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A review of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, by David Plotz, 2005.

The Genius Factory is an odd book about eugenics and artificial insemination. Plotz tries to tell a story about a few people he could locate for the book, he is extremely biased, and he introduced simplistic explanations for results that he found that he did not like to accept.

The book is about Robert K. Graham and his sperm bank: The Repository for Germinal Choice. It was open from 1980 To 1999, it was responsible for 215 children, it was called the Nobel Prize sperm bank even though no children were produced by a Nobelist, it collected sperm without payment to anonymous college donors or working scientists, and it was a great success not for its advancements in eugenics, but because it spawned an industry that to this day is going strong: 30,000 children a year are being produced by sperm donors from larger sperm bank companies that now pay for collecting the sperm of healthy, intelligent, taller than average, and better looking than average, and sometimes athletic, males. Women who want to purchase this sperm select donors now primarily through the Internet, for a fee, with prices going up as more information on the donor is provided, which now can amount to a small booklet of data. So much for a shaky start to a booming industry. Eugenics is alive and well—but Plotz has a hard time with both the facts and his knowledge of the subject of genetics, development, and eugenics.

Plotz states, "The bank had been launched in 1980 with the immodest goal of changing mankind and reversing evolution. Over the next nineteen years, more than two hundred 'genius kids'—as reporters liked to call them—were born from its supersperm. Every few months, some newspaper or magazine or TV network had dispatched a reporter to break open the story of the Nobel Prize sperm bank, to ferret out the donors' identities and learn whether the kids had lived up to their genetic programming. But all the reporters had come back empty-handed….It was the most radical experiment in human genetic engineering in American history, yet no one knew how it had turned out. There was only a beguiling blank: the mystery of the Nobel Prize sperm bank."

This statement has several interesting elements. First, he states that an objective was to "reverse evolution." This is an odd way of admitting we were seen as being in a dysgenic trend with regards to average intelligence, but evolution does not in itself have a "reversal" mechanism. Second, the interest in producing "genius kids" by contributing only half of a random assortment of chromosomes from the male donor and half from a female recipient means that the offspring will not be like the donor but somewhere in-between. Plotz does not seem to understand the basics of genetics.

Let's look at intelligence as one trait. In a truly eugenic program, it is not just the intelligence of the individuals breeding—it is also the intelligence of their lineage that is important. For example, if a couple comes from a long line of ancestors with an average IQ of say 120, then their children will have average IQs of about 120—some below and some above. Genes are randomly selected in every cycle of life, and we each get a random draw of 1/2 of the available chromosomes from the paternal side and the maternal side.

Sperm and egg banks then, as we start to pay for highly selected women for harvesting their eggs, should look not just at the individual but at their family tree. This is due to what is known as regression to the mean. Again as an example: if a man and a woman meet at college, they both have an IQ of 115, but they both come from an average population group where the mean IQ is only 100, their children's average IQ will lie somewhere between 115 and 100. Likewise, if a couple with an average IQ of 85 have children, but they come from population groups with average IQs of 100, their children will have average IQs somewhere between 85 and 100. Plotz seems to be oblivious to these basic fundamentals of population genetics. He states, "I was enthralled with this weird project, this Brave New World, southern California-style. What were the kids like? Had the genius genes created genius babies?" This is hopelessly simplistic in expectations from an uncontrolled group, few in numbers, with little data on the genes of the donors and the women.

Over an over he shows his simplistic and biased perception of how genetics works with statements like this: "And the more I thought about her, the more I found myself wondering about the children of the Nobel sperm bank. If I—who had no particular genetic gifts to give—was placing unreasonable genetic expectations on my two-month-old, what must it be like to be the genetic product of a real genius and to have been specifically engineered for brilliance? What was it like when you knew you had 'Nobel DNA' powering every nucleus in your body? Did it screw you up? Did it turn your parents into naggy monsters?"

In the future, we may be able to specifically engineer a child for genius status, but the term is ambiguous at best. Does a person pick an intelligent mate because they want to have intelligent children, and is that added factor in picking a mate include specifically engineering your future children for intelligence? This is quite naïve and simplistic. However, he does admit we are entering a new world: "At first, building better babies will be a science, as doctors figure out how to swap genes in order to save kids from terrible diseases. But eventually it will become a consumer movement. Parents will demand the gene treatments not for health reasons, but to make their kids 'better.' ('Doc, this kid has got to play tennis.') Eugenics will be chic again, though not by that name." Oh, the term eugenics is quite back again, and growing in acceptance. Though it is just a word, and we live in a world where it seems everything must be named differently over time, just to seem more innovative.

He then goes on to make the obligatory connection between eugenics and the Holocaust: "When Hitler took power, he imposed draconian sterilization laws of the sort that his American teachers had only dreamed of. In only three years, the Nazis sterilized 225,000 Germans. When the war arrived, sterilization degenerated into 'mercy killing'—the out-right murder of tens of thousands of asylum residents. The eugenic murders were the prelude to, and inspiration for, the Holocaust."

History has shown that this is surely wrong—there is no connection between Nazi eugenics and the Holocaust, or even mercy killings. The Nazis, once the war started, needed hospital beds for wounded soldiers, so it was cost effective to make room through "mercy killing." As for the Holocaust, it was not meant to better any race, it was meant to eliminate a competitor for world domination. They already had laws on the books to prevent Jews from breeding with "Aryans." Hitler however feared the high intelligence of the Jews, and as such they were a real threat both within and outside of Germany.

Plotz's greatest deception or confusion in this book, one is never sure which, is when it comes to the nature–nurture debate. He writes, "Nobel sperm would give modest odds of slightly better genes in the half share of chromosomes supplied by the father…. [Graham] had a narrow imagination about human accomplishment. Graham didn't believe in 'multiple intelligences': He believed in one intelligence. When he talked about intelligence, all he meant was practical problem-solving ability: Edison, Fulton, Watson, or Crick. (Graham valued, by miraculous coincidence, exactly the same kind of analytical talent he himself possessed.) He was blind to the intelligence required for artistic genius, for psychological insight, or for political deftness. Those kinds of intelligence were worthless to Graham, because they couldn't be measured."

Does Plotz really believe in multiple intelligences, as advocated by Howard Gardner and Robert Sternberg, who refuse to even test their multiple intelligences using accepted scientific methods? Later he writes, "And maybe there was also a genetic reason Alton was smart like his mom. Study after study has demonstrated the link between genes and what's called 'general intelligence'—the ability to solve problems and think rationally. In aggregate, the more intelligent the parents, the more intelligent the child. It was this connection between genes and intelligence that made Graham sure that a genius sperm bank would improve humanity."

The theory of general intelligence g, or mental ability, rejects the concept of multiple intelligence, which is considered a pseudoscientific fringe theory, not supported by any evidence. So again, Plotz seems unaware that he has contradicted himself—he is clearly not equipped to discuss the genetics of mental ability. In fact, whenever it appeared that one of the few children he found and investigated showed signs of exceptional intelligence, he went to great lengths to dismiss the genetic implications.

Plotz states, "The Nobel sperm bank was intended as a scientific experiment to prove how nature trumped nurture. But Lorraine was evidence why the bank could never show that. Her kids might outperform regular kids, but that proved nothing about heredity versus environment. Graham's customers had not been randomly plucked off the streets of San Diego. They had chosen the Nobel sperm bank, and they were the kind of parents you would expect to pick a Nobel sperm bank. Lorraine had gone there because she cared passionately that her kids be standouts. Even if Lorraine had gone to Tony's Discount Sperm Warehouse, her children would have been achievers: she wouldn't have let them be any other way."

I wonder if Lorraine had adopted an African baby if she could have also used nurture to create a superstar? All of the research says no: there are numerous studies and decades of research on mental ability and the conclusions, primarily from behavior genetic research, goes like this. When a person becomes an adult, about 80% of the variance is due to genes, and the other 20% is due to the unshared environment a person was raised in. In behavior genetics, three components are considered when determining a person's traits, behavior or intelligence: (1) Genes or heredity, (2) the shared environment in the family, and (3) the unshared environment of individuals in the family. The shared environment, or parents making their children achievers, simply fades out as children go into puberty and adulthood. That is why, in terms of Jensen's factor X rebuttal to environmental causes of variance in intelligence, those on the nurture side cannot provide any nurturing data on ways to increase intelligence. In adulthood, the 20% of intelligence from non-shared environmental factors are simply those factors no one can determine. They lie outside of the family environment.

Plotz then turns his attention to William Shockley: "I asked my father what was wrong. He tried to explain to me that William Shockley was a great physicist who had invented the transistor and won the Nobel Prize and was now involved in some Nobel sperm bank, and that it was a moronic idea, the sort of thing Hitler would have tried. I knew what the Nobel Prize was. But I didn't know what the transistor was. I didn't know who William Shockley was. And I certainly didn't know what a sperm bank was. All I understood was that Shockley and the Nobel sperm bank, whoever and whatever they were, had somehow broken my father's code of science. My father was revolted, as though he'd seen the rabbi at our synagogue driving a new Mercedes. The idea of 'Shockley' lodged itself in my ten-year-old brain. He became my symbol of Science Gone Wrong."

Then later, "I began reading everything I could find about Shockley and soon learned that he had been one of America's most brilliant scientists, most influential businessmen, and most perplexing racists. After a scientific career of unmatched accomplishment, Shockley had spent the last twenty-five years of his life trying to stop poor people and black people from having children. Thinking Shockley might make a good subject for a biography, I traveled out to Stanford University to dig through his archives."

The question is, was Shockley right as a scientist? All scientists are biased, and those biases are filtered out as different scientists attack each other's pet theories. So how did Shockley fair? Well, he was vocal enough to engage the wrath of the media, thus scaring away other Nobelists from contributing to the Nobel Prize sperm bank, and making the bank resort to getting sperm elsewhere. And even if he did think that Blacks were less intelligent on average, even Plotz admits that he was interested in stopping low intelligent Whites from breeding just as much as low intelligent Blacks. Shockley was concerned about over-population, supported birth control and abortion rights, and was equally concerned about a declining average intelligence.

Plotz notes that Shockley thought Blacks had an average IQ about 12 points below Whites—exactly what Jensenists claim today. So if this is a fact, then a concern with a population explosion of Blacks with low intelligence should be of concern. We only have to look at the state of affairs in Africa to understand what happens when intelligence is low.

Plotz does admit, "[Shockley] didn't exude hatred for blacks—he didn't have any. He didn't exude sorrow—he didn't have any of that, either. Shockley's critics assumed that his racial anxiety stemmed from some personal experience, some deep trauma, but it probably didn't. He had no particular feelings for blacks one way or another. He hardly knew any blacks. To him, his racial conclusions were simply the logical outcome of a train of thought. As far as he was concerned, once he started to address human quality, he would follow its logic wherever it took him. In his mind, his conclusions had nothing to do with any actual black person; he was simply making an irrefutable point."

It sounds to me like Shockley was very unbiased, just using science in a logical manner to come to conclusions about the effects of social policy. And how about Graham? Plotz notes that, "Graham was a racist but not always a white supremacist. He ranked blacks and Hispanics below whites in intelligence, but he ranked Asians above whites. He frequently tried, and always failed, to recruit Asian donors. And though he had grown up in a distinctly anti-Semitic town, Graham hugely admired Jews, whom he believed to be disproportionately intelligent. A large number of his donors were Jewish. Graham's prejudice didn't stop him from trying to recruit blacks….The Repository did have Asian and Arab applicants who got pregnant."

It is interesting that with a Jewish population of about 2.5%, Graham would have so many Jewish sperm donors. Could it be that they really are genetically more intelligent than any other identifiable racial group? Plotz finds nothing interesting about this point except it shows no anti-Semitism on the part of Graham. So, was Graham a racist or merely a scientist? All of the psychometric data to date shows that average intelligence does vary between racial groups. So declaring anyone who believes this highly supported scientific theory for life history differences between races, a racist, would make anyone who is objective a racist.

Plotz then notes the success of Graham's project: "From the vantage point of today's fertility-crazed America, where people talk about their fertility specialists the way they used to talk about their plumbers, where every woman is either making a baby through in vitro fertilization, donating an egg so someone else can, carrying a surrogate baby for her daughter or mother or rich neighbor, or seeking to adopt her lesbian partner's hormone-spawned sperm-bank triplets, where getting pregnant the old-fashioned way seems not merely old-fashioned but slightly foolish, it can be hard to remember that infertility used to be a badge of shame, that the only fertility choice women used to have was 'Blue eyes for the donor or brown?' and that they were supposed to be grateful even for that. The most important thing—and arguably the best thing—Robert Graham's genius sperm bank did was to transform how Americans thought about making babies. Today, sperm banking is a business with 'customers' instead of 'patients,' marketing plans instead of doctor's orders, professional donors instead of Johnny-on-the-spot medical students. None of this was true when Robert Graham started the Repository. Sperm banking—and American fertility in general—experienced a revolution, and Robert Graham was a most unlikely Thomas Jefferson."

He notes that over time, artificial insemination went from denial, then revulsion, then popular embrace; like so many movements and changes in society, what is moral or good changes over time. Technology, along with other social changes, alters the average world view, with eugenics returning to take its rightful place along with the rest of the genomic revolution.

It is also the beginning of possibly a new speciation event. If those select elite who embrace perfection, and want to enhance their offspring, using the very best sperm and harvested eggs, where any one individual, male or female, can produce hundreds of offspring, a new population group will develop. With people keeping track of the best genes by noting how the children develop, a new awareness will come about with regards to the significance of genes on intelligence, attractiveness, conscientiousness, etc. This new super-elite, though small, will be able to amass most of the world's resources to continue and expand the project. Even today, under an egalitarian world view, there continues to be a widening gap between the rich and the poor. With genetic enhancement, this trend will accelerate. Over time, this super-elite will have little to do with the average breeding masses—they will be seen as too distant and strange—merely worker ants for the revenue machine to drive ever new technologies.

As Plotz notes, "Mother after mother said the same thing to me: she had picked the Repository because it was the only place that let her select what she wanted. Where Graham went, other sperm banks—and the rest of the fertility industry—followed. California Cryobank, Xytex, Fairfax Cryobank, and the other major sperm banks started expanding their donor descriptions from a few lines to dozens of pages and recruiting the most gifted men they could find. Today, American sperm banks are heirs of the Repository for Germinal Choice, though they don't like to acknowledge its influence."

He goes on to note how difficult it is for the sperm banks to compete, and this will be followed by even more demanding information on harvested eggs. Male sperm donors can be paid a few hundred dollars for millions of sperm, a female can be paid tens of thousands of dollars for a few dozen eggs. A male gets pleasure donating sperm, a female must undergo hormone therapy and some pain to harvest her eggs. Though the harvesting of female eggs will surely get easier, female eggs or ovum will be more highly prized due to the relative scarcity compared to sperm. There will be a great deal of competition in tracking the finest female donors, looking not only at the donor but at her whole genealogy. Naïve environmentalism will whither away.

Plotz notes, "One of the implications of 3498's [an anonymous donor's number] huge file—one that banks themselves hate to admit—is that all sperm banks have become eugenic sperm banks. When the Nobel Prize sperm bank disappeared, it left no void, because other banks have become as elitist as it ever was. Once the customer, not the doctor, started picking the donor, banks had to raise their standards, providing the most desirable men possible and imposing the most stringent health requirements."

As time passes, anonymous donors will come out in the open, as the elite start to track and watch donors and children passing into multiple generations of donors and children. Plotz notes that lesbians and single mothers are increasingly driving the demand for sperm.

Lagging behind will be those who instead of adopting, will pay the high cost to have a super-elite child from elite selected sperm and eggs. The rich of course will be able to specify the best genes to be purchased, while paying other poorer women to carry the child for them if desired. Reproduction or having children will begin to separate from sexuality. This has happened in the past among the elite, where children, seen as intrusions, were sent to be nursed by others far away from the cosmopolitan center of high society. (Hrdy, 1999)

Plotz then tries to find fault with the whole notion of selective breeding and eugenics by citing a single study on imprinting, where in some genes, only the maternal or the paternal gene is "turned on." Even if imprinting is active in a few genes, it is still rare and nonsensical in terms of selective breeding. If it did occur in any great degree, animal breeders would have been less successful. And if it is true, then eggs and sperm would be selected differently for some traits. But the whole idea that a very "primitive theory" like imprinting would have any real impact on eugenics is absurd—it only adds a bit of additional information required on a few genes that may respond to imprinting. Again, it just puts more value on female egg harvesting, making sperm banks again more elitist by driving up the cost of female eggs.

As Plotz admits, "An intelligent young coed can now collect ten, twenty, even fifty grand if she has healthy eggs to sell. Now add imprinting to the egg mania. If parents assume that maternal genes contribute extra to their children's intelligence, the egg bubble may get even worse."

He goes on to reflect, "of all the parents I talked to, only one regretted using the Repository. The Nobel sperm bank may not have met the world's expectations, but it met the expectations of those who mattered most: its customers."

If there is any message that one can glean from this very erratic book, it is that eugenics now is not about technology, it is about world views changing as the technology changes. So, did the few children Plotz locate turn out to be super kids or not? That was the primary reason I read the book, I wanted to see how the author would try and undermine the success of Graham's program. Well, he did it by creating a novel and never summarizing the data so that you could read it either way—it was nurture, no it was nature.

Nicholas Agar did summarize the anecdotal data in Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement," 2004. He notes, "When David Plotz, a journalist with the online magazine Slate, matched some of the repository children with their donors, he found that at least a few were taking after their high-achieving fathers. Three children of an Olympic gold medallist were very athletically talented. The sperm of science and mathematics professors had given rise to children gifted in these areas. Children conceived with sperm donors described as having happy temperaments were reported to be habitually upbeat."

I can't recommend this book on its supposed purpose of trying to find out how the children from the Repository turned out. It does however show how even someone who is against eugenics—David Plotz—came to see it as inevitable in the future as gene technology expands. On the human side, it did show that women, especially professional women, when they have a choice, they want the best sperm for their offspring, however they define best: good looks, height, athleticism, and intelligence. The most sought after sperm and eggs then will probably come from those special individuals that have all of these traits and more. Eugenics is most definitely back. 


Published 9/24/2005 by Matt Nuenke