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!