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

All parents obviously want the best for their children—the best school, the best job, the best life. And what could be better than the smartest genes in the world? In The Genius Factory, David Plotz describes how one man attempted to give infertile parents exactly that by creating a sperm bank in which all the deposits came from Nobel prize–winning men. The Repository for Germinal Choice was in existence from 1980 to 1999 and produced just over 200 children. Its influence on the world of sperm donation, however, went far beyond these children.

In his book, Plotz traces the philosophical origins of what was commonly called “the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank” and explains just how it failed to live up to his vision. He tells fascinating stories of donors, parents, and children and the mystery that surrounds their unusual, invisible relationship. He even shares a bit about his own small adventure in sperm donation.

The sperm bank itself has a rather creepy beginning. Founder Robert Graham feared for the future of the human race in a world where “inferior people” were the ones reproducing. His hope was to (ahem) inject the gene pool with the kinds of intelligence, strength, and good looks that would carry humanity to a better future—mostly he was after handsome, fit, white men with engineering and scientific smarts. Plotz’s description of the eugenics-oriented philosophy that underpinned the sperm bank’s mission is chilling. Graham himself could be referred to as a positive eugenicist—one who encourages the best people to multiply without attempting to stop anyone else. It’s less sinister than what we normally think of when we think of eugenics, but the rhetoric is still more than a little cringe-inducing. And it of course raises the question of what current advances in genetic engineering could cause us to select for in the future.

Whatever Graham’s vision was, the reality fell far short. The parents who used the center didn’t necessarily share Graham’s political and social views, but they did like the idea of giving their children a boost in the smarts department. So many parents liked this idea that Graham was unable to recruit anything close to the number of  Nobel prize winners needed to meet the demand. So he went for smart men—or men who seemed smart or who claimed to be smart. And he provided information on these men that parents used to select the sperm they would use. This was a huge innovation that has become standard practice in the sperm bank business.

The stories of the donors, parents, and children take readers into the big questions of nature versus nurture. The children of the sperm bank that Plotz meets are not necessarily geniuses, but they seem pretty smart. Then again, they were raised by parents who would be interested in boosting their children’s intelligence, so they were not just given good genes, but were also surrounded with books, music, and so on. Whatever their feeling about the parents who raised them (and their feelings vary), the children are understandably curious about their biological fathers, and some actually meet them over the course of the book.

Although I found the personal stories really interesting, what I enjoyed most about this book was the way Plotz weaved in history, science, and social issues. The Genius Factory may claim to be about a single sperm bank with a unique mission, but it steps beyond that to take in societal attitudes about birth, genes, parenting, and more. I was especially interested in finding out how beliefs about sperm and eggs have changed over the years. At one time, each sperm was believed to contain an entire person—the womb was a planter, no egg involved! I love learning things like that.

The book also provides an interesting example of how the Internet age has changed journalism. The book actually started as a series of articles for Slate. Plotz, Slate’s deputy editor, used the series not just to share information with readers, but also to seek information from them. Throughout the book, Plotz seems respectful of his sources and their privacy, and he doesn’t tell the reader what to think of the whole genius sperm bank endeavor. His own reflections are certainly mixed.

All in all, an enjoyable, quick read about a quirky topic. Another good one from the TBR pile!

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

  1. Deb says:

    I thought this was a fascinating book. I actually came across it because I was following Plotz’s “Blogging the Bible” series on Slate and I checked to see if he’d written anything else. I thought the most interesting element of the book was the story behind Graham’s motivation for starting the bank in the first place (as you indicate, he’s a pretty creepy character). Plotz says something like, Graham wanted to preserve the influence of white men in a time when many people had decided they didn’t always have to listen to what white men had to say.

    • Teresa says:

      I didn’t realize Plotz was the one who did the “Blogging the Bible” series. I remember reading about that and even reading a couple of posts, but I didn’t follow it regularly.

      And yes, the background on the project was really interesting, and more than a little creepy.

  2. Bibliophile says:

    Whenever I hear mention of this sperm bank, I wonder if Graham got the idea from Roald Dahl. Dahl wrote a book, “My Uncle Oswald”, in which sperm was stolen from a number of famous men and royals and sold to women who wanted to have children by them.

    • Teresa says:

      Plotz actually mentioned that book in The Genius Factory. IIRC, he was discussing how the ideas that inspired Graham also influenced others–Graham was already thinking about the project when Dahl’s book was written.

  3. I’m glad you liked this one! I read it last year, and had the same impression — quick, quirky, and interesting. I also loved how well Plotz used the sperm bank as a jumping off point to look at the bigger issues you mentioned.

  4. Jeane says:

    How interesting. That Nobel Prize sperm bank was mentioned in one of the final chapters of a book I just finished reading- Get Me Out. It also talked about what people used to believe about the sperm and egg- I recall one illustration where scientists tried putting sperm into womb-shaped vases and were puzzled when no baby grew! They really did think the mother was just a receptacle. (Didn’t anyone notice babies having physical traits of their mothers back then??)

    • Deb says:

      What’s even more baffling is that, simultaneously with the belief that the sperm was the whole person and the womb just the incubator, women were often blamed when they failed to produce sons. Perhaps the most famous example of this being Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife (the second most famous example being Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife).

    • Teresa says:

      There was a whole section in here talking about a sort of intellectual argument between the people who saw the sperm as the source of life and people who saw the egg as the source of life. It was surprising to realize how recent it was that people understood that both are required!

  5. Alex says:

    This one went straight to my wishlist – what a fascinating topic! Thanks for flagging.

  6. Kathleen says:

    Wow, what a compelling read. It is interesting to wonder what other traits, besides intelligence, might be passed on. By trying to select for one thing, I wonder if the parents later regretted it when they noticed less desirable traits? Anyway, this is one I will definitely plan to read.

    • Teresa says:

      There actually was an instance in this book where a kid realized he had perhaps inherited some not so great characteristics from his donor father.

  7. Jenny says:

    I’d never heard of this genius sperm bank business before! That’s so messed up — people can come up with the weirdest shit when they are well-intentioned!

  8. Bina says:

    That does sound quirky and fascinating (and crazy)! Will have to look for a copy :)

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