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. Read the rest of this entry »

Oscar Wilde: On leverage

“…extremely old fashioned people…[do] not realize that we live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities; and there were several very courteously worded communications from Jermyn Street Money Lenders, offering to advance any sum of money at a moment’s notice and at the most reasonable interest rates.

…It is only people who pay their bills who want [money], Uncle George, and I never pay mine. Credit is the capital of a younger son, and one lives charmingly upon it.”

 -Lord Henry, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

Reductio ad absurdum: Remembering forgotten enthusiasms as I prepare to enter a lesser graduate program

“It is a far finer gambit than any chess gambit: a chess player may offer the sacrifice of a pawn or even a piece, but a mathematician offers the game.”
G.H. Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology

The ‘money illusion’

From Richard A. Easterlin’s “The Economics of Happiness” [full text]:

“Each of us has only a fixed amount of time available for family life, health activities, and work. Do we distribute our time in the way that maximizes our satisfaction? …We decide how to use our time based on a “money illusion,” the belief that more money will make us happier, failing to anticipate that in regard to material conditions the internal norm on which our judgments of well-being are based will rise, not only as our own income grows, but that of others does as well. Because of the money illusion, we allocate an excessive amount of time to monetary goals, and shortchange nonpecuniary ends such as family life and health. 

As evidence of the perverse effect of the money illusion, let me cite, finally, a survey reported by sociologist Norval Glenn. In this survey Americans were asked about the likelihood of their taking a more highly rewarding job that would take away family time, because it would require both more hours at the office and more time on the road. Out of four response options, not one of the 1200 respondents said it was “very unlikely” he or she would take the job, and only about one in three said it was “somewhat unlikely.” The large majority of respondents said it was either “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that they would take the job, each of those categories accounting for about one-third of the respondents. Most Americans, it would seem, would readily sacrifice family life for what they think will be greater rewards from their working life, not knowing that these rewards are likely to be illusory [and many of us with ‘highly rewarding’ jobs are just in it for the money].”

More on happiness, television, and public policy

Before launching into his suggestion to defer the task of maximizing societal, and by extension individual, happiness to governments through public policy, Layard presents a few interesting studies in his book Happiness. Among them, the following which measures the effects on individual happiness and perceived income from amount of television watched:

The more television people watch, the more they overestimate the affluence of other people. And the lower they rate their own relative income. The result is that they are less happy. For as we have seen, happiness depends much more on how you perceive your relative income than on what your relative income actually is. Since television has a negative impact on your perceived position, it is bad for your happiness.

There is also the evidence of behaviour: on one estimate an extra hour a week watching television causes you to spend an extra $4 a week…*

In an appendix (6.1) posted on his website, Layard presents the regression equation in support of the above [link]: 

H = f(HH income variables, perceived relative income, hrs TV watched/day, age, gender, etc…)

Where H is the level of happiness reported by the individual on a scale from 1-3, 3 being ‘very happy,’ 2 being ‘pretty happy,’ and 1 being ‘not that bad’

The coefficient on the variable for hours of television watched per day is reported to be –0.7, and is statisitcally significant with a t-stat of 10. So, each additional hour of television watched by the average individual in the sample (22,000 observations) results in a reduction in his happiness score by almost a full scale point –and, there are only three scale points to speak of –on average, holding all other variables constant, etc.

…Viewing may also reduce our happiness with our bodies, and with our spouses. The psychologist Douglas Kenrick showed women a series of pictures of female models. He evaluated their mood before and after they looked at the pictures. After seeing the models, the women’s mood fell.

…As part of the same experiments, pictures of models were shown to a sample of men.  Kenrick evaluated their feelings about their wives before and after each presentation. After seeing the presentation, most men felt less good about their wives.**

I’m not a fan of Layard’s suggestion that public policy take on the role of conduit for nudging individuals to become “impartial spectators,” or a means by which society can streamline the adoption of a common moral principle. I don’t disagree with the notion that a common moral principle would be valuable, however I do think that institutionalizing happiness, or regulating activities in individuals’ lives that directly or indirectly result in reaping happiness, would strip the unexpected joys out of life, and thus undermine the premise. By virtue of aiming to maximize societal happiness through laws/regulations, such public policy would seem to explain our joys Psychological experiments conducted on individuals show that “explanation robs events of their emotional impact because it makes them seem likely and allows [individuals] to stop thinking about them. Oddly enough, an explanation doesn’t actually have to explain anything to have these effects –it merely needs to seem as though it does.”***

In response to criticism to the public policy suggestion in the book, Layard responds with Ormerod offers no alternative. He just wants the government to keep out of happiness and avoid the dangers of information failure, even if in the meantime we are becoming no happier. This makes no sense. It is like looking for the keys under the lamppost because it is easier to look there.” [link]

In the case of public policy, and government intrusion into individuals’ decision making, yes, it would be better to just do nothing. Individual existence is already heavily regulated. Thinking within the maze of regulatory walls the government has set for us expends such energy that we just outsource much of the process to the government (retirement, healthcare, education, etc.). Within the encroaching limits we’re becoming increasingly trapped with fewer choices, aside from killing our handcuffed creativity with television, among other things. 

“Look around you and look at history. You will see the achievements of man’s mind. You will see that man is not a helpless monster by nature, but he becomes one when he discards that faculty: his mind.”

–Ayn Rand, from her interview with Alvin Toffler published in the March 1964 issue of Playboy.

(for a truly insightful book on happiness, causes of, mental processes regarding, etc. consider Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness):

*Layard cites: Schor, J. (1999), The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting and the New Consumer, New York: HarperCollins.
**Layard cites the work of D. Kenrick circa 1989 (“Influence of popular erotica on judgments of strangers and mates”) and 1993 (“Effects of physical attractiveness on affect and perceptual judgments: When social comparison overrides social reinforcement”).
***From Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness; Gilbert cites Wilson et al., “Pleasures of Uncertainty” for the empirical evidence.

“The Hedonic Treadmill”


From Richard Layard’s (economist @ LSE, and one of perhaps a handful of economists to seriously devote a chunk of their time to research in the infant sub-field of happiness economics) Happiness: Lessons From a New Science:

“[L]iving standards are to some extent like alcohol or drugs. Once you have a certain experience you need to keep on having more of it if you want to sustain your happiness.

[T]his process is known as adaption. If adaption is ‘complete,’ only continual new stimuli can raise your well-being. Once your situation becomes stable again, you will revert to your ‘set-point’ level of happiness. You will do this whether the initial change is for better or for worse.

[T]here are some things that people never fully adjust to… miseries like widowhood, loud and unpredictable noise… And there are some good things that never pall –like sex, friends and even to some extent marriage.*”

The things that we get used to most easily and most take for granted are our material possessions… If we do not forsee that we get used to our material possessions, we shall overinvest in acquiring them, at the expense of our leisure.”

For any number of reasons, Americans pay the most for the little precious happiness we claim to experience. According to the OECD, people in the United States work more hours than our counterparts in rich nations, yet we don’t claim to be any happier. Considering the time left for non-work activities, in pursuing higher returns of happiness on each hour invested in existing, we should be having more sex (check –albeit in our case more = more unfulfilling), opting for the jobs that satisfy us most (no one I know), and perhaps picking our spouses more carefully (very few people I know), among other things. Though, as a nation, we spend far more time than any other glued to our television sets, which leaves even less time for the touching –lives, bodies, etc.– that tend to make us smile.

*Layard cites studies of Frederick and Lowenstein (1999) and Clark et al. (2003)

On imagination


Using the visual and auditory areas to execute acts of imagination is a truly ingenious bit of engineering, and evolution deserves the Microsoft Windows Award for installing it in every one of us without asking permission.  —Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

As someone who spends what I imagine to be a disproportionate amount of time lost in the musings of my brain’s frontal lobe, the takeaway of Gilbert’s book is rather comforting:

  1. “The world as we know it is a construction, a finished product, almost –one might say –a manufactured article, to which the mind contributes as much by its moulding forms as the thing contributes by its stimuli”*

  2. “The areas of your brain that respond emotionally to real events respond emotionally to imaginary events as well…”

  3. Our imaginations often neglect to include the negatives when projecting the future. 

  4. “The brain and the eye have a contractual relationship in which the brain has agreed to believe what the eye sees, but in return the eye has agreed to look for what the brain wants.”

So, why waste time in the present at all?

We can’t see or feel two things at once, and the brain has strict priorities about what it will see, hear, and feel and what it will ignore. Imagination’s requests are often denied. …when we ask our brains to look at a real object and an imaginary object at the same time, our brains typically grant the first request and turn down the second. The brain considers the perception of reality to be its first and foremost duty, thus your request to borrow the visual cortex for a moment is expressly and summarily denied.”

Not so. For instance, I don’t find it necessary to close my eyes in order to slip into the frontal lobe during earnings seasons when listening to management’s opening recitation of facts I’ve already read in the press release/supplement. My brain has simply adjusted so that I can simultaneously look as though I’m intently listening while imagining a chess game on the cliffs at Machu Picchu, details of my lover’s arms, etc. Of course, this means I can never answer questions during the call concerning that last fact that you just missed, because perhaps you too were dozing off. But, I consider the fact that my facial expression failed to give way to my frolicking in the virtual world to be a rather significant skill, and one that I’ve worked on honing since realizing the frivolity of sitting around a conference table with more than four people.

*Gilbert quoting historian, Will Durant