Declining Birthrate Panic, Effective Altruism, and the Pronatalists
A recent Telegraph article entitled “Meet the ‘elite’ couples breeding to save mankind” is...a lot. We read it cold, reacted live on mic, and honestly should’ve made a bingo card before diving in! We’ve heard this all before, so we predicted every horrifying note.
Courtney: Whoo, buddy, buckle up. I found an article today, and I read about exactly two paragraphs plus the title and subtitle before I said, “Maybe we need to sit down and read this together on microphone. I can already tell this is going to be quite something.”
Courtney: So, hello, everyone. If you are new here, my name is Courtney, and I’m here with my spouse, Royce. Together, we are The Ace Couple. And today, we are talking about “The ‘elite’ couples breeding to save mankind. With global birth rates in free fall, Silicon Valley’s ‘pronatalists’ are aiming to halt the decline – by having as many babies as possible.” This article brought to you by The Telegraph.
Courtney: So, we already know this is going to be good, because we’ve had conversations about the panic and the alarm at the declining birth rates. We’ve talked about it in a few different contexts at this point. So this will sort of be a whole new angle with which to tackle it. But right off the bat, I’m thinking, “Oh no, we found them. Here they are. The secular Quiverfulls have arrived. Is that the vibe you’re getting here, too?
Royce: That’s a good way of putting it, but it’s reminiscent of a lot of different things all at once.
Courtney: Well, I haven’t read it all yet. As I said, I got, like, two paragraphs deep, and I was like, “This is going to be a lot to unpack.”
Royce: Yeah, it definitely has the same undertones as the extremist religious movements that try to have as many children as possible all the time. I’m seeing the subculture of effective altruism being mentioned.
Courtney: Ohhh, effective altruism! Oh, now I’m excited. Are we going to have a philosophy lesson today?
Royce: And it’s also… A brief search of this showed that Twitter had already got a hold of it.
Courtney: Ah, makes sense.
Royce: And a lot of people are saying, “Look at the, quote unquote, ‘elites’ who are going to save humanity,” and showing, like, the Flanders family from The Simpsons. Like, all of them look like this. All of them look like conservative white people.
Courtney: Ah, yes. Well, here’s the interesting thing.
Royce: Or seventeenth-century aristocracy.
Courtney: Because you say “conservative white people,” and we’ll find out as we read this, but I would venture to guess that these quote “elite couples” out of Silicon Valley probably would not consider themselves to be conservative. However, this shit is a circle. If you go left [laughs] long enough, all of a sudden you have some of the most fundamentally conservative viewpoints that have been here since the dawn of time, and you don’t even realize it, because in your mind, you’re using science and logic and reasoning, and, “Well, I’m educated. This isn’t a, you know, religious impulse. This is just facts.” And yet, I’m sure what we’re going to be seeing here is, you know, “More children, more children, more children.” That is fundamentally conservative.
Royce: It is. And there’s also… A person can have a mixture of conservative and progressive opinions and not really know what is what.
Royce: Because what they’re being labeled as, in popular discourse, common discourse, is not always accurate.
Courtney: Right. Yeah. And the thing is, too – Because we’ve mentioned, you know, the Quiverfull movement offhandedly a few different times. I don’t think we’ve ever dedicated an episode to them – ooh, heaven forbid. But I’ve known some self-proclaimed Quiverfulls in my life, and their view as to why they have as many children as they do is because, you know, “It’s all God’s plan, and we are going to have as many children as God will allow us to have.” So, many of these folks are very anti-birth control. So if you are in a married heterosexual relationship, birth control is off the table for these folks, and they say, “If we get pregnant, we get pregnant, because that’s what God wanted.” Religion’s just sort of the avenue for getting to the end result of more children. But we get these… [laughs] Well, now, if effective altruism is coming in here, now, we’re using philosophy to get to that same end result, which is fun. I really like philosophy, so this is going to be a good time for me.
Courtney: But then you have all these sort of alarmist articles that come out. I think there’s at least one every year that comes out in a very, very big way that’s like, “The declining birth rate’s going to be the end of society.” And often that comes from a very, like, economic standpoint, in some of these big, buzzy articles. And so you’re still getting to the same result of more children, but you’re using capitalism to get there, so that’s fun. But the end result is the same. It is fundamentally conservative.
Royce: And I guess I have a couple of other short comments to make before we get into the actual article. But you mentioned that Silicon Valley elites probably tend to think they’re progressive, they probably tend to think they’re intelligent, or maybe they are particularly good at a particular skill. Oftentimes, those skills, given the demographics, would be scientific or engineering-based. It would be something focused in logic or in numbers. But if you sit down and do a little bit of math and think a little bit, this idea that a slightly declining birth rate is going to mean no more humans in anywhere near a relatively soon future is a very unintelligent, illogical thought process. [laughing slightly] Because if the population does drop and food scarcity becomes less of an issue and we have less of an impact on the climate and it generally just becomes easier to get by, people will just start having more kids before there are no more humans left.
Courtney: Well, you know, the thing is, because if we are – and I’m not yet speaking for the folks in the article, because I haven’t read what views they’re identifying as yet, but since you put effective altruism in my head, I’m going to throw this out there: that effective altruists often subscribe to a particular brand of longtermism, which is very interesting, because it undoubtedly comes from a place of privilege. It is a place where you are not hurting, you are fine.
Courtney: There is a very financial, capitalist component to it. Because these are folks who have money, and so they’re saying, “Given the fact that I have money, what is the best I can do with this money?” But they aren’t just thinking about, “What’s wrong in the world around me? What can I immediately solve?” They are thinking long, long, long term. They’re like, “You know, there might be poverty. There might be, you know, there might be unhoused people right here in my very city. But that’s just affecting a few people, whereas the inevitable extinction of the human race is going to affect the entire human race, and all of those theoretical future people count just as much as the people alive right now.” So they’re looking at big, major future crises.
Royce: Right. And another way you could put that is that this is modern, rebranded utilitarianism. And utilitarianism is often a thin line away from eugenics.
Courtney: Well, yes. Okay so let’s talk about utilitarianism. First of all, Jeremy Bentham. I am a big fan of his auto-icon. [laughs] I did go to visit him when he was in a gallery in New York, and I had a very, very weird day, but this article is long enough that this episode is going to take forever, so remind me sometime in the future to tell everyone about my very weird day I had after going to visit Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon.
Courtney: The gist of utilitarianism is basically good, but not if you take it to an extreme. So this, you know, effective altruism is like a utilitarian nightmare gone to its very very extreme, because – this is going to be a gross oversimplification, because we don’t have time to get into all the nitty-gritty of philosophy – but it’s, “What is, you know, the most good you can do for the most number of people?” Which, in some situations, in a lot of everyday interactions on smaller scales, is usually very positive.
Courtney: But you can’t apply it to absolutely everything, because, if you think about, “Well, what does the most good for the most number of people on an incredibly large scale?” there is built-in systemic issues there. There is ableism. There is racism, you know. “What’s good for the most number of people?” Well, I don’t know, are the most number of people white able-bodied people, and are you saying what’s good financially for most of the white able-bodied people is what we’re gonna go with because that’s the majority? Absolutely not. That’s how you get very quickly into eugenics [laughs] and other deep, deep systemic issues. So, utilitarian – fun in theory for some situations, can’t go too far with it.
Courtney: But even taking it further back, like, utilitarianism sort of involves from Epicurius, who basically just said, you know, “All life is is pain and pleasure. Those are the two things. So what we should do is try to avoid pain. So we should lessen the amount of pain that there is in the world.” Which is, you know, on a surface level, without taking that too far, very, very good. Paradoxically, people who fancy themselves to be Epicureans are, like – they take it the other direction and they’re like, “I’m going to have as much pleasure as I can! Life is about pleasure. I’m gonna live it up.” And it’s like, “Ehh… I think a lot of you missed the point somewhere along the line.”
Courtney: But, so, it’s such a deep philosophical argument that everyone, every day in our lives, we’re like, you know, “Are we doing the right thing? Are we doing the most good we can do?” Even if you don’t know these theories and where they come from, I think everyone, to varying degrees, considers these things in their head.
Courtney: But effective altruism’s a weird one for me. [laughs] Because it’s very financially motivated. It purports to be logical – to what I would say is a fault, by taking away the actual humanity and emotion behind human connections and relieving suffering and infusing pleasure into the world when and where we can. Because I’ve heard the argument where a staunch effective altruist would say… If, you know, if the Louvre is burning down and the Mona Lisa is there and a small child is there, which one do you save? I would say, “Obviously, the child, because that’s a human life.” But the effective altruist might say, you know, “I could save the Mona Lisa, sell it for a ton of money, and think of all the good I can do for all of the other children of the world with all that money.” It’s like… [groans slightly] That’s obviously an extreme. I’m sure most effective altruists wouldn’t literally say that. But that’s – if you follow it down the line too far, that’s where you get to.
Royce: I don’t think it’s far off the mark. And the reason that I brought up utilitarianism is because most examples of utilitarianism that I’ve seen at any scale come into that point of sacrifice –
Royce: – where it’s, “To do the most good for the most people, we have to sacrifice some other population.”
Courtney: Yeah. When you are looking at, you know, states and countries in the world, that is where it gets to.
Royce: But even in that example – that was a small-scale example – that was still a loss of life being considered and a price put on that.
Courtney: It always gets muddier when there’s another person involved. Because you could also look at it in a way of, like, you know, “I have $500 that I could spend on something, you know, fun and frivolous, something that I would enjoy. But I’m financially secure. I have a job. I’m good. Or I can give that $500 to someone who’s really struggling, someone who needs to pay their rent.” And that’s almost never muddy, because that’s saying, you know, “This money will give me a little bit of pleasure, but it will relieve a lot of pain for them, so giving it to them is the right thing to do.”
Royce: Yeah. I have one more comment to make and then we should probably get into the article.
Courtney: We haven’t even gotten into the article yet!
Royce: We haven’t gotten into the article!
Courtney: This is what you do when you invoke philosophy with me! [laughs]
Royce: My frustration with all of this is that none of it touches the actual problem. It doesn’t touch why people are living in poverty or why there are issues. And a rich person out of Silicon Valley throwing money at a problem isn’t going to change that. So, I see it as a “garbage in, garbage out” sort of scenario.
Royce: Like, your logic is not founded on the right problem or an accurate set of data, so no solution that you get from that is going to be correct.
Courtney: Mhm. Yeah. So, I agree. And the thing is, even if you haven’t heard of these themes, even if you haven’t heard of effective altruism, even if you haven’t studied this sort of branch of philosophy or or come into contact with some of these Silicon Valley elites, I’m sure you’ve still been exposed to some of the rhetoric. Because I don’t follow Elon Musk nearly close enough to know if he identifies personally with effective altruism, but, oh, everything I do see that a headline with him in slips by me, I’m like, “That is very much in line with effective altruism.”
Courtney: Because he’s also started raising the alarm bells about the declining birth rate being one of the most imminent threats. And it’s like, “Okay, well, that’s something.” And he also gets really fixated on these long-term existential threats, like declining birth rate, the extinction of the population is one, but a lot of effective altruists also say, “Well, you know, the most good I can do is study AI, artificial intelligence. Because yeah, there’s a lot of suffering in the world right now, but if we don’t do AI right, there’s gonna be an AI apocalypse, and the AI will kill all the humans. And even if that’s in the distant future, we can’t let that happen, now can we?”
Royce: So we should fund the acceleration of AI development…
Royce: …in order to stop an AI apocalypse.
Courtney: And we really can’t neglect the power element and the control and even the tremendous undertones of colonialism. Because even the effective altruists who do not focus all of their attention resources on the longtermism effects, if they are a little more in the here and now, it’s often with a very global mentality. You know, “Why would I give the unhoused person down the street from my office $500, when $500 in Africa will go a lot further? Stretch those dollars. Do the most you can.”
Courtney: And that can get very quickly into a brand of white-saviorism. And you can try to logic your way around it, say, “No, no, no, this is just finances. This is just math. This is how much good can my every dollar do.” It often puts the person who has the money in the position of power as the one who knows, “Well, I know what’s best for these countries. I know where my money will be best used.” And, uh, turns out the people who live in those countries do have activists. They do have people who know how best to use the money. They’re living there!
Royce: Yeah. It’s almost like the best use of these wealthy people’s money would be if it were taxed and used for welfare in the country that they’re in.
Courtney: Well, you know, [laughs] that’s assuming a government has, uh…
Royce: Basic competency?
Courtney: Well… [laughs] That’s the polite way of saying it, yes. So, [laughs] on that note, back to the birth rates and the elite couples breeding to save mankind. [laughs]
Courtney: “At the beginning of March, Aria Babu” – I hope that’s how you pronounce her last name, B-A-B-U – “quit her job at a think tank” – oh. [laughs]
Royce: You didn’t see that coming?
Courtney: I really should have, at this point. We’re having our own little think tank over here, so who am I to judge that? – “to dedicate herself to something most people have never heard of. Having worked in public policy for several years, the 26-year-old Londoner had come to an alarming realization about the future of the UK, the world – and the human species. ‘It became clear to me that people wanted more children than they were having,’ Babu says. ‘Considering this is such a massive part of people’s lives, the fact that they were not able to fulfill this want was clearly indicative that something was wrong.’” Ugh. See, now…
Royce: Where is your data coming from?
Courtney: That alone – if you don’t link it to where I think her train of thought ended, if you don’t look at the outcome – that is not necessarily incorrect. There are people who do want children who financially can’t do it because we live in a late-stage capitalist hellscape.
Royce: I mean, I see that, but the blanket statement, “People want more children” – there are a lot of people who want to stop being pressured into having children.
Courtney: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. But this is going to be so interesting, because I imagine she is the one who is breeding to save humanity. [laughs] But if she came to this decision because other people wanted children and couldn’t have them, that’s kind of icky, right? That’s only half a step away from people who, like, adopt children from other countries when those children do actually have parents who would raise them if they could financially support them, but they have put them in an orphanage for the hope that they’ll have a better life and that a wealthier family will adopt them, and people will spend tens of thousands of dollars adopting these kids. It’s like, “Give those tens of thousands of dollars to the kids’ parents and keep them together!” Man, someday, we’re just going to have an adoption episode, because I think three different times now, I’ve been like, “We can’t get into all of my thoughts on adoption.” [laughs] And yet.
Courtney: “The new focus of Babu’s career is a philosophy known as pronatalism, literally meaning pro-birth. Its core tenet is deceptively simple: our future depends on having enough children, and yet life in developed countries has become hostile to this basic biological imperative. Linked to the subcultures of rationalism and ‘effective altruism’” – there it is – “and bolstered by declining birth rates, it has been gaining currency in Silicon Valley and the wider tech industry – especially its more conservative corners.”
Courtney: Yep, this is fundamentally conservative, even if you used a different route to get there. Which is interesting, because I’m sure there are people who would subscribe to this and fight me on that, and yet their basic tenets of effective altruism is, “What is the best outcome,” and thinking long and hard on how to get there, but the outcome is the end result and what matters for this brand of philosophy.
Royce: I just can’t shake the feeling that effective altruism is really just an intentional rebranding of an old idea. I’ve come to understand that it’s a thing that people talk about fairly recently.
Royce: But it’s not a new concept.
Courtney: Yeah, I mean, this particular brand of it – like I said, I mean, it descends from longtermism. It descends from utilitarianism, and utilitarianism descends from, [laughing] you know, Epicurean ideology. So it goes far back. But this new iteration is very white, Western, wealthy. It’s the trifecta of W’s! [laughs]
Courtney: “‘We are quite familiar with the pronatalist movement and are supporters of it,’ says Jake Kozloski, the Miami-based co-founder of an AI matchmaking service called Keeper, which aims to address the ‘fertility crisis fueled by a marriage crisis’ by helping clients find the other parent of their future children.” Okay, Royce. I’m gonna need you to make a note of that company, [laughing] because we have more research to do.
Royce: So we didn’t prepare buzzword bingo cards.
Courtney: [laughs] But if we did –
Royce: But had we…
Courtney: “The marriage crisis.” The thing is, the thing is, it’s so funny, because a lot of people have been shocked over the last year or so when we have had conservative Christians come to us, as an Asexual married couple, and be like, “You are insults to humanity and nature,” because we don’t have kids and aren’t allosexual. [laughs] So like, it’s very strange. But even if you take the religion component out of it, but you have an AI matchmaking service of pronatalists who say, “There is a fertility crisis because there is a marriage crisis,” how infuriated would these folks be with us? Like, well, we married, we’re just not doing the fertility part. [laughs]
Royce: The question is, can you think of anything more allonormative?
Courtney: No! [laughs]
Royce: If you tried?
Royce: Like, if you got hired by The Onion to write an article making fun of this whole thing, how could you make it more allonormative?
Courtney: Oh my gosh. See, that’s really hard, because how do you make it more allonormative while still keeping it funny? Because this is already so close to dystopian.
Royce: [overlapping] This is already funny.
Courtney: Yes, it’s already funny. [laughs] But it’s so close to dystopian that I don’t think I could parody it any further without circling back around to depressing. [laughs] But the thing is, I wonder if they’re gonna drop the word “selfish” in here or not. Because conservative Christians, whether or not they truly identify with the Quiverfull movement, will say that adults who do not have kids are selfish. And that’s something that we Asexuals are sick to death of hearing! We’re tired of it. But those people say that.
Courtney: But the place it comes from for those conservative Christians that we’ve spoken about… Their end game is, you know, “The nuclear family – a father, a mother and children – is the backbone of society. This is order. These are the rules, and society needs order. So if you do not follow this order, you do not follow these rules, you are putting all of the stability of society in jeopardy.” So that’s why they’ll say, “You’re selfish,” even though we’re not hurting anybody, honey. It’s fine. We’re just holed up in our house. We never even leave it. You’re okay. But these folks – I could see them saying the same thing: “Well, you’re selfish if you don’t have kids, because what about the future theoretical extinction of the human race? Why aren’t you doing your part to prevent that?”
Royce: Which again, I think that’s why I’m frustrated by the entire declining birth rate narrative. Because my argument to that is: I am doing my part. I am reducing my current carbon emissions.
Courtney: [laughing] Yep, that’s another way of looking at it. I do always think it’s so funny how few effective altruists are, like, tried-and-true environmentalists. Because – literally, I think Elon Musk tweeted that the declining birth rate is a bigger threat to humanity than climate change. I think that was literally a tweet by Elon Musk. I didn’t think we were going to be talking about Elon Musk here, but I’m, like, confident –
Royce: Read two more paragraphs in the article.
Courtney: Nooooo! Are you kidding me? [laughs] Okay, okay, okay. Let’s see. [laughs] “‘I encourage people who are responsible and smart and conscientious to have children, because they’re going to make the future better,’ says Diana Fleischman, a pronatalist psychology professor at the University of New Mexico and consultant for an embryo-selection start-up.” Whew, I don’t want to know what that is, but that’s – there it is. So here are some red flags: “Children are going to make the future better. It is morally correct to have children, if you are responsible, smart, and conscientious” – if you’re white, Western, and wealthy.
Royce: Yeah. I mean, all of those words – “responsible,” “smart,” and “conscientious” – those are all subjective terms, and any subjective term is going to be subject to internal biases.
Courtney: Yeah. Yep, yep, yep, yep, yep. [laughing] “Easily the most famous person to espouse pronatalist ideas is Elon Musk” – [laughing] Noooo! I hate that I hit the nail on the head there – “the galaxy’s richest human being” – why did they have to throw in “galaxy” there? [laughs]
Royce: I read that too. That’s like saying someone is the world’s richest Kansan.
Royce: Like, you have extended the scope beyond the criteria –
Royce: – and it no longer has any meaning. They could have just said “the universe’s richest human,” because by definition, humans only live on earth.
Courtney: Mmm, that’s a good point. Musk, “who has had 10 children with three different women. ‘If people don’t have more children, civilization is going to crumble. Mark my words,’ Musk told a business summit in December 2021. He has described population collapse as ‘the biggest danger’ to humanity (exceeding climate change) and warned that Japan, which has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, ‘will eventually cease to exist.’”
Courtney: Um… you know, I don’t want Japan to cease to exist, but I am glad that the one teeny tiny silver lining here is that all this alarm about the declining birth rates in Japan has given us the anime Romantic Killer, because that is the whole premise, is a wizard who goes to a teenage girl [laughs] to try to force her into a dating simulator-esque life in an attempt to circumvent the declining birth rate. But she wants none of it, so she deems herself the Romantic Killer, because she wants to kill the romance, because all she wants is chocolate, video games, and her cat. And she is a queen. Aromantic Queen.
Courtney: “Babu, who hopes to join or create a pronatalist organization in the UK, says it is still ‘niche’ here but gaining ground on both the ‘swashbuckling intellectual Right’ and the more family-focused and Blue-Labour-tinged segments of the Left.” I am at least glad that she’s admitting that this is predominantly right. Because most of the prominent people who espouse these views will also claim to be liberal and progressive, and… you’re not! You’re not. So at least she is being genuine there with that stance.
Courtney: Oh gosh. “We are on the Titanic right now and it’s going to hit the iceberg!” Quote by Malcolm Collins. Fascinating.
Courtney: “At the center of it all are Simone and Malcolm Collins, two 30-something American entrepreneurs turned philosophers – and parents – who say they are only the most outspoken proponents of a belief that many prefer to keep private. In 2021 they founded a ‘non-denominational’ campaign group called Pronatalist.org, under the umbrella of their non-profit Pragmatist Foundation. Buoyed by a $482,000 donation from Jaan Tallinn, an Estonian tech billionaire who funds many rationalist and effective altruist organizations, it is now lobbying governments, meeting business leaders, and seeking partnerships with reprotech companies and fertility clinics.”
Courtney: I gotta know what they’re lobbying for. Because the thing is, we know their religious counterparts in this country, and we know, from some of the deep dives we’ve done, about what they are lobbying for. It is a lot of heavily incentivizing children through tax codes, incentivizing marriage, providing all of these legal and financial benefits to people who are, essentially, straight, married, and procreating or intending to procreate in the very near future.
Courtney: And this is exactly what we talk about when we say that allonormativity and amatonormativity are deeply entrenched in policy in ways that aren’t always as obvious and overt as policy that targets specifically other queer populations, like gay rights, trans rights. But we need to look at them with a queer lens and acknowledge: there are some people who are Asexual. There are some people who are Aromantic. There are people who might not even be either of those things who just don’t want that life for themselves. And there’s really no reason for, in the here and now, to make their lives harder by default. I’ve even heard of single people being turned down for housing because landlord wants to rent to a family. It’s like, well single people need a place to live, too. So there are all these little things. And I’m afraid to know what these effective altruist organizations are actually lobbying for, because it sounds like a lot of their followers have the big bucks, and we know that talks in our political system.
Courtney: “The Collinses did not coin the word ‘pronatalism,’ which has long been used (along with ‘natalism’) to describe government policies aimed at increasing birth rates, or mainstream pro-birth positions such as that of the Catholic Church. Its opposite is ‘anti-natalism,’ the idea that it is wrong to bring a new person into the world if they are unlikely to have a good life. Lyman Stone, a natalist demographer and research fellow at the US’s Institute for Family Studies, has described the Collinses’ philosophy as ‘a very unusual subculture’ compared to millions of everyday natalists. Yet it is their version – a secular, paradoxically unorthodox reconstruction of arguably the most traditional view on earth, driven by alarm about a looming population catastrophe – that is prospering among the tech elite.” I think that’s exactly what I said right out the gate at the beginning. This is one of the original conservative viewpoints.
Courtney: “‘I don’t think it’s appealing to [just] Silicon Valley people,’ Malcolm tells me on a long call from his home in Pennsylvania. ‘It’s more like, anyone who is familiar with modern science and familiar with the statistics is aware that this is an issue, and they are focused on it. The reason why you see Silicon Valley people disproportionately being drawn to this is they’re obsessed with data enough, and wealthy enough, to be looking at things – and who also have enough wealth and power that they’re not afraid of being canceled.’” So about your data point earlier, [laughs] Royce, what say you to anyone who’s familiar with modern science and statistics?
Royce: I don’t even know what to say, because the very notion of a percentage decrease is asymptotal. It can never reach zero.
Royce: Statistically. And, again, none of this data is taking into account why the birth and death rates are what they are. It feels to me like someone in Silicon Valley with too much money and probably too much time saw a graph going down and went, “Huh, that looks bad. That graph is going down.”
Royce: “We should make that graph go up.”
Courtney: Well, ’cause they are normally looking at profit, and they’re like, “Profit line must go up. If profit line goes down, bad. Make profit line go up again.” But human lives should not be reduced to capitalism! And the thing is, with these, like, tax codes, these incentives, it’s like, “Well, if it’s hard for people to have children, and having children is the most important thing, well, we should, you know, give people a little more money so that they can have kids.” I would argue everyone should have enough money to live comfortably in a reasonable lifestyle of their choice to begin with. And that’s something I don’t hear these folks addressing very much. [laughs]
Royce: I find it odd that the article mentions pronatalism and antinatalism as the two opposing philosophies. It’s like you said, if a person wants to have kids, they should be able to have kids.
Royce: If they don’t, they should be able to not do that.
Courtney: Yes! [laughs] Where is the autonomy in this? And the thing is, I mean, yeah, they’re looking at their money. They’re like, “Man, I have all this money and I want to do good with it!” Yeah, you could argue that there’s a nugget of purity, and I’m sure they do genuinely want to do good. But I would say it is fundamentally misguided if you are sort of vetting who you trust your money with. That is control. You are exerting your own viewpoint and control over other populations of people. Because they’re deciding very carefully who their money goes to.
Courtney: And they already said, you know, “Smart, conscientious people who want to have kids.” They aren’t interested in making sure that everybody can have a good, comfortable life. They’re interested in giving money to people who are going to do what they want them to do. And that is also just a hop, skip, and a jump away from eugenics.
Courtney: There are some people who are brazen enough to say, you know, “We need more white babies. We need more Christian babies. We need babies that are just like us and not like the other.” There are people brazen enough to do that. But there are people like this who are like, “No, no, no, this is just numbers. This is just statistics. This is just data.” But without careful introspection, the results can still be the same. Because who is benefiting from these programs that you put in place?
Courtney: “The problem, he concedes, is that falling birth rates are also a common preoccupation of neo-Nazis and other ethno-nationalists” – I am just getting ahead of this article at every turn now. So, “neo-Nazis and other ethno-nationalists who believe they are being outbred and ‘replaced’ by other races. ‘A lot of alleged concerns about fertility decline are really poorly masked racist ideas about what kinds of people they want on the planet.’” Yes. Thank you. That was a quote by the “demographer Bernice Kuang of the UK’s Centre for Population Change.”
Courtney: “The Collinses strongly disavow racism and reject the idea that any country’s population should be homogenous.” I’m sure you do! But I’m going to need a detailed breakdown of how what you’re doing isn’t accidentally going to have the same result, at the end of the day. [laughs] Because the thing, is they don’t want children just to have children. They want healthy, working children that are going to contribute to capitalism. I’m sure there are plenty of these people in here who are going to take the utilitarian nightmare route, who are like, you know, “A disabled child isn’t going to be as valuable to capitalism as a non-disabled child.” So I really – and if you’re building all of this around some trying to avoid a future, theoretical crisis, I fail to see how you’re looking at people like people and considering their humanity and their inherent worth as a living being on this planet.
Courtney: “Still, Babu finds that many in the rationalist and EA community, which skews pale and male, are wary of exploring pronatalism – lest they be ‘tarred with the brush of another white man who just wants an Aryan trad-wife.’” Can I be a little saucy for a second?
Royce: I that’s one of the tags for this entire episode.
Courtney: [whispering] They should be wary of exploring that. They should. [laughs] Maybe shame is a good thing sometimes.
Royce: Yeah, maybe there is a reason why these ideals tend to cultivate in certain belief systems or groups of people.
Courtney: Yeah. But they’re hiding behind their money and their degrees and their super hyped-up, you know, venture capitalist or tech startup, whatever they’re doing – which might not even be profitable, but it sure gives them a lot of social capital to be behind companies like that.
Royce: Didn’t we have a conversation with some friends recently how you should never trust anyone that doesn’t have crippling imposter syndrome?
Courtney: [laughs] Well, we also had a conversation with friends about how you shouldn’t trust scientists. [laughs] So, oh, is that the answer? The only scientists we trust are the ones with impostor syndrome?
Royce: I think that’s reasonable.
Courtney: Look at us being moderates! [laughs]
Courtney: “Another issue is what you might call the Handmaid’s Tale problem.” Oh no. [laughs] Oh no. Here we are. Didn’t think we’d be getting here. So, this episode’s going to be long enough that I’m not going to be able to summarize it in any way that will do it justice, but Sherronda J. Brown, who is author of Refusing Compulsory Sexuality, has, in the past, written a fabulous article about the very white feminist stance of The Handmaid’s Tale. I will link it in the show notes. And I cannot recommend it enough. Please open it in another tab right now; read it when you’re done with this episode.
Courtney: Because it was really, really eye-opening for me. This was during the time of a lot of the, you know, women’s protests, women’s marches, and lots of, usually, white women were dressing up in the, you know, the red cloak. And the white, you know, winged bonnet things from the show in order to make their point about the impending doom – that has come to pass, which is the repeal of Roe versus Wade. Man, weird to talk about those things now that that actually happened. Ugh, life.
Courtney: But how yes, while it’s really easy for the average person to say, like, “Oh, this is going to become The Handmaid’s Tale,” it ignores the fact that a lot of the horrors of The Handmaid’s Tale have been here all along. These violences have been done against, usually, Black women. Other minority women have sort of had their reproductive rights co-opted, taken over from them, loss of bodily autonomy, things of that nature. And I think it’s really good to keep in mind if you’re anyone who’s ever made the Handmaid’s Tale reference. So we’ll pop that in there since we’re getting into this now.
Courtney: “From Nazi Germany’s motherhood medals to the sprawling brood of infamous, Kansas-based ‘God hates fags’ preacher Fred Phelps” – oh, we’re binging in Westboro Baptist Church! Those are, unfortunately, our neighbors. [laughs] – “a zeal for large families has often been accompanied by patriarchal gender politics.” Correct. Yes, they have. “For liberal Westerners, the idea that we need to have more babies – ‘we’ being a loaded pronoun when not all of us would actually bear them – may conjure images of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead. Some more illiberal countries are already shifting in this direction. China has begun restricting abortions after decades of forcing them on anyone who already had one child. Russia has revived a Soviet medal for women with 10 or more children. Hungary, where fertility long ago dropped below 2.1 births per year per woman – the ‘replacement rate’ necessary to sustain a population without immigration – has tightened abortion law while offering new tax breaks and incentives for motherhood. Following the end of Roe v Wade in the US, Texas has proposed tax cuts for each additional child, but only if they are born to or adopted by a married heterosexual couple who have never divorced.” I don’t think I have anything to say about that that I didn’t already say earlier. [laughs]
Courtney: “But the Collinses contend that this kind of future is exactly what they are trying to prevent.” Oh my goodness, are you kidding me? Are they really about to say, “We are having a ton of children to save society so that you are not forced into having children handmaid-style”? I can’t even with the layers of that white saviorism. [laughs] I’m putting words in their mouth now. Let’s continue. Let’s hear what they actually say.
Courtney: “‘People often compare our group to Handmaid’s Tale-like thinking,’ says Malcolm, ‘and I’m like: excuse me, do you know what happens if we, the voluntary movement, fails…? Cultures will eventually find a way to fix this; how horrifying those mechanisms are depends on whether or not our group finds an ethical way.’” They really are! That wasn’t even an exaggeration. [laughs] Oh no! “Though they define themselves politically as conservatives – Malcolm invariably votes Republican – they claim to favor LGBT rights and abortion rights and oppose any attempt to pressure those who don’t want children into parenthood.” Oh, well, thank God they favor LGBT rights!
Royce: But they vote Republican.
Courtney: But they vote Republican, and they just, you know, want to incentivize people to get married in straight, procreative ways. That’s not anti-LGBT. That’s just pro…
Courtney: That’s just pro-cisheteropatriarchy. [laughs] “Instead, they say, their hope is to preserve a ‘diverse’ range of cultures that might otherwise begin to die out within the next 75 to 100 years.” [laughs]
Royce: Where are these numbers coming from? I mean, every time we brought up this population decline argument, I’ve consistently said something to the effect of, “Do the math.” How can 7 to 8 billion people just disappear overnight? Like, where are you drawing this conclusion from?
Courtney: Well, didn’t you see their nifty little birth rate chart, birth rate versus death rate?
Royce: I mean, I see that. I don’t see the underlying data. I also didn’t see it on my screen because I’m using the Wayback Machine.
Courtney: But also, like…
Royce: I mean, that doesn’t explain –
Royce: – their numbers.
Courtney: Like, births are still happening at about the same rate they were in 1975, all the way up to the year 2100, based on their projection. Their concern is just that the death rate has skyrocketed.
Royce: Right, which is going to happen if you have an imbalance in your average population. And then once that generation is past, it’ll even back out again, because there aren’t a significantly higher number of older people to younger people.
Courtney: Yeah. I mean, there are already peaks and valleys in the birth rate, going back to 1950. I mean, we see the Baby Boomers. That is a big boom. It has not been that high, and it will not be that high again, probably.
Royce: I want to reiterate: the whole problem seems to be, “Oh, no. Graph go down.”
Courtney: “Graph go down!” [laughs] Graph go down means less money.
Courtney: “They want to build a movement that can support people of all colors and creeds who already want to have large families, but are stymied by society – so that ‘some iteration of something that looks like [laughing] modern Western civilization’ can be saved.” See, “modern Western civilization.” That’s interesting. Also, they want to focus on people who want to have large families. There are already people having large families. Most of them are white and conservative. They are not focusing on the minority populations who maybe want one or two kids – which I would say is absolutely fundamentally their right to do, and they should be able to financially support that, but they’re like, “No, the people who want large families are the ones that we want to help.”
Royce: “Yeah. They’re also saying “all colors and creeds” and “a diverse range of cultures” within a “modern Western” umbrella.
Royce: So that’s… It’s disingenuous. The problem is, I don’t know if the people working through these thoughts have the awareness to even realize it.
Courtney: Yeah, well also, think about just what that would project politically into the future. And I’m sure they have thought of this. I’m sure at least some of them have, since they’re all, you know, into philosophy and the future.
Courtney: Even if you say, “Okay, let’s say an equal number of white people to BIPOC people want large families in this country.” Let’s just say that for a little thought experiment. I’d still venture to guess that the common denominator is that they are going to be more conservative than the entire population. So even if they’re like, “You know, you know, we’re fine with queer people. We’re fine with people of color. We don’t want a white ethnostate. We just want conservative babies, just lots and lots of conservative babies.”
Royce: Which again, in practice, is demographically going to skew white in America. So you’re going to reach that goal.
Courtney: You are going to reach that goal. And the thing is, they’re already defending – they’re like, “Yeah, I vote Republican, but, but, but I’m in favor of LGBT rights.” So you already know there are people on your side who aren’t. You know, that. You know that, and that’s not a deal-breaker for you.
Courtney: “‘We are on the Titanic right now,’ says Malcolm. ‘The Titanic is going to hit the iceberg. There is no way around it at this point. Our goal is not to prevent the Titanic from hitting the iceberg; it’s to ready the life rafts.’” Do they think that the projection of graphs cannot –
Royce: – is shaped like an iceberg?
Courtney: No, they think the shape of the graphs – the direction it’s going can’t change course!
Royce: Well, yeah, they didn’t plot it that far.
Courtney: [laughs] Wow. “Graph go down. Oh no!” I didn’t know that there was an iceberg at the bottom of the graph though. [laughs] Now, we know. Do we have enough life rafts? Do we have enough doors? Remember, two people can fit on the door. This has been proven time and time again.
Royce: Is a solution here to just use a different template for your graphs, one that doesn’t have an iceberg superimposed on it?
Courtney: Yes. They’ve been watching too many of those iceberg videos on YouTube – or on Reddit, too. Reddit, I think, is where those iceberg things started. And now they just see icebergs everywhere!
Courtney: “‘If there was an animal species it would be called endangered.’” [laughs] Malcolm Collins, ladies and gentlethems.
Royce: He’s saying if humanity was an animal species?
Courtney: If humans were animals, we would be called an endangered species. [laughs]
Royce: I’m pretty sure I saw a headline recently that the estimated mass of all of humanity is more than the estimated mass of all other mammals on earth.
Royce: And remember, whales are mammals.
Courtney: Yep. And humans are…
Royce: Humans outweigh all other mammals.
Courtney: They are also –
Royce: – endangered.
Courtney: – animals. [laughs]
Royce: Yes, true. Again, going back to the idea that a Silicon Valley think tank entrepreneur tech person is generally intelligent.
Courtney: No, wait, it’s all clear to me now. Do you know why humans aren’t animals, Royce? Because we have sex. [laughs]
Royce: Let’s continue.
Courtney: “It was on the couple’s second date, sitting on a rooftop and gazing out at the nearby woods, that Malcolm first raised the prospect of children. Simone’s response was not enthusiastic.” Oh, oh no. Simone, honey. [laughs] “‘I was very excited to spend my life alone, to never get married, to never have kids,’ she recalls.” Oh no! “‘People would be like, “Do you want to hold the baby?” I was one of those who’s like, “No, you keep it. I will watch that baby from behind glass and be a lot more comfortable.”’ Oh, no!
Courtney: “As she says this, her five-month-old daughter Titan Invictus” – don’t say anything shady about the kid’s name, Courtney. I won’t, but now I won’t, but now I’m wondering how common it is for the quote “Silicon Valley elite” to have… what would you even call this name without being mean? I almost want to say “pretentious” names, but that’s kind of a mean word. [laughs]
Royce: It’s kind of a mean word. I don’t want to make fun of a child, because what I’m really doing is making fun of their parents.
Courtney: Oh, I hope she grows up to love that name. I really do. I mean, some people grow up and have unique names, and that’s, like, a really cool thing about them.
Royce: It is perfectly fine. And, like, hopefully, the future generations are more gracious than the generations we grew up in.
Royce: But it’s a name that you’re not going to hear very often.
Courtney: No. “ – the couple refuse to give girls feminine names, citing research suggesting they will be taken less seriously – is strapped to her chest, occasionally burbling, while Malcolm has charge of their two sons Torsten, two, and Octavian, three.” See, I’ve heard those two names before. I haven’t heard Titan Invictus.
Courtney: “They live in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia, balancing parenthood with full-time jobs as co-chief-executives of a travel company, writing books about pronatalism, and their non-profit projects (to which they donated 44 per cent of their post-tax income last year).” That’s another sort of side effect of effective altruism that I don’t think I mentioned earlier, but a lot of effective altruists do hoard wealth in their own way. But a lot of them wouldn’t think that they’re doing that because they think, “I need to make as much money as humanly possible so that I can give most of it away, because that’s, you know, the most good I can do in the world. If I have more money, I can give more money.” But the capitalist system we’re in… you can kind of really only get that wealthy if there’s some level of exploitation along the way.
Royce: It is. Also, the people who are that wealthy are also living well above your average American.
Royce: And if you wanted to really maximize the good you’re doing, you wouldn’t do that. [laughs slightly] You wouldn’t live in excess. You would live as minimally as possible so that you can give as much as possible. But I don’t see any of them actually doing that.
Courtney: Mmm. Mhm. “They project an image of accentuated preppiness, dressing in ultra-crisp country club, business casual when photographers visit, and are effusive and open to the press.”
Royce: Yeah, for your effective altruism, how many meals would that outfit buy?
Courtney: [laughs] I think that’s another effective altruist thought experiment.
Royce: “If I dress well, people will give me more money”?
Courtney: No, if you’re wearing a designer suit and, like, a kid falls down the well, do you help the kid and risk ruining your suit, or do you just sell your suit and then donate that money to, like, a children’s charity? [laughs]
Royce: Oh I wasn’t going selling. I was trying to jump through some hoops, saying, “Well, people are swayed by appearance. If I give the presentation of being wealthy and successful, people will give me more money. Therefore, I can donate more money.”
Courtney: Well, yeah, and you’re even seeing that in the way they are naming their kids. They’re like, “Research suggests that if you give girls feminine names, they’ll be taken less seriously, you know, in the job market.” Which, like, instead of trying to overhaul that system, it’s a, “Let’s give my kid a leg up.”
Courtney: Which, I could see doing both. Like, work within your means and what you’ve got going right now, while also trying to change the underlying system. But they aren’t trying to change the underlying system. That’s kind of their whole deal.
Courtney: “Both dealt with adversity in their own youths. Malcolm, 36, was held by court order in a center for ‘troubled’ teenagers, where he was told by staff that if he resisted they would simply invent new infractions to keep him locked up. Simone, 35, now needs hormone therapy to menstruate regularly and IVF to conceive a child due to years of anorexia.” I want to be sympathetic to the years of anorexia, because eating disorders are no joke. But do you know how expensive in vitro fertilization is? That’s also very, very expensive. So, how many kids are they having via IVF?
Courtney: “Back then, Simone was a textbook anti-natalist. She grew up as the only child of a failed polyamorous marriage among California hippies,” – interesting – “where her understanding of a wedding was ‘everyone puts on masks in the forest and there’s a naked sweat lodge.’ She was also a ‘mistake baby,’ who watched her mother struggle with shelving her career ambitions.”
Courtney: “What changed Simone’s mind was not any kind of Stepfordian conversion but a simple promise from Malcolm that she would not have to surrender her career. So it proved. She took no time off during Octavian’s gestation, answered business calls while in labor, and returned to the office five days after his birth. She stays with each child continuously for their first six months, carrying them in a chest harness while working at a treadmill desk, after which Malcolm handles the bulk of child-raising. She finds she gets a productivity bump with each newborn – ‘You’re up every three hours anyway, so why not knock off some emails?’”
Courtney: “These personal epiphanies might not have translated into political ones except for Malcolm’s stint as a venture capitalist in South Korea, where the fertility rate is the lowest in the world at 0.8. He was shocked that nobody seemed to regard this as an emergency.” Okay, white man going to South Korea and being like, “Don’t you see the emergency in your country?! I have to fix this problem!” [laughs]
Courtney: Also, this is soooo, so so so interesting. Because, like, maybe, maybe, some of what they are going to politically advocate for is, like, maternal leave and better hiring practices that are not, you know, sexist and will help people raise children more or, like, child care, so that people can continue working. Like, those are things that can benefit everyone. But…
Royce: I would hope so? Because if they’re like, “Follow our example,” it was, “Work 24/7 around a pregnancy.”
Courtney: When you already have a, you know, [laughing] well-to-do spouse, also. And I still can’t get over this quote. “‘If this was an animal species it would be called endangered,’ says Malcolm. ‘We would be freaking out that they are about to go extinct.’” Would we, though? [laughs] “He begins our interview by speaking without interruption for nearly half an hour, incredibly quickly and with frenetic intensity as if chased by the enormity of what is coming.”
Royce: On that note, I already said this earlier, but I looked it up, and yes, the recent headline I saw was that all of humanity weighs six times as much of all of the other mammals combined.
Courtney: And we’re not the heaviest mammal! [laughs] “Virtually every developed nation is now below replacement rate, and the United Nations predicts that the global average will sink below that line around 2056. By 2100 only seven countries are projected to remain above 2.1, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, meaning developed nations won’t be able to rely on immigration to keep growing.” Why do we need to keep growing? Is it just because they’re capitalists and they’re like, “If you aren’t growing, you aren’t doing anything”? Why can’t we just be comfortable and hover for a bit?
Royce: Courtney. Graph go down.
Courtney: Graph go down! [laughs] Here’s another graph that go down.
Royce: But look at how much higher it is than zero!
Courtney: Yeah, the regional fertility rates has… Like, that’s lots of lines all going down at once.
Royce: To say the quiet part a little louder: a bunch of white, wealthy tech people are like, “Oh no. The population is only going up in Africa.”
Courtney: [laughs worriedly] “The impact on actual population will be delayed by decades and hopefully offset by increasing life expectancy, so our species will probably grow through most of the 21st century before holding steady or starting to shrink (estimates vary). Most demographers do not consider this a crisis, according to Bernice Kuang. [laughs] ‘In pop culture, there’s so much really alarmist talk about fertility and population implosion, and that just doesn’t really come up in the same way in academia,’ she says, noting that we cannot predict the long-term impact of future ‘reprotech.’ Many experts also see overall population decline as a good thing, arguing that it will help prevent or mitigate climate change and other problems.” Yes, this is what we’ve been saying the whole time!
Courtney: And I also do – now that I scroll down more, I do have to make a quick retraction. I think I referred to Aria Babu as a white woman earlier. I scrolled down and now there’s a photo of her, and she is not. I kind of wondered with that last name, but the way this article was confused me, because those quotes of her were right next to a very buttoned-down white couple. But now that I’m looking at it –
Royce: Oh, were –
Courtney: – those are the Collinses.
Royce: Those are the Collinses, okay.
Royce: I see.
Courtney: So when Aria’s quote was the first one, right off the bat, right next to this, you know, very white, conservative-looking couple, I falsely misattributed that to her, so.
Royce: Yeah. My comments have mostly been focused on the standard demographic of the Silicon Valley tech elite.
Courtney: Yes. Yes. So. Which, just like we also said earlier, like, people in this camp are not universally going to be white. It is going to skew that way, but regardless it is going to skew conservative, even amongst the BIPOC subscribers to this brand of philosophy.
Courtney: “Take the UK’s current economic doldrums and broken public services, which Babu blames partly on the combination of Britain’s aging population and the flight of younger immigrants after Brexit. What happens when populations everywhere are aging or shrinking? One omen is Japan, which is aging faster than any other nation. A Yale professor called Yusuke Narita, who has become an icon among angry young people, has proposed ‘mass suicide and mass seppuku of the elderly’ as ‘the only solution,’ although he later said that this was merely ‘an abstract metaphor.’” That’s also the end result of the utilitarian nightmare I was talking about, when, you know, the elderly, the disabled, the people who are not properly contributing to capitalism – “maybe it would be better for everyone if I just weren’t here.” It’s a hellscape.
Royce: I mean we already saw that play out pretty blatantly over the last few years.
Courtney: Yeah. We sure have. “For the Collinses, all of this is only part of the crisis, because the fertility of different cultural groups is not declining uniformly. Research by Pronatalist.org found that higher birth rates are associated with what some psychologists call the ‘Right-wing authoritarian personality’” – [laughs] Oh, no. I shouldn’t laugh that hard, but that’s what I’ve been saying this whole time, and they just said it outright.
Courtney: “– or, as Malcolm puts it, ‘an intrinsic dislike and distrust of anybody who is not like them’. That is, says Malcolm, emphatically not his or Simone’s brand of conservatism, which welcomes immigration and wants a pluralistic, multicultural society in which all groups are free to raise their children in their own way of life. By contrast, progressives and environmentalists have fewer children on average, not least because of a widespread despair about climate change among millennials and Gen Z.” Again, it’s the, “Well, you know, we like LGBT people. We’re conservative, but the LGBT people are okay.” It’s like, “Well, we’re conservative, but we’re okay with people who aren’t white. I know not all conservatives are, but we’re not like those conservatives.” [laughs]
Royce: And yet you’re electing the same public officials into office.
Courtney: [laughs] And you’re even labeling it yourself “an intrinsic dislike and distrust of anybody who is not like your group.” Like, that… [sighs] I can’t. I can’t with these people.
Courtney: “There is also emerging evidence that the personality traits thought to undergird political beliefs – such as empathy, risk-taking, and a preference for competition vs cooperation – may be partly inherited. A literature review by New York University and the University of Wisconsin found evidence that political ideology is about 40 percent genetic. Hence, the Collinses fear that as fertility declines it will not be some racial Other who outbreeds everyone else but each culture’s equivalent of the neo-Nazis. ‘We are literally heading towards global Nazism, but they all hate each other!’ says Malcolm.” So he’s like, “We’re not the Nazis. We’re the ones you can trust to have lots of kids.”
Royce: I also, without seeing a linked study or anything into it, heavily, heavily doubt that 40% of political ideology is genetic.
Courtney: I mean, it’s that whole “nature versus nurture” debate. That’s the age-old psychology question. [laughs]
Courtney: “What is to be done? ‘Our solution is, uh, we don’t have a solution,’ he admits.” [laughs] You are really passionate about something you don’t have a solution for. “He says the only things proven to increase birth rates are poverty and the oppression of women, which are bad and should be stamped out.” Well, at least we’re on the same page about that, Malcolm! [laughs] “The only hope is to find those few families that combine liberal, pluralistic politics, such as support for LGBT rights, with high fertility – or create new, hybrid micro-cultures that value both – and help them multiply.”
Courtney: The thing is, if fertility is your main issue, you do not support LGBT rights as much as you think you do. You don’t. That’s not to say LGBT folks don’t have kids, whether through adoption, IVF, or even the good ol’ fashioned way. But someone like this who says that they’re down with the LGBT folks probably have an exceptionally narrow view of what that actually means and what those lives actually look like.
Courtney: “That means creating new educational and childcare institutions, supporting alternative family structures (the nuclear family is historically very unusual, and struggles to support large broods)” – oh, broods? [laughs] But we’re not animals! [laughs] – “repealing red tape such as sperm- and egg-freezing regulations, and cutting the cost of fertility treatments.”
Courtney: If you divorce all of those things from the ideology, those don’t sound like bad things. In fact, like, supporting alternative family structures is a huge deal for LGBT rights. And that doesn’t just mean same-sex marriage. That doesn’t just mean widening parental and marriage rights to accommodate polyamorous relationships. That also should mean a way to opt out of those things without being set back financially or socially pressured. I mean, hey, articles like this where people are like, “Hey, we need more babies. Tick-Tock. Tick-Tock.”
Courtney: “‘We’re trying to rebuild the high-trust networks that existed before the industrial revolution,’ says Pronatalist.org’s 20-year-old executive director Lillian Tara. ‘Raising children takes a village, and we’re trying to create that village.’ It also means resisting any attempt by what Malcolm calls the ‘woke mind virus’” – okay, there it is – “to assimilate their children into a progressive monoculture.” [editorializing] “But I’m cool with LGBT people! They’re fine. As long as they don’t spread their woke mind virus all over everyone.”
Courtney: “This is where technology comes in. ‘Many of the groups that we are concerned about disappearing – gay couple couples, lesbian couples – from a traditional organs-bumping-together standpoint, can’t have kids… that are genetically both of theirs,’ says Simone.” Well, that’s just not enough creative thinking.
Royce: Yeah, I mean, they’ve already gone to funding things like artificial wombs. Like, why aren’t they funding a means of… I don’t know what the correct term is for this sort of – it’s not artificial insemination, but it’s the taking of two chromosomes and forming them –
Courtney: Just smashing them together?
Royce: Basically. Yeah, I mean, there’s –
Royce: If you could have an artificial process to take the chromosomes from two men, you have two X and Y pairs. Two gay men would be able to have a child with either mix.
Courtney: And also, you know, we don’t even have to bring technology into this. There are trans people that do have kids the old-fashioned way, so there’s also that.
Courtney: But as Simone points out, “‘That certainly dissuades some people from having kids entirely.’ A still-nascent technique called in vitro gametogenesis (IVG), which grows eggs and sperm directly from stem cells, could change this.” There you go. There’s your technology. “Cheaper egg freezing and IVF could lighten the trade-off between career and motherhood for women.” I like that that’s the big concern. Ugh, feminism! [laughs] This is just, like… I’m getting a note of “girlboss” here. [laughs]
Courtney: Mmm. “Then there are those who struggle with inheritable problems such as depression and schizophrenia. Diana Fleischman says she knows many ‘wonderful people’ who are leery about having children for this reason. Such problems could be mitigated by genetic screening and embryo selection. Titan was born through just such a process, the Collinses tell me, winning out over other embryos that had higher estimated risks of traits such as obesity, migraines and anxiety.”
Courtney: There it is! As soon as I heard “embryo selection,” I was like, “I don’t even want to know,” but now I know and it’s exactly what I suspected. They don’t want fat people. They don’t want disabled people. Ugh.
Royce: But they went to preserve a “diverse variety of people and cultures.”
Courtney: Yeah. And they’re not Nazis! “I know Nazis want to focus on, you know, having one homogeneous group of people, but we’re not like them.”
Courtney: “The idea of using birth rates to influence future politics is one many will find alarming. It echoes the American ‘Quiverfull’ movement” – I could have written this article! [laughs] – “which dictates that Christians should breed profusely so that over time society will be stuffed full of good believers. Malcolm is blunt that some techies are trying to do just that. ‘Silicon Valley people, they’ve done the math, and they actually do want to replace the world with their children,’ he says. ‘They’re like, “Oh yeah, I have eight kids, and if those kids have eight kids, and those kids have eight kids, then at the end my kids will make up the majority of the world’s population… I understand these people’s mindset. They’ve been economically successful… they think they’re better than other people.’ (Musk, he insists, is not of this persuasion.)” [laughs] I wonder why.
Courtney: But the thing is, like, even that mindset – “If I have eight kids and then they have eight kids” – it’s like, you have no control over that after you have those eight kids. Because those eight kids are a whole individual, all to themselves, who have – get this – autonomy. Maybe they don’t want eight kids. Maybe they only want one. Maybe they don’t want any. Maybe they’re Asexual. Maybe they’re one of those LGBT people you’re so okay with and they don’t want to spend the, you know, money, time, and medical procedures on all of this technology that you’re funding.
Courtney: “Fleischman says she has encountered this too: ‘A lot of this is secret, because it’s just not socially acceptable to say, “I’m going to use my wealth to make as many half-copies of myself as possible. I’m going to photocopy myself into the future.”’” That’s also so, so, so interesting because the fact that we can trace this line of philosophy evolution back to Epicurius, where life is pain and pleasure – that is the binary: minimize the pain to enhance the pleasure – Epicurius’s view on death was like, “Doesn’t matter. Not a thing. I won’t be there. Life is all there is, and there is pain and there is pleasure. Why worry about death? Death doesn’t exist. I won’t know any different. It’s just gonna, you know… Poof. Nothing. It’ll be gone. If there isn’t pain and pleasure after death, then it’s just nothing. It is just a nothing.” And so these people have taken that so many iterations removed from that that they’re like, “I’m gonna live forever through my descendants.” I wonder how many of these people are also transhumanists. I bet some of them are. I bet some of them are.
Royce: I bet there’s an overlap.
Courtney: [laugh] They’ve essentially made breeding their mortality project. You know, Ernest Becker said, “We all have a denial of death,” and he was not the first to do so, where we don’t want to think about it. But one of the ways we have a denial of death is that we have these mortality projects: “What’s going to be left of me after I die? Is it going to be finishing that novel? Is it going to be my children? What will I have changed or done or made my mark on the world?” So they’re essentially making having kids their mortality project. Look at all this philosophy! This is fun. I like this.
Royce: Which, by the way, I probably shouldn’t hear someone reference a study and say, “I don’t think I buy that,” without following up on it.
Royce: So I did look a couple things up very briefly and saw that there have been a number of studies over the years that have tried to draw a link between genetics and vague personality traits. Like, are you introverted? Are you extroverted?
Royce: How likely are you to engage in and accept change or resist change? And one, those are very difficult things to study. You’re already studying those with an established human being who has been through a wealth of experiences. And then you’re trying to map those vague concepts to political and social ideologies.
Royce: There is an enormous room for error between all of that.
Courtney: Yes. Yeah, not only is there the ever-present possibility of just a ton of pseudoscience getting infused into their data, but they’re essentially trying to solve a political issue through non-political means.
Courtney: Like, they don’t match. They don’t go together.
Royce: I also see, very frequently, people who have gone through a lot of education have a belief and then will find something – some data point, some study, some historical reference – and be like, “There. That proves me right all along.”
Courtney: Confirmation bias is a bitch. [laughs] Well, yeah, facts are never just facts. And facts can be false. Facts can be misleading. But also, like, facts divorced from humanity mean nothing. We ascribe meaning to the facts with our emotions, with our thoughts, with our feelings, with the current society and situation that we live in – both on a broader scale, as “this is modern society,” and on an individual scale, as “this is where I am right now.”
Courtney: “While Musk has been open about his pronatalist beliefs, others are staying quiet to maximize their chance of victory, notes Malcolm.” That’s horrifying. “‘They’re like, “Why are you broadcasting this? We all know this, we can fix this on our own, we don’t need the diversity that you seem pathologically obsessed with”… they’re the people you’re not hearing from.’ Musk did not respond to a request to be interviewed.” See, why are you hanging out with these people? If you’re like, “Diversity is good, actually,” and people are like, “You shut up. We don’t want other people to get on board with this. We only want us and our kind,” like, why are you hanging out with them? [laughs]
Courtney: “The Collinses aren’t worried about this, because they think it is doomed to fail.” Oh. Okay. “They want to build a durable family culture that their descendants will actually want to be part of, not just ‘spam their genes,’ [laughs] and to help other families with different values do the same.” So when I first read “spam,” I didn’t think like “you’re spamming something.” I thought the canned meat. And I think “spam their genes” –
Royce: Is that the new method of freezing eggs? Like, preserving them?
Courtney: No, I was also taking genes like denim pants. [laughs]
Royce: Like, this was just a euphemism?
Courtney: “Oh no, I spammed my jeans.”
Royce: “I spammed my jeans.”
Courtney: [laughs] You know, “I got a little drunk last night at the bar, and…” [laughs] No! It’s icky. [laughs]
Courtney: “‘You have an 18-year sales pitch to your kids… and if you fail, well fuck you – your kid’s gonna leave,’ says Simone. ‘The people who carry forward their culture and viewpoints are going to be people who love being parents.’” You shouldn’t think of raising kids as a sales pitch for the next generation! I don’t like that. I hate that, in fact. Also, like, if your goal behind having children is to try to make as many of them as you can like you, that’s a bad reason to have kids! You aren’t looking at your kids as individual, whole, complete people [laughing] who are going to have their own experience.
Royce: No. It looks like they’re attempting to algorithmically create what they view the best child or the best future human.
Courtney: And they’re going to say this isn’t a eugenicist movement. “Even so, this project inherently requires making some judgment on which cultures should prosper in future – and therefore, potentially, which genomes. That rings alarm bells for Emile Torres, a philosopher who studies the history of eugenics” – there’s the word! We should have put together a bingo card before we started reading this. Because I think we’re going for a blackout here.
Royce: I swear to everyone listening to this, we did not pre-read this article.
Courtney: We did not. [laughs]
Royce: In fact, I’ve been reading maybe a sentence or two ahead at a time at most.
Courtney: Well, because we almost had a panic. And the reason why you’re reading on the Wayback machine is because I opened this up on my phone when the article got recommended to me. I read two paragraphs. I said, “Let’s get our microphone right now.” You said, “Great. Send me the link.” So I texted it to you, and you said, “It’s behind a paywall. I can’t open it.”
Courtney: And then I tried to hit the link on my device that I sent it to you. And there’s also a paywall. And I was like, “Oh crap. I lost it! I had one chance and I lost it.” But it was still up in a tab on my phone, so I opened the original tab, and so you quick pulled up the Wayback machine before we sat down. [laughs]
Courtney: Oh, so, “a philosopher who studies the history of eugenics and its counterpart, dysgenics – the notion that humanity’s gene pool is slowly becoming somehow worse. ‘Dire warnings of an impending dysgenic catastrophe go back to the latter 19th century, when this idea of degeneration became really widespread in the wake of Darwin,’ Torres says. ‘Biologists were warning that degeneration is imminent, and we need to take seriously the fact that intellectually “less capable” individuals are outbreeding.’ Often this meant poor people, disabled people, non-white people, or other groups lacking the political power to contest their designation as inferior, leading to atrocities such as the Nazi sterilization regime.”
Courtney: “The Collinses – despite using embryo selection – say they reject that kind of eugenics.” [editorializing] “We’ve got the cool eugenics. I’m not like those other eugenicists. I’m a young eugenicist. I’m a cool eugenicist.” [laughs] – [quoting] “and Malcolm pours scorn on the ‘pseudoscience’ idea that intelligence or political personality traits differ meaningfully between ethnicities. Rather, he argues that they cluster in much smaller cultural groups such as families or like-minded subcultures. When screening their own embryos, the Collinses did not worry about traits such as autism or ADHD.” Well, how kind of them! “‘We don’t think humanity can be perfected, we just want to give our kids the best possible roll of the dice,’ says Simone, who herself is Autistic and Jewish.”
Royce: I find it odd that either the Collinses or the article writer, one, didn’t choose to say that autism and ADHD weren’t bad things.
Royce: They chose to say, “We don’t think humanity can be perfected, so some flaws are acceptable.” Why was Judaism thrown in there? Like, how is that relevant?
Courtney: Because they’re talking about Nazi –
Royce: Oh, okay, gotcha.
Courtney: – eugenics, I’m sure.
Royce: Non-white cultures. I see. I was like – I heard them making backhanded comments about ADHD or autism being a perceived flaw, and then heard Judaism.
Courtney: Yeah. No, they’re saying, “We are not like the Nazis and their brand of eugenics, because I am also Jewish and I am Autistic, and we didn’t make sure that our kid doesn’t have autism or ADHD.” Which is, I mean, you’d think they would have to know that a lot of people doing this process are going to try to weed out those things. I would think they’d have to know that. And yet they still aren’t against it.
Courtney: “Still, Torres argues that voluntary, ‘liberal’ eugenics can end up having the same effect as the coercive kind by reinforcing whatever traits are seen as desirable by the prevailing ideology, such as lighter skin, mathematical reasoning or competitiveness. Lyman Stone’s verdict last year was scathing: ‘My policy goal is for people to have the kids they want, but these “pronatalists” would abhor that outcome because it would yield higher fertility rates for people they think shouldn’t breed so much.’” I also find it so interesting, because usually people don’t use the word “breeding” when talking about humans procreating, unless you’re saying it, like, in a derogatory way. And yet it’s used all over the place in this article, in the one that’s like, “If we were animals…” [laughs]
Courtney: “Malcolm says he shares those concerns, which is why he is committed to being almost totally agnostic about which families Pronatalist.org works with. ‘If we act as anything other than a beacon, then we are applying our beliefs about the world to the people we recruit, which goes against our value set,’ he says.” See, I have an issue with the use of “agnostic” there, because since these are systemic issues – you know, racism, ableism – since those are systemic issues, if you’re not vehemently against them, you’re for them, because they’re built in. They’re interwoven into our society. So if you’re like, “Oh, I’m agnostic…”
Royce: Well, he didn’t say he’s agnostic. He said he’s “almost agnostic.” So he’s admitting –
Courtney: [laughing] “Almost totally agnostic.”
Royce: “Almost totally agnostic.” So there is a certain amount of selection that he wants to be able to put on the system.
Courtney: Yeah. And this all goes back to the same very heart of this effective altruism ideology, is the people who practice it think that they are smarter, wiser, wealthier, more suited to make decisions on behalf of other people. So, these people are saying, like, “I know some people are Nazis. Heck, lots of people who agree with me are Nazis. But I’m the one who can be trusted to make these decisions, because I am better than that.”
Courtney: “To skeptics, pronatalism’s appeal in Silicon Valley may simply look like the latest messianic project for a community already convinced that they are the best people to [laughing] colonize space, conquer death and fix the world’s problems.” Oh, goddamn it. [laughs] See, the thing is, I didn’t know that this article was going to be so long and go this far in depth, and that’s why I prefaced it with so many different things. But this article is really covering all our bases here.
Royce: It is. This is one of the few times where we’ve read an article and I don’t feel irritated at all with the person who wrote the article. I feel like they’re doing their due diligence, particularly right up here just a little bit ago, writing, “The Collinses – despite using embryo selection –”
Courtney: [laughing] Yes.
Royce: – “say they reject that kind of eugenics.”
Courtney: Yes. Putting that back in your brain. But also, there were quotes by, you know, demographers that directly counteract what they were saying, so.
Royce: Right. Despite what these three, four people we’ve talked to are saying, most of the experts –
Royce: – say that it’s not a problem.
Courtney: What can I say? Journalism. It’s kind of a breath of fresh air, no? We don’t get a lot of that anymore. [laughs]
Royce: I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from The Telegraph.
Courtney: “Yet it speaks to a sense of disquiet that is widely shared. You do not need to fear dysgenic doom to feel that something is fundamentally broken about the way we have and raise children – as many recent or aspiring parents are already aware. ‘In almost every low-fertility country, no one is able to have the number of children they want to have. Even in South Korea, people still want to have two children; they don’t want to have 0.8,’ says Kuang. But far from being an inevitable consequence of progress, she contends that it stems from specific choices we force on to families.”
Courtney: “‘The first half of the gender revolution was women attaining educational attainment at parity with men, entering the workforce at parity with men,’ she continues. But the second half remains unfinished, leaving many women caught between mutually incompatible expectations at work versus at home – the classic ‘have it all’ problem.” Like I said, it’s that girlboss ’tude.
Courtney: “In South Korea, where the new president (a man) has declared that structural sexism is ‘a thing of the past,’ a government pamphlet advised expecting mothers to [laughing] prepare frozen meals for their husbands before giving birth and tie up their hair ‘so that you don’t look disheveled’ in hospital. ‘Wow, you wonder why women aren’t rushing to sign up for that kind of life?’ laughs Kuang.” [laughs]
Courtney: “Partly of the problem is that middle-class parents are now expected to micromanage their children’s upbringings more intensely than ever before. ‘It seems like in the past six- and seven-year-olds were just allowed to be feral… now it would basically be considered abuse to leave your child alone all day,’ says Babu. Then there is the cost of housing. ‘How are you going to have two children, even if you desperately wanted to, if you can barely afford a one-bedroom apartment?’ says Kuang, who would love to have three or four kids if only she could square the mortgage. Babu likewise says becoming a parent would be an easy choice if she knew she could still have a high-flying career and make enough money for a decent home. As it is, she’s torn.”
Courtney: “Kuang concedes that no government has yet fixed these problems, but she does believe they are fixable. Although cash bonuses, lump sum payments and restricting abortion have all proven ineffective, she says, robust parental leave for all genders could make a difference. So could high-quality, affordable childcare that is available in adequate supply, and begins as soon as parents need to go back to work.”
Courtney: “In the meantime, the Collinses hope to have at least four more babies, unless they are thwarted by complications from repeated C-sections. ‘When I look into the eyes of our children,’ says Simone, ‘and I see all the potential they have… and I think about a world in which they didn’t exist because we thought it was inconvenient? I’m like, I can’t. I can’t not try to have more kids.’”
Courtney: I think that’s fine for her to make the individual decision to have more kids. I don’t think a movement to try to recruit more conservative people to have larger broods is, um, it. It’s not it.
Royce: Yeah, the answer here is for governments to provide systems where people have the ability to make decisions about their own lives without feeling pressured in either direction, whether that’s to have more children or to not have more children. And what that involves is medical care, childcare, an appropriate amount of, like, leave or accommodation from work, and other things in that vein.
Courtney: I am amazed they didn’t even mention medical care as a cost, because for all of IVF –
Royce: This is out of the UK.
Courtney: Oh, okay. Well, no, the Collinses are in Philadelphia.
Royce: The Collinses are American. Right. We were reading a UK paper.
Courtney: Yeah. But yeah, the Collinses being in America, it’s like –
Royce: They’re wealthy.
Courtney: They’re wealthy and doing IVF, which is extraordinarily expensive. But even just your everyday birth in a hospital: extraordinarily expensive here.
Royce: Right. The idea of trying to offset the cost of childcare and medical care by providing monetary incentives is not the system being unbiased towards children. It’s the system incentivizing having children.
Royce: Which is not the answer.
Courtney: Right! And in other countries where they cited, you know, restricting abortion, like, [laughing] that’s not the answer. We can’t force births, and if you restrict abortion rights, that’s what you’re doing. You are forcing births. Meanwhile, there are people who do want to have more kids than they currently have, and they can’t, because of the current system.
Courtney: So, yeah, I do also wish someone from this movement would have spoken more about what they mean when they say, “Oh, it takes a village to raise a child,” you know, that old saying, “so we’re creating the village.” Well, are you? You’re just creating more kids! I think if you don’t have social programs in place that are going to make sure that those kids are taken care of, you’re not really making a village. You’re just populating a village that’s ill-equipped to receive more people.
Royce: But that’s the entire philosophy of the modern tech community.
Royce: It’s “Build fast –”
Courtney: “– and break things”!
Royce: – and hope that – well, hope that something sustainable comes out of it. But… you made a comment about an embryo selection startup. You were like, “What is that?”
Courtney: Oh no! [laughs]
Royce: And my immediate thought was like, “Oh, that’s probably going to go the same way as the cryogenic startups –”
Royce: – where they froze a bunch of bodies and then went out of business.
Courtney: Ahh, yes.
Royce: And –
Courtney: Good old cryonics.
Royce: Yeah, the cryogenic chamber is just dethawed.
Courtney: [laughs] Oops! Yeah. Look, friends: if you listeners out there – if you like The Ace Couple philosophy rambles, we could make this happen more often. I have opinions on things like transhumanism, on any number of things, you name it. [laughs]
Royce: We just need to find a way to get the segments down to an hour.
Courtney: Not gonna happen.