Virtue Gone Wild

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Alexander Graham Bell, the father of the telephone, was also a champion of eugenics. “Bell served as chairman of the board of the Eugenics Record Office (ERO)—the beating heart of American eugenics. … Alexander Graham Bell was a world leader of eugenics, which sought to improve the human species via biological and social engineering. ” Bell was not a bad man and he was at the leading edge of the technology of his day. But you don’t have to be evil to create harm. GK Chesterton warned about virtue gone wild:

The tendency for genius and subjective virtue to go to extremes has resurfaced again in the form of a plan by crypto billionaires to create a fortress island against the apocalypse populated with genetically enhanced beings. “Sam Bankman-Fried’s younger brother, who was a top lobbyist for failed crypto exchange FTX, considered purchasing the island nation of Nauru in the Pacific to create a fortified apocalypse bunker state … to protect his philanthropic allies and create a genetically enhanced human species, according to the suit filed Thursday by attorneys from Sullivan & Cromwell, which is seeking to recover billions of dollars following the collapse of FTX.”

This is legitimate news, not fiction, and makes no sense until you decode it. Douglas Rushkoff, a media theorist, offers this explanation:  Rushkoff was asked all sorts of questions by wealthy people about how to survive the collapse of civilization. The one the media keeps saying is inevitable. “Where should they build their bunker? Should they start a new settlement in the middle of the ocean? Should they be investing more in cryptocurrency? But in the end, their greatest fear was of the average person.”

“They are afraid of us. You and me and everyone else realizing that these dudes are responsible, and coming after them,” Rushkoff said. “They all believe they can use technology to keep out the pollution or radiation or viruses. What they’re worried about are the masses. The refugees. Humanity. To them, we are like a zombie invasion.”

So far the actual refugees are running from economic collapse and rampant violence rather than climate change, but you can see why an island might be useful. Yet perhaps the key idea in the FTX apocalypse island survival scheme was really the part about creating a genetically advanced human species. The Effective Altruism forum, with which the Bankman-Frieds are closely associated, is enamored with ideas that the early 20th century eugenicists would find familiar. They explain how to create a superspecies. “There are two main ways to think about genetic enhancement as a potential EA cause area. One perspective is focused on improving short-term human welfare. While reducing ‘defects’ … would be a major focus … The other way of thinking about genetic enhancement, and the one I prefer, takes a long-term view … by drastically increasing IQs … longevity-promoting alleles of the FOXO3 gene.” Of course they would also breed out conservatives.

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Other interventions such as increasing empathy and decreasing Dark Triad personality traits could be used to influence the values of our descendents and avert future moral catastrophes.

It seems surreal to write these words since the very act of considering these ideas has the atmosphere of insanity, but the technology is actually being developed to do it. They are serious. From another Effective Altruism forum: “Gene drive refers to the process by which a genetic element biases its own inheritance, and the genetic element itself … a CRISPR nuclease is frequently used as a core component of the synthetic inheritance biasing mechanism. Gene drives can through higher-than-normal rates of inheritance spread a genetic change through a population. This can occur even if the modification has a fitness disadvantage for those carrying it.” The men on the island have considered that the zombies might have guns, but fitness disadvantage can be overcome, no doubt, by fortifying the apocalypse island to a sufficient degree.

A reader on Twitter noted that if “zombie” is code for the masses, “vampire” is the folktale code for predatory aristocrats holed up in Dark Towers. “Zombies are the opposite of vampires. Zombie stories are about the danger of the restive masses, while vampire stories are about the evils of the parasitic elite.” The two archetypes have been at war with each other through history, from Elizabeth Bathory and  Gilles de Rais to the reported masters of pedophile islands of modern days. The FTX people were, by nearly any standard, superior beings. Products of the best universities, billionaires under 30, effortlessly capable, gods. They must be the vampires. To them we must have seemed like gomers, as in Pyle and not as in Genesis. Without a doubt, if you are so low-class as to be reading this, you are a zombie.

Perhaps we have always lived, metaphorically speaking, in a Zombie vs Vampire universe. Underneath the MAGA vs Woke, left vs right, coast vs flyover tropes there may lurk a deeper division. They vs us — whoever “us” is — out there in the night.

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