This is the first of a multi-part Dig series, Eugenics in the Twenty-First Century: New Names, Old Ideas, investigating the racist underpinnings of the Longtermism movement.

Sometime last year, I happened to come across an email from 1996, written by a 23-year-old graduate student at the London School of Economics named “Niklas Bostrom.” Upon reading it, my jaw dropped to the floor, where it stayed for the rest of the day.

Here’s part of what Bostrom, now known as “Nick Bostrom,” an Oxford University philosopher who’s been profiled by The New Yorker and become highly influential in Silicon Valley, sent to the listserv of “Extropians”:

Blacks are more stupid than whites.

I like that sentence and think it is true. But recently I have begun to believe that I won’t have much success with most people if I speak like that. They would think that I were [sic] a “racist”: that I disliked black people and thought that it is fair if blacks are treated badly. I don’t. It’s just that based on what I have read, I think it is probable that black people have a lower average IQ than mankind in general, and I think that IQ is highly correlated with what we normally mean by “smart” and stupid” [sic]. I may be wrong about the facts, but that is what the sentence means for me. For most people, however, the sentence seems to be synonymous with:

I hate those bloody [the N-word, included in Bostrom’s original email, has been redacted]!!!!

My point is that while speaking with the provocativness [sic] of unabashed objectivity would be appreciated by me and many other persons on this list, it may be a less effective strategy in communicating with some of the people “out there”.

Although shocking, I honestly can’t say I was surprised. I wasn’t. In fact, I’d been working on a series of articles for Truthdig exploring the deep connections between longtermism, a bizarre, techno-utopian ideology that Bostrom helped establish, and eugenics, a pseudoscientific movement that inspired some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.1 The fact is that, as the artificial intelligence researcher Timnit Gebru, one of TIME’s “100 most influential people of 2022,” has repeatedly pointed out on Twitter, longtermism is “rooted in eugenics” or even “eugenics under a different name.”

This is not hyperbole; it’s not an exaggeration. If anything, Gebru’s statement doesn’t go far enough: longtermism, which emerged out of the effective altruism (EA) movement over the past few years, is eugenics on steroids. On the one hand, many of the same racist, xenophobic, classist and ableist attitudes that animated 20th-century eugenics are found all over the longtermist literature and community. On the other hand, there’s good reason to believe that if the longtermist program were actually implemented by powerful actors in high-income countries, the result would be more or less indistinguishable from what the eugenicists of old hoped to bring about. Societies would homogenize, liberty would be seriously undermined, global inequality would worsen and white supremacy — famously described by Charles Mills as the “unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today” — would become even more entrenched than it currently is. The aim of this article is to explore the first issue above; the second will be our focus in the next article of this series for Truthdig.

Related The Grift Brothers

So, back to Bostrom. My first thought after reading his email was: Is this authentic? Has it been tampered with? How can I know if he really wrote this? I thus contacted everyone who participated in the email thread, and someone replied to confirm that Bostrom did indeed write those words. However, I also contacted Anders Sandberg, a long-time collaborator of Bostrom’s with whom I’d been acquainted for many years through conferences on “existential risk” — the most important concept of longtermist ideology. (Until 2019 or so, I identified as a longtermist myself, a fact that I deeply regret. But this has, at least, given me an intimate understanding of what I would now describe as a profoundly dangerous ideology.)

In response, Sandberg suggested to me that the email is probably authentic (we now know it is), and then, apparently, alerted Bostrom of the fact that I’m aware of his remarks. This prompted Bostrom to release a perfunctory, sloppily-written “apology” full of typos and grammatical errors that didn’t bother to redact the N-word and, if anything, has done more to alert the general public of this noxious ideology than anything I might have published about Bostrom’s email two weeks ago.

A photo posted to Flickr by Anders Sandberg in March 2009 with the caption “It is out! I have a chapter with Nick in the book describing how
to use “the wisdom of nature” to estimate whether enhancements are likely to run into unexpected difficulties.” (CC BY 2.0)

“I have caught wind,” Bostrom writes, “that somebody has been digging through the archives of the Extropians listserv with a view towards finding embarrassing materials to disseminate about people.” He continues, writing as if he’s the victim: “I fear that selected pieces of the most offensive stuff will be extracted, maliciously framed and interpreted, and used in smear campaigns. To get ahead of this, I want to clean out my own closet, and get rid of the very worst of the worst in my contribution file.” It appears that he believes his “apology” is about public relations rather than morality; it’s about “cleaning out his closet” rather than making things right. He goes on to say that he thinks “the invocation of a racial slur was repulsive” and has donated to organizations like GiveDirectly and Black Health Alliance, though he leaves wide-open the possibility that there really might be genetically based cognitive differences between groups of people (there’s no evidence of this). “It is not my area of expertise, and I don’t have any particular interest in the question,” he writes with a shrug. “I would leave to others [sic], who have more relevant knowledge, to debate whether or not in addition to environmental factors, epigenetic or genetic factors play any role.”

Sandberg then casually posted this “apology” on Twitter, writing that Bostrom’s words do “not represent his views and behavior as I have seen them over the 25 years I have known him.” He further warns that “the email has become significantly more offensive in the current cultural context: levels of offensiveness change as cultural attitudes change (sometimes increasing, often decreasing). This causes problems when old writings are interpreted by current standards.” Sandberg seems to be suggesting that Bostrom’s statements weren’t that big a deal when they were written in 1996, at least compared to how our “woke” world of “overly sensitive” “social justice warriors” always on the hunt to “cancel” the next “beleaguered” white man will see them (my scare quotes).

This, of course, triggered an avalanche of protest from academics and onlookers, with one person replying, “I am the same age as Nick Bostrom and participated in many free-wheeling philosophical discussions. I never wrote anything like this, and it would have been shockingly racist at any point in my life.” Another said, “I was a student in the UK in the mid-90s and it was just as offensive then as it is now.” Still others took issue with the fact that Bostrom “never even backed down from the assertion that black people are intellectually inferior and instead went on to assert ‘it’s just not his area of expertise.’” Many simply dismissed it as “a study in a non-apology,” given that Bostrom “says he repudiates the horrific comments” he made, but “then goes right back into them.” As Gebru summarized the whole ignominious affair:

I don’t know what’s worse. The initial email, Bostrom’s “statement” about it, or [Sandberg’s Twitter] thread. I’m gonna go with the latter 2 because that’s what they came up with in preparation for publicity. Their audacity never ceases to amaze me no matter how many times I see it.

In my view, a good apology should do three things: First, make a clear and compelling case that one understands why one’s words or deeds were wrong or caused harm. Second, make a clear and compelling case that one is sincerely remorseful for having done that wrong or caused harm. And third, take concrete steps toward making things right. I like to call this an “active apology,” which contrasts with the facile “passive” apology that insouciantly says, “Yeah, whatever, sorry, now let’s move on.”

A painting of Nick Bostrom at Organ Museum. Photo by
Thierry Ehrmann on Flickr / (CC BY 2.0)

Bostrom’s “apology” was passive in the extreme, not active. He showed virtually no evidence that he understands why claiming that whites are more intelligent than Blacks would be hurtful or wrong — both morally and scientifically — and seems more concerned about public relations than driven by genuine compunction.2 His dismissive attitude about the whole debacle, in fact, is on full display on his personal website, which he updated to say: “[S]ometimes I have the impression that the world is a conspiracy to distract us from what’s important — alternatively by whispering to us about tempting opportunities, at other times by buzzing menacingly around our ears like a swarm of bloodthirsty mosquitos.” He seems — so far as I can tell from this — to think of those speaking out against his racist remarks and shameless non-apology as “bloodthirsty mosquitos” who are “buzzing menacingly” around him as if part of a “conspiracy to distract” him “from what’s really important,” such as saving the world from superintelligent machines or suggesting that a highly invasive global surveillance system may be necessary to save civilization from itself.

As it happens, I believe in forgiveness. People make mistakes, and a single statement shouldn’t define one’s entire career, reputation or life. Someone can say something racist and not be a racist, and someone can be a racist and later change their views. Christian Picciolini, a former leader of the white power movement in the United States, whose life’s work now focuses on combating hatred (he cofounded the organization Life After Hate), provides an example. Indeed, the original article I was working on for Truthdig about longtermism and eugenics didn’t say that much about Bostrom’s email. It wasn’t the centerpiece of the article, but instead served a merely background function. Background to what? To everything Bostrom’s written since then. In my view, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that he still believes that whites are more “intelligent” than Blacks — hence his decision not to denounce this statement in his “apology.”

For example, consider that six years after using the N-word, Bostrom argued in one of the founding documents of longtermism that one type of “existential risk” is the possibility of “dysgenic pressures.” The word “dysgenic” — the opposite of “eugenic” —is all over the 20th-century eugenics literature, and worries about dysgenic trends motivated a wide range of illiberal policies, including restrictions on immigration, anti-miscegenation laws and forced sterilizations, the last of which resulted in some 20,000 people being sterilized against their will in California between 1909 and 1979.

For Bostrom, the primary “dysgenic”-related worry is that less “intellectually talented individuals” might outbreed their more “intellectually talented” peers. In his 2002 article on “existential risks,” which helped launch the longtermist movement, he writes:

Currently it seems that there is a negative correlation in some places between intellectual achievement and fertility. If such selection were to operate over a long period of time, we might evolve into a less brainy but more fertile species, homo philoprogenitus (“lover of many offspring”).

Although Bostrom doesn’t elaborate on what “in some places” means, it’s not hard to see a “racial” link here, given that, at the time he was writing, the fertility rates among white people tended to be lower than other groups, both in the U.S. and the world.

Yet this was not the only time Bostrom made this claim: He repeated it in a 2017 book chapter with — you guessed it — Anders Sandberg. (So it’s not surprising that Sandberg was willing to defend Bostrom: A defense of Bostrom is also a defense of himself.3) They wrote: “It should be noted that IQ correlates negatively with fertility in many modern societies,” and then cited three papers, all from the 1970s and 1980s, to support this. One of these papers argues that Blacks score on average about three-quarters of a standard deviation lower than whites on vocabulary tests, which the authors (of the cited article) say “perform quite well as measures of general intelligence.” These authors add that “nonwhites average more children and lower test scores,” and that earlier publications showing “a neutral or slightly eugenic [as opposed to dysgenic] relationship” are biased “in part because they did not include nonwhites.” When nonwhites and other missing factors are included, the relationship between “intelligence and completed fertility” appears “predominantly negative.” This is one of the papers on which Bostrom and Sandberg base their “negative correlation” claim.

But it gets so much worse. First, the notion of “IQ” is highly dubious. Intelligence is a complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to a single number. The Nobel laureate Richard Feynman had an IQ of 126 (not very high), and plenty of people in Mensa aren’t university professors. In 1972, Robert Williams created the “Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity,” a multiple-choice test that, it turns out, Black people scored considerably higher on than white people. As Daphne Martschenko, an assistant professor at the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, notes, IQ tests were developed in part by 20th-century eugenicists, and “in their darkest moments” they became “a powerful way to exclude and control marginalized communities using empirical and scientific language.” Gebru similarly observes in a chapter for “The Oxford Handbook of Ethics of AI” that IQ tests were “designed by White men whose concept of ‘smartness’ or ‘genius’ was shaped, centered and evaluated on specific types of White men.”

Yet the longtermist community is, for lack of a better word, obsessed with “IQ” and “intelligence.” To quote Zoe Cremer, a prominent critic of EA, the movement that gave rise to longtermism, “intelligence, as a concept and an asset, plays a dominant role in EA.” It’s not just a “highly valued trait in the community,” but surveys even “sometimes ask what IQ members have.” Community members “also compliment and kindly introduce others using descriptors like intelligent or smart,” and certain people are widely known and revered for their intellect. They are said to be intimidatingly intelligent and therefore epistemically superior. Their time is seen as precious. EAs sometimes showcase their humility by announcing how much lower they would rank their own intelligence underneath that of the revered leaders.

A slide from a seminar given by Julian Savulescu in November 2007. Photo by Anders Sandberg / (CC BY 2.0)

Examples would include Bostrom, Sandberg, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Robin Hanson, Scott Alexander, Toby Ord and William MacAskill (all white men, by the way, a point that isn’t lost on Cremer). Indeed, the obsession with IQ is partly because of these individuals. Yudkowsky has on numerous occasions boasted about his high IQ (supposedly 143), and Bostrom published a paper in 2014, which argues that by selecting embryos with the genetic markers of superior intelligence, creating new embryos out of them (via stem cells) and then repeating this process 10 times, you could get IQ gains of up to 130 points.

Meanwhile, Sandberg and Julian Savulescu — a philosopher who once argued that “moral bioenhancement” should be mandatory — write in a coauthored book chapter that IQ is linked to things like poverty, criminal behavior, high school dropout rates, parentless children, welfare recipiency and out-of-wedlock births. Where do they get their data from? It may not surprise you to discover the answer is Charles Murray’s 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” written with the late Richard Herrnstein. Murray is world-renowned for his scientific racism, according to which Black people are less intelligent than whites for genetic reasons — exactly the view that Bostrom expressed in his email and left the door open to in his subsequent “apology.”

You might think that this is a one-off, but you’d be wrong: The fingerprints of Murray’s “scholarship” are all over the longtermist community. Consider that Scott Alexander, mentioned above, is widely revered within the EA and long termist communities. In a leaked email, Alexander wrote that “human biodiversity” — the view that groups of people differ in traits like “intelligence” for genetic reasons, once described as “an ideological successor to eugenics” — is “probably partially correct,” to which he added: “I will appreciate if you NEVER TELL ANYONE I SAID THIS, not even in confidence. And by ‘appreciate,’ I mean that if you ever do, I will probably either leave the Internet forever or seek some sort of horrible revenge.” Elsewhere, Alexander has publicly aligned himself with Murray, who happens to be a member of the far-right “Human Biodiversity Institute,” and made the case on his blog Astral Codex Ten that “dysgenics is real,” though happening slowly — similar to the claim Bostrom made in 2002. He writes:

In general, educated people reproduce less than uneducated people … The claim isn’t that fewer people will have PhDs in the future: colleges will certainly solve that by increasing access to education and/or dumbing down requirements. It’s a dysgenic argument where we assume at any given time the people with higher degrees have on average higher genetic intelligence levels. If they’re reproducing less, the genetic intelligence level of the population will decrease.

Alexander goes on to say that there’s “some debate in the scientific community about whether this is happening, but as far as I can tell the people who claim it isn’t have no good refutation for the common sense argument it has to be. The people who claim that it is make more sense.” He concludes that while this isn’t good news, the fact that it’s slow suggests this dysgenic trend probably won’t be “apocalyptic.”

Or consider that Sam Harris has vigorously defended Charles Murray’s race science, even promoting it on his popular Making Sense podcast, and Harris is closely linked with the EA and longtermist communities. For example, Harris appeared on stage next to prominent long termists like Bostrom, Elon Musk and Max Tegmark during an event hosted by the Future of Life Institute, a longtermist organization to which Musk donated $10 million. The Future of Life Institute also platformed Harris on their podcast, and Harris was invited to the exclusive “AI safety conference in Puerto Rico”in 2015 in which Bostrom, Sandberg, Yudkowsky, Hanson and Toby Ord all participated. Harris even wrote a glowing blurb for MacAskill’s recent book “What We Owe the Future,” in which he says that “no living philosopher has had a greater impact upon my ethics than Will MacAskill.”

Even more, some existential risk scholars seem to have changed their minds about Murray based on Harris’ promotion of Murray’s race science. To quote Olle Häggström — a Swede, like Bostrom, whose recent work has focused on existential risks4 — “Murray was portrayed as a racist and worse, and I actually think that those of us who have been under that impression for a couple of decades owe him the small favor of listening to [Harris’] podcast episode and finding out what a wise and sane person he really is” (translated from Swedish).

Harris himself holds the very same racist views about “intelligence” and “IQ” that both Bostrom and Murray have articulated. For example, here’s what he said in a podcast interview several years ago (quoting at length):

As bad luck would have it, but as you [would] absolutely predict on the basis of just sheer biology, different populations of people, different racial groups, different ethnicities, different groups of people who have been historically isolated from one another geographically, test differently in terms of their average on this measure of cognitive function. So you’re gonna give the Japanese and the Ashkenazi Jews, and African Americans, and Hawaiians … you’re gonna take populations who differ genetically—and we know they differ genetically, that’s not debatable—and you give them IQ tests, it would be a miracle if every single population had the exact same mean IQ. And African Americans come out about a standard deviation lower than white Americans. … So, if it’s normed to the general population, predominantly white population for an average of 100, the average in the African American community has been around 85.5

To my knowledge, none of the leading long termists have publicly objected to this jumble of scientifically illiterate race science. In fact, MacAskill, Yudkowsky, Bostrom and Toby Ord all appeared on Harris’ podcast after Harris promoted Charles Murray and made the racist remarks quoted above. Similarly, no one complained when MacAskill got a ringing endorsement from Harris. In fact, I asked MacAskill point-blank during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” about why he’d requested a blurb from Harris given Harris’ scientific racism, and my question was (drum roll) quickly deleted.

Longtermists, most of whom are also transhumanists, like to claim that they’re far more enlightened than the eugenicists of the last century. As Bostrom writes in his paper “Transhumanist Values,” which explains that the core value of transhumanism is to use person-engineering technologies to radically “enhance” ourselves: “racism, sexism, speciesism, belligerent nationalism and religious intolerance are unacceptable.” Similarly, the World Transhumanist Association’s FAQ, mostly written by Bostrom, says that “in addition to condemning the coercion involved in [last century’s eugenics programs], transhumanists strongly reject the racialist and classist assumptions on which they were based.” Yet the evidence suggests the opposite: longtermism, and the transhumanist ideology that it subsumes, is often infused with the very same racist, xenophobic, classist and ableist attitudes that animated the vile eugenicists of the last century. There are many more examples — in addition to everything mentioned above — and indeed once you start looking for instances, they begin to appear everywhere.

Yudkowsky, for example, tweeted in 2019 that IQs seem to be dropping in Norway, which he found alarming. However, he noted that the “effect appears within families, so it’s not due to immigration or dysgenic reproduction” — that is, it’s not the result of less intelligent foreigners immigrating to Norway, a majority-white country, or less intelligent people within the population reproducing more. Earlier, in 2012, he responded with stunning blitheness to someone asking: “So if you had to design a eugenics program, how would you do it? Be creative.” Yudkowsky then outlined a 10-part recipe, writing that “the real step 1 in any program like this would be to buy the 3 best modern textbooks on animal breeding and read them.” He continued: “If society’s utility has a large component for genius production, then you probably want a very diverse mix of different high-IQ genes combined into different genotypes and phenotypes.” But how could this be achieved? One possibility, he wrote, would be to impose taxes or provide benefits depending on how valuable your child is expected to be for society. Here’s what he said:

There would be a tax or benefit based on how much your child is expected to cost society (not just governmental costs in the form of health care, schooling etc., but costs to society in general, including foregone labor of a working parent, etc.) and how much that child is expected to benefit society (not lifetime tax revenue or lifetime earnings, but lifetime value generated — most economic actors only capture a fraction of the value they create). If it looks like you’re going to have a valuable child, you get your benefit in the form of a large cash bonus up-front … and lots of free childcare so you can go on having more children.

This isn’t a serious proposal — it’s a fictional exercise — but it exemplifies the high level of comfort that this community has with eugenics and the hereditarian idea that “intelligence” is substantially determined by our genes.

Or take another example: Peter Singer, who once defended a longtermist position, although he now seems to share the view that longtermism could in fact be dangerous. Nonetheless, Singer is one of the leading effective altruists, along with MacAskill and Toby Ord, and has been fiercely criticized for holding views that are hardly distinguishable from those of the most vicious eugenicists of centuries past. In a 1985 book titled Should the Baby Live?, Singer and his coauthor warn their audience that “this book contains conclusions which some readers will find disturbing. We think that some infants with severe disabilities should be killed.” Why? In part because of the burden they’d place on society.

This is eugenics of the darkest sort — but has anyone in the longtermist or EA communities complained? No, not a peep, because the ideas of eugenics are so ubiquitous within these communities that once you’re immersed within them, they simply become normalized. Indeed, the flip side of worries that intellectually disabled infants would be too costly for society is a concern that too few smart people — a problem of underpopulation, one of Musk’s big worries — could slow down economic productivity, which longtermists like MacAskill believe would be really bad. This leads MacAskill to argue in “What We Owe the Future” that if scientists with Einstein-level research abilities were cloned and trained from an early age, or if human beings were genetically engineered to have greater research abilities, this could compensate for having fewer people overall and thereby sustain technological progress.

At the extreme, MacAskill even suggests that we might simply replace the human workforce with sentient machines, since “this would allow us to increase the number of ‘people’ working on R&D as easily as we currently scale up production of the latest iPhone.”

It should be clear at this point why longtermism, with its transhumanist vision of creating a superior new race of “posthumans,” is eugenics on steroids. Whereas the old eugenicists wanted to improve the “human stock,” longtermists like MacAskill would be more than happy to create a whole new population of “posthuman stock.” In Bostrom’s vision, the result could quite literally be a “Utopia,” which he vividly details in his “Letter from Utopia.” Imagine a world in which we become superintelligent, immortal posthumans who live in “surpassing bliss and delight.” Imagine a world in which you pursue knowledge instead of “hanging out in the pub,” talk about philosophy instead of “football,” listen to jazz and work “on your first novel” instead of “watching television.” This is how Bostrom pictures the march toward Utopia, and as Joshua Schuster and Derek Woods observe in their book “Calamity Theory,” “the class snobbery here is tremendous.” So, we’ve covered racism, xenophobia, ableism and now classism. The new eugenics is really no different than the old one.

American Philosophical Society poster from the 1920s promoting eugenics via The Library of Congress.

In fact, the glaring similarities between the new and the old are no coincidence. As Toby Ord writes in his book “The Precipice,” which could be seen as the prequel to MacAskill’s “What We Owe the Future,” the ultimate task for humanity is to “fulfill our long-term potential” in the universe. What exactly is this supposed “potential”? Ord isn’t really sure, but he’s quite clear that it will almost certainly involve realizing the transhumanist project. “Forever preserving humanity as it now is may also squander our legacy, relinquishing the greater part of our potential,” he declares, adding that “rising to our full potential for flourishing would likely involve us being transformed into something beyond the humanity of today.” Now consider the fact that the idea of transhumanism was literally developed by some of the most prominent eugenicists of the 20th century, most notably Julian Huxley, who was president of the British Eugenics Society from 1959 to 1962. Using almost the exact same words as Ord, Huxley wrote in 1950 — after the horrors of World War II, one should note — that if enough people come to “believe in transhumanism,” then “the human species will be on the threshold of a new kind of existence … It will at last be consciously fulfilling its real destiny.” In fact, as philosophers will affirm, transhumanism is classified as a form of so-called “liberal eugenics.” (The term “liberal,” and why it’s misleading, is the focus of the next article of this series.)

While Huxley, upon witnessing the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany, came to believe that eugenicists should reject racism, it’s not hard to find such attitudes among members of the first organized transhumanist movement: the Extropians, which formed in the early 1990s and established the listserv to which Bostrom sent his now-infamous email. Indeed, Bostrom wasn’t the only one on the listserv making racist remarks. One participant going by “Den Otter” ended an email with the line, “What I would most desire would be the separation of the white and black races” (although some did object to this, just as some opposed Bostrom’s overt racism). Meanwhile, one year after Bostrom’s email, the MIT Extropians wrote on their website, which they also included in a “pamphlet that they sent out to freshmen,” the following:

MIT certainly lowers standards for women and “underrepresented” minorities: The average woman at MIT is less intelligent and ambitious than the average man at MIT. The average “underrepresented” minority at MIT is less intelligent and ambitious than the average non-“underrepresented” minority.

These ideas were common then, and they’re common now. So while everyone should be appalled by Bostrom’s email, no one should be surprised. The long termist movement that Bostrom helped found is, I would argue, just another iteration of what some scholars have called the “eternal return of eugenics.”

Likewise, no one should be surprised that so many long termists couldn’t care less about the scientific racism of Sam Harris, Scott Alexander and Charles Murray, or the “kill disabled infants” view of Singer. No one should be surprised to find Sandberg citing Murray’s data about IQ and poverty, criminality, welfare and out-of-wedlock births. No one should be surprised by Bostrom’s repeated claims about “intelligence” or “IQ” being inversely correlated with fertility rates. No one should be surprised that the EA community has for many years wooed Steven Pinker, who believes that Ashkenazi Jews are intellectually superior because of rapid genetic evolution from around 800 AD to 1650 — an idea that some have called the “smiling face of race science.” No one should be surprised to stumble upon, say, references to “elite ethnicities” in Robin Hanson’s work, by which Hanson means the Jewish people, since — he writes — “Jews comprise a disproportionate fraction of extreme elites such as billionaires, and winners of prizes such as the Pulitzer, Oscar and Nobel prizes.”6

And no one should be surprised that all of this is wrapped up in the same language of “science,” “evidence,” “reason” and “rationality” that pervades the eugenics literature of the last century. Throughout history, white men in power have used “science,” “evidence,” “reason” and “rationality” as deadly bludgeons to beat down marginalized peoples. Effective altruism, according to the movement’s official website, “is the use of evidence and reason in search of the best ways of doing good.” But we’ve heard this story before: the 20th-century eugenicists were also interested in doing the most good. They wanted to improve the overall health of society, to eliminate disease and promote the best qualities of humanity, all for the greater social good. Indeed, many couched their aims in explicitly utilitarian terms, and utilitarianism is, according to Toby Ord, one of the three main inspirations behind EA. Yet scratch the surface, or take a look around the community with unbiased glasses, and suddenly the same prejudices show up everywhere.

I should be clear that not every EA or longtermist holds these views. I know that some don’t. My point is that you don’t just find them on the periphery of the movement. They’re not merely espoused by those at the fringe. They’re positions expressed, promoted or at least tolerated by some of the most influential and respected members of the community. The main focus of longtermism is ensuring that the long-run future of humanity goes as well as possible. Who, though, would want to live in the “Utopia” they envision?


Endnotes

[1] Many people were puzzled about why Bostrom would bring up eugenics in an apology about racist remarks. This is why.

[2] By “wrong,” I don’t just mean morally wrong, which it obviously is. Morality matters. But there’s also a huge scientific literature on why such claims are simply not backed up by the evidence. For discussion, I’d recommend this article in The Guardian.

[3]Nor is Sandberg a particularly reliable source when he says that Bostrom “actually does not represent his views and behavior as I have seen them over the 25 years I have known him,” given that Sandberg has approvingly cited the work of Charles Murray.

[4]Incidentally, Häggström hosted a two-month-long workshop in Sweden on existential risk back in 2017, which I participated in for a month. One day at lunch, a professor who is Swedish, and who teaches at a university in Sweden, sat down next to me and launched into a 30-minute rant about why Black people are genetically less intelligent than white people. He called this view — the one he accepted — the “racist view,” and repeatedly cited Sam Harris’ podcast discussion with Charles Murray. The core argument was that the only way white people in the Global North can muster up enough sympathy to motivate helping, through charitable donations, people in the Global South is to recognize that “they can’t help it,” “they were born that way” and “they are, by no fault of their own, genetically inferior.” Only once you realize this can you justify, to yourself, transferring money to help them. I still think, with absolute horror, about this conversation frequently. It’s a profoundly disturbing reminder that donating to help people in the Global South doesn’t for a moment mean that one’s not a horrible racist.

[5]Harris adds that “there is no argument for treating any person as anything other than an individual that needs to be assessed on his own merits. There is no argument for discrimination.” But this in no way mitigates his racist view that some groups are more innately intelligent than others. It’s like a transphobe saying that “trans women aren’t women, although obviously everyone should be treated with respect.” That’s still transphobic.

[6]As it happens, Hanson is the same guy who literally once argued that “’the main problem’ with the Holocaust was that there weren’t enough Nazis! After all, if there had been 6 trillion Nazis willing to pay $1 each to make the Holocaust happen, and a mere 6 million Jews willing to pay $100,000 each to prevent it, the Holocaust would have generated $5.4 trillion worth of consumers surplus.”