THE GENIUS FACTORY
The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank
By David Plotz
Random House ; 262pp ; $24.95
The Good A deftly delivered account of a bizarre experiment in genetics.
The Bad The notion of genetic superkids isn't refuted until the end of the book.
The Bottom Line Genetics aren't destiny, as this book persuasively shows.
We live in an age when parents want nothing more than to have "perfect" children -- meaning perfectly smart ones. It is this desire for a "gifted child"that spawned a two-decade-long experiment in human engineering, the Repository for Germinal Choice, more commonly known as the Nobel prize sperm bank.
The once-famous sperm bank was started in 1980 by a multimillionaire inventor, Robert K. Graham, who believed that "retrograde humans" spawned by America's welfare state were threatening to overrun the country. To prevent genetic decline, he decided to offer, free of charge, the sperm of Nobel prize winners and other high-I.Q., strictly Caucasian men to equally intelligent married women with sterile husbands. (He would not accept single women or lesbians.) Graham's sperm bank won international press coverage -- along with charges of elitism, racism, and neo-Nazism. Nevertheless, the sperm he collected produced 215 children before the bank closed in 1999.
David Plotz, an editor at the online journal Slate, decided in 2001 to use the Internet to track down these children and their donor "dads." He ultimately found 30 of the offspring, aged 6 to 22. He documents some of their stories, and this bizarre footnote to human history, in The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank. It is a deftly delivered warning that genes are not father to the man.
The Nobel prize sperm bank, located on Graham's luxurious estate outside San Diego, was almost a nonstarter. Graham, an optometrist who invented shatter-proof plastic lenses, was determined to raise the overall level of the gene pool but found it wasn't so easy to recruit actual Nobel prize winners, in part because Graham would consider only those who had won the award for scientific pursuits. He ultimately signed up only three Nobel donors, but one of them, William B. Shockley, proved ruinous to the repository. Shockley was part of a team that won the Nobel in 1956 for inventing the transistor, but by 1980 he was far more well known for his theories that African Americans were genetically inferior. Once Shockley boasted of his involvement with the repository, no other Nobel winner would participate.
So Graham tried to recruit other top scientists, doctors, and successful entrepreneurs -- but his screening process was flawed, to say the least. He boasted that he had recruited the son of a Nobel prize winner, for example. But Plotz shows this man to be so creepy, and such a failure, that it would put most people off the idea that genius can be inherited. However, the promise of sperm from brilliant men, even if they weren't Nobel laureates, was enough to send women flocking to Graham's repository in the hopes that they could give their offspring a genetic head start.
The most fascinating parts of this book are the stories of the sperm bank's end result, the 30 kids Plotz ultimately interviewed. Plotz offers no data on I.Q., but those in his unscientific sample ranged from exceptionally bright to unexceptional. Most of the ones he heard from had divorced parents and were estranged from their legal fathers. They or their mothers thought that by tracking down the donors, they would find living, caring "dads." It was not to be.
The central focus of the book is a directionless young man, Tom, who felt his life would have meaning once he found his "real" father. But the donor, Jeremy, turned out to be a man to whom no one would want to be related -- though many are. He had a medical degree but was far from a genius, and he lived in a run-down house he shared with drug dealers. Jeremy had eagerly donated to the Nobel sperm bank, and spawned many, many children with various wives, because he wanted to spread his seed as far as possible. He believed his genetic gifts were enough of a contribution for any child -- he didn't have to do any parenting.
This led Plotz to a realization that shouldn't have been so surprising: The personalities of the kids were clearly shaped most by the ambitious, driven moms who were their main caregivers. "Maybe the mothers were the ones who mattered after all," Plotz writes.
Plotz is a good writer, and he has a fascinating story to tell. But it is regrettable that he doesn't dismiss the idea of genetic superkids until the book's end. There, we get a refutation of the notion from Doron Blake, the only one of the sperm-bank kids to be publicly identified. "Genes have never been important to me," says Blake. "What makes a person is being raised in a loving family with loving parents." That's the book's take-home message -- and one that parents bent on creating little geniuses would do well to heed.
By Catherine Arnst