John on July 29, 2006 at 11:26 pm
Jeffrey Epstein is about as mysterious and private an individual as a billionaire can be. Back in 2002, New York magazine wrote a piece about him which began:
He comes with cash to burn, a fleet of airplanes, and a keen eye for the ladies — to say nothing of a relentless brain that challenges Nobel Prizeâ€“winning scientists across the country — and for financial markets around the world.
Those two themes — his scientific pursuits and his interest in beautiful women — are the twin threads that run through the rest of the article. Epstein is well known in the scientific community for writing big checks:
It is his covey of scientists that inspires Epstein’s true rapture. Epstein spends $20 million a year on them — encouraging them to engage in whatever kind of cutting-edge research might attract their fancy. They are, of course, quite lavish in their praise in return. Gerald Edelman won the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine in 1972 and now presides over the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla. “Jeff is extraordinary in his ability to pick up on quantitative relations,” says Edelman. “He came to see us recently. He is concerned with this basic question: Is it true that the brain is not a computer? He is very quick.”
An interesting question. I wonder about the use of that word “concerned” in this paragraph. Is that meant to suggest that this question is of more than passing academic interest to Epstein? It strikes me as a rather fundamental sort of question, as much philosophical as scientific. The article continues:
Then there is Stephen Kosslyn, a psychologist at Harvard. Epstein flew up to Kosslyn’s laboratory in Cambridge this year to witness an experiment that Kosslyn was conducting and Epstein was funding. Namely: Is it true that certain Tibetan monks are capable of holding a distinct mental image in their minds for twenty minutes straight? “We disproved the thesis,” says Kosslyn. “Jeff was on his cell phone most of the time — he actually wanted to short the Tibetan market, because he thought the monk was so stupid. He is amazing. Like a honeybee — he talks to all these different people and cross-pollinates. Just two months ago, I was talking to him about a new alternative to evolutionary psychology. He got excited and sent me a check.”
Again, the fact that Epstein is funding experiments on Tibetan meditation strikes me a bit odd. What is he trying do learn? And why is he interested in “alterantives to evolutionary psychology? The article doesn’t ask or answer any of these questions. Here is one more example:
Epstein has a particularly close relationship with Martin Nowak, an Austrian biology and mathematics professor who heads the theoretical-biology program at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Nowak is examining how game theory can be used to answer some of the basic evolutionary questions — e.g., why, in our Darwinian society, does altruistic behavior exist?
We also learn that Epstein is a fan of E.O. Wilson’s book Consilience. The picture accumulating is of someone interested in very fundamental aspects of human nature from an evolutionary standpoint. What we never really learn is why Epstein cares. The article engages in some speculation that his primary interest in all this is simply beating the market. That’s certainly possible. There is definitely a sense that Epstein — who flies his private 727 around the world solo — doesn’t view humanity in quite the same way other people do. The article offers this excerpt from a letter he wrote to a another scientist friend:
The behavior of termites, together with ants and bees, is a precursor to trust because they have an extraordinary ability to form relationships and sophisticated social structures based on mutual altruism even though individually they are fundamentally dumb. Money itself is a derivative of trust. If we can figure out how termites come together, then we may be able to better understand the underlying principles of market behavior — and make big money.
The subtle suggestion that investors, like bees and termites, are fundamentally dumb comes across rather clearly. And yet I can’t help wonder how the Tibetan monk fits into his business interests.
All of this would be of passing interest if it weren’t for the light it sheds on Jeffrey Epstein’s other hobby. At one point, the article quotes Donald Trump about his friend Jeffrey Epstein:
“I’ve known Jeff for fifteen years. Terrific guy,” Trump booms from a speakerphone. “He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”
Well, Trump was certainly prescient in this case. Jeffrey Epstein — patron of evolutionary science — was recently arrested in Palm Beach, FL for paying underage girls for sex. Sex with him and also with his “personal assistant” Nadia Marcinkova. Pretty extreme behavior, even for a reclusive billionaire, or perhaps especially for a reclusive billionaire. What’s most shocking though is the “provenance” of Nadia Marcinkova. According to one of the underage girls interviewed by police:
Epstein had purchased her from her family in Yugoslavia. Epstein bragged he brought her into the United States to be his Yugoslavian sex slave.
When you see people as something akin to insects, does that alter your behavior toward them?My question about all this is simple. Is there a connection between the two threads in Jeffrey Epstein’s life? Between his scientific beliefs about human nature and his behavior toward women (and girls)? Put another way, when you see people as something akin to insects, does that alter your behavior toward them? When you see human trust and kindness as merely adaptive behaviors, does that render you less trustworthy or less kind?
I can’t claim to know the answer to those questions, but at the very least it’s clear that Epstein’s scientific views did nothing to discourage his more earthy pursuits. Personally, I can’t avoide the sense that this is a case of ideas having consequences.