Seed Capital

Reviewed by Robin Marantz Henig
Sunday, June 12, 2005


The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank

By David Plotz. Random House. 262 pp. $24.95

William Shockley was a Nobel Prize winner, a brilliant engineer and an unrepentant racist. His prize was in physics, but it gave him a soapbox from which to make repugnant pronouncements about biology. He supposed, for instance, that there were "some . . . good things about Hitler," such as "some significant amount of elimination of genetic diseases" as a result of his genocidal policies. Touting a more capitalist approach to ethnic cleansing in this country, he proposed a "Voluntary Sterilization Bonus Plan" in the late 1960s that would pay people with sub-optimal IQs to be sterilized: $1,000 for every IQ point below 100. This misguided genius also made a "deposit" at the so-called Nobel Prize sperm bank, which opened in 1980. This made enough news that, in its early years, the sperm bank had as its most public face the narrow, expressionless, reviled visage of Stanford University's William Shockley.

But the real brains behind the sperm bank, as David Plotz tells us in this lively account of a shameful history, was not Shockley at all. It was Robert Graham -- more refined and courtly than Shockley, slightly less prone to vile statements, but just as much of a racist. Indeed, Graham is the one whose racism was truly scary because it was dressed up in the trappings of patriotism, altruism and, most of all, science.

Graham, an optometrist who made his fortune by inventing shatterproof spectacles, "had the right-wing politics of a self-made millionaire, the relentless inquisitiveness of an inventor, the can-do spirit of an entrepreneur, and the moxie of a salesman." America was facing a "dysgenic" crisis, Graham insisted, with social welfare programs that enabled "retrograde humans" to give birth to too many incompetents and imbeciles. To counteract this trend, he opened the Repository for Germinal Choice, a highly selective sperm bank, in an underground, radiation-proof bunker on his 10-acre estate near San Diego. It was, Plotz writes, a case of southern California meets Brave New World, an enterprise that "exuded optimism, pragmatism, malevolence, and goofiness."

When the sperm bank opened, Graham said he already had sperm from three Nobel laureates and requests for insemination from two dozen women whose test results were high enough to qualify them for the high-IQ club Mensa. By the time the Repository for Germinal Choice closed its doors in 1999, it had accumulated a list of hundreds of would-be mothers, most of them very smart, and brought 217 babies into the world. Just how smart or otherwise remarkable these babies were is still an open question.

The Genius Factory began as a series for the online magazine Slate, and it shows; the book is occasionally too hip for its own good. Plotz is a little overfond of the clever turn of phrase, such as calling the sperm bank Graham's "supercharged autograph collection."

But most of the time Plotz is an engaging and confident storyteller -- and he has a terrific yarn to tell. The book is best when it focuses on Graham, Shockley and other outrageous late-20th-century eugenicists, such as the leading British biologist J.B.S. Haldane and the brilliant American geneticist Hermann Muller, who were not sperm donors. It works less well when Plotz describes the handful of children conceived through the Repository for Germinal Choice whom he managed to meet, at which point it becomes a sort of Internet detective story. In his Slate articles about the sperm bank, Plotz indicated that he hoped to find some of the women who had been clients there. Of the 200-plus Nobel sperm-bank babies, he began by knowing the details of only two: Victoria Kowalski, the first "genius baby," whose parents turned out to be convicted felons who whisked their daughter off to the backwoods of Arkansas after some embarrassing publicity; and Doron Blake, the second genius baby, who appeared on the cover of Mother Jones in 1983, at the age of 1, and who has been trotted out ever since as an example of exactly what Graham was trying to produce: a math whiz, a music prodigy, a brilliant child with an IQ of 180. Blake graduated from Reed College last year.

Roughly half of The Genius Factory , then, is about Plotz's interactions with the women he was able to track down and with the children they raised (most of them on their own, even though they were all married at the time of their pregnancies). He met the children, developed crushes on some of the mothers and accompanied the pairs to reunions with their sperm donors, whom some of the kids insisted on thinking of as "dad." He even put one pair of half-brothers (same sperm donor, code-named "Coral") in touch with each other and lets us eavesdrop on their e-mail correspondence.

Along the way, Plotz paints some lively portraits of pathetic sperm donors 20 years later -- not a Nobel laureate among them. One is a failed physician who lied on his application about having an IQ of 160 (he never even took the test, he now admits). Another, the son of a Nobel Prize winner, has no apparent means of support other than giving occasional piano lessons and making frequent donations to various sperm banks (this, Plotz says, is the only person he ever met outside the porn industry "who thought of masturbation as labor"). The scenes of the donors' children finding their fathers, and being forced to come to terms with their own legacies, are beautifully done.

These children, says Plotz, are "messengers from our future." Here we are on the brink of an era when designer babies with modified genes will be run of the mill, he writes, and these children give us a chance to see what happened deploying version 1.0 of genetic engineering: "Using the most advanced (but still crude) technology of his age -- a sperm bank with elite sperm donors -- [Graham] had persuaded women they could bear children with the 'best' genes available, children who would be smarter, healthier, and happier than nature would have permitted." The result was sort of a bust.

Plotz raises some compelling questions about the nature of genius, the meaning of genes and the idea that, as he so nicely puts it, "there is serendipity in DNA." This is perhaps his most serious point: that a seemingly ideal sperm donor -- indeed, any father or, for that matter, any mother -- "can pass on a lousy set of genes. A recessive illness may be hiding somewhere, or just mediocrity. Women shop carefully for sperm in hopes of certainty. But there is no certainty in a baby." ยท

Robin Marantz Henig, a New York science writer, is the author, most recently, of "Pandora's Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Launched the Reproductive Revolution."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company