Elon Musk: Brave truth-teller or weird pontificator about the IRA?

Hugh Linehan: Billionaire has been telling Michael Milken about everything from AI to space travel to decline and fall of western civilisation

Breezy monomania: Elon Musk, the Tesla chief executive, has set himself up as a brilliant polymath. Photograph: Christian Marquardt/Pool/Getty

Sir Francis Galton was the very definition of an eminent Victorian polymath. A first cousin of Charles Darwin, he was an innovator in the then new fields of statistics, social science and psychology. The founder of scientific meteorology, he devised the first weather map. He is credited with coining the phrase “nature versus nurture”, inventing fingerprinting and even establishing the scientific basis for making a perfect cup of tea.

These days, however, Galton is best known as a founding father of the pseudoscience of eugenics. Taking some of the concepts that his cousin laid out in On the Origin of Species, he proposed a series of social interventions that would, he believed, enhance the process of natural selection among humans by encouraging fertility among some groups and discouraging it among others.

Galton was fascinated by the subject of hereditary genius, which he believed could be scientifically measured from generation to generation on the basis of data sourced from biographies, historical records and even newspaper obituaries. Not surprisingly, this data suggested that the most advanced and intelligent people on the planet happened to be public-school-educated Englishmen like himself.

Like many of his peers, Galton was haunted by the idea that Britain, then at its imperial zenith, would ultimately fall prey to internal decadence and the sheer weight of numbers of what he considered inferior races. Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire provided the obvious cautionary template for this imagined disaster to a generation raised on a classical education that emphasised the glory of the vanished Graeco-Roman world.


You can draw a direct line from this potent fusion of pseudo-history, bad science and racist catastrophism to the worst crimes of the 20th century, from the killing fields of the Belgian Congo to the bloodlands of central and eastern Europe.

In June 2020, University College London announced the renaming of a lecture theatre named after Galton because of his connection with eugenics. But his ideas have not gone away, and some of them can be discerned floating just beneath the surface of current debates about falling fertility rates in countries across the world.

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Which brings us, with grim inevitability, to Elon Musk. Fresh from praising anti-immigrant demonstrators in Dublin this week, and indulging in some pretty weird musings about how the IRA had gone soft, the Tesla billionaire appeared at a conference in California to discuss everything from AI to space travel to, yes, the decline and fall of western civilisation.

“I listen to podcasts about the fall of civilisations to go to sleep,” Musk told his host, Michael Milken. Armed with this deep research, he suggested that “one of the things that is overlooked by most historians is the role of low birth rate in the decline of civilisations. I think it was around 50BC [that] Rome passed a bill to give a bonus to any Roman citizen that would have a third child. So birth rate was a problem in Rome even in 50 BC. The Romans weren’t making Romans. The same was true of ancient Greece. It seems to me that prosperity destroys the birth rate.”

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Set aside for a moment the breezy monomania required to believe that by listening to podcasts while falling asleep you can intellectually outflank “most” historians of the classical world. (Eat your heart out, Mary Beard.) Not to mention that Rome didn’t exactly fall apart after 50 BC and that the reasons for its longer historical trajectory in the succeeding centuries are a little more complex than “Romans weren’t making Romans”.

What’s noteworthy – although not surprising – is that Musk, who has expressed his sympathy for demonstrators, many of whom espouse the racist “great replacement theory”, and who has amplified inflammatory and misleading memes about racial tensions in the United States, is more than happy to set himself up as the Francis Galton of his generation. The brilliant polymath unconstrained by narrow academic disciplines. The brave truth-teller prepared to go wherever the data takes him, regardless of the consequences.

But Galton, for all his faults and for all the pernicious consequences of his ideas, was operating near the outer limits of the scientific knowledge of his day, and within a very specific set of almost universally shared cultural assumptions and prejudices that he probably never fully understood. Musk has no such excuses.