[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'The Genius Factory': Test-Tube Superbabies

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'The Genius Factory': Test-Tube Superbabies
New York Times Book Review, 5.7.3

The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank.
By David Plotz.
262 pp. Random House. $24.95.


    ''All parents expect too much of their children,'' David Plotz writes
    in ''The Genius Factory,'' his beguiling account of one man's struggle
    to ensure that everyone's children -- at least white ones -- would
    come up to the mark. In our era of rampant parental ambition, of
    ''aggro soccer dads and home schooling enthusiasts plotting their
    children's future one spelling bee at a time,'' the cockeyed vision of
    Robert K. Graham, a California millionaire who sought to create cadres
    of baby geniuses, seems less bizarre than it probably did in 1980,
    when Graham's Repository for Germinal Choice, better known as the
    Nobel Prize sperm bank, opened its doors.

    Plotz, only 10 at the time, recalls his father's appalled reaction to
    the notion of using brainiac sperm to spawn wunderkinder: He tried to
    explain it was ''the sort of thing Hitler would have tried.'' Has
    Graham's project lost its sinister edge? This is one of two inquiries
    that Plotz, the deputy editor at Slate, explores in his first book.

    The reader may conclude Hitler would have been more efficient than
    Graham. Although Graham's business talents allowed him to parlay his
    invention of plastic eyeglass lenses into a great fortune, he fumbled
    the first stage of his grand scheme -- cajoling Nobel winners in
    science to provide their superior seed to improve America's gene pool.
    The problem was his showpiece donor: William Shockley, a pioneer of
    the transistor who shared the 1956 Nobel in physics. Shockley's sperm,
    ''a superb asset,'' in Graham's view, was the first contribution
    frozen, color-coded and offered to infertile couples eager to
    conceive. In this case Graham's natural marketing flair was done in by
    his knee-jerk adoration of brilliance. For years Shockley had preached
    that whites were genetically superior to blacks, and he was widely
    despised. Reporters who might have seen the genius sperm bank as
    ''well meaning and perhaps even visionary'' perceived it as
    inseparable from Shockley's racism. It was reviled as a horror and
    lampooned as a joke, and Nobel donors shunned it.

    So the Nobel Prize sperm bank produced no Nobel offspring (even
    Shockley quit donating sperm, fearing his was too aged to beget
    healthy children). Yet Graham kept the bank in business nearly two
    decades, with slightly lowered standards for donors. His staff wooed
    successful scientists and businessmen who were athletic, healthy and
    tall (Graham discovered American parents were wary of little
    eggheads). He lured customers by letting them select donors from an
    irresistible collection of what Plotz calls ''prime cuts of American
    man.'' By the time the bank closed in 1999, its customers had produced
    215 babies, a respectable addition to the national ''germ plasm,'' as
    Graham might have said.

    Those children populate the second part of Plotz's story. In a 2001
    article in Slate, Plotz sought information from anyone connected with
    the repository. He soon found himself cast as the ''Semen Detective,''
    trying to hook up sperm-bank children and their mothers with the
    anonymous progenitors. This would be difficult territory for any
    writer, and Plotz has to reassure himself that none of his confidants
    wants him to ''go all Oprah.'' No wonder. We meet, for instance, a
    young man who desperately hopes his biological dad will be a better
    father than the one who raised him. Plotz's kindness shines through,
    but some readers may wonder if the book's halves -- explorations of
    the nature of parenthood and the morality of the Nobel sperm bank --
    are coherent.

    But in the end, the themes mesh. Plotz's meetings with employees,
    consumers and offspring of the repository, sympathetic people on the
    whole, may have led him to his understated conclusion that the
    enterprise wasn't so terrible. For one thing, Graham's inspired
    strategy of providing consumers a choice of the most desirable men
    possible freed women from the tyranny of early fertility doctors. And
    it has become standard industry practice; as Plotz says, ''All sperm
    banks have become eugenic sperm banks.''

    Indeed, reproductive technologies all have eugenic possibilities now,
    especially preimplantation genetic diagnosis, a means of screening
    embryos that may one day let parents select the traits they wish for
    their children. Plotz labels this petri dish micromanagement an
    instance of ''private eugenics.'' But, he argues, even parents who
    ''will be lining up for P.G.D. and hoping for a prodigy'' have no use
    for traditional eugenics, which, in its brutal, negative form,
    culminated in the Nazis' ''mercy killings'' of those they judged
    unfit. ''Negative eugenics,'' Plotz says, ''was state-sponsored and
    brutal. But 'positive' eugenics took a milder approach.'' Graham's
    version ''sought to increase the number of outstanding people,'' in
    Plotz's phrase. Is personal eugenics -- producing a superkid for
    yourself instead of for the master race -- problematic? Plotz suggests
    the influence of genes is dicey enough and the role of nurture strong
    enough that we are delusional if we think we can make our children
    ''what we want them to be, rather than what they are.''

    This conclusion, however comforting for parents of teenagers, won't
    quash everyone's objections. It doesn't address the recent swing
    toward nature in the old nature vs. nurture debate. Nor does it
    provide an answer for those who fear that prenatal screening may lead
    scientists to limit future research on genetic disorders. But Plotz's
    take on the role of genes now -- in our imaginations and in fact, so
    far as we can determine that -- is humane and funny, which are fine
    traits for any argument, or any book.

    Polly Morrice is writing a book about autism.

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