Science: Geniuses in the making
In 1980, millionaire inventor Robert Graham launched his Repository for Germinal Choice, an exclusive sperm bank dedicated to "improving" the human race by providing sperm from high achievers to infertile couples. Twenty years later, journalist David Plotz set out to track the fortunes and misfortunes of what came to be known as the Nobel Prize sperm bank, which folded in 1999. He shares his findings in the new book Genius Factory, out this week.
Q: How many participants did you find?
A: There are 215 kids in all, and my guess is about 30 donors. I've heard from probably 15 donors and families representing about 30 or 35 kids, and I'm hearing from more every day now.
Q: Who were the donors?
A: There were three Nobel Prize winners, including [transistor inventor and noted racist William] Shockley, but they all quit after a storm of bad publicity when the repository launched in 1980. They distributed that sperm, but none of the women got pregnant from that sperm. Graham quickly changed gears and started recruiting younger guys who seemed to have great futures ahead of them. As the bank continued on, Graham became less vigilant about who he recruited, and some of them turned out to be not the most savory characters.
Q: So how did it work? Are the kids all geniuses?
A: There are some exceptions, but all the kids are basically above average. There are some who are quite remarkablesome extraordinarily smart kids, some wonderful artistic and athletic talents. But I don't think it's particularly attributable to the sperm. The one kid who I would say is a genius has a mother who is a genius. And the donor father, who they thought was some great genius himself, is in fact not.
Q: Given the small number of people involved, did the Nobel Prize sperm bank have any lasting effects?
A: The Repository changed the way Americans think about fertility. This was the only bank at the time that gave a lot of health information about its donors, and a number of these women told me that that was what sold them, even more than the intelligence aspect of it. The major sperm banks have caught up and far surpassed what the repository was doing, so what has actually happened is that all sperm banks have become eugenics sperm banks. They are only getting guys who are very tall, who are very healthy and come from quite distinguished academic backgrounds. The difference is that Robert Graham did it to remake the world and prevent genetic decline. Sperm banks are doing it purely because consumers demand it. In general, fertility has gone from being doctor-driven to consumer-driven, and I think the repository is a key landmark in that.
Q: So did Robert Graham's eugenics experiment fail?
A: I think ultimately it ended up being a nurture project rather than a nature project. What Robert Graham did by offering up a Nobel Prize sperm bank was select a bunch of good customerswomen who are eager to have accomplished children, who take it seriously and will push their kids.