The Genius Factory

By David Plotz

The Genius Factory is a story of obsession. It begins with the obsession of Robert Graham, an American businessman who made millions by inventing shatterproof plastic eyeglasses. Graham was obsessed with success and successful people. A man of science as well as business acumen, he thought there should be a way to engineer genetic success, to bring the idea of quality control into the process of human breeding so that only the best would be produced. And so . . . the Repository for Germinal Choice, a sperm bank in Southern California that opened in 1980 containing the frozen seed of Nobel laureates.

The Repository drew its share of obsessive donors. Most famous among them was William Shockley, co-winner of the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on transistors. Shockley’s elitist (and racist) fear of American genetic decline led him to become the most famous contributor to Graham’s bank. But other donors had other, more personal obsessions. Here is part of an interview with one fifty-year-old father of fifty (he was the son of a Nobel winner, which was deemed good enough once Graham started having trouble recruiting the real thing):

“I have studied evolutionary biology, and this is what evolution is all about. Winning is passing on your genes, and losing is failing to do so. There are lots of games that men have made up, games where you win by scoring runs.” He paused, as if to emphasize the pointlessness of such games. “But the main game of the universe, the only game that matters, is the game of evolution, and you win by passing on genes. And I wanted to win!” He spoke the last sentence with a smug grin.

An obsession with success and winning isn’t just evolutionary biology, it’s also very modern. And the obsession doesn’t end with the donors. What parents, or parent, wouldn’t want the very, very best for their child? And so you have mothers like Mary:

Mary had never heard of it, but she immediately decided a Nobel sperm bank was a tremendous idea. She was a self-improver. What bigger kick up the ladder could there be for her kids than exchanging her husband’s mediocre genes for a Nobel Prize winner’s?

And then, years after the transaction is complete, there is the final, saddest obsession: That of the Nobel babies to find out the identity of their genetic fathers. This bit of “semen detective” work was passed on to David Plotz, whose online article for Slate on the Nobel Sperm Bank led to a flurry of e-mails requesting his help in tracking down supposedly genius dads. A quest that in turn led to this fascinating little book.

It would be wrong to say that the Nobel Sperm Bank was an idea with some validity in theory but a farce in practice. It was a bad idea in theory made even more ridiculous in practice. There was no way of telling what genes were being passed on, the donors were too old, the criteria (Nobel Prizes, high IQs, good looks) were hardly scientific . . . and the list goes on. In fact there were no Nobel Prize babies born. Nobel winners were hard to enlist and didn’t seem to have lively sperm. The children were born from donations that came from men deemed to be in some vague way above average. One rogue donor Plotz manages to track down even lied on his “resume”, giving himself a wildly inflated IQ just so he could join “the world’s most exclusive men’s club.”

It’s a sad story. And the Nobel Sperm Bank was just the failed, somewhat silly first chapter. As Plotz notes, the sperm bank kids were “messengers from our future.” And the message is that humanity just isn’t good enough. What’s going to count in the future are Darwinist family values. We will breed smarter, stronger kids not so they will be able to benefit humankind but so they can beat others in the battle for survival. Few people today disagree with the principle of “positive” eugenics (that is, better breeding, as opposed to culling). The future is already clear:

We are on the brink of genetic expectations. Soon – maybe not in five years, but probably in fifty – fertility doctors will be able to identify and manipulate genes for “intelligence” and “beauty.” At first, building better babies will be a science . . . but eventually it will become a consumer movement. Parents will demand the gene treatments not for health reasons, but to make their kids “better.” . . . Eugenics will be chic again, though not by that name.

As chic as any other quick fix, and just as deluded. Yes, in another fifty years this kind of radical directed evolution may be possible. And real superbabies may become quite common, for those who can afford them. But how grateful will they be?

In Tomorrow Now futurist Bruce Sterling speculated that superkids will bitterly resent being the fruits of experimental technology and their parents’ vanity and ambition. This doesn’t explain, however, why it isn’t going to happen. Vanity and ambition aren’t going away. The Repository for Germinal Choice closed its doors in 1999, but similar things are being done in fertility clinics around the world every day. And women participate too, with bright and beautiful Ivy Leaguers being offered big money for their elite eggs. Sure, maybe the Nobel babies didn’t pan out, but now that we’ve mapped the human genome . . .

Robert Graham would be proud.

Review first published July 16, 2005.

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