San Diego In 1980, the city of Escondido stood on the verge of a decade of explosive growth. Within ten years, the town of 30,000 would become a city of 120,000. And on a ten-acre ranch outside of town, a millionaire scientist and inventor named Robert Graham dreamed of that kind of growth. But the expansion of Escondido wasn't his goal. The expansion of a race of genius babies was Graham's dream. Already, the seed of proven geniuses chilled in liquid nitrogen vats stored in an underground vault on his ranch. And Graham spent every day courting the brightest minds of science and industry, flattering them into donating their semen. Married women with Mensa-level IQs, he figured, would queue up to receive the sperm of such men. And the resultant offspring would save the human race from "genetic disaster."
Graham, a dapper septuagenarian who had grown very rich after inventing shatterproof plastic eyeglass lenses, had the seed of two or three Nobel Prize winners in his Repository for Germinal Choice, which came to be known as the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, despite the fact that not one child was ever produced from the sperm of a Nobel Prize laureate. His most famous Nobel laureate deposit came from William Shockley, the inventor of the transistor and the founding father of Silicon Valley.
Shockley's involvement is the reason author David Plotz first heard about Graham's repository. "When I was ten years old," said Plotz, "I heard my father, as he was reading a newspaper article in 1980, start to wax indignant about this crazy idea. I remember him saying, 'What's wrong with Shockley?' It just stuck in my head, and the name Shockley became a symbol of science gone wrong for me. Then, 20 years later, I came across Shockley's name in a newspaper article, something about Silicon Valley, and bells went off in my head."
The bells in Plotz's head became a minor obsession for Plotz. The obsession grew into several articles for the online magazine Slate and finally blossomed into the recently released book The Genius Factory, in which Plotz finds and talks to mothers, children, and sperm donors tied to the Repository for Germinal Choice, which closed in 1999. In a late-July phone interview, I talked with the 31-year-old writer about his book.
Why did the question of what happened to the children captivate you?
I read that article about Silicon Valley about the time that my own first child was being born, and I just figured, 'Wow, what happened?' It occurred to me that these children had been part of the most radical experiment in human genetic engineering in American history, and no one knew what had happened. It was known that these children had existed for 20 years, known that these children were kids -- had been born -- but who they were and how they turned out and who the donors were and how that whole experiment had kind of gone down was all unknown, and it was sort of a fascinating mystery for a genetic age. I thought I would try to solve it.
Did you place online ads to find the repository children?
No, the first thing I did was write a story for Slate saying this is the little bit we know about the Repository for Germinal Choice. If you were involved in this and would like your story to be told, contact me.
Did you have any inkling as to what these children would be like?
No, except little bits written about a couple of kids. But I really didn't have a sense about who the donors had turned out to be and where the kids were and whether they turned out to be geniuses or whether they were just regular kids or how this all affected them.
Did you have any opinions about sperm banking before you launched this project? Was it something you had ever thought about?
You know, I didn't think about them very much, except in college I had heard people talk about being sperm donors. And then, when my own wife and I were pregnant, we had to do some minor fertility intervention. So I have seen some of the fertility-industry complex at work. I had a sense of how infertility and the pressures it puts on people were affecting people in my generation. But of sperm banks themselves, I didn't really know anything. It was all an education.
Do you think Robert Graham thought he was doing something to save the human race by spreading the seed of geniuses through his sperm bank?
Absolutely. That was his goal. One thing that was surprising to me was to discover the way in which all modern sperm banks are fundamentally eugenic sperm banks. They don't have the explicit eugenic goals that Robert Graham did for his bank, but they effectively are eugenic because that's what women want. Women won't select donors who aren't tall, who aren't smart, who don't have perfectly clean health histories. So [sperm banks] are forced to buy for commercial purposes -- to become eugenic. And parents, in their kind of private way, act eugenically.
My impression of Graham and Shockley was that they were products of the explosive scientific age of mid-century America. They were true believers in the idea that science will solve all our problems and answer all our questions.
Absolutely. A perfect characterization. They were part of that 1950s, 1960s scientific age, the Sputnik era. They had a sense that science is incredibly important to the national interest, and science is capable of these amazing things.
There seems to be an "out with religion, in with science" aspect to it.
I think that is exactly right. One of the interesting points that I have talked about with people is that Graham was, politically, extremely conservative, but not by the standards of today, because he was basically atheistic. I think science was his god, and rationality was his god.
You mention that your father was of that mold, but he was disgusted by the scheme?