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?
Yes, right. My own father was of that mold. But he was repulsed I think by [the Repository for Germinal Choice] because the science of it was no good. You have an optometrist and a physicist trying to do genetics that they don't really understand. And also he thought it was an unseemly way to use science. Aesthetically, he was repulsed by it.
Did your father's Jewish background contribute to his repulsion?
A couple of people have asked me that. I don't actually think it does. In my conversations with my father about it, that would never come up.
In the book you say, "We live in William Shockley's world." You're referring to his invention of the transistor, which made possible the computers we all use. And you mention how, as a man with no naval experience, he figured out a logarithm, which was very successful, to predict where German U-boats would be found. I could see how a man with that kind of success identifying and solving problems would buy into the idea that human problems could be solved similarly through eugenics.
That is exactly it. And both of them were like that. Shockley was truly a gigantic figure in American science invention, but Graham was no slouch. Graham's invention of shatterproof plastic eyeglasses was an incredibly important invention. It saved literally thousands of people from blindness every year. He also was one of the pioneers of contact lenses. He made lots of important advances in contact lens technology. He was a great inventor. They were both men who made such incredible contributions to American life, to improving the way we live. Yet they had these odd side interests which stain their legacies.
Do you think the Southern California setting is no accident?
I absolutely think that is no accident. It might not be a picture of Southern California today, but the whole venture seemed to be an example of Southern California libertarianism, in a sense of here is a place where anything is possible, where you are allowed to try anything. It's where the great new American businesses were being built and where the greatest liberty of ideas was occurring...the sense that here is America and possibility and that we can try.
And I think that Graham at once represents the sense of possibility, that you can try anything, and that this is a place where there are no rules and anything is allowed to be done as long as it doesn't raise property taxes. And yet also at the same time represents a kind of conservatism in the sense of social control, that he's got this idea of a kind of libertarianism, but libertarianism that will ultimately fuel this intensive control over these sort of idiotic masses. And I think geographically -- in the book I probably make more of this than there is to be made -- but that Escondido is right in between the [conservative] Central Valley and the [more liberal] Southern California coast...
I remember that part of the book, and I have to challenge you on your geography. Escondido is a half hour from San Diego and three and a half hours from the Central Valley.
No, really? Wait, I'm looking at a map.... Okay, you're right. It is a long way from the Valley.
Did you visit Graham's ranch in Escondido?
Yes, I went out and met Mrs. Graham. She is still there.
What were your impressions of the area? Did your visit enlighten you at all on the culture surrounding Graham's sperm bank?
Yes, coming from the East Coast, one thing I sensed was a combined existence of great natural beauty and incredible development -- possibility and nature mixed up together. And there's a sense that it's a place where you're allowed to do whatever the hell you want. Here's this land that is extraordinarily beautiful, but you know that it was your right as an American to take it and try something. So it was enlightening to me in that sense.
My feelings toward the sperm donor you call Donor White, whom you helped unite with one of his 19 sperm-bank babies, vacillated. At times, I was touched by the paternal feelings he showed toward his biological offspring, especially in contrast to the reckless seed spreaders you also met. But other times he struck me as a silly old man who should have adopted children instead of donating sperm.
I am totally on the first side of that. I think he is in fact a wonderful man. The one thing that I wanted to make very clear as I was writing about him was how completely lovable he is.
The scrapbook of information he kept on his sperm-bank kids, that didn't strike you as creepy?
Yes, that was the particular statement where I really wanted people not to think that it was creepy. It was incredibly neat and sweet. There was nothing creepy about it. And frankly, as a father myself, as a new father, I found it so moving. He wasn't doing this in a freakish way at all. He was doing it in a way that you want someone who has some sense of paternal obligation to do it. Like it killed him that he couldn't know who these children were, that he couldn't be there for them, and so this was the closest that he could get. And it was purely an act of love.