The Fictioning
 
 

Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, October 9th, 2005


 

The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank

by David Plotz

Checking accounts

A review by Carol Tavris

The Nobel Prize sperm bank was ill-conceived, but it was the seminal influence on the generations of fertility institutes that followed it. Established in California in 1980, the "Repository for Germinal Choice" was the brainchild of Robert Graham, a seventy-four-year-old optometrist who had made millions of dollars by inventing shatterproof plastic eyeglasses. Graham was one of those uniquely American characters, the self-made millionaire inventor who, assuming that success at making money imbues a man with wisdom on all matters of social importance, sets out boldly with an entrepreneurial but delusional scheme to improve mankind. And I do mean mankind literally, womankind generally not being very interesting to these fellows.

Graham launched his bank with fanfare, announcing his intention to reverse the dumbing-down drift of evolution that was creating inferior humans; if genetic planning could improve animals and plants, he said, it could improve human beings, too. The right sperm could, anyway. Graham's plan proceeded on what the sociologist Barbara Rothman has called the "woman as flowerpot" view of pregnancy: you put in a seed, and out pops the result nine months later. At first, Graham wanted only smart flowerpots -women who belonged to Mensa, for example -but he gave up that requirement right away. Moreover, Graham didn't value any old kind of intelligence; no Nobelists in Literature, thank you, no winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, no cellists, no comedians. By intelligence, he meant one thing: having a practical, problem-solving ability -- as David Plotz notes, in his lively and touching book The Genius Factory, "by miraculous coincidence, exactly the same kind of analytical talent he himself possessed".

At first, the Repository for Germinal Choice did not offer much choice. Graham had vials of sperm from several scientists, including three Nobel Prize-winners, so the press immediately gave the Repository a new name: the Nobel Prize sperm bank. Over the next nineteen years, only 215 children were born from the bank's donors, and none to a Nobel winner. The bank closed in 1999, its founder dead, its records sealed. Nothing was known of the children, their mothers, or the donors. Plotz, an editor at Slate.com, decided to investigate. Who were they? What happened to them? How, in only two decades, did the world change from one in which a sperm bank was exotic, disreputable and shocking to one where potential parents shop for designer sperm as if they were choosing a pair of shoes? The Nobel Prize sperm bank died, Plotz writes, but all American sperm banks today are its heirs, although they don't like to acknowledge its influence. They all emphasize safety, the rigorous testing of donors, and "choice, choice, choice" in the attributes one seeks in a genetic father.

Plotz's book explores both the historical and cultural story of sperm banks and the personal stories of donors and recipients. For a country supposedly so egalitarian and welcoming of diversity, America has always been fertile ground for eugenic theories and horrific applications of them, usually on the poor, the uneducated, the mentally ill, and of course women, usually without their consent and sometimes without their awareness. (The first case of "artificial impregnation" occurred in 1884, when a doctor injected a woman with sperm from a volunteer medical student because the woman's husband was infertile. The doctor had knocked her out with chloroform, and neither he nor her husband ever told her the truth of how she happened to conceive.) But by the time Graham opened the Repository, people were no longer interested in improving the race, just in improving their children. With old-time eugenics dead, Plotz writes, "private eugenics has arrived to replace it. If we can get better genes for our own kids, many of us will do so. Just like the first Nobel sperm bank customers, we are captive to the great delusion that we can control our children, that we can make them what we want them to be, rather than what they are".

But Graham had a problem: few Nobel Prize-winners liked his idea, let alone were willing to donate their sperm, and the scientists who were willing to donate wanted to be anonymous. Riding to the rescue came William Shockley, who had won a Nobel for his invention of the transistor and who shared Graham's vision of improving the race genetically. Shockley acknowledged publicly that he was a donor, thereby giving the "Nobel Prize sperm bank" its name and credibility. Unfortunately for Graham, though, Shockley would not shut up. He aroused public outrage by spewing his racist eugenic beliefs to all who would listen, humiliating his family in the process. Thus he told Playboy magazine that he was disappointed in his own children, who were "a very significant regression" from his own abilities; though after all, he added, their mother lacked his own academic achievements. Shockley, Plotz writes, turned the sperm bank "from a curiosity into a menace and then into a joke". People began making fun of the whole enterprise. How about a speciality sperm bank for Academy Award winners? For writers?

In spite of Shockley, in spite of the jokes, and in spite of the non-Nobel and non-noble sperm in the Repository, the bank began to thrive. A woman named Afton Blake conceived a baby she called Doron (Greek and Hebrew for "gift"), whose abilities she promoted like a press agent on speed. Doron was an infant prodigy and media darling, and within two years of his birth and attendant publicity, more than one thousand women had submitted applications to the sperm bank. So Graham and his staff set out to recruit more donors, relaxing the requirement of genius. They quickly learned that American women didn't much care about having sperm from smart men; they wanted sperm from men who were handsome, tall and athletic.

Plotz soon found himself acting as detective and matchmaker, tracking down donors and brokering meetings with their offspring. These stories are the moral and emotional heart of the book. "Donor White" fathered nineteen children, but became deeply attached to the one whose mother sought him out. His reaction is the reason that sperm banks forbid such meetings; "donor offspring" become real children who laugh, play, have personalities, give you trouble, and make you proud. In this case, the father needed the daughter more than she needed him; she was a contented child who had no emotional void to fill. Other children had a hole in their souls, and longed to find a "real" father unlike their distant stepdads, or to have any father at all. Many were disappointed. One young man, expecting to find a loving, genius dad, got Jeremy -- "an obscure doctor", Plotz writes, "whose notable accomplishment in life was leaving a wake of ex-wives and forgotten children". Plotz also interviewed the faintly creepy son of a Nobelist who became a donor -- the son, not the dad. The son made a career of donating sperm because, he said, "the main game of the universe, the only game that matters, is the game of evolution, and you win by passing on genes. And I wanted to win!". Here, said Plotz, is just what Graham hoped to produce, "yet all I saw in him was the fickleness of DNA: here was a Nobel Prize baby, and he was no prize at all".

That's the point, of course. As we are learning in this era of behavioural genetics, genes contribute far more than we once believed to personality, temperament, abilities and diseases; yet they are not the sole ingredients in the recipe for a human being, nor can they ever be. In 1921, Lewis Terman began following more than 1,500 children with IQ scores in the top 1 per cent of the population. (William Shockley did not make the cut when Terman was recruiting; his IQ of 129 was too low, Plotz tells us, "a slight that Shockley carried with him to the grave".) The children started out bright, healthy and well adjusted. In adulthood, most became successful in the traditional ways of the times: men in careers and women as homemakers. Yet some of the most gifted men failed to live up to their early promise, dropping out of school and ending up doing low-level work. Parental encouragement and the child's own motivation, not IQ, made the difference between those who did well and those who drifted aimlessly through life.

And Doron Blake, the genius child, the prodigy? Now a young adult, he hopes to teach high school. He is as articulate and smart as Graham could have hoped for, yet he has rejected all that Graham preached about genetics and intelligence. "Genes have never been important to me", he told Plotz. "Family is the people you love. I feel a lot closer to people who are not my blood than to those that are."

If Robert Graham had opened a food bank for the poor instead of a sperm bank for the rich, he could have made a real difference in human IQ; after the Second World War, IQs have steadily risen in most countries all over the world, largely as a result of better nutrition for children and pregnant women. On the other hand, given the consistent level of human stupidity that produces war, terrorism, greed and folly, perhaps Graham should have stuck with inventing things; plastic eyeglasses were an indisputable contribution to the improvement of the species. Graham died in 1997, at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where he had gone to recruit sperm donors. He fell in the hotel bathtub and drowned. Plotz, with his unerring eye for detail and irony, noted that Time magazine marked Graham's death in its "Milestones" column, just above the news that the biologist Carleton Gajdusek, a Nobel Prize-winner, had been convicted of child molestation.

Carol Tavris is a social psychologist and the co-author of two psychology textbooks. She is writing a book on self-justification in public and private life.



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