The heroine of William Gibson’s 2003 near-future novel Pattern Recognition is a professional discerner of emerging trends, so hyper-attuned to semiotic nuance that she experiences physical discomfort if made to wear any item of clothing with recognisable branding. Cayce Pollard pings around the world, providing advisory services to mysterious plutocrats, while living in an interzone of airports and anonymous hotels.
My first impression of Simone and Malcolm is that they have walked straight out of Pattern Recognition. Two slender, voluble, dark-haired, medium-height thirty-somethings, they have slicked-back hair, thick-rimmed spectacles and quirky dark clothing. Their children, Torsten, Octavian, and Titan Invictus, are all IVF-conceived, some gene-selected for traits such as IQ or happiness. Simone is pregnant again, she tells me merrily, with Industry Americus Collins, due in April.
The original “‘elite’ couple breeding to save mankind” of countless memes, I sought them out on a recent London visit in the hope of inducing them to say controversial things about biotech. They’re famous (or notorious if you prefer) for their enthusiastic endorsement of a high-tech Bay Area “pro-natalism” that embraces every available reproductive technology. From IVF, through surrogacy, polygenic embryo screening, to potentially gene-editing future offspring, they are what they call “the most talkative iteration” of a “technophilic” movement dedicated to saving the human species from population crash.
There are plenty of conservatives to whom all such technologies are prima facie off-limits. And I have grave concerns about anything that promises to free us from organismic limits — only to demand, in exchange, new kinds of servitude. I’m far from certain whether technophiles are friends or enemies. But what I heard was a message most relevant to the people currently keenest to dismiss them as “terminally online Redditors” or “hipster eugenicists”, or to link them with the far-Right: that the fertility crash is coming, soonest and hardest and most brutally, for liberals. And the Collinses are, in fact, liberals too: just unusually unfiltered and clear-sighted ones.
The Collinses earn a living in financial services, but their passion is education (they run an Institute for the Gifted) and promoting natalist culture. They use email and WhatsApp accounts seemingly interchangeably, and offer opinions as if they’re two interfaces of the same voluble, intelligent and eccentric hive mind. Malcolm proposed marriage to Simone on Reddit. They plan to have seven children.
In the end, we didn’t discuss gene-editing and fertility tech much at all: we converged, instead, on a deeper and arguably more insoluble fear. That is, that the contours of the fertility crisis mean people like the Collinses — subcultures that value intelligence, openness, and technological sophistication — are a critically endangered species.
In the Collins worldview, what they call the “global monoculture” is the chief antagonist. They mean the largely homogeneous high-tech norms that have emerged in every major developed city in the modern world: Starbucks, tiny families or solo apartments, long working hours. And everywhere this “monoculture” appears, fertility is falling. Human birth rates are now below replacement almost everywhere in the world.
This global monoculture “believes it has a right to other people’s children, because its fertility rates are so low that the only way it can replenish itself is by just taking the children of nearby healthy cultural groups”. In Simone and Malcolm’s view, this dynamic represents “an existential threat to our species”. And as they see it, the motley coalition of interest groups making up the current “conservative movement” is united by hostility to this urban monoculture, and sometimes little else.
And while the Collinses are meticulously Californian in their aversion to offer explicit moral judgement, it would seem that however existential a threat this monoculture is overall, it’s a clear and present danger to people like them. For it poses a long-term threat to intellectual and cultural openness. Malcolm has, Simone tells me, analysed data on the demographic profiles of people having lots of kids — and it turns out that the deciding factor isn’t religiosity at all. It’s the mirror inverse of the high openness exhibited by “terminally online Redditors” and Silicon Valley rationalists.
According to their own studies, Simone tells me, the high-fertility profile comes with “xenophobia and fascism”. That is: people who have lots of kids are authoritarian, hostile to out-groups, and reluctant to consider other viewpoints as valid. And while they assure me, with the typically extravagant tolerance of difference typical of the Bay Area, that they’re “not even antagonistic” to bigotry “so long as they don’t interfere with their neighbours” tacitly the judgement is clear. After all, a defining characteristic of authoritarian outlooks is precisely interfering with your neighbours. Having evidently considered the prognosis for their own way of life, in a future dominated by such cultures, the Collinses show pragmatism and clear-sightedness in doing whatever they can to avert the prospect.
But it’s not just pluralism and openness on the chopping-block if demographic forces continue to select in favour of bigots. It’s also cognitive ability, cultures that value education, and cultures knowledgeable of and engaged with technologies. All these traits are, the Collinses remind me, correlated with low fertility; not that I need reminding, as a bookish, overeducated, and extremely online mother of only one.
Meanwhile, Malcolm continues, the people still having kids are the ones making less money, and wielding less cultural and economic power in the world. In turn, this makes such groups “less good at defending themselves from aggressive forces and less viable as power players on the world stage”. Rather than embracing marginalisation as a condition for survival, the Collinses want to “find and nourish groups that are able to be global economic and technological players while still being high fertility, because that is so rare”.
What’s left unspoken here is that they think failing to support “global economic and technological players” would have very bad effects overall — for it would mean shrugging while the culture selects against clever, bookish, and technologically adept people. They are, in other words, quietly worried that current civilisation is shrinking the future pool of what a Bay Area rationalist is bound to see as the keystone of our genetic heritage: IQ.
They tread carefully around the topic, no doubt mindful of its radioactive connotations. But Malcolm comes close to spelling out the implications when he tells me that, based on research he’s read, “we may see about a one standard deviation drop in IQ in the developed world in the next 75 years, due to genetic reasons”. That is: the smartest people are deleting themselves from the gene pool.
The Collinses clearly accept that whatever form of human culture makes it to the other side of the current demographic pinch-point will be a brutal survival of the fittest — where “fit” doesn’t necessarily accord with their preferred values. But though they studiously route round any explicit moral statement that might impose coercive obligations on someone else, it’s clear that the Collinses would prefer at least some of the winning demographic subcultures to be high-IQ people with technological capabilities, and a willingness to tolerate different viewpoints. They emphasise that they are firmly against eugenics, where this represents any top-down value-statement about or intervention in the gene pool. But it’s also clear that, albeit in an opt-in, you-do-you Bay Area way, they think there are better and worse ways that gene pool could develop in the future.
To this end, they’re more than happy to collaborate with any group — even those far more authoritarian or anti-tech than they are — if the common goal is reversing what they perceive as the current negative trend. In their view, it’s not for some time — Malcolm suggests, “in 300 or 400 years” — that this coalition might fall to infighting, as pluralistic and technophilic factions such as theirs battle “religious, fundamentalist, xenophobic groups that believe that there can only be one religious group and one ethnic group in the world”. In such a scenario, they accept, “a lot of the conservative pronatalist groups will come into conflict because some are more pluralistic than others”.
In the meantime, though, they see what they’re doing as salvage work, preserving as much of a dying culture as they can. “We have seen this before in the Roman Empire,” they say, “this collapse scenario. Anyone who doesn’t think that we are entering a dark age right now is delusional. We need to begin to round the wagons, to defend as much of our civilisation as we can, so that we can use it going forwards.”
It’s possible, I put to them, that the rationalistic, high-tech culture they are trying to preserve is too deeply implicated in the “global monoculture” they deplore to be disaggregated — indeed, that it may be driving the problem. Malcolm shrugs. It’s possible, he tells me. But the Collinses are content nonetheless to pursue their bet, and to see who turns out to be right.
Despite our differences on reproductive technologies, I suspect the Collinses and I are more aligned than not — on, if nothing else, devotion to reading the cultural tea-leaves, and extrapolating from the patterns we recognise. Some who do this, such as William Gibson, set out what they see via the written word to sometimes near-prophetic effect. Others, such as the Collinses, work as hard as they can in the real world, to turn the direction of events toward or away from patterns they see on the horizon.
But whatever the longer-term impact of the Collinses’ interventions will be, they’re right to see their beloved culture of logical, rationalistic, high-openness risk-takers as endangered. And there’s a lesson there for liberals of both Right and Left, even a long way from Silicon Valley. For if the traits most immediately at risk are openness, high cognitive ability, and an appreciation for education: those, in a word, commonest in liberals. If the Collinses’ read is right on the larger patterns, and I think it is, those who value intelligence and openness need to be a great deal more deliberate about “rounding the wagons” to protect the values and cultural practices they cherish – including via efforts to inculcate these traits and cultures in the next generation, or indeed to produce a next generation at all.
If this doesn’t happen, all those clever, tolerant, bookish types, many of whom currently leap to denounce voices like the Collinses as at least “far-right” adjacent, may wake up in a generation or so, to find they missed the chance to hand on their own genetic and cultural legacy. And that instead, in a fit of short-sighted self-righteousness, they gifted the world to the only people still having children: their enemies.