TCS Daily


'Can You Breed for Genius?'

By Nick Schulz - July 18, 2005 12:00 AM

Editor's note: David Plotz is the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank. He recently sat for an interview with Nick Schulz.

Schulz: How did you come to write this book?

Plotz: I knew of the existence of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and I was interested in what had happened to it. It opened in 1980 and was shut down in 1999, and more than 200 kids had been born from it. It was an incredibly radical experiment in human genetic engineering, yet nobody knew who these kids were, how they turned out., or who the donors were. When the founder of the Bank (Robert Graham) died, the records were sealed and employees were not talking or were dead. So there was no obvious way to find out who the donors were, who the children were, or how their lives had turned out.

Schulz: And some television producers and other reporters from time-to-time had gone to try to look into it and had run into a brick wall. In a sense, this book is a unique journalistic enterprise. Do you think that this book could have been written before the advent of e-mail and the Internet?

Plotz: I don't think it could have been. And there are a few reasons why. Other newspaper, TV and magazine reporters had all gone to Graham and tried to report it out, but there were only two families that were willing to be public about their involvement. Essentially, you were trying to tell the story of this whole bank of 215 kids of this grant experiment based on none of the donors and two children born from it. And, so, it was just a black hole. It was a big mystery with no obvious way to crack it.

So when I set out to do this at Slate, Jack Shafer [an editor at Slate] offered me some insight. He said that we couldn't find them because the donors and children were scattered all over the world and didn't know each other. There was nothing to connect them to a community so they were just trying to keep secrets so that their neighbors wouldn't know about it. It was a fundamentally private thing that they had undertaken so there was no way to find them -- but they could find us.

And we wanted to harness the network power of the Internet to do this. I wrote a story in early 2001 outlining the bare bones of what was known about the Bank, which was very little. I said that if you want to tell us what happened, please contact us. I started with the idea of using readers as sources.

A regular newspaper or TV reporter can't do that because at The New York Times you couldn't publish a story saying: "We don't know anything about this, contact us if you know something about this." You can't put that in The New York Times. It would look really weird. It would look like you weren't doing your job. But we could do it in Slate because it's a newer enterprise and people use the Internet in a different way. Internet journalism works in a different way, and Internet journalism has this fundamentally collaborative quality to it. And so we were taking that collaborative policy to its furthest degree by saying, "You are readers, we don't know the story, but you might because you might have been the donor or might have been an employee or you might be a child."

And what's more, we were counting on the repeater effect of the web -- that this would get posted to places where people involved with sperm banks might read it and that it would have a life on the Internet search engine and wouldn't just be up there for a day. And what happened was at first one donor-entrepreneur, Edward Burnham, saw it and then I wrote a story about him, and then some other donors saw that and wanted to respond to him. Meanwhile, some of the mothers and children saw it and they wanted to get in touch with me. And, eventually, it got posted on Slate and also on MSN, which has a much wider readership than Slate does. Millions of people saw the story in one form or another and they started contacting me. Each time I would write another story about another family or another donor, more people would contact me. And it continued to echo and echo for years. I mean, just everyday practically, some e-mail from somebody connected with this Bank.

The most interesting effect of it was in the case of donor White, one of the main stories in the book, where I wrote a story about a girl and her mother who were searching for their donor, donor "White," and about their search. They had reason to believe that donor White was looking for them. And we posted on the web and didn't hear anything for 15 months, and then donor "White," using a search engine for the very first time, had typed in "Genius Sperm Bank" and, low and behold, one of their first references to come up was the story I had written about this mother searching for donor White and then about the sperm bank.

One other final reason I think the Internet and e-mail in particular worked, and made this possible, was that it was very important to me going into this project that I wasn't going to try to destroy people's private lives -- that I wanted to tell the stories of the Bank, but these were basically private citizens and I didn't want to expose their lives and embarrassing secrets to the world. They came to me with a guarantee of privacy. In fact, every single person I talked to said they would never have participated if I were publishing their real name.

But the anonymity and distancing of e-mail allowed people to communicate with me in a manner where they felt protected because they were able to contact me by e-mail and feel me out to make sure that I wasn't going to mess with them. And that impersonality in a way allowed the intimacy that would follow.

Schulz: You, the author, end up being a critical part of the dramatic narrative of the book. There is almost no way to tell the story without that being the case, is that right?

Plotz: That's right. And this caused me anxiety and discomfort, and it was a real conundrum. When I set out to do the project with an intellectual interest in this, to answer the question: Can you breed for genius and what happens when you try to do it and what are the results? What does it tell us about our efforts in the future to breed for genius?

It was an intellectual interest, and the people who were contacting me were sort of interested in talking to me about that sometimes. But, and this was something that I only realized after the process was already underway, the reason they were contacting me was that I had opened a door that they thought was permanently shut. When they had been involved in the Bank, as far as they knew, everything was double anonymous-- the donors didn't know who the children were born from the sperm and the children and the mothers didn't know who the donors were. And they assumed they would never get a chance to meet each other and that the children would never get a chance to meet siblings.

And what had happened was these folks who were reading these articles realized that there were children who wanted to meet their fathers; there were donors who wanted to meet their children; there were children who wanted to meet siblings. And then, all of a sudden, I had given them a way to do it. And I hadn't even thought about this. It hadn't even occurred to me that I was going to become this middleman. But I became, by total accident, this middleman where I knew the identity of donor "Coral" let's say or donor "Turquoise's," and donor "Turquoise's" children were contacting me, and wanted to meet donor "Turquoise" and donor "Turquoise" himself wanted to meet his children.

And so you have a situation where, well, should I put them in touch with each other or what should I do? And my decision was that, first of all, it was a great narrative to have these people get to meet and fulfill their longing, but it is a human thing. It was people who wanted to know each other, and they had good reasons to want to know each other, and they were making the decisions. The donors were adults and then these mothers or the children were adults and had come to this decision for good, rational reasons, and didn't seem to be out to do it to gain money or anything like that. They were out to do it because they had an emotional void that they needed to fill.

And so I realized that I had a moral obligation, which happened to coincide with the kind of fortunate journalistic opportunity to put these people together. And so I did. And the results are not always -- in the book, the results are bittersweet. There are times when the knowledge of children getting to know their biological fathers can be incredibly rewarding as it is in one very large case that I handled in the book.

Schulz: Donor "White" and "Joy."

Plotz: Right. The donor "White" and "Joy," and then there is the case of donor "Carl" and "Tom," where the knowledge and the meeting of the father and son is in many ways a disappointment. But it is a disappointment that is profound for "Tom" and it has meant a lot to him. The knowledge that even though I think it hasn't turned out the way he imagined it would at the beginning when he thought Jonas Salk was his father, it's really important for him to know who he is. And he feels like he finally does even if the result isn't exactly right.

And I do think they there are very real journalistic ethics questions about what I was doing. And I think what I tried to do in the book was be completely open about what my involvement was. To make it very clear to the readers, here is what I am doing, here is why I am doing it so that they can judge for themselves, "Is this right or wrong and should I listen to this person?"

Schulz: You mentioned that part of your own interest in looking into this story was to unpack what it was that was driving this genetic engineering for smarter kids and a smarter race. There's all sorts of interesting history that you go into with positive eugenics and the history of eugenics and things like that. But it seems that you discovered, in looking into this, that Americans seem to value some things as highly as or more highly than intelligence, is that right and did that surprise you?

Plotz: That's right. One of my favorite aspects of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank is that, in fact, the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank ended up without any children of Nobel Prize donors because Robert Graham started out with some Nobel Prize donors in 1980, and then after this bad publicity these Nobelists didn't want to be involved. But he also realized that Nobelists were too old to be good donors. And, more importantly, Nobelists were a product that women didn't exactly want. They were too much brainiac for the customers who were coming to him. And Graham said, on one occasion, "[T]hose Nobelists, they could never win a basketball game." And he realized that, in fact, the pure brainpower was not a commodity that the customers wanted, and he was very customer focused. He was a very successful business man who turned to sperm banking, and he realized he had to sell to this customers.

And the things that mattered to them as much as brain power, which mattered a great deal, were height and good health and good temperament and good looks. And so the women who were coming to Robert Graham's Bank, their first question wouldn't be: "How smart is he?" Their first question would be: "How tall is he?" And then it would be: "What does he look like and is he nice?" And, so, those questions it turned out mattered as much to women as the brain question.

I think what we've ended up with has been this consumer revolution in sperm banking, which I get into in the book. It's a situation where women have this expectation of everything. And they want men who combine brains, so sperm banks recruited top colleges, and height and good health history and good looks. And so there's an intense choosiness. But the "brainiacness" isn't something that many women put above all else.

Schulz: In the book you wrestled with the ethics of being a middleman, in a sense of meddling in people's family lives where you are connecting donors and their children and their wives and mothers involved -- sort of intimate family lives. But with the nature of the investigation, you had to do this. You pointed out that there were some good experiences, which were positive ones, and then also had some that were a little more emotionally traumatic. Now that the book is done and is out are there any of these families that you think would have been better off without learning more about the donor dads or the kids? or

Plotz: Once they began the process of wanting to know and thinking they could know, I think they were better off knowing. Once it became a question that they thought could be answered, just having the answer meant a lot. Otherwise they were going to live with uncertainty and doubt. And even when the certainty is not what you hoped for, like with "Alton," "Tom's" half brother, who was so put off by what donor "Coral" was that he never even met him, I do think, even in that case, the knowledge has been valuable to him. He is glad to know. And when you compare his feelings or "Tom's" feelings or the feelings of other children I know who haven't gotten to meet their donor father, I think there is a kind of closure with them.

And then also I think there may be a tendency to underestimate how much learning about your biological father will affect you. If you discover your biological father is a disappointment, it doesn't make you feel (you are) therefore a loser. You know who you are. It can be a sadness that you won't have a close relationship with him, but I don't think then that you assume well I am loser because he is a loser. I think people are sophisticated enough to separate themselves from this biological donor. I think, once you ask the question, "who is my father and can I know him?", then generally it's better to get some closure than not get closure.

But I do wish that sometimes people didn't ask the question at all. I think had they never asked -- had "Tom" never known who he was, or had "Alton" never known that he had this biological father out there -- they would be just as happy and better off. They would have avoided this adventure, which in "Tom's" case he enjoyed a great deal of the adventure, but I don't thinks it's ... I don't know -- I don't know, it's a good question. I don't know.

Schulz: There are plenty of children who were the products of sperm donation that don't know that their father, or the person they think is their father, is not their actual biological father, right?

Plotz: Yes. In most cases, that is so. And, actually, I think there is a distance that exists between many children of donor-insemination and their non-biological fathers, when they don't know that their father is pretending to be their father. You hear lots of reports about families where the father always behaves in a distant way, even if he is pretending to be the father just because it's a very hard act to keep up. So, I think that's the problem.

Increasingly, of course, single mothers and lesbian couples are the ones who are going to sperm banks. And in that case, of course, those kids know from day one that they have a biological father out there. And I think there is going to be a tremendous amount of curiosity. As a society right now, donor anonymity is the standard practice. And I think that we are going to have to grapple with this because there are going to be the kids. In a genetic age where we believe so much in who we are is determined by what our genes are, these kids are going to have a real expectation to know who their biological fathers are. And I think we haven't really thought about what the burden is going to be on them, and is their right to know their biological fathers more important than the donors' right to anonymity.

And I actually I don't have a good answer. I do know that smarter people than me need to think about it.

Schulz: Actually, that I had a question about that. On page 130 of the book, you discussed "genetic expectation" and whether it could be a blessing or a curse. I was wondering, after studying these people's lives, what do you think? Especially now, with the ongoing debates over biotechnology, there is this profound sense that this really matters a lot.

Plotz: Right.

Schulz: But it sounds like even after investigating all of this you are still not sure.

Plotz: I am not sure. I think I am much more influenced by my own experience with my children. I think before you have your children, you have this theoretical notion of what your children will be like. And you build up expectations based on what you're like and what your wife is like and based on your genes, and you think, therefore, such and such will happen. And then presented with the actuality of what your child is, your child has these distinct abilities and talents and interests and personality which seem to be independent of you. You realize that the expectation is not fair. It's not fair and it's somewhat corrosive.

Your job is to, once you have been presented with a real live child, help encourage that child's interest in the best way that you can. But not to assume that based on your genetic expectations that the child is a particular way. And so I come out of the project thinking that unless gene science gets a billion times better, where you can control what you can do with genes -- like actually pinpoint that this is the gene for playing the guitar really well - I think genetic expectations tend to be a problem.

I also think that most parents, and there are obviously exceptions to this, have the same reaction I do. So even the parents of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, where people have gone intentionally seeking this intellectual enhancement, once presented with actual children, behaved as normal parents. I think they were more involved in their kids' lives, perhaps, than the average parents because they tended to be hyper-involved moms. But I don't think they had unrealistic goals set for their children. I think they pushed them, but I don't think they were nuts about it. So, I think most people, when once they face the actual child, suspend their theoretical notions about what the child should be.

Schulz: In some ways, the book examined the interplay of science and business morality and politics and ethics. In investigating this and learning more about the histories of these families and how they dealt with the knowledge that came to them, did it in any way shape your views over other debates in biotechnology -- like stem cells or cloning -- where there are controversial genetic questions and about the future makeup of mankind?

Plotz: Well, in one or maybe two related ways, it did. I think the remarkable thing about the sperm bank industry is that it's a wide-open free market. That's basically because both the right and left have been afraid to regulate fertility in this country in general. The right because it looks like business, capitalism, and so they want to let it go. And on the left because once you start regulating fertility it has all sorts of abortion implications that I don't think the left wants to deal with.

And so as a result, sperm banking in particular has been a very wide-open free market where people who are not doctors were in it, and where it was driven by consumer behavior. And it's a case where medicine has really responded to consumers in very effective, competitive way, and where the market has allowed this wide variety of kinds of sperm banks and kinds of sperm donors and practices within sperm banking. And because anyone who goes to the sperm bank really wants to make sure that the donor is safe, HIV testing came into banks long before the federal government thought to even regulate it. The banks realized that if they didn't have safe men, they were going to be screwed.

Schulz: Right.

Plotz: And it's a great case study for how the market can work in that instance. I am not absolutely certain that it applies in lots of other aspects of medicine, but it certainly proves that in one particular aspect it does. And then I think it showed the up and down side of what happens when consumers drive medical choices. The great thing about the consumer driving it is that the banks are responsive and the fertility industry in general has gone from being this completely top down, doctor-dictated, very unpleasant process to being one which is patient driven. Certainly patients are desperate, but it's the patient pushing the doctors to do what they want rather than the doctors pushing the patient.

The downside is that because people are so emotionally desperate about wanting children, they may behave in ways that are slightly less rational than you would hope they would. The upside is that there is this great flourishing of ideas and experimentation and efforts to try things, and fertility research has advanced an enormous amount. The kind of opportunities available to infertile couples has exploded basically because the market just let it. And so that's one lesson that I learned out of it.

Schulz: I don't want to mis-characterize it, but I would say that one of the more un-lovely elements of this whole thing that you uncovered was some donors that who had "greed to breed"-- you call them the inseminators.

Plotz: Right.

Schulz: Describe what that is and what you learned about it and what, in your view, makes them tick.

Plotz: Sure. I came across several guys who had a psychological make up that really surprised me. It was scary. These guys had been "volunteer" donors to the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank. They had gone to the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and convinced Robert Graham that they were intellectually gifted enough and healthy enough to be genius sperm donors. And these were guys -- there about four of them -- who went from sperm bank to sperm bank donating or who went to a few sperm banks and also then in their own private lives had fathered many, many children. I mean many, many children. And they were totally opportunistic breeders. I mean, they would hook up with women, get them pregnant and have children and then once the women stopped wanting to have children, they would split. The guys would just abandon the women. And then they would also go to these sperm banks in the hopes of getting their seed out there. And the most charitable explanation is that it is Darwinian. They are competing in a Darwinian in game, and they are just getting an advantage up on other guys and ha-ha-ha.

The less charitable interpretation, which is what some psychologists gave to me, is that these guys are basically some sort of sociopaths, where they fundamentally don't recognize that these children are humans or that the women they are impregnating are humans. It's just a kind of obsessive push to advance their own egos. It's just pure obsessive ego.

It's an alarming personality type. Really weird. And, of course, it's alarming because here are the guys who are least fit. They are the guys you would definitely not want to be breeding. But because they have this compulsion to breed and because sperm banks don't look at this particular behavior (I don't think they screen for this), these guys are able to pass themselves on in vast numbers. So one of the donors I dealt with had had about 50 children from eight different sperm banks and that's just frightening.

Schulz: The story you investigated might seem to have some moral and political implications. In your view, are there any and if so, what are they?

Plotz: Well, I think one we touched on earlier, which is what do we do with genetic expectations? I think one conclusion right now is the idea that you can make children what you want them to be. Right now, the science isn't there as a kind of psychological and emotional matter. We have to ease off the idea that we can program children. I do believe in genes and I certainly believe that there are genetic associations with intelligence and personality and so we can try to give our kids a little bit of a better chance at things, but this idea of programming children is so far away that parents really have to not even conceive of it. They just have to think that maybe I'm just getting a slight edge up in statistics because I'm doing something like this. That's one point.

Another point which is one of the (and I'm not really sure whether it's an explicit or implicit) conclusions of the book -- the first question that anyone ever asks me is: "Are any of these kids geniuses?" And I always say, "Well it's a non-random sample of these kids, about 35 of them. And there is a wide variety. Some are better than average students, some are wonderful athletes, some are not. In general, they do seem to be above average. There are some quite amazing kids among them."

However, what I look at is what these mothers are like. Their mothers are so involved and intent on raising accomplished children that they would have raised accomplished children if they had gone to the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank or they had gone to Joe's Discount Sperm Warehouse. So, I think the other lesson is that with the science as unsophisticated and as crude as it is today -- and for at least the future I can foresee -- it's nurture that matters so much.

These kids are thriving, but I think the kids are thriving not just because they have good genes, but because they have mothers and some cases fathers who are really intent on raising them well. And so another lesson is that you can't step away from parental responsibility by saying that "we have good genes." So much of it comes from what we as parents to do with our children and not the DNA we gave them.

Schulz: In your passion for researching the story, you, too, went through the process of donating in a sperm bank -- although you did not make your genetic material available for others to use. Now, obviously you are married. You have a couple of kids, and that would obviously influence any decision you would ever make about this sort of thing. But imagine you aren't married or a father. After having gone all through this, is there anything about it that interests you in being a donor? Could you envision ever doing it and actually having kids that you didn't know?

Plotz: Well, when I went into the process, I thought there was nothing that is the feeling about this. One, it was embarrassing; two, it was inconvenient; three, you create these children for whom you both have responsibility and have no responsibility. As a person who strives and take responsibility for the things I do, I found that all unsettling.

However, the process of going through it and the seduction of the sperm bank where you are fawned over and petted and admired for your astonishing health history and your academic accomplishments. And then, when you finally give them the sample and they say, "Oh yes, the average man's sperm count is 50 or 60 million and yours is 105 million," there is this kind of reptilian thrill. I mean, it's this junior high locker room or something. You know that feeling of "what were my SAT scores" kind of gloating. And even though the number of sperm and the sperm sample have no moral content at all, the way they sell it to you, it makes you feel like, "I am special. And I really have something great here and maybe I should share it."

I think the combination of that male ego, plus the effect that you can make a little bit of money, plus the altruistic nature of it (at least, that's the way they pitch it, in this altruistic way that you are doing a service for people that need it), make it somewhat. ... No, I didn't reach the point where I would ever want to do it, but I did reach the point of understanding some of the really seductive aspects of it.

Schulz: Some of the donors seemed perfectly happy to make a donation and then they would never think about it ever again. And obviously the double blind nature of the process and the anonymity of it makes that easy, but some of them, even after having gone through it, clearly they thought about it from time to time. And some of them thought about it fairly frequently.

Plotz: Yes.

Schulz: Some of them thought about their kids, and what they are doing. If you were to go through this, how do you think you would be? Do you have some insight into what makes somebody think one way or the other?

Plotz: I think it would probably be weighing on you. First of all, part of it's also the stage of life in which you become a donor. The Nobel Prize Sperm Bank was recruiting guys who were rather older than the usual run of sperm donors. They were guys who are more seasoned. The average sperm bank recruits college kids. And the college kids, and this is true from the donors I have talked to who are young, don't think about the consequences of what they have done. It doesn't really weigh on them. It's for beer money. And so they don't sit and think about who these children are.

I think the guys who are older, two don't have children of their own for some reason, and three of a slightly obsessive nature to begin with are the ones who end up really thinking about who these kids are. I think that what will happen is that as these college kid sperm donors get older, if they either have children of their own or are unable to have children of their own, it may start to weigh on them.

For example, if you look at the main website called "the Donor Sibling Registry," which is where people looking for siblings for their donor insemination kids and also people looking for the donors themselves, and donors looking for children. They all post to it. If you look at the ratio of kid to donor posts, its a gazillion to one. Basically, no donors are out there looking for their kids. A very, very small number are out there looking for their kids. Whereas lots of mothers and children are out there looking for donors. I think it's because for the most part the people posting on this board have young donors and they are the mothers of very young kids. And the guys I'm dealing with didn't face up to what it means to be a donor until they were in their 40s. Most American sperm donors are still not even in their 30s probably.

Schulz: How did this investigation shape your views of family life and human wants and needs? I am assuming you may have gone into it with some preconceived notions about some things or maybe some things that you hadn't thought about at all. But what are some things that have been revealed to you?

Plotz: I didn't go in particularly thinking about this because I went in with it being an intellectual project rather than an emotional project. What I realized once these people started contacting me about wanting to meet donors and wanting to meet children was that there is this universal need for family, a universal need for a sense of personal identity, that's overwhelming. I think the children I was dealing with weren't exactly looking for fathers to come and watch them at their baseball games. They didn't really expect that the donors would turn out to be that. But they were looking for some kind of connection with these men, and some kind of sense that they belonged together.

And so I think I came away just recognizing how unbelievably powerful at every level this need to know who you are and connect with the people that made you is. And this is not to diminish the non-biological fathers at all. I think that these children already have this connection to their non-biological fathers because the non-biological fathers are their fathers.

But no matter what, there is this sense that people need to really know who they are.

Schulz: Well David, thanks. This is the most enjoyable book I have read in a long time. It's such a fantastic piece of reporting, and you should be really proud.

Plotz: Thank you.

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