[Paleopsych] NYTDBR: A Bizarre Tale of the Rise and Fall of an Elitist Sperm Bank
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 GENIUS FACTORY
The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank
By David Plotz
Illustrated. 262 pages. Random House. $24.95.
By JANET MASLIN
"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
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
"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