James B. Stewart, Matthew Goldstein and Jessica Silver-Greenberg (Freeman Rogers contributed reporting.)
Jeffrey E. 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 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.
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.
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.