WHEN I FIRST READ that some Nobel laureates had contributed their sperm for the artificial insemination of terribly bright women so that they, in turn, could give birth to awfully smart children, I thought of my boyhood friend, Charlie.His father and mother were very smart, but he, for reasons that stumped them both, turned out to be exceedingly stupid. There is a scientific term for this and it is said with a shrug of the shoulders: "It happens."
Boy, did it ever happen with Charlie. His father was a self-made man -- self made in terms of money, but also self made in terms of education. He had been born poor and had not been very well educated, but he made it in the world and made himself wise, to boot.
His was one of the few houses where classical music was played. He read books and discussed ideas. He studied foreign languages while in his 50s and then, for reasons having to do with sheer delight, turned himself into an amateur musician. His wife, although not his equal in personality, was nevertheless very smart, too. Together, they produced Charlie.
Charlie was an affliction. Charlie did not care about books. He did not care about classical music. He did not care about ideas and it is a lead-pipe cinch that to this day he has never had one.
He flunked out of high school and had to be sent to private school for the education and coddling of stupid youths. Then he flunked out of one of the colleges where you get credit just for having a pulse. It is not clear if Charlie had a pulse. It is clear, though, that Charlie had a brother who was very smart. a
Charlie comes to mind whenever people talk about genetic engineering or even so much as try to predict the intelligence of some baby by the intelligence of the parents. There is, of course something to all this -- at least there appears to be. Smart people by and large have smart children, but then it is also true that rich people tend to have rich children. In other words, it is awfully hard to figure out how much intelligence comes from heredity and how much from environment.
When it comes to genius, the riddle is even harder to solve. You would be hard put, for instance, to name Nobel laureates whose children also won a Nobel prize. You can find families, though, in which genius -- or at least talent -- seems to run. The Bach and Mozart and Strauss families come to mid in music.
So there might be something to all this; then again there may not. Charlie stands as a living refutation to anyone who thinks that genetic engineering is a snap and that there is anything like a sure thing where children are concerned.
But what was really interesting about Charlie is not that he was dumber than his parents, but that he shred none of their tastes. He cared nothing about any of the things they cared most about.
All he wanted to do was dance and drive around in his car and surf. In fact, it was hard to tell if Charlie was really stupid or merely tasteless. This was a raging debate in my circle of friends.
This is where I think the Nobel laureates have gone wrong. There is nothing wrong in wanting a smart child, or even a little genius ("Come here, Herbert, and play the piano"). What is wrong is the arrogance of assuming that the child born of the blessed union will want to be the special sort of genius at least one of the parents is.
What you sense here is some sort of desire to product little lab assistants -- cute little ones to follow in the distinguished footsteps of daddy. I, for one, would love to be around when little Nobel, the son of, say, William Shockley, turns to his mother and demands to know why she picked someone who was short and bald and paunchy when there was sperm on the market from the likes of Mark Spitz.
From what is being said, it is not a smart kid that is wanted, but a special kind of smart kid -- a little genius. If these people just wanted a smart kid, the women involved could impregnate themselves with the sperm of medical students who 1) sometimes make money this way and (2) are not known for their stupidity.
No, what they want is a special kind of smarts, and this they will probably never get. It might happen, but if it does, it will not be the result of clever planning but of a scientific phenomenon explained with a shrug of the shoulders: It happens.