Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy financier and accused sex trafficker, had an unusual dream: He hoped to seed the human race with his DNA by impregnating women at his vast New Mexico ranch.
Epstein over the years confided to scientists and others about his scheme, according to four people familiar with his thinking, although there is no evidence that it ever came to fruition.
Epstein’s 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.
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 his way into an elite scientific community, thus allowing him to pursue his interests in eugenics and other fringe fields like cryogenics.
Lawyers for Epstein, who has pleaded not guilty to the sex-trafficking charges, did not respond to requests for comment.
Even after his 2008 conviction on charges of soliciting prostitution from a minor, Epstein attracted a glittering array of prominent scientists. They included the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who discovered the quark; theoretical physicist and bestselling author Stephen Hawking; paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen J. 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 said 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 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 donation.
Others flew to conferences sponsored by Epstein in the U.S. Virgin Islands and were feted on his private island there. Once, the scientists — including Hawking — crowded on board 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 described him as an “intellectual impostor.”
“He would abruptly change the subject, ADD-style, dismiss an observation with an adolescent wisecrack,” Pinker said.
Another scientist cultivated by Epstein, Jaron Lanier, a prolific author who is a founding father of virtual reality, said that Epstein’s ideas did not amount to science, in that they did not lend themselves to rigorous proof. Lanier said Epstein had once hypothesized that atoms behaved like investors in a marketplace.
Lanier said he had declined any funding from Epstein and that he had met with him only once after Epstein’s 2008 guilty plea.
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 criticized efforts to reduce starvation and provide health care to the poor because doing so increased the risk of overpopulation, said Pinker, who was there. Pinker said he had rebutted the argument, citing research showing that high rates of infant mortality simply caused 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.
Then there was 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 would 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, said 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 said Epstein divulged his idea in 2001 at a dinner at the same town house; the other recalled 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 said 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 said the scientist identified herself as working at NASA, but he did 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, said 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 made no secret of his interest in tinkering with genes — and in perpetuating his own DNA.
One adherent of transhumanism said that he and Epstein discussed the financier’s interest in cryogenics, 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 math fair for school children in the Virgin Islands in 2014, were not returned.
In 2011, a charity established by Epstein gave $20,000 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 to pay the salary of Ben Goertzel, vice chairman of Humanity Plus, according to Goertzel’s résumé.
“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 M. Dershowitz, a professor emeritus of law at Harvard, recalled that at a lunch Epstein hosted in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he steered the conversation toward 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,” said Dershowitz, who was one of Epstein’s defense 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 S. Thorne. One participant at that conference, which was ostensibly on the subject of gravity, recalled 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 entree into the scientific community through John Brockman, a literary agent whose bestselling science writers include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Goleman and Jared Diamond. Brockman did not respond 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 East 71st Street 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 said that 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 told The Times that he did 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 claimed 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 S. Lander.
Pinker said he had never taken any financial or other support from Epstein. “Needless to say, I find Epstein’s behavior reprehensible,” he said.
Thorne, who recently won a Nobel Prize, said he attended Epstein’s 2006 conference, believing it to be co-sponsored by a reputable research center. Other than that, “I have had no contact with, relationship with, affiliation with or funding from Epstein,” he said. “I unequivocally condemn his abhorrent actions involving minors.”
Lee McGuire, a spokesman for Lander, said he has had no relationship with Epstein. “Mr. Epstein appears to have made up lots of things,” McGuire said, “and this seems to be among them.”