With global birth rates in free fall, Silicon Valley’s ‘pronatalists’ are aiming to halt the decline – by having as many babies as possible
Simone Collins: ‘The people who carry forward their culture and viewpoints are going to be people who love being parents’ Credit: Winnie Au
At the beginning of March, Aria Babu quit her job at a think tank 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 realisation 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 fulfil this want was clearly indicative that something was wrong.’
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’ (EA), and bolstered by declining birth rates, it has been gaining currency in Silicon Valley and the wider tech industry – especially its more conservative corners.
‘I’ve been in various text threads with technology entrepreneurs who share that view… there are really smart people that have real concern around this,’ says Ben Lamm, a Texas biotech entrepreneur whose company Colossal is developing artificial wombs and other reproductive tech (or ‘reprotech’) that could boost future fertility.
‘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.
‘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 (she is currently pregnant with her second child).
Easily the most famous person to espouse pronatalist ideas is Elon Musk, the galaxy’s richest human being, who has had 10 children with three different women. ‘If people don’t have more children, civilisation 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’.
In an Insider article last November that helped bring the movement to wider attention, 23andMe co-founder Linda Avey acknowledged its influence on the Texan tech scene, while the managing director of an exclusive retreat, Dialog, co-founded by arch-conservative investor and PayPal pioneer Peter Thiel, said population decline was a frequent topic there.
Babu, who hopes to join or create a pronatalist organisation 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.
At the centre 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 (£385,000) donation from Jaan Tallinn, an Estonian tech billionaire who funds many rationalist and EA organisations, it is now lobbying governments, meeting business leaders, and seeking partnerships with reprotech companies and fertility clinics.
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 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 cancelled.’
Malcolm and Simone Collins say they hope to preserve a ‘diverse’ range of cultures Credit: Winnie Au
The problem, he concedes, is that falling birth rates are also a common preoccupation of 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,’ says demographer Bernice Kuang of the UK’s Centre for Population Change.
The Collinses strongly disavow racism and reject the idea that any country’s population should be homogenous. 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’.
Another issue is what you might call the Handmaid’s Tale problem. From Nazi Germany’s motherhood medals to the sprawling brood of infamous, Kansas-based ‘God hates fags’ preacher Fred Phelps, a zeal for large families has often been accompanied by patriarchal gender politics. 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.
But the Collinses contend that this kind of future is exactly what they are trying to prevent. ‘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.’ Though they define themselves politically as conservatives – Malcolm invariably votes Republican – they claim to favour LGBT rights and abortion rights and oppose any attempt to pressure those who don’t want children into parenthood.
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. They want to build a movement that can support people of all colours and creeds who already want to have large families, but are stymied by society – so that ‘some iteration of something that looks like modern Western civilisation’ can be saved.
‘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.’
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.
‘I was very excited to spend my life alone, to never get married, to never have kids,’ she recalls. ‘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.”’
As she says this, her five-month-old daughter Titan Invictus – 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. 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). 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. Malcolm starts our interview by saying, ‘Absolutely spectacular to meet you!’
‘We don’t think humanity can be perfected, we just want to give our kids the best possible roll of the dice’ Credit: Winnie Au
Both dealt with adversity in their own youths. Malcolm, 36, was held by court order in a centre 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.
Back then, Simone was a textbook anti-natalist. She grew up as the only child of a failed polyamorous marriage among California hippies, 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.
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 labour, 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?’
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.
‘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.’ 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.
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.
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. ‘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.
But pronatalists argue that problems will manifest long before this, as working-age people begin to be outnumbered by older ones. The global economy is predicated on the assumption of continual growth in GDP, which is strongly linked to population growth. ‘If people assume that the economy is going to shrink in future, and shrink indefinitely, then it’s not just a recession – it’s like there’s no point investing in the future,’ says Babu, who defines her politics as economically liberal, feminist, and pro-immigration. ‘If that happens, your pension breaks down because your pension is gambled on the stock market. You withdraw your savings; the government can’t borrow. A lot of these structures just break down.’
Aria Babu hops to join or create a pronatalist organisation in the UK Credit: Aria Babu
Take the UK’s current economic doldrums and broken public services, which Babu blames partly on the combination of Britain’s ageing population and the flight of younger immigrants after Brexit. What happens when populations everywhere are ageing or shrinking? One omen is Japan, which is ageing 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 [ritual disembowelment] of the elderly’ as ‘the only solution’, although he later said that this was merely ‘an abstract metaphor’.
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’ – 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.
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 per cent 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.
What is to be done? ‘Our solution is, uh, we don’t have a solution,’ he admits. 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. 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.
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), repealing red tape such as sperm- and egg-freezing regulations, and cutting the cost of fertility treatments.
‘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’ to assimilate their children into a progressive monoculture.
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. ‘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. Cheaper egg freezing and IVF could lighten the trade-off between career and motherhood for women.
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.
The idea of using birth rates to influence future politics is one many will find alarming. It echoes the American ‘Quiverfull’ movement, 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.)
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.”’
While Musk has been open about his pronatalist beliefs, others are staying quiet to maximise their chance of victory, notes Malcolm. ‘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.
If people don’t have more children, civilisation is going to crumble. Mark my words,’ Musk told a business summit in December 2021 Credit: (Apex MediaWire Photo by Trevor Cokley/U.S. Air Force
The Collinses aren’t worried about this, because they think it is doomed to fail. They want to build a durable family culture that their descendants will actually want to be part of, not just ‘spam their genes’, and to help other families with different values do the same. ‘You have an 18-year sales pitch to your kids… and if you fail, well f—k 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.’
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 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 sterilisation regime.
The Collinses – despite using embryo selection – say they reject that kind of eugenics, 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. ‘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.
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.’
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.
‘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’ Credit: Winnie Au
To sceptics, 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 colonise space, conquer death and fix the world’s problems. 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.
‘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. 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 prepare frozen meals for their husbands before giving birth and tie up their hair ‘so that you don’t look dishevelled’ in hospital. ‘Wow, you wonder why women aren’t rushing to sign up for that kind of life?’ laughs Kuang.
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?’ asks 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.
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.
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.