With the slew of reporting on Jeffrey Epstein’s recent arrest on federal charges for sex trafficking of minors, many sordid details of the money manager’s wrongdoings have been revealed. However, few reports have focused on the fact that Epstein has funded some of the most famous scientists in the world. If we look closely at his role as a science philanthropist, Epstein’s more pernicious political significance becomes clear and gives us all reason to reflect on the values of the Western civilization in crisis that his worldview represents.
Epstein’s Science Philanthropy Empire
The Jeffrey Epstein VI Foundation was established in 2000 with the stated mission of “supporting innovation in science and education.” In 2003, the Foundation pledged a $30 million donation to establish the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard University, where Epstein had already been a “long-time, low-profile” donor. This graduate department studies the “fundamental mathematical principles that guide evolution” and, according to Epstein’s website, also investigates topics such as “population structure, prelife, eusociality, [and] evolutionary economics.”
Despite pressure to return the gift after Epstein’s initial charges for soliciting sex from prostitutes in 2006, Harvard refused to do so. Former president Derek C. Bok weighed in, questioning why “Harvard should have an obligation to investigate each donor and impose detailed moral standards.” After orchestrating a plea deal in 2008 with the help of Harvard law professor and well-known apologist for Israel’s war crimes, Alan Dershowitz, Epstein maintained his friendly relationship with Harvard, where he continued to sit on the board of the Harvard Society of Mind, Brain, and Behavior. As of 2014, he was also “actively involved” in the Santa Fe Institute, the Theoretical Biology Initiative at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and the Quantum Gravity Program at the University of Pennsylvania.
Besides his Ivy League connections in the United States, Epstein has recently poured money into Artificial Intelligence research abroad, namely the OpenCog research group in Hong Kong and MicroPsi Project 2 in Berlin. Forbes reported in 2013 that this AI research was targeted at the development of “radical emotional software.”
In addition to these larger projects, Epstein has funded a laundry list of the world’s most famous scientists including Stephen Hawking, Marvin Minsky, Eric Lander, Stephen Kosslyn, Martin Nowak, George Church, and Nobel laureate physicists Gerard ’t Hooft, David Gross, and Frank Wilczek. The full extent of his donations is not known since the Foundation avoided making its financial details public despite pressure from the New York Attorney General’s Office in 2015. In addition to his much publicized interactions with politicians, Epstein has taken a personal interest in many of these scientists, prompting one leading Harvard researcher to proclaim that Epstein “changed my life.”
Indeed, New York Magazine reported in 2002 that Epstein “brings a trophy-hunter’s zeal to his collection of scientists.” He flew Hawking to his personal island for a conference with 20 more of the world’s top physicists, spoke with Director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics, Martin Nowak, once a week on the phone and flew him around the country for lectures, and went personally to Harvard psychologist Stephen Kosslyn’s lab to observe experiments conducted on Tibetan monks, the latter whom Epstein reportedly described as “so stupid.”
The Reactionary Politics of Scientism
Epstein’s diverse science philanthropy credentials may seem arbitrary to highlight, but, upon closer scrutiny, it is clear that his donations served a consistent purpose of upholding Western political and scientific dominance over the world.
Epstein subscribes to a scientistic worldview, which sees not politics, economics, or religion as a driving force of history but, rather, evolution. He spoke fondly of E.O. Wilson’s famous evolutionary determinist theory of “sociobiology” in 2002 and founded the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics the following year. What is the cause of Epstein’s attraction to evolutionary thinking about human social development? In a word: money.
Epstein stated, “If we can figure out how termites come together, then we may be able to better understand the underlying principles of market behavior – and make big money.” For Epstein, markets are not the product of human creation but, instead, evolutionally hard-wired systems that can be understood in terms of biology. This is all, of course, malarkey, but demonstrates that financial capitalists like Epstein see science not as a way of expanding human knowledge for the good of all; rather, it is, at best, an outlet for bogus theorizing about the so-called natural laws of the economy and, at worst, an unabashed intellectual justification for the wealth of key market players like himself.
This brings us to Epstein’s generous funding of top AI research scientists, with whom he has enjoyed close personal relationships. In 2013, he was reported to fund “the first humanoids” and “first free thinking robots,” which are designed to move beyond robots as “clunky machines that relied on deterministic algorithmic pathways” toward emotional human-like creatures with “responsive facial expressions, synthesized rubber skin, called frubber and delicate features.”
These are reminders that scientific research and technological development are not separate from politics. Indeed, Epstein has not only served on the boards of numerous science institutes, but also on those of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission. The Council on Foreign Relations was founded in 1921 to advance US foreign policy interests in the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution. Later on, the Council’s study groups developed the Cold War doctrine of “containment” and laid the foundations for NATO.
The Trilateral Commission was founded by David Rockefeller in 1973 to advance the interests of North America, Western Europe, and Japan. In the words of a 1975 document produced for the Commission, it was concerned about a lapse in “the indoctrination of the young” and called for “more moderation in democracy” in the wake of the revolutionary social movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Just as Saudi Arabia has functioned as a bulwark of American imperialism in the Middle East, which explains Epstein’s veneration of the Crown Prince, Hong Kong has also served as an outpost of Western financial interests that leech off the Chinese mainland. It is no surprise that Epstein chose to fund a group of all Western AI scientists in this buffer zone against mainland China’s immanent triumph over the United States in AI research.
In addition to his science philanthropy foundation, Epstein also ran a tax-exempt charity founded in 2012, which funneled money to “organizations around the world that seek to celebrate the United States of America and the American Ideals.” His recipients of choice turned out to include multiple Democratic Party politicians as well as liberal causes such as the Clinton Foundation and “The Friends of Elton John.”
From his deep connection with Harvard, a center of elite scientific research in service of American interests, to his funding of researchers in the former Cold War ideological battleground of Berlin, to the channeling of research funds to the Western financial safe haven of Hong Kong, Epstein has consistently put his funding where his interests lie: in the maintenance of Western dominance at key strategic centers of empire.
Epstein’s Arrest and the Crisis of Western Civilization
In 1946, African-American writer and revolutionary W.E.B. Du Bois predicted what he termed “the collapse of Europe.” He wrote that this collapse is “astounding” because “[w]e have long believed without argument or reflection that the cultural status of the people of Europe and of North America represented not only the best civilization which the world had ever known, but also a goal of human effort destined to go on from triumph to triumph until the perfect accomplishment was reached.”
Western science was a large reason behind the world’s “boundless faith” in Euro-American civilization. But rather than unite humanity, Du Bois notes that “every device of science was used” to divide the peoples of the world by means of a “scientific” justification for colonialism and white supremacy. While it was this science that propelled European dominance into the twentieth century, it soon proved to be “hollow, contradictory, and fatal” in the face of anti-colonial uprisings and the rupture of Europe itself from economic crisis and war.
Despite many challenges to its dominance from socialist states and colonized peoples in the twentieth century, the West managed to reconfigure and reassert itself after World War II and yet again after the Cold War. The 1990s were then witness to the boom of the dot-com bubble that united technology and financial speculation in the United States to form what some at the time called the “New Economy.”
Today, scientific research in genetics, neuroscience, and Artificial Intelligence promises the creation of a new and improved “transhuman” subject unencumbered by the concerns of material existence, moral choices, and spiritual strivings that have occupied humanity for millennia. In other words, we are witnessing the logical conclusion of progressive sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross’ 1901 proclamation that we are but “little plastic lumps of human dough” to be “shape[d] on the social kneading-board.”
But what happens when the actions of one of the most passionate funders of this cutting-edge research “shock the conscience”? It is easy to write off Epstein as a sociopathic deviant, an exception. The mainstream media is now ready to do just that with an encouraging push from the opportunistic Democratic Party establishment, which ignores ample Democratic involvement with Epstein and feigns offence at his crimes in hopes of getting at Trump, in order to reestablish the liberal status quo of American imperial exceptionalism.
It is much harder, however, to reflect on the fact that it is figures like Epstein who are most invested in the scientific and technological progress that so many well-adjusted, liberal Americans uncritically support. Although Epstein’s actions are especially deplorable, his Epicurean scientistic worldview is one that is held by many others as a default. The fact that a man like Epstein subscribes to such a widespread epistemology and funds what is ostensibly the scientific research and technological development of the future should give us all pause.
This is not to say that science and technology are irredeemable, but it is to say that neither is an inherent Good to be worshiped no matter the cost. Under capitalism, whether they like it or not, scientists are at the behest of their funders, and only research that can be used by the ruling class to further its own interests garners consistent financial support.
Epstein is simply an extreme example of this unquestioned set-up, which is forced down the throat of countries like Salvador Allende’s Chile that attempt to chart their own scientific and technological path. Only by joining the struggle against capitalism and white supremacy will scientists be able to realize their full potential and see their research used for the upliftment of humanity as opposed to its increased subjugation.
As thinkers including Du Bois, Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Rabindranath Tagore warned us years ago, science without humanity and technology without morality portend civilizational collapse. Epstein’s case is but one example of this process, which is well underway in Europe and America. Without a turn to the best traditions of the civilizations of Africa and Asia, and a revival of the dissident traditions of the West, there are likely to be many more Jeffrey Epsteins and, even worse, a world that looks more and more like one created in their image.
Hanson Robotics, the company that owns Sophia and Little Sophia, reached out to the author clarifying that Hanson Robotics and OpenCog are separate organisations, and that Epstein’s money was only used to fund OpenCog’s “videogames development” and not the AI behind Little Sophia. We acknowledge that it is difficult to demonstrate exactly how Epstein’s funds were used internally; we have issued a correction in the text to that effect.
Hanson also claims that Hanson Robotics AI has no relationship to OpenCog, while conceding that Epstein’s long-time beneficiary Ben Goertzel served simultaneously both as CEO of the OpenCog foundation and as Chief Scientist of Hanson Robotics from 2015-2018. However, Goertzel’s own news report from 2015 suggests that there was a connection between Hanson’s AI and OpenCog’s research. Two years after the announcement of Epstein’s funding for OpenCog and one year before the activation of Hanson’s Sophia, Goertzel wrote a news update on the OpenCog website entitled “OpenCog partners with Hanson Robotics to work toward human-like robots.” In June 2018, Goertzel provided specific examples of OpenCog’s role in Sophia’s robotic functioning. While this is in reference to Sophia, and not Little Sophia, Hanson describes the latter as the “little sister” of Sophia.
A Forbes article dated October 10, 2013 on Jeffrey Epstein as the “financial guru” behind “radical emotional software for the gaming industry” stated that OpenCog’s software “has already had an impact . . on the robot industry where companies such as Hanson Robotics, developed by David Hanson, are incorporating it to advance the way their human-like robots function and interact with people.” This article has now been taken down from the Forbes website, although it can be found on the Internet Archive.