Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy American financier who is accused of sex trafficking, had an unusual dream: he hoped to seed the human race with his DNA by impregnating women at his vast ranch in New Mexico.
Epstein confided to scientists and others about his scheme over the years, according to four people familiar with his thinking, although there is no evidence that it ever came to fruition.
His vision reflected his long-standing fascination with what has become known as transhumanism: the science of improving the human population through technologies like genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. Critics have likened transhumanism to a modern-day version of eugenics, the discredited field of improving the human race through controlled breeding.
Scientists gathered at dinner parties at Epstein's Manhattan mansion, where Dom Pérignon champagne and expensive wines flowed freely
Epstein, who was charged in July with the sexual trafficking of girls as young as 14, was a serial illusionist: he lied about the identities of his clients, his wealth, his financial prowess, his personal achievements. But he managed to use connections and charisma to cultivate valuable relationships with business and political leaders.
Interviews with more than a dozen of his acquaintances, as well as public documents, show that he used the same tactics to insinuate himself into an elite scientific community, thus allowing him to pursue his interests in eugenics and other fringe fields like cryonics. (Lawyers for Epstein, who has pleaded not guilty to the sex-trafficking charges, have not responded to requests for comment.)
Epstein attracted a glittering array of prominent scientists. They included the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who discovered the quark; the theoretical physicist and bestselling author Stephen Hawking; the palaeontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould; Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and bestselling author; George M Church, a molecular engineer who has worked to identify genes that could be altered to create superior humans; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek, also a Nobel laureate.
The lure for some of the scientists was Epstein’s money. He dangled financing for their pet projects. Some of the scientists say that the prospect of financing blinded them to the seriousness of his sexual transgressions, and even led them to give credence to some of Epstein’s half-baked scientific musings.
Scientists gathered at dinner parties at Epstein’s Manhattan mansion, where Dom Pérignon champagne and expensive wines flowed freely, even though Epstein did not drink. He hosted buffet lunches at Harvard’s Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, which he had helped start with a $6.5 million, or €5.8 million, donation.
Others flew to conferences sponsored by Epstein in the US Virgin Islands and were feted on his private island there. Once, the scientists – including Hawking – crowded aboard a submarine that Epstein had chartered. The Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker said he was invited by colleagues – including Martin Nowak, a Harvard professor of mathematics and biology, and the theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss – to “salons and coffee klatsches” at which Epstein would hold court.
While some of Pinker’s peers hailed Epstein as brilliant, Pinker describes him as an intellectual imposter. “He would abruptly change the subject, ADD-style, dismiss an observation with an adolescent wisecrack,” Pinker says. Another scientist cultivated by Epstein, Jaron Lanier, a prolific author who was a founder of virtual reality, says that Epstein’s ideas did not amount to science, in that they did not lend themselves to rigorous proof. Lanier says Epstein once hypothesised that atoms behaved like investors in a marketplace.
Lanier says that he declined any funding from Epstein and had met him only once after Epstein in 2008 pleaded guilty to charges of soliciting prostitution from a minor.
Epstein was willing to finance research that others viewed as bizarre. He told one scientist that he was bankrolling efforts to identify a mysterious particle that might trigger the feeling that someone is watching you. At one session at Harvard, Epstein criticised efforts to reduce starvation and provide healthcare to the poor because doing so increased the risk of overpopulation, says Pinker, who was there.
Pinker says he rebutted the argument, citing research showing that high rates of infant mortality simply cause people to have more children. Epstein seemed annoyed, and a Harvard colleague later told Pinker that he had been “voted off the island” and was no longer welcome at Epstein’s gatherings.
Epstein told scientists and businessmen about his ambitions to use his New Mexico ranch as a base where women would be inseminated with his sperm and give birth to his babies
Then there is Epstein’s interest in eugenics. On multiple occasions starting in the early 2000s, Epstein told scientists and businessmen about his ambitions to use his New Mexico ranch as a base where women would be inseminated with his sperm and give birth to his babies, according to two award-winning scientists and an adviser to large companies and wealthy individuals, all of whom Epstein told about it.
It was not a secret. The adviser, for example, says he was told about the plans not only by Epstein, at a gathering at his Manhattan town house, but also by at least one prominent member of the business community. One of the scientists says Epstein divulged his idea in 2001 at a dinner at the same town house; the other recalls Epstein discussing it with him at a 2006 conference that he hosted in St Thomas in the Virgin Islands.
The idea struck all three as far-fetched and disturbing. There is no indication that it would have been against the law. Once, at a dinner at Epstein’s mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Lanier says, he talked to a scientist who told him that Epstein’s goal was to have 20 women at a time impregnated at his 33,000-square-foot Zorro Ranch, in a tiny town outside Santa Fe. Lanier says the scientist identified herself as working at Nasa, but he does not remember her name.
According to Lanier, the Nasa scientist said Epstein had based his idea for a baby ranch on accounts of the Repository for Germinal Choice, which was to be stocked with the sperm of Nobel laureates who wanted to strengthen the human gene pool. (Only one Nobel Prize winner has acknowledged contributing sperm to it. The repository discontinued operations in 1999.)
Lanier, the virtual-reality creator and author, says he had the impression that Epstein was using the dinner parties – where some guests were attractive women with impressive academic credentials – to screen candidates to bear Epstein’s children.
Epstein did not hide his interest in tinkering with genes – and in perpetuating his own DNA. One adherent of transhumanism says that he and Epstein discussed the financier’s interest in cryonics, an unproven science in which people’s bodies are frozen to be brought back to life in the future. Epstein told this person that he wanted his head and penis to be frozen.
Southern Trust Co, Epstein’s Virgin Island-incorporated business, disclosed in a local filing that it was engaged in DNA analysis. Calls to Southern Trust, which sponsored a science and maths fair for school children in the Virgin Islands in 2014, were not returned.
In 2011 a charity established by Epstein gave $20,000, or almost €18,000, to the Worldwide Transhumanist Association, which now operates under the name Humanity Plus. The group’s website says that its goal is “to deeply influence a new generation of thinkers who dare to envision humanity’s next steps”.
Epstein’s foundation, which is now defunct, also gave $100,000, or just under €90,000, to pay the salary of Ben Goertzel, vice-chairman of Humanity Plus, according to Goertzel’s CV. “I have no desire to talk about Epstein right now,” Goertzel said in an email to The New York Times. “The stuff I’m reading about him in the papers is pretty disturbing and goes way beyond what I thought his misdoings and kinks were. Yecch.”
Alan Dershowitz, a professor emeritus of law at Harvard, recalls that at one lunch Epstein steered the conversation towards how humans could be improved genetically
Alan Dershowitz, a professor emeritus of law at Harvard, recalls that at a lunch Epstein hosted in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he steered the conversation towards the question of how humans could be improved genetically. Dershowitz said he was appalled, given the Nazis’ use of eugenics to justify their genocidal effort to purify the Aryan race.
Yet the lunches persisted. “Everyone speculated about whether these scientists were more interested in his views or more interested in his money,” says Dershowitz, who was one of Epstein’s defence lawyers in the 2008 case.
Luminaries at Epstein’s St Thomas conference in 2006 included Hawking and the California Institute of Technology theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. One participant at that conference, which was ostensibly about gravity, recalls that Epstein wanted to talk about perfecting the human genome. Epstein said he was fascinated with how certain traits were passed on, and how that could result in superior humans.
Epstein appears to have gained an entry into the scientific community through John Brockman, a literary agent whose bestselling science writers include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Goleman and Jared Diamond. Brockman has not responded to requests for comment.
For two decades Brockman presided over a series of salons that matched his scientist-authors with potential benefactors. (The so-called “billionaires’ dinners” apparently became a model for the gatherings at Epstein’s Manhattan town house, which included some of the same guests.)
In 2004 Brockman hosted a dinner at the Indian Summer restaurant in Monterey, California, where Epstein was introduced to scientists, including Seth Lloyd, the MIT physicist. Lloyd says he found Epstein to be “charming” and to have “interesting ideas”, although they “turned out to be quite vague”.
Also at the Indian Summer dinner, according to an account on the website of Brockman’s Edge Foundation, were the Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who was accompanied by his mother. “All the good-looking women were sitting with the physicists’ table,” Daniel Dubno, who was a CBS producer at the time and attended the dinner, was quoted as saying. Dubno says he does not recall the dinner or having said those words.
Brockman was Gell-Mann’s agent, and Gell-Mann, in the acknowledgments section of his 1995 book The Quark and the Jaguar, thanked Epstein for his financial support. However impressive his roster of scientific contacts, Epstein could not resist embellishing it. He claims on one of his websites to have had “the privilege of sponsoring many prominent scientists”, including Pinker, Thorne and the MIT mathematician and geneticist Eric Lander.
Pinker says he has never taken any financial or other support from Epstein. “Needless to say, I find Epstein’s behaviour reprehensible,” he says. Thorne, who recently won a Nobel Prize, says he attended Epstein’s 2006 conference, believing it to be cosponsored by a reputable research centre. Other than that, “I have had no contact with, relationship with, affiliation with or funding from Epstein,” he says. “I unequivocally condemn his abhorrent actions involving minors.”
Lee McGuire, a spokesman for Lander, says he has had no relationship with Epstein. “Mr Epstein appears to have made up lots of things,” McGuire says, “and this seems to be among them.” – New York Times