[Paleopsych] TCS: Can You Breed for Genius?
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Tue Jul 19 19:29:59 UTC 2005
Can You Breed for Genius?
By Nick Schulz Published 07/18/2005
Editor's note: David Plotz is the author of The Genius Factory:
The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank. He recently sat for
an interview with Nick Schulz.
Schulz: How did you come to write this book?
Plotz: I knew of the existence of the Nobel Prize Sperm
Bank and I was interested in what had happened to it. It opened in
1980 and was shut down in 1999, and more than 200 kids had been born
from it. It was an incredibly radical experiment in human genetic
engineering, yet nobody knew who these kids were, how they turned
out., or who the donors were. When the founder of the Bank (Robert
Graham) died, the records were sealed and employees were not talking
or were dead. So there was no obvious way to find out who the donors
were, who the children were, or how their lives had turned out.
Schulz: And some television producers and other reporters from
time-to-time had gone to try to look into it and had run into a brick
wall. In a sense, this book is a unique journalistic enterprise. Do
you think that this book could have been written before the advent of
e-mail and the Internet?
Plotz: I don't think it could have been. And there are a
few reasons why. Other newspaper, TV and magazine reporters had all
gone to Graham and tried to report it out, but there were only two
families that were willing to be public about their involvement.
Essentially, you were trying to tell the story of this whole bank of
215 kids of this grant experiment based on none of the donors and two
children born from it. And, so, it was just a black hole. It was a big
mystery with no obvious way to crack it.
So when I set out to do this at Slate, Jack
Shafer [an editor at Slate] offered me some insight. He said that we
couldn't find them because the donors and children were scattered all
over the world and didn't know each other. There was nothing to
connect them to a community so they were just trying to keep secrets
so that their neighbors wouldn't know about it. It was a fundamentally
private thing that they had undertaken so there was no way to find
them -- but they could find us.
And we wanted to harness the network power of the
Internet to do this. I wrote a story in early 2001 outlining the bare
bones of what was known about the Bank, which was very little. I said
that if you want to tell us what happened, please contact us. I
started with the idea of using readers as sources.
A regular newspaper or TV reporter can't do that
because at The New York Times you couldn't publish a story saying: "We
don't know anything about this, contact us if you know something about
this." You can't put that in The New York Times. It would look really
weird. It would look like you weren't doing your job. But we could do
it in Slate because it's a newer enterprise and people use the
Internet in a different way. Internet journalism works in a different
way, and Internet journalism has this fundamentally collaborative
quality to it. And so we were taking that collaborative policy to its
furthest degree by saying, "You are readers, we don't know the story,
but you might because you might have been the donor or might have been
an employee or you might be a child."
And what's more, we were counting on the repeater
effect of the web -- that this would get posted to places where people
involved with sperm banks might read it and that it would have a life
on the Internet search engine and wouldn't just be up there for a day.
And what happened was at first one donor-entrepreneur, Edward Burnham,
saw it and then I wrote a story about him, and then some other donors
saw that and wanted to respond to him. Meanwhile, some of the mothers
and children saw it and they wanted to get in touch with me. And,
eventually, it got posted on Slate and also on MSN, which has a much
wider readership than Slate does. Millions of people saw the story in
one form or another and they started contacting me. Each time I would
write another story about another family or another donor, more people
would contact me. And it continued to echo and echo for years. I mean,
just everyday practically, some e-mail from somebody connected with
The most interesting effect of it was in the case
of donor White, one of the main stories in the book, where I wrote a
story about a girl and her mother who were searching for their donor,
donor "White," and about their search. They had reason to believe that
donor White was looking for them. And we posted on the web and didn't
hear anything for 15 months, and then donor "White," using a search
engine for the very first time, had typed in "Genius Sperm Bank" and,
low and behold, one of their first references to come up was the story
I had written about this mother searching for donor White and then
about the sperm bank.
One other final reason I think the Internet and
e-mail in particular worked, and made this possible, was that it was
very important to me going into this project that I wasn't going to
try to destroy people's private lives -- that I wanted to tell the
stories of the Bank, but these were basically private citizens and I
didn't want to expose their lives and embarrassing secrets to the
world. They came to me with a guarantee of privacy. In fact, every
single person I talked to said they would never have participated if I
were publishing their real name.
But the anonymity and distancing of e-mail
allowed people to communicate with me in a manner where they felt
protected because they were able to contact me by e-mail and feel me
out to make sure that I wasn't going to mess with them. And that
impersonality in a way allowed the intimacy that would follow.
Schulz: You, the author, end up being a critical part of the
dramatic narrative of the book. There is almost no way to tell the
story without that being the case, is that right?
Plotz: That's right. And this caused me anxiety and
discomfort, and it was a real conundrum. When I set out to do the
project with an intellectual interest in this, to answer the question:
Can you breed for genius and what happens when you try to do it and
what are the results? What does it tell us about our efforts in the
future to breed for genius?
It was an intellectual interest, and the people
who were contacting me were sort of interested in talking to me about
that sometimes. But, and this was something that I only realized after
the process was already underway, the reason they were contacting me
was that I had opened a door that they thought was permanently shut.
When they had been involved in the Bank, as far as they knew,
everything was double anonymous-- the donors didn't know who the
children were born from the sperm and the children and the mothers
didn't know who the donors were. And they assumed they would never get
a chance to meet each other and that the children would never get a
chance to meet siblings.
And what had happened was these folks who were
reading these articles realized that there were children who wanted to
meet their fathers; there were donors who wanted to meet their
children; there were children who wanted to meet siblings. And then,
all of a sudden, I had given them a way to do it. And I hadn't even
thought about this. It hadn't even occurred to me that I was going to
become this middleman. But I became, by total accident, this middleman
where I knew the identity of donor "Coral" let's say or donor
"Turquoise's," and donor "Turquoise's" children were contacting me,
and wanted to meet donor "Turquoise" and donor "Turquoise" himself
wanted to meet his children.
And so you have a situation where, well, should I
put them in touch with each other or what should I do? And my decision
was that, first of all, it was a great narrative to have these people
get to meet and fulfill their longing, but it is a human thing. It was
people who wanted to know each other, and they had good reasons to
want to know each other, and they were making the decisions. The
donors were adults and then these mothers or the children were adults
and had come to this decision for good, rational reasons, and didn't
seem to be out to do it to gain money or anything like that. They were
out to do it because they had an emotional void that they needed to
And so I realized that I had a moral obligation,
which happened to coincide with the kind of fortunate journalistic
opportunity to put these people together. And so I did. And the
results are not always -- in the book, the results are bittersweet.
There are times when the knowledge of children getting to know their
biological fathers can be incredibly rewarding as it is in one very
large case that I handled in the book.
Schulz: Donor "White" and "Joy."
Plotz: Right. The donor "White" and "Joy," and then there
is the case of donor "Carl" and "Tom," where the knowledge and the
meeting of the father and son is in many ways a disappointment. But it
is a disappointment that is profound for "Tom" and it has meant a lot
to him. The knowledge that even though I think it hasn't turned out
the way he imagined it would at the beginning when he thought Jonas
Salk was his father, it's really important for him to know who he is.
And he feels like he finally does even if the result isn't exactly
And I do think they there are very real
journalistic ethics questions about what I was doing. And I think what
I tried to do in the book was be completely open about what my
involvement was. To make it very clear to the readers, here is what I
am doing, here is why I am doing it so that they can judge for
themselves, "Is this right or wrong and should I listen to this
Schulz: You mentioned that part of your own interest in
looking into this story was to unpack what it was that was driving
this genetic engineering for smarter kids and a smarter race. There's
all sorts of interesting history that you go into with positive
eugenics and the history of eugenics and things like that. But it
seems that you discovered, in looking into this, that Americans seem
to value some things as highly as or more highly than intelligence, is
that right and did that surprise you?
Plotz: That's right. One of my favorite aspects of the
Nobel Prize Sperm Bank is that, in fact, the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank
ended up without any children of Nobel Prize donors because Robert
Graham started out with some Nobel Prize donors in 1980, and then
after this bad publicity these Nobelists didn't want to be involved.
But he also realized that Nobelists were too old to be good donors.
And, more importantly, Nobelists were a product that women didn't
exactly want. They were too much brainiac for the customers who were
coming to him. And Graham said, on one occasion, "[T]hose Nobelists,
they could never win a basketball game." And he realized that, in
fact, the pure brainpower was not a commodity that the customers
wanted, and he was very customer focused. He was a very successful
business man who turned to sperm banking, and he realized he had to
sell to this customers.
And the things that mattered to them as much as
brain power, which mattered a great deal, were height and good health
and good temperament and good looks. And so the women who were coming
to Robert Graham's Bank, their first question wouldn't be: "How smart
is he?" Their first question would be: "How tall is he?" And then it
would be: "What does he look like and is he nice?" And, so, those
questions it turned out mattered as much to women as the brain
I think what we've ended up with has been this
consumer revolution in sperm banking, which I get into in the book.
It's a situation where women have this expectation of everything. And
they want men who combine brains, so sperm banks recruited top
colleges, and height and good health history and good looks. And so
there's an intense choosiness. But the "brainiacness" isn't something
that many women put above all else.
Schulz: In the book you wrestled with the ethics of being a
middleman, in a sense of meddling in people's family lives where you
are connecting donors and their children and their wives and mothers
involved -- sort of intimate family lives. But with the nature of the
investigation, you had to do this. You pointed out that there were
some good experiences, which were positive ones, and then also had
some that were a little more emotionally traumatic. Now that the book
is done and is out are there any of these families that you think
would have been better off without learning more about the donor dads
or the kids? or
Plotz: Once they began the process of wanting to know and
thinking they could know, I think they were better off knowing. Once
it became a question that they thought could be answered, just having
the answer meant a lot. Otherwise they were going to live with
uncertainty and doubt. And even when the certainty is not what you
hoped for, like with "Alton," "Tom's" half brother, who was so put off
by what donor "Coral" was that he never even met him, I do think, even
in that case, the knowledge has been valuable to him. He is glad to
know. And when you compare his feelings or "Tom's" feelings or the
feelings of other children I know who haven't gotten to meet their
donor father, I think there is a kind of closure with them.
And then also I think there may be a tendency to
underestimate how much learning about your biological father will
affect you. If you discover your biological father is a
disappointment, it doesn't make you feel (you are) therefore a loser.
You know who you are. It can be a sadness that you won't have a close
relationship with him, but I don't think then that you assume well I
am loser because he is a loser. I think people are sophisticated
enough to separate themselves from this biological donor. I think,
once you ask the question, "who is my father and can I know him?",
then generally it's better to get some closure than not get closure.
But I do wish that sometimes people didn't ask
the question at all. I think had they never asked -- had "Tom" never
known who he was, or had "Alton" never known that he had this
biological father out there -- they would be just as happy and better
off. They would have avoided this adventure, which in "Tom's" case he
enjoyed a great deal of the adventure, but I don't thinks it's I don't
know -- I don't know, it's a good question. I don't know.
Schulz: There are plenty of children who were the products of
sperm donation that don't know that their father, or the person they
think is their father, is not their actual biological father, right?
Plotz: Yes. In most cases, that is so. And, actually, I
think there is a distance that exists between many children of
donor-insemination and their non-biological fathers, when they don't
know that their father is pretending to be their father. You hear lots
of reports about families where the father always behaves in a distant
way, even if he is pretending to be the father just because it's a
very hard act to keep up. So, I think that's the problem.
Increasingly, of course, single mothers and
lesbian couples are the ones who are going to sperm banks. And in that
case, of course, those kids know from day one that they have a
biological father out there. And I think there is going to be a
tremendous amount of curiosity. As a society right now, donor
anonymity is the standard practice. And I think that we are going to
have to grapple with this because there are going to be the kids. In a
genetic age where we believe so much in who we are is determined by
what our genes are, these kids are going to have a real expectation to
know who their biological fathers are. And I think we haven't really
thought about what the burden is going to be on them, and is their
right to know their biological fathers more important than the donors'
right to anonymity.
And I actually I don't have a good answer. I do
know that smarter people than me need to think about it.
Schulz: Actually, that I had a question about that. On page
130 of the book, you discussed "genetic expectation" and whether it
could be a blessing or a curse. I was wondering, after studying these
people's lives, what do you think? Especially now, with the ongoing
debates over biotechnology, there is this profound sense that this
really matters a lot.
Schulz: But it sounds like even after investigating all of
this you are still not sure.
Plotz: I am not sure. I think I am much more influenced by
my own experience with my children. I think before you have your
children, you have this theoretical notion of what your children will
be like. And you build up expectations based on what you're like and
what your wife is like and based on your genes, and you think,
therefore, such and such will happen. And then presented with the
actuality of what your child is, your child has these distinct
abilities and talents and interests and personality which seem to be
independent of you. You realize that the expectation is not fair. It's
not fair and it's somewhat corrosive.
Your job is to, once you have been presented with
a real live child, help encourage that child's interest in the best
way that you can. But not to assume that based on your genetic
expectations that the child is a particular way. And so I come out of
the project thinking that unless gene science gets a billion times
better, where you can control what you can do with genes -- like
actually pinpoint that this is the gene for playing the guitar really
well - I think genetic expectations tend to be a problem.
I also think that most parents, and there are
obviously exceptions to this, have the same reaction I do. So even the
parents of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, where people have gone
intentionally seeking this intellectual enhancement, once presented
with actual children, behaved as normal parents. I think they were
more involved in their kids' lives, perhaps, than the average parents
because they tended to be hyper-involved moms. But I don't think they
had unrealistic goals set for their children. I think they pushed
them, but I don't think they were nuts about it. So, I think most
people, when once they face the actual child, suspend their
theoretical notions about what the child should be.
Schulz: In some ways, the book examined the interplay of
science and business morality and politics and ethics. In
investigating this and learning more about the histories of these
families and how they dealt with the knowledge that came to them, did
it in any way shape your views over other debates in biotechnology --
like stem cells or cloning -- where there are controversial genetic
questions and about the future makeup of mankind?
Plotz: Well, in one or maybe two related ways, it did. I
think the remarkable thing about the sperm bank industry is that it's
a wide-open free market. That's basically because both the right and
left have been afraid to regulate fertility in this country in
general. The right because it looks like business, capitalism, and so
they want to let it go. And on the left because once you start
regulating fertility it has all sorts of abortion implications that I
don't think the left wants to deal with.
And so as a result, sperm banking in particular
has been a very wide-open free market where people who are not doctors
were in it, and where it was driven by consumer behavior. And it's a
case where medicine has really responded to consumers in very
effective, competitive way, and where the market has allowed this wide
variety of kinds of sperm banks and kinds of sperm donors and
practices within sperm banking. And because anyone who goes to the
sperm bank really wants to make sure that the donor is safe, HIV
testing came into banks long before the federal government thought to
even regulate it. The banks realized that if they didn't have safe
men, they were going to be screwed.
Plotz: And it's a great case study for how the market can
work in that instance. I am not absolutely certain that it applies in
lots of other aspects of medicine, but it certainly proves that in one
particular aspect it does. And then I think it showed the up and down
side of what happens when consumers drive medical choices. The great
thing about the consumer driving it is that the banks are responsive
and the fertility industry in general has gone from being this
completely top down, doctor-dictated, very unpleasant process to being
one which is patient driven. Certainly patients are desperate, but
it's the patient pushing the doctors to do what they want rather than
the doctors pushing the patient.
The downside is that because people are so
emotionally desperate about wanting children, they may behave in ways
that are slightly less rational than you would hope they would. The
upside is that there is this great flourishing of ideas and
experimentation and efforts to try things, and fertility research has
advanced an enormous amount. The kind of opportunities available to
infertile couples has exploded basically because the market just let
it. And so that's one lesson that I learned out of it.
Schulz: I don't want to mis-characterize it, but I would say
that one of the more un-lovely elements of this whole thing that you
uncovered was some donors that who had "greed to breed"-- you call
them the inseminators.
Schulz: Describe what that is and what you learned about it
and what, in your view, makes them tick.
Plotz: Sure. I came across several guys who had a
psychological make up that really surprised me. It was scary. These
guys had been "volunteer" donors to the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank. They
had gone to the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and convinced Robert Graham
that they were intellectually gifted enough and healthy enough to be
genius sperm donors. And these were guys -- there about four of them
-- who went from sperm bank to sperm bank donating or who went to a
few sperm banks and also then in their own private lives had fathered
many, many children. I mean many, many children. And they were totally
opportunistic breeders. I mean, they would hook up with women, get
them pregnant and have children and then once the women stopped
wanting to have children, they would split. The guys would just
abandon the women. And then they would also go to these sperm banks in
the hopes of getting their seed out there. And the most charitable
explanation is that it is Darwinian. They are competing in a Darwinian
in game, and they are just getting an advantage up on other guys and
The less charitable interpretation, which is what
some psychologists gave to me, is that these guys are basically some
sort of sociopaths, where they fundamentally don't recognize that
these children are humans or that the women they are impregnating are
humans. It's just a kind of obsessive push to advance their own egos.
It's just pure obsessive ego.
It's an alarming personality type. Really weird.
And, of course, it's alarming because here are the guys who are least
fit. They are the guys you would definitely not want to be breeding.
But because they have this compulsion to breed and because sperm banks
don't look at this particular behavior (I don't think they screen for
this), these guys are able to pass themselves on in vast numbers. So
one of the donors I dealt with had had about 50 children from eight
different sperm banks and that's just frightening.
Schulz: The story you investigated might seem to have some
moral and political implications. In your view, are there any and if
so, what are they?
Plotz: Well, I think one we touched on earlier, which is
what do we do with genetic expectations? I think one conclusion right
now is the idea that you can make children what you want them to be.
Right now, the science isn't there as a kind of psychological and
emotional matter. We have to ease off the idea that we can program
children. I do believe in genes and I certainly believe that there are
genetic associations with intelligence and personality and so we can
try to give our kids a little bit of a better chance at things, but
this idea of programming children is so far away that parents really
have to not even conceive of it. They just have to think that maybe
I'm just getting a slight edge up in statistics because I'm doing
something like this. That's one point.
Another point which is one of the (and I'm not
really sure whether it's an explicit or implicit) conclusions of the
book -- the first question that anyone ever asks me is: "Are any of
these kids geniuses?" And I always say, "Well it's a non-random sample
of these kids, about 35 of them. And there is a wide variety. Some are
better than average students, some are wonderful athletes, some are
not. In general, they do seem to be above average. There are some
quite amazing kids among them."
However, what I look at is what these mothers are
like. Their mothers are so involved and intent on raising accomplished
children that they would have raised accomplished children if they had
gone to the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank or they had gone to Joe's Discount
Sperm Warehouse. So, I think the other lesson is that with the science
as unsophisticated and as crude as it is today -- and for at least the
future I can foresee -- it's nurture that matters so much.
These kids are thriving, but I think the kids are
thriving not just because they have good genes, but because they have
mothers and some cases fathers who are really intent on raising them
well. And so another lesson is that you can't step away from parental
responsibility by saying that "we have good genes." So much of it
comes from what we as parents to do with our children and not the DNA
we gave them.
Schulz: In your passion for researching the story, you, too,
went through the process of donating in a sperm bank -- although you
did not make your genetic material available for others to use. Now,
obviously you are married. You have a couple of kids, and that would
obviously influence any decision you would ever make about this sort
of thing. But imagine you aren't married or a father. After having
gone all through this, is there anything about it that interests you
in being a donor? Could you envision ever doing it and actually having
kids that you didn't know?
Plotz: Well, when I went into the process, I thought there
was nothing that is the feeling about this. One, it was embarrassing;
two, it was inconvenient; three, you create these children for whom
you both have responsibility and have no responsibility. As a person
who strives and take responsibility for the things I do, I found that
However, the process of going through it and the
seduction of the sperm bank where you are fawned over and petted and
admired for your astonishing health history and your academic
accomplishments. And then, when you finally give them the sample and
they say, "Oh yes, the average man's sperm count is 50 or 60 million
and yours is 105 million," there is this kind of reptilian thrill. I
mean, it's this junior high locker room or something. You know that
feeling of "what were my SAT scores" kind of gloating. And even though
the number of sperm and the sperm sample have no moral content at all,
the way they sell it to you, it makes you feel like, "I am special.
And I really have something great here and maybe I should share it."
I think the combination of that male ego, plus
the effect that you can make a little bit of money, plus the
altruistic nature of it (at least, that's the way they pitch it, in
this altruistic way that you are doing a service for people that need
it), make it somewhat. No, I didn't reach the point where I would ever
want to do it, but I did reach the point of understanding some of the
really seductive aspects of it.
Schulz: Some of the donors seemed perfectly happy to make a
donation and then they would never think about it ever again. And
obviously the double blind nature of the process and the anonymity of
it makes that easy, but some of them, even after having gone through
it, clearly they thought about it from time to time. And some of them
thought about it fairly frequently.
Schulz: Some of them thought about their kids, and what they
are doing. If you were to go through this, how do you think you would
be? Do you have some insight into what makes somebody think one way or
Plotz: I think it would probably be weighing on you. First
of all, part of it's also the stage of life in which you become a
donor. The Nobel Prize Sperm Bank was recruiting guys who were rather
older than the usual run of sperm donors. They were guys who are more
seasoned. The average sperm bank recruits college kids. And the
college kids, and this is true from the donors I have talked to who
are young, don't think about the consequences of what they have done.
It doesn't really weigh on them. It's for beer money. And so they
don't sit and think about who these children are.
I think the guys who are older, two don't have
children of their own for some reason, and three of a slightly
obsessive nature to begin with are the ones who end up really thinking
about who these kids are. I think that what will happen is that as
these college kid sperm donors get older, if they either have children
of their own or are unable to have children of their own, it may start
to weigh on them.
For example, if you look at the main website
called "the Donor Sibling Registry," which is where people looking for
siblings for their donor insemination kids and also people looking for
the donors themselves, and donors looking for children. They all post
to it. If you look at the ratio of kid to donor posts, its a gazillion
to one. Basically, no donors are out there looking for their kids. A
very, very small number are out there looking for their kids. Whereas
lots of mothers and children are out there looking for donors. I think
it's because for the most part the people posting on this board have
young donors and they are the mothers of very young kids. And the guys
I'm dealing with didn't face up to what it means to be a donor until
they were in their 40s. Most American sperm donors are still not even
in their 30s probably.
Schulz: How did this investigation shape your views of family
life and human wants and needs? I am assuming you may have gone into
it with some preconceived notions about some things or maybe some
things that you hadn't thought about at all. But what are some things
that have been revealed to you?
Plotz: I didn't go in particularly thinking about this
because I went in with it being an intellectual project rather than an
emotional project. What I realized once these people started
contacting me about wanting to meet donors and wanting to meet
children was that there is this universal need for family, a universal
need for a sense of personal identity, that's overwhelming. I think
the children I was dealing with weren't exactly looking for fathers to
come and watch them at their baseball games. They didn't really expect
that the donors would turn out to be that. But they were looking for
some kind of connection with these men, and some kind of sense that
they belonged together.
And so I think I came away just recognizing how
unbelievably powerful at every level this need to know who you are and
connect with the people that made you is. And this is not to diminish
the non-biological fathers at all. I think that these children already
have this connection to their non-biological fathers because the
non-biological fathers are their fathers.
But no matter what, there is this sense that
people need to really know who they are.
Schulz: Well David, thanks. This is the most enjoyable book I
have read in a long time. It's such a fantastic piece of reporting,
and you should be really proud.
Plotz: Thank you.
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