Book Review

Breeding a Better Baby, Maybe

THE GENIUS FACTORY:
The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank
By David Plotz;
Random House;
288 pages;
$24.95

Twenty-five years ago, a retired optometrist named Robert Graham set out to save the planet. As the inventor of unbreakable plastic eyeglass lenses, he certainly had the cash to do great good as a traditional philanthropist, building libraries, say, or endowing scholarships for disadvantaged youth. Instead the Southern California eccentric changed the world in a more un-usual way. He used his millions to found the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank.

Graham intended for the bank, officially called the Repository for Germinal Choice, to contain sperm donated exclusively by Nobel Prize winners. It was troubled from the start. Some speculated that it was a eugenic plot, but most simply dismissed it as a bad joke. As Slate.com deputy editor David Plotz deftly shows in his entertaining account of the bank, The Genius Factory, both opinions hold some validity, yet neither captures the deeper significance of what he calls "the most radical experiment in human genetic engineering in American history."

In the end, few laureates were willing to donate their germline to the bank. ("The old-fashioned way is still best," said Linus Pauling, winner of the 1954 Chemistry prize and the 1962 Peace prize, when solicited.) Most of the sperm came from professors in science and engineering who, though undoubtedly intelligent, were not Nobel-caliber. The only genius to donate publicly was the unsavory--at least as far as eugenics controversies were concerned--William Shockley.

Shockley represented the best and worst in human rationality: His invention of the transistor launched the age of the computer, but his desire to improve the net wisdom of civilization by eliminating those with low IQs led him to claim that there might have been "good things about Hitler." Graham, Plotz argues, didn't share Shockley's extremism. He limited his vision to so-called "positive eugenics," remaking the human species by breeding rather than weeding. Graham hoped that, within a couple generations, the dim-witted populace would be genetically replaced with a smarter one. People would become more rational and more adept at such practical enterprises as engineering and business. In other words, people would become, in theory, more like Graham.

In 19 years, before the bank shut down (Graham died two years prior to its closure), 215 bank-spawned children were born, and, until Plotz set about finding them as research for this book, the identities of all but two were unknown. Unsurprisingly, as Plotz discovered, they weren't intellectual clones of Shockley or Graham. Although many of the 30 he interviewed were bright, there was nothing superhuman about them. Moreover, as one of the smartest was shrewd enough to see, "the fact that I have a huge IQ does not make me a person who is good or happy."

These people, Plotz observes, are "messengers from our future," when considerably more top-down genetic control will be exerted by parents seeking to breed extraordinary children. Looking at Graham's ill-fated experiment, we can see how poorly we sometimes anticipate our descendants' needs.