February 9, 2023

Age six, I once ruined Pass the Parcel at a schoolfriend’s birthday party, because I was distracted by a headline on a layer of discarded newspaper. MIND BOMBED BY THE MOONIES. I remember being intensely annoyed when it was taken off me before I could find out what that meant, and confused as to why all the adults thought my outrage was funny. It marked me out as one of those oddballs generally more interested in ideas than in who and what is immediately present. That trait has persisted: my mad professor streak is trying to friends and family, to this day.

What would it be like if the ratio were reversed? What if a community emerged in which people like me, more transfixed by ideas than relationships, were the majority? Would the kid who laughed at my newspaper-reading be derided by the rest of the group, for preferring frivolous games to intellectual curiosity? What would this group be like as adults? We can, perhaps, catch a glimpse of that future, as well as some of its pitfalls, by dipping a toe into the effective altruism (EA) movement. This has been in the news recently, following the collapse of multi-billion-dollar cryptocurrency exchange FTX, and the disgrace of its founder Sam Bankman-Fried: a previously-fêted fintech wunderkind and one of the funding powerhouses behind the EA movement.

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A recent Time article documented a rash of rumours from within the EA movement concerning the sexual harassment of female members, and their difficulty gaining any kind of protection or redress within the community’s “cult-like” atmosphere. In their defence, effective altruists are hardly the first group of dreamers to struggle with the tension between high ideals and rampant lust. A cursory glance at the history of communities with strong beliefs — which is to say, of religions and cults — suggests that over time this tension has warped many idealistic movements into what we can only describe as sex cults.

There’s the Fundamental Church of Latter-Day Saints, whose leader Warren Jeffs ended up with 81 wives and had a special bed made for consummating his marriages. There’s David Berg’s Children of God, who used hot young women he called “hookers for Jesus”, to recruit new members with the promise of limitless sex. Then there is the notorious Sri Bhagavan “sex cult” from the Seventies, and more recently the creepy NXIVM cult, in which members were branded with the initials of founder Keith Raniere.

The “Moonies” who so fascinated me at that long-ago birthday party never went this far. By cult standards they are stuffy centrists, most famous for conducting mass wedding ceremonies. But even here Sun Myung Moon, the founder, claimed that original sin was a consequence of Eve having sex with the serpent, and the only way to escape this sin was for the sperm of a sinless man to enter the womb of each woman to be purified. Happily for his adherents, Moon was just such a man — and early followers allege that Moon performed this “womb cleansing” ritual with the female member of each of the first 36 couples he initiated into his cult.

Compared with these, Time’s stories from the EA community are pretty mild. But they encapsulate the same potent blend of moral intensity, tight-knit social groups and basic male horniness that recurs again and again in cults that turn into shag-fests. And what’s ironic about the re-emergence of this pattern within effective altruism is that, as a movement, it’s defined precisely in opposition to this kind of sweaty-palmed misbehaviour. A key feature of EA is the importance accorded to human rationality, and a corresponding desire to prioritise it over emotion — for example how much you care about loved ones compared to strangers. It’s distinct from the associated movements of longtermism and transhumanism, also under the spotlight since the collapse of FTX, but all three share this privileging of human reason.

Effective altruism offers individuals a supposedly objective, rational framework for maximising their ability to do good; longtermism seeks to extend that fusion of rationality and idealism into the far distant future. Transhumanism, meanwhile, proposes radically modifying the human organism, often with the aim of achieving one or more of these goals. Accordingly, other aspects of human nature must be downplayed or overcome, including anything based on affinity rather than logic. Julia Wise, for example, the longest-serving employee of Oxford’s Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA), described in 2012 how her preference for prioritising overall wellbeing over that of her immediate circle attracts her mother’s criticism: “How can you care so much about strangers and so little about your family?”

But from an effective altruist perspective this is as it should be. Wise dismisses particularistic, locally-focused charity as “inefficient”, as it’s oriented more toward community-building than maximum effectiveness, an emphasis she views as self-evidently a bad thing. And it’s not just localism that gets thrown out: among these overlapping movements, an aversion to the given and contingent extends even to our bodies. The transhumanist Elise Bohan, for example (who is cited on the Effective Altruism forum) calls for us to “upgrade our hopelessly limited ape-brains”, as she puts it, while preserving “the best parts” of our humanity — which for her means “intelligence”.

This, then, is a subculture that really, intensely prefers ideas to people, and the abstract and systemic to happenstance and the immediate present. It moralises this too: Time quotes one woman who describes a culture where EA adherents believed “we are better than others because we are more rational or more reasonable or more thoughtful”. But why would this present particular problems for women? Well, one issue is that Wise (and arguably me too, and quite possibly also Elise Bohan) are outliers among outliers. For there’s considerable evidence, replicated worldwide, that women on average prefer people to abstractions. In other words, though relatively rare, those children who get distracted from Pass the Parcel by newspaper headlines are more likely to be boys.

And if these are indeed the people who gravitate to EA, no wonder seven out of ten EA adherents are male. Wise imagines the sex skew in her movement to be a consequence of socialisation, saying “it’s considered more normal for [boys] to care about the big picture more than household emotional politics”. But it’s not just “considered” more normal. It is more normal. And it’s more likely than not that the reasons for this aren’t just socialisation. For example, the evolutionary biologist Joyce Benenson draws parallels between sex-distinctive patterns of interaction and intrasexual competition in humans, and those of our closest primate relatives. She shows how patterns of relationship-building, care-giving and aggression differ between the sexes in ways that, in other primate species, make sense from an evolutionary perspective, arguing that these evolutionary patterns map onto human history as well.

Ironically, then, there’s something perhaps less than entirely reasonable about insisting that normative sex differences in psychological makeup should all be pure socialisation. But perhaps we can forgive the reason-lovers a bit of fidgeting. After all, the idea that humans possess evolved differences above the neck as well as below is an uncomfortable proposal, if you believe we can control what goes on in our heads — and that what’s good about us is exactly that capacity to control. For if Benenson is right, it doesn’t matter how rational our aspirations. We’ll struggle to shake our animal aspect, and its animal drives. And if this extends to occupational preferences and socialisation patterns, it extends too, as I’ve noted elsewhere, to our sexual desires, where men and women differ markedly on average — something that turned out to have less than ideal consequences for the minority of women drawn to EA and its world of ideas.

Accordingly, several of the reported EA misdemeanours map straightforwardly onto well-documented evolved patterns in male mate choice preference. The prominent male EA leader who told one female graduate “he needed to masturbate before seeing me” was displaying the well-documented evolved male preference for young, fertile women, and seeking to exploit the equally well-documented female preference for males with status and resources — as did the man who, as another woman reports, “groomed” her, arguing “that ‘paedophilic relationships’ were both perfectly natural and highly educational”. And we find the greater male inclination to sociosexuality (a desire for casual sex), as well as the link between high male status and multiple female partners, in the young woman who felt pressured by shame at her “irrational” preference for monogamy to join EA men’s harems, sorry, “polycules”.

One of the women quoted in Time describes the idealism that enabled this critical blind spot as a veneer of high-mindedness, that amounts in practice to “misogyny encoded into math”. But perhaps it would be more accurate to call it the monkey encoded into math. Effective altruism is hardly the first tight-knit community of ardent believers to fall prey to these patterns: it could just as easily be a different theology, and the long history of horny cults makes it clear that it often is. But it would still be the monkey. For this monkey doesn’t just leap out unexpectedly. It also sets about co-opting even the most elevated ideals in pursuit of monkey-goals, such as the overlapping pursuit of elevated status and/or more sex.

The EA community was, perhaps, especially vulnerable — for their worldview turns at least in part on a conviction that the monkey can be persuaded to stop capering, and that people can transcend the ancient, potent link between power, idealism and sexual opportunism. Instead, they got ambushed. And it’s a testament to effective altruism’s truly, ironically irrational preference for ideas over people, that its adherents ever imagined monkeys could be persuaded to listen to reason.