Genius factory: On sperm banking, nature v. nurture, & evolutionary psychology


About two years ago David Plotz’s Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank was published. I was reviewing books for an online A&E city guide at the time and pitched the book to my editor, who instead saddled me with the novel of one of her friends or acquaintances or something of the similar sort. So, it was with pent up anticipation and (after canvassing some of the recent literature on evolutionary psychology) much interest that I began reading this book after a fortuitous reminder of its existence landed in my inbox. This isn’t a review, but rather I’ll lay out the interesting points I encountered while reading.

First, background: In the book, Plotz chronicles the birth, life and subsequent demise of The Repository for Germinal Choice, a sperm bank started by millionaire tinkerer Robert Graham (famous for inventing plastic-frames for eyeglasses just in time for the 60’s when glasses covering half of one’s face was all the rage). Graham, whose name was later tarnished somewhat through the bank’s association with eccentric Nobel laureate William Shockley (who publicly shared his beliefs that the poor and ‘dim-witted’ shouldn’t be allowed to procreate: “The government, he said, should pay anyone with an IQ of less than 100 to be permanently sterilized -$1000 for every IQ point under 100”), launched The Repository for Germinal Choice in a crusade to

save mankind from genetic catastrophe. In modern America, the millionaire complained, cradle-to-grave social welfare programs paid incompetents and imbeciles to reproduce. As a result, ‘retrograde humans’ were swamping the intelligent minority. This ‘dysgenic’ crisis would soon cause the evolutionary regression of mankind, as well as global communism.

And he believed that the only way to stop his fears from seeing the light of day was to help disseminate the sperm of, in his opinion, superior men. Graham’s intentions were fundamentally benevolent, he wrote:

The disappearance of genes for high intelligence is a defeat for the uniqueness of man, an erosion of the essence of the human condition. The childlessness of Isaac Newton or a George Washington, the extinction of the Lincoln family, the spinsterhood of the brightest girl in the class, are great biological tragedies. As a result, mankind is deprived of some of that essential quality which separates him from the apes.

Sperm banking: When suppliers refuse to cooperate
However, the problem was that in his quest for Nobel-laureate-quality sperm, Graham found few men of qualifying substance willing to donate. In the end, this lack of product led to lax requirements of specimen donors and weak, and in some cases no concern with fact-checking, so that a donor’s self reported history was taken as fact on his word of honor alone. Men whose IQs were unknown were passed off as men with IQs of 160, etc. Of the 200+ babies born from The Repository for Germinal Choice, none descended from Nobel-laureates. Nonetheless, most of the kids grew to be gifted, and if not, extremely well-rounded and well-adjusted individuals, which is no surprise considering they were raised by a self-selected sample of attentive women, all concerned with bringing up children with such qualities. Plotz notes that the mothers he met with all took an active interest in their children’s lives and provided stimulating environments to cater to the concert pianists and accomplished scientist’s written into their children’s genes at conception.

In addition, we now know that nature provides only switches while nurture determines which of those will be turned on. Some theories suggest that intelligence is largely contributed by the female’s genes:

A child carries two sets of every gene, one from each parent. Usually both genes are active, but some ‘imprinted’ genes seem to be different. Only one of these genes is working: a signal tells the cell that only the maternal or paternal gene should be turned on. Cambridge University’s Barry Keverne and Azim Surani have found maternally imprinted genes (in mice, at least) are concentrated in the ‘executive’ part of the brain –the areas that control high-level analytical thought and intelligence. Paternally imprinted genes, meanwhile, tend to be involved with the limbic system, which is the seat of emotions and primitive, instinctual behavior…[M]ice created with only maternal genes had huge brains and scrawny bodies, while mice created with only paternal genes had scrawny brains and huge bodies…If parents assume that maternal genes contribute extra to their children’s intelligence, the egg bubble may get even worse.

According to evolution, ‘social’ fathers are f—ed at the outset

One of the odd things I had noticed in my reporting on the genius sperm bank: in most of the two dozen families I had dealt with, the father was notable absent from the family life… I had heard from only a couple of intact families with attentive dads. While good studies…don’t seem to exist, anecdotes about them suggest that there is frequently a gap between fathers and their putative children…When I started writing about the Nobel sperm bank, my inbox clogged with e-mails from kids of the first big wave…many were sad and bitter. They told me the same story: Dad wasn’t like a real dad.

This isn’t surprising: humans didn’t start out as monogamous creatures, nor have we spent the bulk of our history as such. The phenomenon of monogamy was born from a sudden lack in the ability of females to adequately provide for and raise their children, which incidentally occurred after the shift from tribal hunter-gatherer to agrarian cultures. In order to ensure that his offspring would survive under the new circumstance, males began to stick around in order to provide resources to ensure survival of his offspring. Newly accountable for his children, males favored monogamous relationships in order to ensure that the offspring they were sacrificing their time and resources for were in fact their offspring. At the same time, females favored monogamy due to the fact that every additional offspring belonging to her male and another female detracted from the resources available to her and her own offspring. In the case of the Nobel-sperm bank, limiting specimen donations to married couples only (as was the case) ensured an evolutionarily abject idea, namely that males would be put in the position of knowingly raising another man’s child; this, more often than not, reduces the incentive for him to stick around. Thus, the observation made by Plotz, 

I knew I had a skewed sample: divorced mothers were more open about their secret –not needing to protect the father anymore… ‘Social fathers’… have it tough…They are drained by having to pretend that children are theirs when they aren’t; it takes a good actor and an extraordinary man to overlook the fact that his wife has picked another man to father his child…the relationships tend to be asymmetric: the genetically connected mothers are close to their kids, the unconnected fathers are distant. I suspected that the Nobel sperm bank had exaggerated this asymmetry, since donors had been chosen because mothers thought they were better than their husbands.

So, while ‘social’ fathers have little incentive to stick around, the suppliers’ reasons for donating vary, and a quick categorization of the types of donors encountered in the book is necessary to make any distinction:

What types of men are doing this?

  1. poor college/grad students

  2. less-evolved egotists who still equate winning to leaving the most offspring on Earth at the time of death (“another notch on his Darwinian bedpost”)

  3. genuinely caring donors who for whatever reason can’t reproduce with their own wives

College males and their graduate school counterparts tended to donate in order to supplement their meager wages. The unfortunate circumstance is that they often have no concept of how fathering children, sometimes 10-12 scattered around the country, will effect them later in life. The rights of donor children to records of their biological fathers are currently scant in the United States. Some European countries have opened sealed records to offspring, removing the anonymous protections originally held by donors. Should such a policy be retroactively instituted (i.e. ‘children turning 18 in 2012 and those thereafter are entitled to records containing the names of their biological fathers’ will affect males who donated as early as 1994), these men may be in store for phone calls from children wanting to connect, along with a host of other things, leaving their time, resources, and relationships with their own families and children strained in unimaginable ways.

The less-evolved egoists do it because they just can’t help it. Many of them donated to multiple banks in addition to fathering several children of their own. They often spoke about this ‘work’ with praise, but above all else, a tone of sleaze underlies their existence and dealings with their own offspring. One such donor: “On the way down, with me out of earshot, Jeremy [the specimen donor] congratulated Tom [the offspring] on finding a foreign wife. Foreign girls, he said, let you get away with a lot more. You can mess around with other women and then explain to your wife that cheating is the American way.”

And then finally, there are the guys who, for whatever reason, cannot father their own children given their circumstances. Some waited too long, some must deal with the constraints of their other halves, etc… These men may make the best donors, as in the example of Donor White in Genius Factory, but whittling the supply of sperm supply down to this bunch and other desirable groups is likely impossible, proving again that eugenic schemes aimed at changing the composition of the human race, whatever the motivation, are a lost cause…weak links tend to find ways of sneaking through.

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