Genius sperm bank grew from racial 'science'

June 19, 2005|By McKay Jenkins | McKay Jenkins,Special to the Sun

The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank

By David Plotz. Random House. Random House, 288 pages, $24.95.

The idea had a certain eccentric appeal: asking the world's smartest men to donate sperm for the evolutionary betterment of mankind. But it also represented certain drawbacks, and not just the image of Nobel Prize winners walking down hallways with plastic cups and Playboys. There were also inevitable fears about the creation of a genetically engineered master race. In The Genius Factory, David Plotz, an editor at Slate, neatly and often humorously explores what has got to be one of science's oddest experiments.

Plotz tracks the history of selective human breeding, or eugenics, from Victorian England through Nazi Germany to 1980 California, where a wealthy elitist named Robert Graham planned to personally put an end to mankind's evolutionary backsliding. Graham, the inventor of shatterproof eyeglasses, had decided that social welfare programs encouraged "retrograde humans" to reproduce, creating a "dysgenic" crisis that would lead to mankind's intellectual and spiritual demise. Plotz writes that Graham "became fixated on the idea that the world needed more intelligent people because the idiots were multiplying too fast."

Graham developed a plan to solicit and bank sperm from Nobel laureates, and to use this mother lode of genetic brilliance to reverse the downward spiral of human evolution. He called his creation "The Repository for Germinal Choice," but the world came to know it as The Nobel Prize Sperm Bank.

Plotz tracks down brilliant sperm donors and their (often) not-so-brilliant offspring, and discovers that a number of the bank's progeny proved to be as pathetic and retrograde as any of the "feeble-minded" people Graham set out to eradicate. When Plotz helps children learn about their long-lost genius parents, at least they finally understand why there has always been such trouble at home.

"That's why me and dad don't look alike," one teenager exclaims. "I'm not related to Dad... thank God!"

Plotz uses his narrative to consider cultural anxieties that are as widespread today as they were when Graham opened his bank, including fertility (one million American children have been born because of donor sperm, with 30,000 more born every year); the parental fever to do absolutely anything to create high-octane, Harvard-bound offspring; and the ever-present threat of racial fanaticism.

But Plotz is most effective when he examines the darker implications of eugenics research. Graham's impulses were hardly new, even in this country.

His most immediate influence was the Nobel winner William Shockley, the inventor of the transistor and a contributor to Graham's bank.

Plotz writes that, like Graham, Shockley had spent the second half of his life trying "to stop poor people and black people from having children."

Graham and Shockley inherited their fervor from 19th-century British and American philosophers who believed that white Protestants were demonstrably superior to all other races. These theories met with great enthusiasm in the United States, where anxiety was growing about the potential political power of emancipated slaves and immigrant Jews and Catholics. By the late 1920s, 20,000 American college students were studying eugenics. Some states passed laws to keep "mental defectives" from marrying; many others authorized forced sterilization. By the 1930s, more than 35,000 Americans had been sterilized, earning the admiration of Adolf Hitler. Within three years, the Nazis had sterilized 225,000 Germans, and had all the racial "science" they needed to support a genocide.

McKay Jenkins, a professor of English and Journalism at the University of Delaware, is the author, most recently, of Bloody Falls of the Coppermine: Madness, Murder, and the Collision of Cultures in the Arctic, 1913.

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