By James B. Stewart, Matthew Goldstein and Jessica Silver-Greenberg
Jeffrey E. Epstein, the wealthy 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 New Mexico ranch.
Mr. 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.
Mr. Epstein’s vision reflected his longstanding 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.
Mr. 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 Mr. Epstein, who has pleaded not guilty to the sex-trafficking charges, did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. 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 best-selling author Stephen Hawking; the paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould; Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and best-selling author; George M. Church, a molecular engineer who has worked to identify genes that could be altered to create superior humans; and the M.I.T. theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek, a Nobel laureate.
The lure for some of the scientists was Mr. 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 Mr. Epstein’s half-baked scientific musings.
Scientists gathered at dinner parties at Mr. Epstein’s Manhattan mansion, where Dom Pérignon and expensive wines flowed freely, even though Mr. 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 Mr. Epstein in the United States Virgin Islands and were feted on his private island there. Once, the scientists — including Mr. Hawking — crowded on board a submarine that Mr. 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 Mr. Epstein would hold court.
While some of Mr. Pinker’s peers hailed Mr. Epstein as brilliant, Mr. Pinker described him as an “intellectual impostor.”
“He would abruptly change the subject, A.D.D.-style, dismiss an observation with an adolescent wisecrack,” Mr. Pinker said.
Another scientist cultivated by Mr. Epstein, Jaron Lanier, a prolific author who is a founder of virtual reality, said that Mr. Epstein’s ideas did not amount to science, in that they did not lend themselves to rigorous proof. Mr. Lanier said Mr. Epstein had once hypothesized that atoms behaved like investors in a marketplace.
Mr. Lanier said he had declined any funding from Mr. Epstein and that he had met with him only once after Mr. Epstein in 2008 pleaded guilty to charges of soliciting prostitution from a minor.
Mr. 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, Mr. Epstein criticized efforts to reduce starvation and provide health care to the poor because doing so increased the risk of overpopulation, said Mr. Pinker, who was there. Mr. Pinker said he had rebutted the argument, citing research showing that high rates of infant mortality simply caused people to have more children. Mr. Epstein seemed annoyed, and a Harvard colleague later told Mr. Pinker that he had been “voted off the island” and was no longer welcome at Mr. Epstein’s gatherings.
Then there was Mr. Epstein’s interest in eugenics.
On multiple occasions starting in the early 2000s, Mr. 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 Mr. Epstein told about it.
It was not a secret. The adviser, for example, said he was told about the plans not only by Mr. Epstein, at a gathering at his Manhattan townhouse, but also by at least one prominent member of the business community. One of the scientists said Mr. Epstein divulged his idea in 2001 at a dinner at the same townhouse; the other recalled Mr. 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 Mr. Epstein’s mansion on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Mr. Lanier said he talked to a scientist who told him that Mr. 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. Mr. Lanier said the scientist identified herself as working at NASA, but he did not remember her name.
According to Mr. Lanier, the NASA scientist said Mr. 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.)
Mr. Lanier, the virtual-reality creator and author, said he had the impression that Mr. Epstein was using the dinner parties — where some guests were attractive women with impressive academic credentials — to screen candidates to bear Mr. Epstein’s children.
Mr. Epstein did not hide his interest in tinkering with genes — and in perpetuating his own DNA.
One adherent of transhumanism said that he and Mr. 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. Mr. Epstein told this person that he wanted his head and penis to be frozen.
Southern Trust Company, Mr. 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 Mr. Epstein gave $20,000 to the World 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.”
Mr. 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 Mr. Goertzel’s résumé.
“I have no desire to talk about Epstein right now,” Mr. 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 Mr. Epstein hosted in Cambridge, Mass., he steered the conversation toward the question of how humans could be improved genetically. Mr. 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 Mr. Dershowitz, who was one of Mr. Epstein’s defense lawyers in the 2008 case.
Luminaries at Mr. Epstein’s St. Thomas conference in 2006 included Mr. Hawking and the Caltech theoretical physicist Kip S. Thorne. One participant at that conference, which was ostensibly on the subject of gravity, recalled that Mr. Epstein wanted to talk about perfecting the human genome. Mr. Epstein said he was fascinated with how certain traits were passed on, and how that could result in superior humans.
Mr. Epstein appears to have gained entree into the scientific community through John Brockman, a literary agent whose best-selling science writers include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Goleman and Jared Diamond. Mr. Brockman did not respond to requests for comment.
For two decades, Mr. 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 Mr. Epstein’s East 71st Street townhouse, which included some of the same guests.)
In 2004, Mr. Brockman hosted a dinner at the Indian Summer restaurant in Monterey, Calif., where Mr. Epstein was introduced to scientists, including Seth Lloyd, the M.I.T. physicist. Mr. Lloyd said that he found Mr. 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 Mr. Brockman’s Edge Foundation, were the Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page and 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. Mr. Dubno told The Times that he did not recall the dinner or having said those words.
Mr. Brockman was Mr. Gell-Mann’s agent, and Mr. Gell-Mann, in the acknowledgments section of his 1995 book “The Quark and the Jaguar,” thanked Mr. Epstein for his financial support.
However impressive his roster of scientific contacts, Mr. Epstein could not resist embellishing it. He claimed on one of his websitesto have had “the privilege of sponsoring many prominent scientists,” including Mr. Pinker, Mr. Thorne and the M.I.T. mathematician and geneticist Eric S. Lander.
Mr. Pinker said he had never taken any financial or other support from Mr. Epstein. “Needless to say, I find Epstein’s behavior reprehensible,” he said.
Mr. Thorne, who recently won a Nobel Prize, said he attended Mr. 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 Mr. Lander, said he has had no relationship with Mr. Epstein. “Mr. Epstein appears to have made up lots of things,” Mr. McGuire said, “and this seems to be among them.”Correction: Aug. 1, 2019
An earlier version of this article misstated when the prominent scientists Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking, Murray Gell-Mann, Oliver Sacks and Frank Wilczek attended gatherings hosted by Jeffrey E. Epstein. The events they attended occurred before Mr. Epstein’s 2008 conviction, not after it. The article also misstated the name of a group to which a charity established by Mr. Epstein donated $20,000 in 2011. It was the World Transhumanist Association, not the Worldwide Transhumanist Association.
- July 31, 2019