Immortality Island

Jules Evans
8 min readAug 11, 2022


Art generated by MidJourney

In Chinese mythology, there are five islands in the Bohai Sea, inhabited by immortal beings who have discovered the elixir of life. Many have searched for the islands, but no one have yet found them. I came close, however, four years ago this very week, when I travelled deep into the Nevada desert, to go to Burning Man.

I’m not going to talk about the festival. Its wonders are already well known. Personally, I found it quite hard in my borrowed tent that didn’t zip up and gradually filled with sand. But I’m glad I went, because it was my introduction to a fascinating subculture within San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

Many members of the camp I was in were Thielians. They worked for organisations connected to or funded by Peter Thiel, a billionaire who founded PayPal and has since invested in many other leading tech companies.

Thiel is an interesting person. He’s a libertarian interested in how to escape the power of nation-states, whether through cryptocurrency or through setting up your own floating micronations.

And he’s a transhumanist. He’s invested a lot of money into longevity research, genetics and psychedelics, as means to enhance and transcend ordinary human capabilities.

All these interests were represented in my camp at Burning Man. I met people who worked at SENS (the longevity / immortality company Thiel funded), the Seasteading Institute (another Thiel-funded project which tries to establish floating cities outside of national jurisdictions), and in crypto funds. And everyone was on psychedelics (Thiel is a big investor in Compass, the world’s biggest psychedelic company).

I’d never met anyone who genuinely thought they could live forever. Now I was surrounded by them. What do you want to do with forever, I asked one immortalist. ‘Get high, explore the universe’, he replied.

Art generated by Midjourney

Now, there’s a specific overlap of interests that I’m interested in learning more about — and I write this week’s newsletter as a way of thinking out loud, in the hope that some of my readers may be able to help me learn more. I’m interested in the overlap between Burning Man-esque libertarian utopias and genetic modification and longevity research.

Here’s what I’ve noticed so far.

I noticed that crypto and genetics investor and Silicon Valley guru Balaji Srinivasan, in his book Network States, imagined tech people starting up their own mini-nations around particular shared values, and one example he gave was of people interested in longevity research who wanted to be free of the interference of the FDA starting up their own state.

In other words, an island of people who want to be immortal, or at the least, to radically extend their lifespans.

The founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, are devoted Burners. They’re also some of the biggest investors in longevity and genetic research, through the company Calico, and in space exploration, through their support of SpaceX.

Larry Page has said that technological innovation would be helped by Burning Man-type places, beyond national jurisdiction, where people can experiment:

There are many, many exciting and important things we can do but we can’t do because they’re illegal or not allowed by regulations. As technologists we should have safe places [like Burning Man] where we can try out new things and figure out the effect on society and people without having to deploy into the normal world. People who like those kind of things can go there and experiment.

The best place to do this, it seems to me, would be an island, like the one off Fiji where Page spent most of the pandemic.

Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle, has donated an incredible $370 million to longevity research — a tiny slice of his $120 billion fortune. He’s said that if he was at the start of his career, he’d go into synthetic and digital biology rather than computing. He owns his own island in Hawaii, although that’s still under US jurisdiction of course.

Then there’s Richard Branson, British billionaire, also an investor in genetic testing and space tourism, who owns his own party island in the Caribbean. Jamie Wheal, author of Stealing Fire, told me: ‘I was on Necker Island with Richard Branson and that whole crew, and it was all these elite Alpha Burners. This transnational hypermobile psychedelically-informed bunch of Alpha hippies pretty much runs the world.’

There’s Christian Angermeyer, a business partner of Peter Thiel’s, who is the world’s biggest investor in psychedelics, and also a big investor in cryptocurrency and longevity research — he thinks technology will soon be invented that will enable him to become 18 again, forever. Or Vitalik Buterin, founder of the cryptocurrency Ethereum, who has invested $336 million into longevity research and is fascinated by the idea of start-up nations or tech utopias free of bureaucratic regulation.

So I see an overlap of some interests among some ultra-rich people: genetic editing, longevity research, psychedelics, offshore finance (crypto), and offshore or off-world living. And I wonder if those interests have coalesced, as they did for Balaji, in the idea of a sort of transhumanist libertarian offshore utopia along the lines of Liberland.

I see some writers, philosophers and scientists imagining this sort of future too. Author Nils Gilman tweeted this last year:

Gilman works for the Berggruen Institute, set up by real estate billionaire Nicolas Berggruen. The Institute supports research into ‘future humans’ and ‘the transformation of the human’, in an attempt to improve public understanding and awareness of things like genetic modification. I attended one Berggruen Institute weekend where the guest speaker was Peter Sloterdijk, a philosopher who provoked a lot of controversy in his native Germany by suggesting politics must embrace the task of breeding a new elite. (I’m not suggesting Berggruen is interested in offshore illicit genetic enhancement, by the way — if he was, he probably wouldn’t fund public discussion of the topic).

Another of Silicon Valley’s favourite thinkers is Yuval Noah Harari, who has suggested humans will ‘split into different biological castes’ — on the one hand, homo deus, and on the other, a ‘useless class’ made up of most of humanity. One sees a similar sort of idea in rationalist thinkers like Scott Alexander, Dominic Cummings and Eliezer Yudkowsky, who are all popular in Silicon Valley. These thinkers tend to believe that intelligence, talent and character is largely hereditary, and they’re interested in genetic breeding programmes to try and create a super-intelligent elite.

Cummings has written admiringly of physicist Steve Hsu’s work with the Chinese government to identify the genes for intelligence in an attempt to create a cohort of the super-smart, and he seems to have a genius theory of innovation, whereby social progress relies on the occasional genius like John Von Neumann or Alan Kay. Eliezer Yudkowsky has imagined an alternative utopia called Dath Ilan, steered by the highly intelligent, where those with dysfunctional heredity are segregated in ‘quiet places’ and prevented from breeding (Vitalik Buterin said he’d like to live there). Scott Alexander has admired the millennia-long breeding programme described in Dune (in an essay which he’s since taken it down).

And long before these thinkers, you find people like the Huxley brothers, Julian and Aldous. Julian popularized the word ‘transhumanism’ in an essay of 1951, and thought humans have entered a stage where we can steer evolution, through scientific guiding of human reproduction, to create advanced human beings. His brother Aldous incorporated this idea into his last novel, Island, about a utopian community that combines psychedelics and tantric sex with population-wide genetic modification to control population and raise intelligence.

Before that, you had Nobel prize-winning scientist Alexis Carrel, a friend of both brothers, who bought an island off Brittany where he and Charles Lindbergh could pursue their semi-legal research into scientific immortality. And before that, there was Julian’s friend and co-author, HG Wells, who wrote The Island of Dr Moreau in 1896, about a doctor who finds an island where he can carry out his experiments in synthetic biology far from prying eyes.

As I said, this article is just speculative. I wonder: we know that the ultra-rich want to radically extend their life-spans, and they want to do it without the interference of the FDA or other genetic regulation. Is this not likely, as Nils Gilman suggested, to lead to a booming if secretive market for offshore genetic modification?

Perhaps it’s not necessary for them to buy their own islands or even start their own micro-nations — they can simply find a regime that is friendly to their immortalist interests, like Saudi Arabia say, where Prince Mohammad bin Salman is launching a new city with drop-in labs for genetic modification.

The super-rich elite investing in genetic editing and longevity no doubt fills the conspiracy class with horror. Personally, I think longevity research has the possibility to dramatically improve all our lives — many of the illnesses on which we now spend trillions, like dementia and Parkinson’s, are symptoms of the real issue, which is genetic ageing. If we can understand how to slow or reverse that, life could be a lot better for us. We would all benefit from the advances of a few early adopters, just as we all benefit from personal computers and the internet, even though their usage was originally confined to a tiny elite.

This is the position Sir Martin Rees, the Royal Astronomer in the UK and a fan of long-term thinking on existential risks, takes to the issue. In his book On the Future: Prospects for Humanity, he thinks a handful of humans will brave the risks and difficult conditions to settle on other planets, and this group will have to ‘harness the super-powerful genetic and cyborg technologies that will be developed in coming decades. These techniques will be, one hopes, heavily regulated on Earth, on prudential and ethical grounds, but ‘settlers’ on Mars will be far beyond the clutches of the regulators. We should wish them good luck in modifying their progeny to adapt to alien environments. This might be the first step in divergence towards a new species’.

That’s a pretty remarkable passage. I don’t know if I entirely welcome the prospect of a new species of off-planet genetic superhumans — at some point I imagine these superhumans will think, why don’t we move back to the comfort of Earth and clear away those low-grade homo sapiens? But this is far distant sci-fi stuff.

There are more proximate potential dark sides to offshore genetic modification. You could get a religious nutter like Osho or Shoko Asahara breeding a virus to reduce the world’s population. Or you could have a billionaire able to waive any ethical concerns as they play out their god-fantasies in their island kingdom, like Jeffrey Epstein on his rape island, where he invited the world’s top scientists and shared his plans for a genius breeding programme (using his own DNA, naturally).

Anyway, is this an idle fantasy of mine, or is offshore genetic modification for the super-rich really a Thing? If you’ve come across books, articles or people to talk to, let me know.