventures, both of which reflect their founders’ belief in effective altruism. Good Ventures has provided grants totaling $6.5 million to a team that successfully carried out IVG in mice.

Jaan Tallin, the founder of Skype, is a large investor in the IVG company Conception and is also a co-founder of two X-Risk centers, Center for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge and the Future of Life Institute. The Future of Life Institute counts Elon Musk and MIT geneticist George Church, who is working on IVG with Gameto, among its external advisors. The Institute also has links to Bostrom.

We must scrutinize these financial links and the racist, eugenic thinking that undergirds the field of X-risk. Given the massive amount of money being invested in IVG efforts as well as the uptick in patent filings related to IVG, we should also have grave concerns about the development and commercialization of IVG. Public debates and policy discussions about potential uses of IVG and other reprogenetic developments are essential now. We must not leave the development and implementation of these technologies up to those who endorse Bostrom’s eugenic thinking.


Jennifer Denbow is Associate Professor of Political Science at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and is currently completing a book manuscript titled In the Name of Innovation: Neoliberalism, Biotechnology, and Reproductive Labor.