Googleplex, the Google HQ in Mountain View, California, is an incubator for new religious movements. Ten years ago, Google hired Ray Kurzweil, prophet of the Singularity. In 2015, Google engineer Anthony Levandowski started The Way of the Future, a church to worship super-intelligent AI. And now we have the Religion of the Future Police, began by former Google manager Malcolm Collins and his wife Simone.
The Collinses came to my attention last month, thanks to a great article by Julia Black in Business Insider, called ‘Can Super Babies Save the World’. They’re the founders of pronatalist.org, and part of a pronatalist movement growing in Silicon Valley and around the world. Pronatalists think the world is facing a population crisis: not too many people, but too few. They think civilization is threatened because of lowering birth rates, ageing populations and plummeting male fertility (average sperm count fell 50% between 1973 and 2019, and no one is sure why).
The Collinses write: ‘Only cultures with a strong external motivation to have kids are well above repopulation rate at the moment; all others will enter the dustbin of history.’ We need more humans, and we need higher-quality humans, produced by strong cultures and talented families, like the Collinses. Like so many entrepreneurs, they dream of saving the world. Julia Black writes:
as 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’.
Probably the most controversial part of their plan is their embrace of genetic enhancement for their children, something which they say is a secret pursuit among the tech rich. ‘We are the Underground Railroad of ‘Gattaca’ babies and people who want to do genetic stuff with their kids,’ Malcolm said. They used a company called Genomic Prediction, started by physicist Steve Hsu, which offers polygenic risk scores on embryos. Julia Black writes:
Though Genomic Prediction’s “LifeView” test officially offers risk scores only for 11 polygenic disorders — including schizophrenia and five types of cancer — they allowed the Collinses to access the raw genetic data for their own analysis. Simone and Malcolm then took their data export to a company called SelfDecode, which typically runs tests on adult DNA samples, to analyze what the Collinses called “the fun stuff.”
Sitting on the couch, Simone pulled up a spreadsheet filled with red and green numbers. Each row represented one of their embryos from the sixth batch, and the columns a variety of relative risk factors, from obesity to heart disease to headaches. The Collinses’ top priority was one of the most disputed categories: what they called “mental-performance-adjacent traits,” including stress, chronically low mood, brain fog, mood swings, fatigue, anxiety, and ADHD. With a large number of green columns and a score of 1.9, Embryo №3 — aka Titan Invictus (an experiment in nominative determinism) — was selected to become the Collinses’ third child.
They’ve been called ‘hipster eugenicists’ and, like many eugenicists, they’re not the most obvious ubermenschen themselves. Malcolm comes from a monied Dallas family, but he rebelled when his parents divorced and was sent to various youth prisons. He ended up on the streets, so hungry he was forced to eat insects. Looking back, he realizes this taught him resilience and independent thinking. He briefly worked as a manager at Google but left for a job at a VC firm in South Korea. It was there he had his epiphany about the looming demographic crisis.
He writes: ‘At their current birth rate, there will be six great grandchildren for every hundred Koreans. This is tantamount to a disease wiping out 94% of the population over the next century. Any business built in the country was a sketch on a beach before the rising tide.’ But when he brought the problem up, his fund’s response was: ‘That is common knowledge here; so, what?’ ‘Everyone seemed familiar with the severity of the issue, yet nobody discussed potential solutions.’ The problem was just as bad in other countries, he realized.
Then, in 2016, he met Simone. She came from a hippy polyamorous Californian family, which she rebelled against. She has autism spectrum disorder, and had severe teenage depression, during which starved herself so badly she now can’t have children naturally (which worked out for the best, as it opened the door to embryonic selection). She worked for Peter Thiel’s Dialog — which Malcolm describes as a ‘secret society’, but is really an invite-only annual ideas forum. In 2016 she set up an OKCupid profile and scored her dates out of 50. They were all below 20 except Malcolm, who scored 46. She was refreshed by his direct and highly rational approach to dating — he said he wanted to find a wife, have lots of kids, and help save the world from demographic collapse. You had me at demographic collapse, she sighed (not really). He proposed to her in a Reddit post that went viral, in which his avatar ‘Sir Technocracy’ proposed to hers, ‘Lady Technocracy’, via a range of artworks selected from an online competition (the proposal also cleverly promoted Malcolm’s online art start-up — now that’s sexy).
Today they live in a farmhouse in Philadelphia with three children and a fourth on the way. They’re launching a VC fund and accepting enrollments for The Collins Institute School for the Gifted, a $20,000-a-year course in homeschooling which teaches students math, coding, how to pitch, how to run successful email campaigns, and other life-skills. They’re also running a match-making service for alpha adults, and they’ve launched their own religion with an elaborate theology described in a GoogleDoc. They discuss how to create your own religion in their new book, The Pragmatist’s Guide to Crafting Religion.
Don’t mess with the Future Police
They call their religion ‘secular Calvinism’ — interestingly, the scientist JBS Haldane called eugenics ‘scientific Calvinism’ in the 1920s. They believe the ultimate good in the universe is ‘sapience’. More humans = more sapience. More educated and more free-thinking humans = even more sapience. Intelligent, free-thinking humans are better, according to this theology, than conformist dull-witted herd-humans, or what the Collinses call ‘husks’:
we call them a “husk” because when someone halts the process of creative destruction — refusing to explore, weigh, and sometimes to accept new ideas — they stop being meaningfully human (in our House’s view, at least).
When eugenicists say that people who think differently to them are ‘husks’ who have ‘stopped being meaningfully human’, that’s a red flag folks!
They call their mini-culture ‘House Collins’ — this may be a nod to Game of Thrones or to House Atreides in Frank Herbert’s eugenics-obsessed Dune. Or perhaps it’s a reference to House Hapsburg, which dominated European history for several centuries. What they are trying to do in their theology, it seems to me, is create strong cultural norms with space for creative rebellion.
House Collins has its norms, traditions and metaphysical beliefs, but they are presented in a somewhat playful, non-dogmatic, Silicon Valley way. Instead of God, for example, they have the ‘Future Police’. When he faced hardships, Malcolm coped by imagining all his actions being viewed by his god-like descendants, who he nicknamed ‘the Future Police’. They would cheer him on when he acted for the long-term good of the species / House Collins. It was a game, at first, but it became an important part of the theology of House Collins:
Maybe “we” (Simone and I) don’t specifically matter, and distant future generations are really just manipulating subtle quantum events that, on the macro scale, ensure our family serves some specific, predestined function for our species. Perhaps the only reason that those events “target” us at the macro scale is because we are willing to assume roles that other “candidate” families are unlikely to accept. Maybe the way to “curry favor” with the Future Police is to have a very strict and specific moral code, signaling one’s utility as a useful pawn in their larger plans.
Like the God of Calvinism, the Future Police have their Elect, their Abrahams and Sarahs, and their Canaanites, their Passed-Over. The Collinses are not sure if the Future Police really exist, but they act as if they do: ‘We have built some holidays for our kids around the concept of Future Police and these portray them in simple terms, like they might appear in futuristic armor because it is easy for kids to understand.’ Just as Santa won’t give presents to kids who are naughty, so the Future Police might exterminate those humans who fail to further the long-term good of the species:
Future police as a family tradition are also very useful in conveying more complex concepts exemplifying our Secular Calvinist cultural framework (such as predestination, the future that must come to pass, and the Elect) in ways that a child can easily understand. For example, it is easy to explain to a kid why the Future Police have no motivation to protect an individual who lives only for themselves or their immediate community instead of the future of the species and their family. Future Police also allow for fun family holiday traditions. For example, at the beginning of each year, our family has a celebration in which we combine common New Year’s traditions (such as making commitments to the future) with Future Police motifs, encouraging our kids to “prove their dedication to the future” to these distant descendants in order to curry their favor and secure gifts and privileges.
Collins holidays make the Costanzas’ festivus seem normal. Nonetheless, they raise an interesting point. They say that their religion is a form of descendant worship. Cultures have worshipped ancestors for millennia, but as far as I know, this is the first explicit religion of descendant worship — and now I think of it, that’s precisely what the ‘future religion’ of eugenics has always been: a worship of future humans. They write:
Our descendants will eventually become indistinguishable from gods in our eyes…Our job is to tend a garden in which the divine germinates and grows. A theological framing that features descendent worship produces several meaningful outcomes: It encourages us to aggressively improve future generations in a way that can come off as unethical to other groups (e.g. to become early adopters of polygenic risk score selection, gene editing, technological alteration, etc.).
While they hope House Collins has a major role in the future of humanity, it is not the case that they want to turn humanity into a sort of monogenic plantation. They encourage individual, cultural and genetic diversity, what John Stuart Mill called ‘experiments in living’. And they plan to launch an Index, to keep track of all these experiments, monitor House outcomes, and perhaps track inter-house marriages and their achievements — what in horse-breeding is known as a Stud Book.
Certainly, the Future Police seem to be guiding them to prominence and influence. The Pronatalism movement spread through Peter Thiel’s Dialog, where Simone worked, and has other supporters in the ‘PayPal mafia’. PayPal cofounder Luke Nosek hosted a gathering at his home on Austin’s Lake Travis to discuss “The End of Western Civilization,” a common catchphrase in the pronatalist movement. Another PayPal cofounder, Elon Musk, has tweeted: ‘Population collapse due to low birth rates is a much bigger risk to civilization than global warming’. He’s had 10 children, five by IVF, one by a surrogate mother, and one with a Neuralink executive who wanted a child so Musk donated his super-sperm. He apparently thinks rich, high IQ men should have as many children as possible. Julia Black writes:
A source who worked closely with Musk for several years described this thinking as core to the billionaire’s pronatalist ideology. “He’s very serious about the idea that your wealth is directly linked to your IQ,” he said. The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for this article, also said Musk urged “all the rich men he knew” to have as many children as possible.
Jeffrey Epstein seemed to share this view — he planned to impregnate 10 specially-chosen women with his sperm to create House Epstein.
The Silicon Valley elite are betting big on reproductive technologies as a growth market. Sergey Brin, Peter Thiel, Christian Angermayer, Steve Jurvetson, Larry Ellison and others have all invested in fertility and genomic editing start-ups. One investor tells Black: ‘The 20th century was about atoms and bits. The 21st century is about biology and babies.’ But the pronatalism movement stretches far beyond Silicon Valley. In fact, over 30% of countries have some form of pronatalist policies in place. The UN found that nearly three quarters of governments had policies related to fertility. ‘Of these, 69 governments had policies to lower fertility, 55 aimed to raise fertility, and 19 focused on maintaining current levels of fertility.’
Some countries already allow parents to select embryos based on polygenic scores, or gender — the US, Mexico, Thailand and Italy reportedly allow PGT (polygenic testing), and other countries like Israel are considering it. Singapore is likely to follow — Lee Kuan Yew promoted eugenic policies to breed a superior elite to run the country (including government-sponsored love-cruises to match high educational achievers). In the UK, former government advisor Dominic Cummings has championed Steve Hsu’s work and applauded Singapore’s search for genetically-gifted children to run the country.
Pronatalist policies in themselves don’t seem essentially fascist to me, and could be as simple as providing subsidies for childcare or maternity leave. And meritocratic countries have always searched for the most gifted candidates to run the country, used tests to try and select a ruling elite, from the Chinese civil service exam to the Oxbridge interview. And, to be honest, I like oddballs like the Collinses — they give writers something to write about. Life would be boring if people didn’t challenge taboos.
Nonetheless I see some problems with the Collins worldview. One danger of scientific religions is that they take a new scientific theory and turn it into an absolute dogma. There’s a real risk that we will give far too great predictive power to polygenic scores, sorting people into the Elect and Passed over based on very young science. Not to mention other genetic enhancement technologies that might become available. Let the advances come from attempts to prevent suffering, not from pushy parents experimenting on their kids.
Secondly, hereditarianism (the belief that the determining factor in your life is heredity) doesn’t necessarily make for good parenting. If you read Robert Plomin’s Blueprint, the hereditarians’ Bible, you can come away thinking that nothing you as a parent do makes much difference compared to your genes — not school, not reading to your kids, nothing. It’s all genes. So why not just splat out as many kids as possible and to hell with parenting skills (I’m looking at you, Elon and Boris). Strong hereditarianism likewise makes one prone to believe social welfare is a waste of time, as a ‘genetic underclass’ will always end up at the bottom.
Third, the Future Police seem a rather merciless deity compared to, say, an All-Loving God who loves us despite our flaws, or to our future enlightened selves who cheer us on even when we fuck up, assuring us that we’ll get to Nirvana in the end (indeed, we’re already there). For the Future Police, by contrast, you are disposable, and all that matters is the quality and quantity of future sapience. If that’s best achieved by AI, it’s game over for humanity. I don’t think this is a good theology for children or parents. It doesn’t seem conducive to kindness or self-acceptance.
I worry that Titan Invictus may struggle to live up to the expectations of her somewhat freaky parents. I think of the western children born to be ‘tulkus’, or reincarnated enlightened masters, in Tibetan Buddhism, and how hard it was for them to live up to their parents’ expectations. Descendant worship isn’t always easy on the descendants.