Timothy Leary’s psychedelic eugenics

Jules Evans
Spiritual Eugenics
Published in
15 min readOct 6, 2022

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In the 1970s, Timothy Leary, high priest of LSD, starting preaching a new gospel. He become obsessed with the idea of a hierarchy of different genetic castes spread throughout the Earth, at different levels of evolution, culminating in a super-caste of Californians destined to leave Earth and continue their evolution in space. He preached selective breeding to enhance intelligence, and even suggested Hitler was ahead of his time. ‘Whatever happened to Timothy Leary?’ as Aldous Huxley once asked. How did the prophet of the counterculture ended up preaching eugenics and even praising Hitler?

I’m researching how New Age thinkers who believe in ‘spiritual evolution’ often end up supporting forms of ‘spiritual eugenics’. They believe humans are evolving into superhumans, but only some humans are evolving, a spiritual-genetic elite, while other humans (perhaps particular races or classes) are failing to evolve. The elite should breed more and with each other, for the good of the species, while inferior humans should breed less. That, to generalize, is the thinking one often finds in advocates of spiritual evolution, like Nietzsche, RM Bucke, Annie Besant, Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin.

This cultural frame influenced the history of psychedelics and explains why several well-known figures in psychedelic history also supported eugenics, such as Havelock Ellis, WB Yeats, Aleister Crowley, HG Wells, Aldous and Julian Huxley, Gerald Heard, Abraham Maslow and, to a lesser extent, Terence McKenna. Leading figures in psychedelics research like Humphrey Osmond, Stan Grof and Rick Doblin argue that psychedelics are an evolutionary catalyst, and trippers an evolutionary elite. Today, some of the biggest investors in psychedelics — Peter Thiel, Christian Angermeyer, Tim Ferriss, Deepak Chopra — also support genetic modification to create self-optimized ‘superhumans’.

In this essay, I’m going to focus on the weird and little-read books that Leary produced in the 1970s while on the run in Switzerland, then when he was locked up in various US prisons, then finally living when he was living in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles. They include the so-called ‘future-history’ books like Neurologic, The Intelligence Agents and The Game of Life, and his ‘channeled’ books Starseeds and Terra II.

First, we should note that his psychedelic eugenics of the 1970s didn’t come from nowhere. You can see the seeds of it in his 1960s writing. In The Politics of Ecstasy (1968), for example, he suggests psychedelics enable you to connect directly to DNA, to tap into your entire genetic history, and potentially to speed up your evolution, by freeing yourself from your ‘imprinting’ and enabling you to ascend the evolutionary ladder. He writes that human evolution is not finished:

What will be the next step in biological and social evolution? Here are two clues. (1) You are more likely to find the evolutionary agents closer to jail than to the professor’s chair. (2) Look to that social freedom most abused, most magically, irrationally feared by society.

So there is already the arrogance of seeing himself and his fellow freaks as ‘evolutionary agents’ or ‘a new race of mutants’ who have evolved beyond ordinary, stupid, square humanity. You also find the idea that these mutants, these homo superior, should gather together and separate from homo inferior.

Where did Leary’s evolutionary spirituality come from? There are several potential sources. American psychology was still quite influenced by eugenics in the 1950s, especially in California — Gardner Murphy, president of the American Psychological Association and a fellow advocate of human potential psychology, unabashedly supported eugenics in his 1953 book Human Potentialities. Leary was also deeply influenced by his friend Aldous Huxley, who preached spiritual eugenics until he died in 1963, and Gerald Heard, whose evolutionary spirituality also had a eugenic aspect to it. California has a long history of eugenic thinking, as Professor Alexandra Minna Stern has chronicled (I interviewed her here).

More surprisingly, I think Leary may have been influenced by Aldous’ brother, Sir Julian Huxley, who was the first to talk about evolution as a process in which species expand their range of ‘potentialities’. Julian suggested drugs could play a role in this expansion of potentialities back in 1930, two decades before Aldous. It’s notable that, when Leary edited The Psychedelic Reader in 1963, he included an essay by Julian, not Aldous. Julian’s essay is called ‘Psychometabolism’ and it argues that all evolution is a play of energy through metabolism and instinctual ‘imprinting’ (a phrase that Leary often used, from Julian’s friend Konrad Lorenz). Humans, uniquely, can use their minds to escape their limits and expand their potentialities, including through the use of psychedelics. Julian, like his brother, was a lifelong eugenicist — he believed humans exist in a genetic hierarchy of intelligence and fitness, and he advocated positive and negative eugenics to enable humans to become transhuman.

So there was already an evolutionary, genetic and hereditarian edge to Leary’s psychedelic thinking in the 1960s. But it becomes much more obvious in the 1970s, when he becomes more prepared to put humans in a genetic hierarchy and label most of humanity as less evolved than him. This hardening of attitude may have been the result of being thrown in prison.

It’s hard to say in what order he wrote his books of the 1970s, but let’s start with Starseeds, published in 1973, and Terra II: A Way Out, published in 1974, both written when Leary was in Folsom Prison. These are bizarre books. Leary became obsessed with the comet Kohoutek, which passed close to the sun in 1973, and with the idea that extra-terrestrial intelligences were ‘activating’ him to be an agent for the next stage in human evolution: SMILE (space migration, intelligence enhancement, and life extension).

Specifically, these books suggested that a genetic elite of humans should gather together and seed a new species on other worlds, or possibly in off-world space colonies of the sort proposed by Gerard O’Neill. Terra II declares: ‘The general rule must be that we select the strongest, most viable, superior stock from each species of life and from each human group.’

Here are some of the pages from Terra II. I can’t help noticing all the future humans are white and blond, although in fact, the extra-terrestrials told Leary that ‘The Japanese race are the most advanced people on your planet and will give protection to your company.’

As the page on the bottom-right declares: ‘Only one out of five hundred thousand humans can join the crew…It cannot be denied that Terra II is an elite of elites’. Was his cosmic vision just a consoling prison fantasy, or a joke? I think Leary really believed he was going to jet off into space with his crew of blond hotties. There’s a rather poignant letter from Carl Sagan, replying to a letter from Leary in Folsom Prison inquiring about the feasibility of acquiring a rocket. Sagan replies ‘I doubt it could be done for less than $300 billion. Try really costing your spacecraft and see what it would cost.’

But it’s in the ‘future-history’ books (such as The Intelligence Agents and The Game of Life) that Tim really lets his eugenic freak flag fly. In these books, he puts forward his eight-circuit theory of human evolution, according to which humans evolve through eight stages:

The first four are terrestrial and human, the second four are extra-terrestrial and post-human, as humans wake up, realize how to alter their minds and genes, and become masters of evolution. He also mapped this model onto various astrological signs, Tarot cards, I-Ching symbols and even the periodic table. He thought he and his hippie buddies were in the evolutionary top 1%, despite believing in astrology.

Previously, Leary had talked of humans evolving into increasing freedom and play, but now he’s much more focused on intelligence: ‘If humanity is to migrate in space and to extend the life span we must get smarter, fast’, he writes in Neuropolitics (1977). ‘We expanded consciousness and awareness in the 1960s and it wasn’t enough, he told Robert Anton Wilson in The Starseed Chronicles. ‘We must expand Intelligence.’ Intelligence became his ‘God’, in Wilson’s phrase. He apparently scored 146 in an IQ test and thought he was a genius. Leary’s 1979 book, The Intelligence Agents, explores the theme of how to enhance genetic intelligence. You know your career is on the skids when this is the cover of your book.

Here, like a mid-19th-century racial anthropologist, Leary blithely divides humanity into different genetic ‘castes’ based in different geographical regions, culminating in a genetic elite in California. This is a 1970s version of the 19th-century ‘frontier thesis’, embraced by American racists like Theodore Roosevelt, according to which Americans are a self-selecting genetic elite of pioneers, and those in the American west are the true master-race. This is from the book:

Leary writes:

To say that Europeans are feudal-insectoid, that Africans are tribal-primates, that Japanese are techno-insectoid, is not to deny the ecological unity of all life on this planet. DNA wants the whales to survive, DNA wants the crafty Middle-Easterners to continue to quarrel over borders. And so do we! We can respect the ant-hill commitment of the Chinese to the Super-Insect Mao, and appreciate the technological skill of the web-spinning spidery-electronic Japanese. We can revere our mid-brain and spinal links to the Old World and at the same time we must recognize our genetic ascendance beyond our primate, mammalian, insectoid roots.

Arizona and California are states totally populated by migrants squeezed forward by Old World gene-pools…Come on up, you happy Arabs and you mellow Jews and you clever Africans and you alert Mexicans and you restless, freedom-loving Orientals. We need you up here with us on the frontal lobe of this primitive planet. We need your adventurous intelligence to join us in the next great migration. Westward High. Regardless of race, creed, color, national origin if you are geared to create the future gene-pools, move West to join us.

He writes:

To live in the East is to fail a genetic intelligence test…. The folks of the Old World inhabit pre-civilized, barbarian gene-pools. Europeans and Africans and Asians are our own animal origins still obsessed with territorial conflict…Can there possibly be one intelligent person left in North Ireland? Uganda? Any Ugandan with more than eight billion neurons surely has swum a river or climbed a mountain to flee from that jungle of primitive barbarism.

He attempts to cover himself from the charge of scientific racism with passages like the following:

We note that the Dom-Species in Africa today is hunter-gatherer. The Africans are thus 2 million years behind California. In Western Europe the Dom-Species is Stage 11 Bourgeois roughly 400 years behind-time. The forcible injection of the powerful African gene strain into North America, via slavery, produces the sturdy, solid, far ranging American and Califomian cultures. Post-terrestrial colonization, obviously, must propel seeds from all terrestrial gene-pools into High Orbital Mini-Earths. The importance of the Black-and- Brown infiltrations into North America and, particularly into California, cannot be overestimated.

But when the book celebrates various friends of Leary’s as members of a ‘genetic hall of fame’, they’re all white:

He now unashamedly embraced genetic elitism. In November 1973 he wrote to Robert Anton Wilson: ‘I am forced to accept elites — which are genetic, neurological, personal, not racial or class etc. Or maybe?’ And he openly advocated positive eugenics. Intelligence needs to be enhanced quickly. Psychedelics and self-actualization methods can help, but the genetic elite also need to breed with each other to produce ‘thorough-breds’. ‘Racers will only go as far and as fast and as high as they were bred to go’.

In the near-future, he says, Californians will go to ‘genetic counselling’ clinics to pick their mates and ensure the fitness of their offspring:

Within ten years after Genetic Counseling Courses start studying Genetic Problems we can expect courses in Genetic Potentials and Self- Selected Breeding. These courses will emerge on the Western Frontier [California was, in fact, the home of the eugenic marriage counselling movement led by Paul Popenhoe in the 1950s, as Alexandra Minna-Stern chronicles in Eugenic Nation].

If this all sounds a bit Nazi, don’t worry!

Note that cloning, the key migratory technique for a post-terrestrial species, is first discussed in fearful terms of Hitler-like revivals. The hive custodians frighten the people with mad scientist Nazi-devil rumors and thus conceal the possibility that you can clone yourself and friends…. Such natural hive fears can be assuaged by the realization that nuclear energy, brain-changing drugs (LSD), cloning, and genetic research can only be safely employed in frontier, experimental communities which can be found only in High Orbital Mini Earths.

In other words, the new Californian master-race isn’t interested in dominating Earth, it will expand and evolve off-shore or off-world, just as Robert Heinlein predicted in his 1941 novel Methuselah’s Children, and various futurists like Sir Martin Rees predict today (see my piece on ‘Burning Man for genetic modification’.)

In the worst pages of his future-history books, Leary suggests that Hitler was an ‘evolutionary agent’, a ‘self-actualized reality fabricator…a futant [future mutant] whose brain had been activated five stages ahead of his time’. Hitler pioneered ‘breath-taking originalities’ like rocket ships, occultism, psychedelic drugs, genetic caste thinking and the dream of engineering superbeings. This is a page from The Game of Life, co-authored with Robert Anton Wilson:

At this stage, I know, various hippies will tell me I am making the mistake of taking Leary seriously, when it’s all lolz, even the Hitler stuff — just like it’s all lolz on 4Chan. Well, lolz or not, it’s offensive to suggest that Hitler played ‘a vital and necessary role in evolution’, just as it is to spread the conspiracy theory that Hitler was actually a Rothschild (a suggestion made in The Game of Life) or to suggest that ‘the jews are the perpetrator of the Nazi myth’.

In his defence, I’d suggest Leary’s neuro-genetic politics isn’t as rigid and essentialist as, say, Aldous Huxley’s, or Francis Galton’s. He does speak of a hierarchy of gene-pools and castes at different levels of evolution, and he does suggest that each level of the hive should know its place (‘every caste has to be kept occupied’). However, he is also a big advocate of social mobility, in all its forms (‘mobility is the new nobility’) — he seems to believe in Lamarckian-style evolution, ie that you can boost your own genetic fitness with LSD, yoga, or just by reading his books and waking up, and thereby you too can potentially join the Californian super-elite (‘Come on up!’)

In the 1980s and 1990s, Leary became obsessed with the internet, and stopped insisting quite so fervently on the genetic inferiority of everyone outside of California, but he kept on preaching the gospel of SMILE. His vision of space migration helped to inspire the private rocket industry (via his friend George Koopman, founder of the American Rocket Company) and he was a key influence on Californian transhumanism. RU Sirius, one of the leaders of the 1990s transhumanist subculture, writes: ‘in the mid-1970s, Leary was one of the few well-known people in the world to preach a transhumanist message’.

I don’t think Leary’s eugenics phase was a temporary lapse in his judgement. It’s a reoccurring aspect of evolutionary spirituality, and it also appears frequently in transhumanism, all the way to contemporary advocates of genetic enhancement like Nick Bostrom or Peter Sloterdijk. Today, as RU Sirius notes, transhumanism has been adopted by the richest people on the planet — the likes of Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Sergey Brin and Jeff Bezos, people who can actually afford space rockets. Do they think of themselves as a genetic elite destined to migrate into space, increase their intelligence and extend their lives indefinitely? Probably.

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We’re now in the stage of this history project where we’re dealing with figures who either are still alive or died relatively recently, which means we can put our perspective to them or to friends who knew them. Here is RU Sirius, one of the founding fathers of transhumanism and a friend of Leary’s, and his thoughts on my essay:

Speaking broadly I loved Leary’s Future History Series and it was an inspiration for a good part of my life. Even as I thought it had about a one in one hundred shot of being a pretty accurate description of how evolution worked and where we were headed that was enough to keep it in the back of my head as a bit of a guidepost.

I now consider the series, which includes The Game of Life and Intelligence Agents, taken collectively, as a brilliant piece of science fiction. Leary himself always had a sense of humor about the possibility he was writing science fiction rather than… his term… science faction.

What you take to be praising Hitler is very tongue in cheek. Leary said and wrote all kinds of shit — he was loose-lipped and playful as fuck. There’s this liminal state of play that I think is lost to our culture … or maybe it’s been ruined by Trumps sometimes jokey megalomania and the Pepe The Frog gang… William Burroughs “nothing is true everything is permitted” as Republican politics. But there is this terrain of culture that is neither clearly a joke or even satire or parody but that is also not earnest or sincere but is playful and tricksy. Those two books you focus on are very much in that vein. Leary used to say that he “sprayed out” hundreds of novel ideas and if three out of ten were valid, he had a good batting average. We weren’t in a period where risky ideas were as likely seen as dangerous or (god forbid) hurtful, particularly coming from someone with a wacky and wicked reputation like Tim. And we weren’t in a time when those kinds of ideas would gain much notice. That he was deliberately provocative in a fuck-all way is a given going back to his exit from Harvard. “LSD causes paranoia in people who have never taken it.” He once told me “credibility is overrated. I’d rather be incredible.”

I built these thoughts around the Hitler reference but they’re meant to also reflect more generally on Tim and on the distinctions between the loose-lipped late 20th century pop/rock/counterculture and today’s anxious Little Brother tendencies.

None of this is to deny that Leary’s evolutionary circuits theories were genetically deterministic. Racist genetics were viewed in this context as a low level step on the evolutionary ladder leading towards human and individual control of our biologies. That he was cavalier about horrible stuff rather than making sure to insert a tsk tsk tsk is fairly consistent with a lot of late 20th Century pop culture aesthetics. (On the other hand, there is clearly an element of ridicule expressed towards the “spermen” and their old fashioned macho nationalistic brand of genetic superiority.

And as far as that whole homo superior thing… I think it’s actually now sort of democratically distributed. Stealing from my own as yet unpublished memoir/history of Mondo 2000 and 90s cyber culture — “Today there is a ubiquitous plethora of tribes presuming to have implicitly superior consciousness whether red-pilled or woke, an aware ‘light worker’; or just a good old-fashioned Frankfurt School styled discerner of ‘false consciousness.’”

But I’m a bit of a cultural elitist myself in terms of mad geniuses being treasured more than the people who pick them apart… which isn’t intended to slight you. Your piece is very well written and the perspective around genetic supremacism is politically important.

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