The Genius Factory: The Secret History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank
In February 1980, an article in the Los Angeles Times announced the existence of The Repository for Germinal Choice – a name that seemed straight out of an Isaac Asimov novel. But this was not science fiction. As José Borghino reports, this was real.
The Genius Factory: The Secret History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank by David Plotz, Simon & Schuster (2006), RRP $34.95
In February 1980, an article in the Los Angeles Times announced the existence of The Repository for Germinal Choice – a name that seemed straight out of an Isaac Asimov novel. But this was not science fiction. This was real.
The repository’s mission was to impregnate as many women as possible with the sperm of the world’s smartest men. Bankrolled by Robert Graham, an American multimillionaire, the repository was better known as the ‘Nobel Prize Sperm Bank’ – and it was responsible for the birth of some 200 children.
When David Plotz, the deputy editor of the online magazine Slate, came across this story in late 2000, he knew he had hit journalistic gold.
Soon he became what he terms a ‘Semen Detective’, tracking down donors and progeny all around the U.S., setting up meetings and evaluating the results of this strange attempt at breeding a super-race.
Robert Graham’s idea (equal parts goofy, sad and sinister) was that the human genome was being degraded by an overabundance of imbeciles and degenerates who were living longer and breeding more abundantly because of historical improvements in sanitation, health and diet. How could the human race survive these ‘dysgenics’? Simple. Harvest the sperm of Nobel (science) laureates and offer their super-brainy wrigglers to women who were white, married and whose IQs would qualify them for membership of Mensa.
Amazingly, at least three Nobel winners agreed to be part of Graham’s master plan and delivered their seeds of genius. One of them, William Shockley (co-inventor of the transistor), went public and announced his vehement support for the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank. Neither of them professed a dislike of nonwhites, but in a cold, ultra-rational way, they believed that IQ tests could never lie and that, therefore, blacks were not as intelligent as whites. (Interestingly, also because IQ tests said so, Graham believed Asians were smarter than Whites, but could never convince any to donate their sperm to his repository.) Plotz brilliantly mixes his narratives in The Genius Factory.
He gives us enough background to Graham and Shockley to make sense of the repository, as well as potted histories of the eugenics movement and the rise of Silicon Valley during the 1950s (the latter, attributable directly to Shockley). In the process, Plotz also writes a kind of detective novel as he traces some of the people most affected by Graham’s scheme – the donors, mothers and children.
Written with considerable skill and humour to balance the science and the melodrama of the inevitable family reunions, The Genius Factory is literary journalism at its best.