[Paleopsych] NYTDBR: A Bizarre Tale of the Rise and Fall of an Elitist Sperm Bank

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Thu Jun 2 15:25:13 UTC 2005

A Bizarre Tale of the Rise and Fall of an Elitist Sperm Bank
New York Times Daily Book Review, 5.6.2

[An interview by Marian Van Court of Robert Klark Graham is available at 
http://www.eugenics.net/papers/eb3.html. Graham's essay, "The Human Situation 
and its Reparation," is available at http://www.eugenics.net/papers/eb3.html. 
His book, The Future of Man, can be found at 
http://www.solargeneral.com/library/futureofman.pdf, and an attack on Raymond 
B. Cattell by the Institute for the Study of Academic Racism that mentions 
Graham is at http://www.ferris.edu/isar/bios/cattell/genetica.htm.]

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


    "Imagine how picky you are when you shop for a CD player," David Plotz
    writes in his ebullient new contribution to the realm of weird-science
    nonfiction. "Now suppose you expected the CD player to last
    eighty-seven years, occupy its own room in your house, get married,
    have children, and take care of you in your old age. You'd be pretty
    choosy, too."

    Choosiness is all-important to "The Genius Factory," Mr. Plotz's book
    about the ultimate in consumer elitism, if not in satisfied customers.
    He ventures into "the fertility-industrial complex" to uncover a tale
    pregnant with bizarre possibilities. It is about the rise and fall of
    the Repository for Germinal Choice, the sperm bank that opened in 1980
    and purported to offer top-echelon sperm -"dazzling, backflipping, 175
    IQ sperm" - courtesy of Nobel Prize winners.

    The repository's work would eventually yield more than 200 babies,
    apparently none of them the genetic offspring of a Nobel laureate.
    That is one of the many oddities described here. ("Forget about Nobel
    Laureates; the Nobel sperm bank was taking men you wouldn't wish on
    your ex-girlfriend," Mr. Plotz points out.) The fact that the
    repository used colors to catalog the supposedly brilliant donors -
    and disguise their identities from prospective parents - but couldn't
    even spell correctly (hence "Donor Corral," "Donor Turquois," "Donor
    Fucshia") is another worrisome anomaly.

    And the degree of Mr. Plotz's immersion in his material gives the book
    an additional kink. "The next few minutes passed as you would expect
    and are none of your business," he writes, about auditioning as a
    sperm donor for research purposes. "My count was 105 million! What's
    yours, George Clooney?"

    The book's history is as circuitous as the repository's. Mr. Plotz,
    who is the deputy editor of Slate and writes with endearing, rueful
    humor, was originally drawn to the story of William Shockley, who by
    inventing the transistor had "midwifed the birth of Silicon Valley and
    kicked off the greatest commercial revolution in American History."
    That Shockley was a flagrant racist who also "made himself one of the
    memorably noxious public figures of the twentieth century" further
    piqued the author's interest. Shockley had had a role in shaping the
    repository's master-race ideals.

    Feb. 29, 1980, was a big day not only for Shockley but also for Robert
    K. Graham, the 74-year-old eyeglass tycoon who served as the
    repository's guiding light - and who had initiated work on his dream
    project in 1963, a more felicitous time for it, when "the United
    States was enjoying its post-Sputnik scientific renaissance, and the
    egalitarianism of the late 1960's hadn't yet arrived." The longest
    chapter in Graham's autobiography is titled "Princes and Princesses I
    Have Known," which provides some inkling of his attitude toward the
    general citizenry.

    "The entrepreneurial vigor; the cockamamie grandeur; the unshakable
    faith in practical science; the contempt for the pig-ignorant, lazy
    masses; and the infatuation with finding - and claiming - the world's
    best men": these were the resources that Mr. Graham would bring to
    seducing his geniuses. "Sometimes the sperm bank seemed a kind of
    supercharged autograph collection for Graham," the book observes.

    But that February 1980 official debut "was the Nobel sperm bank's
    first great day, and its last one," the author explains. "Disaster
    struck immediately, in the person of William Shockley." When Shockley
    was presented as the kind of Nobelist whose genes the place would
    disperse, the whole idea became controversial, and other brilliant
    scientists were scared away. This may have been necessary anyway: the
    idea of Nobel-winning donors threatened to give the place a "little
    bald professor" reputation.

    In addition to describing how the repository had to switch gears and
    alter its original agenda, "The Genius Factory" explores the personal
    side of this story. Mr. Plotz seeks out the kinds of genetically
    ambitious parents who chose to use the repository's services (and
    finds exactly the kind of arrogance one might expect). He looks for
    genetic connections between separately reared children of the same
    donor. "Although half siblings have existed for as long as men have
    been cheating dogs, the sperm bank brother was something new," he

    And although almost everyone here is given a pseudonym, Mr. Plotz
    finds Doron Blake, a prodigy whose mother, as the author puts it,
    "turned her son's life into 'The Truman Show.' " When asked if he had
    read "Hamlet" in kindergarten, this whiz-kid's widely publicized
    answer was: "Good gosh. Can't everybody?"

    Mr. Plotz's position at Slate wound up giving him a pivotal role among
    repository alumni. When he began an online series of articles about
    the sperm bank, he became not only a great catch for television
    producers but also a conduit. With no other way to find their
    biological fathers (the repository closed in 1999), ersatz-Nobel
    offspring turned to him for information. Here lay the quicksand: how
    far would he venture into the personal, messy, desperate yearnings of
    the real people who owed their very lives to surreal science?

    Most of "The Genius Factory" is so perfectly pitched - blithe, smart,
    skeptical, yet entranced by its subject - that the awkward sections
    stand out. And while it may have suited a running, online soap opera
    for the author to seek out pedigreed people and report on their
    troubles, that material is more sordid here. This book manages to
    avoid voyeurism as long as its story is told in the abstract, with
    only a couple of nutty, racist tycoons as its targets. But when it
    churns up the lost souls who have pinned all their hopes on gene-pool
    fairy tales, he risks exploiting otherwise first-rate material.

    Mr. Plotz's kindness and sympathy are indisputable. But this story
    begins and ends with private matters. And it doesn't have a happy

More information about the paleopsych mailing list