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Who's your daddy? Genes, aspiration, and the Nobel Prize sperm bank.

The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank By David Plotz Random House, $24.95

You don't have to dig very far into our nation's intellectual record to find strains of eugenics and genetic determinism. Between the 1920s and the 1960s, some 60,000 Americans, the so-called "unfit," many of them retarded or physically handicapped, but some of them simply afflicted with being poor, were hauled off by state and local officials and forcibly sterilized. The rationale for this sorry chapter in American history emerged from the confluence of three strands of Anglo-American thought. Fearing overpopulation, Thomas Malthus argued in the late 18th century that the poor needed to die young, because Mother Nature had ordained their suffering from disease, malnutrition, and congenital defects. The second strand drew on late 19th-century Social Darwinism, which provided the pseudo-scientific underpinnings for both Malthus and the third strand, early 20th-century American racial and ethnic paranoia. It was the British who provided the intellectual power behind Malthusian worries and Social Darwinism, but, as David Plotz points out in his curious new volume, The Genius Factory, it was the "can-do Americans who converted [it] into dismal practice."

It is against this backdrop that Robert Graham, an eccentric millionaire inventor from--where else?--Southern California, came up in the 1960s with the idea of a sperm bank devoted to spreading the seed of brilliant men. In 1980, when artificial insemination and anonymous sperm banks were becoming more popular; Graham founded the Repository for Germinal Choice, which was instantly dubbed the "Nobel Prize Sperm Bank" by the press. Grahams plan was to encourage a kind of positive eugenics; rather than weeding out the unfit, he hoped to create a generation of geniuses who would go forth, multiply, and counterbalance the rising tide of idiots. He dreamed of intelligent women--preferably those smart enough to qualify for the high-IQ club, Mensa--bearing a flock of uber-babies, endowed with the genes that would enable them to become scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs.

Plotz, an editor at Slate magazine, has written an engaging and surprisingly funny book about the history of the Nobel sperm bank, the men who donated to it, and the more than 200 children it, er, spawned. (I should confess in the interests of full disclosure that I have pitched stories to David.) His book is populated with a cast of brilliant, sleazy, endearing, and unpleasant characters, all of them compelling, but only one of whom, William Shockley, was publicly identified as a Nobel laureate and donor. Shockley was himself a eugenicist and racist who once proposed that the government pay people with IQs under 100 if they would voluntarily submit to sterilization. When Shockley's participation became public, humorists had a field day. Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that Shockley's connection to the bank was "proof that masturbation makes you crazy." "Saturday Night Live" ran a skit entitled "Dr. Shockley's House of Sperm," in which Rodney Dangerfield played himself as the most popular donor.

Once the Shockley connection was out, and Graham couldn't persuade any other Nobelists to donate, he was forced to turn to the next tier down in his pantheon of geniuses, accomplished Renaissance men who were young, smart, athletic, and handsome. Yet, as Plotz discovered, Graham's liquid nitrogen vats contained the seed of at least a few losers and nut jobs, one of whom lied shamelessly about his family's accomplishments and his high IQ.

Graham himself was no slouch when it came to weirdness. The inventor of plastic eyeglass lenses, Graham was intelligent and inventive, but emotionally a cold fish who neglected his own eight children and kept a list of "Great Men" he had met in his life: Unlike other sperm bankers, Graham didn't pay donors; rather, he wined, dined, flattered, wheedled, and cajoled them into wanting to pass on their gifts. He would fly across the country to meet with a prospective donor, take him to a lavish meal, and then invite him up to his hotel room to make a deposit, prompting one donor to tell Plotz that he now knew what it felt like to be a woman.

I found Plotz's book compulsively readable for the most part, especially when he is telling the tale of the American eugenics movement and Grahams obsession with spermatozoa. Many readers, however, will be more interested in finding out what happened to the sperm bank's children. Plotz first began writing about the Nobel sperm bank in Slate, where his stories prompted an outpouring of emails and phone calls from families hoping to find their donor fathers. The sperm bank concealed the identities of its donors, identifying them to women only by a color code: "Donor White" or "Donor Coral," for example. As a resourceful reporter, Plotz soon found himself serving as a "sperm detective," able to uncover the secret identities of several donors and hooking up fathers and children.

Plotz's writing loses some of its zip when he recounts the lives of the children and the moments when they finally meet their biological fathers; I also found myself wanting a more penetrating and forward-looking analysis of the deeper questions behind the urge to endow offspring with genius genes. Two decades ago, a couple hoping to boost their child's genetic inheritance had only a supposed genius sperm bank to turn to. Today, they can use genetic screening technologies to weed out embryos with undesirable defects, the gene that causes cystic fibrosis, for example, or fragile X, which leads to severe retardation. This sort of homegrown eugenics might seem like a merciful use of technology, yet when it's also possible to detect the gene or genes that contribute to short stature or the tendency to day-dream, will parents want those embryos tossed out of the Petri dish, too? One day, reproductive technologies may even allow parents to add genes for desired traits, potentially turning children into a kind of custom-ordered commodity like cars, rather than a gift to be nurtured toward adulthood.

Indeed, the belief that genes are destiny can all too easily warp the relationship between parent and child, even for the families whose children were born as a result of Grahams lower-tech grand experiment. As Plotz describes one boy's feelings about his heritage, "When your mom tells you you have to do better, you try to do better. But when your mom tells you your genes say you have to do better, it's different. You lose your free will." The irony, of course, is that, as far as Plotz could determine, most of the 215 children sired by the Nobel sperm bank have turned out to be about as accomplished and intelligent as their mothers. So much for the power of genetic patrimony.

Shannon Brownlee is a Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at the New America Foundation.
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Title Annotation:book by David Plotz
Author:Brownlee, Shannon
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 2005
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