Book Review: The Genius Factory

David Plotz says in his book, The Genius FactoryUnravelling the Mysteries of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, that it was not uncommon for people to respond to the subject of his book with the assumption that it was a novel. It is not. The ‘Nobel Prize Sperm Bank’ was real. In fact it only closed operations in 1999.

The Genius Factory

To be fair, we should make clear from the beginning that it was the media that dubbed the enterprise ‘The Nobel Prize Sperm Bank’. Its official name was ‘Repository for Germinal Choice’. Although its founder, Robert Graham, was no doubt pleased with the name conferred upon it. He claimed to include at least three Nobel laureates amongst its donors. In reality, its donors were much more varied. This was partly due to pragmatic reasons – Nobel laureates are an awfully small group to stock a sperm bank with, and they are mostly older men whose sperm quality may be less than adequate. They also represent a very limited racial mix (especially at that time).

It may be more correct to describe the aspirations of the endeavour as a high-achiever sperm bank. Donations came, not just from those with high intelligence, but those who were successful entrepreneurs for instance. This was not always the case. One prolific donor (not just to the ‘Nobel’ bank but to several) does not seem to have had much to recommend him other than the fact that his father was a Nobel laureate! Another seems to have greatly exaggerated his intelligence and accomplishments, yet also fathered a number of children through multiple sperm banks.

As time went on, and suitable donors became hard to come by, the standards the facility set for its donors fell dramatically. Whatever the ‘Nobel Prize Sperm Bank’ sought to achieve, it seems to have lacked the organisation and competence to pursue it.

If the very idea of a Nobel Prize sperm bank sounds elitist, and well, a little fascist, the author has news for you. Elitism is inescapable in the reproduction industry. Every bank practices it to some extent, largely in response to their customers, and the ‘Repository for Germinal Choice’ was very influential in the development of the industry. The demand is great, about 30,000 donor babies are born in the US each year, and customers want good options to choose from. Depending on their priorities, that may mean high intelligence, a clean medical history, career success, etc. If you are under 5’9″ you are unlikely to be chosen as a donor (at least in America). You may also need a family history largely clear of heritable illness. While not necessarily essential, they will also prefer you to have at least begun post-graduate study. The elitism is an inherent and inescapable part of the nature of the industry. One can only imagine the bar continuing to be raised.

While we should not confuse the reproduction industry with a eugenics program, one cannot escape the fact that the effects of competition and consumer choice mean that selection is inevitably based on a perception of preferred stock. It is problematic to criticise such choices when, even with natural reproduction, we all have criteria for characteristics of the ideal mate and mother/father of our children. Both natural and artificial insemination is not random but is selected with a perception, rational or otherwise, of desired characteristics.

Mention eugenics and most people immediately think of Nazi Germany. It pays to recall that such ideas at the time were not only present in other countries but often had considerable support. One hopes that our distaste for such ideas today is owing to the lesson of history and our (relatively) more enlightened age. Although one can’t help but suspect that much of our abhorrence is due to a biased interpretation – painting everything associated with Nazism with the same broad brush. What I was unaware of, until reading this book, was that such 20th century movements had their origins in America of the late 19th century. It was the largely white-protestant population’s response to their concerns over freed slaves and increased immigration, particularly of Jews and Catholics, from Europe. Combined with neo-Darwinism, such concerns became manifest in eugenic ideas to preserve a racial heritage. Influential books were written. The author of one received a fan letter from Hitler who called the book his “bible”!

The basic concept of breeding outstanding individuals though is as old as civilisation. Plotz’s telling of the history of eugenic ideas, artificial insemination, donor insemination and the reproduction industry is one of the more interesting parts of the book. I especially enjoyed the bizarre story of what is believed to be the first donor-provided artificial insemination.

However, I wanted more. I wanted to know more about the scientific validity (or otherwise) of such ideas. At one point Plotz mentions that if we were to institute a policy of sterilising ‘undesirable’ peoples, it would still take “thousands of generations of mass sterilisation to significantly reduce the incidence of genetic disease”. Such facts are terribly interesting but are largely absent in this book. This leaves the reader in no better possession of facts to hold a view of their own.

There is also little discussion about any facts as to the heritability of intelligence, (or other desired qualities) which you would think would be central to the topic at hand. I also would have liked more discussion on the logical strengths and failings of the views of those who support such a project as the ‘Noble Prize Sperm Bank’. Plotz does highlight one serious flaw in one common argument – if it is true that the world is increasingly populated by ‘slackers’, living and out-breeding in a comfort provided by the work of scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs, then surely an effort to increase the portion of scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs, will only increase the effect. Again such arguments are terribly interesting to the uninitiated reader but are not explored in any depth.

Plotz does give more space to some of the ethical and moral dilemmas of the industry, particularly concerning children’s rights to know the identity of their genetic fathers. Again, I would have liked to hear about more concerns and in more depth.

Plotz is a journalist, not a doctor, scientist, economist or moralist and my disappointments are probably a reflection of this. One could also argue that such areas may be beyond the scope of this particular book and could only be covered briefly. Plotz is more concerned with telling the ‘human story’ – the story of the individuals involved – the bank’s creator Robert Graham, William Shockley – the only Nobel laureate to confirm his donation – and the few donors and children he was able to track down.

Telling the ‘human story’ in parallel with the historical aspect also creates a dichotomy within the book. For the most part, the ‘human story’ is a personal, subjective narrative, including the author’s own experience as a donor. The rest is a mostly objective look at the history of artificial insemination, eugenics and the ‘Nobel Prize Sperm Bank’ in particular. I say ‘mostly objective’ because there were some passages where I sensed judgement on the part of Plotz. To be fair we are talking about some distasteful characters here. Robert Graham, the eccentric multi-millionaire who founded the bank, certainly held a racist outlook. However, from the information provided his racism was complex, contradictory and malleable and I suspect it was mostly the result of his upbringing and limited experience and viewpoint rather than something he held fundamentally. William Shockley, the Nobel laureate for the co-invention (or theft, depending on your interpretation of the events) of the transistor on the other hand seems to have been a racist by conviction and a thoroughly distasteful character. However we must be wary of dismissing opinions or ideas simply because we dislike the individual who espouses them. This is why the book needs thorough discussion on these ideas and the scientific and logical rationale behind them, or rather the lack thereof. As I say, I sensed judgement on the part of Plotz where the personal and historical narratives get confused. I think he should have either delivered the facts – separate from own opinion/interpretation – and left any judgement in the hands of the reader, or he should have written a very different book that went into the various issues I’ve listed in more depth.

Similarly, there is a passage where Plotz describes an unproven (in humans) scientific theory and then discusses his own anecdotal evidence (oxymoron!) in support of it! His point may have been only to say that the heritability of characteristics is complex and we cannot make assumptions, but his observations come across as an assumption just as baseless. To be fair, he later reminds us that his small, biased sample could never be used to support any conclusions.

The bank was hardly a success. When it closed operations in 1999 it had produced only 215 children in 19 years, none of whom came from a Nobel Prize winning donor. However, its influence is felt throughout the industry, particularly their policies of donor choice, donor-testing and high-achieving donors. For all his personal, ideological and public-relations failings, as a businessman Graham understood that he needed to understand the needs of his customers. For example, the ‘Repository for Germinal Choice’ was one of the first banks to put their prospective donors through medical tests and provide customers with the donor’s medical history. It appears, from what we know, that many of the women who sought sperm from the ‘Repository for Germinal Choice’ did so because of this information rather than any impulse to breed highly intelligent children. Many of the women worked in the health industry – doctors and nurses – who gave the health characteristics of any donor a higher priority.

Today, artificial insemination is more than an industry. It is a necessity for many couples. Plunging fertility rates will only increase the need for its service. The risk of accidental incest amongst donor children has become very real. Such concerns, and the issue of donor anonymity, will increasingly be addressed in the public forum and the public will be better informed thanks to the interest generated by books like David Plotz’s. I found it an accessible, enjoyable and interesting read. However to be truly well-informed, it would be best to supplement this book with something that goes into the issues with greater depth and the information in greater detail. These areas are probably beyond the scope of this book and beyond the reach of its author.

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