The Low Productivity Genius Factory

When I picked up The Genius Factory by David Plotz, I was expecting something a little different. The book was subtitled: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank; speaking of the (in)famous experiment run by Robert Graham (the shatter-proof eyeglasses magnate) who supposedly recruited Nobel prize winners to ‘improve’ the world’s human gene pool. Now whatever you think about the ethics of such an endeavour (and there is lots to think about there), it is very natural to be curious about what happened to those children. 20 or so years on, David Plotz — a journalist at Slate — set out to find out.

Here is what I was expecting: lots of kids, basically above average in IQ, and some out of this world amazing. Those latter ones burdened by expectations from pushy mothers. I should point out that I had no reason to expect this and had put no thought into my expectations. But that is what I thought would make a good story.Here is what happened: very few kids, no real Nobel prize donors, lots of angst and in the end more an insight into sperm banks than the Nobel sperm bank. Nonetheless, I am happy to report, it was a compelling saga nonetheless.

At the outset, you may have wondered: why would Nobel prize winners donate to a sperm bank like this? I don’t think that I am giving too much away about the book as a whole when I tell you that it turns out that they didn’t. Three did apparently — including William Shockley (no stranger to eugenics). The remainder were other high achievers (well for the most part) including one Olympian. So right there, this moves away from a story about a big genetic experiment.

There is a story still here about Graham and his plans; it is just that they didn’t work out the way he intended. There is also a story about the controversy generated. Finally, there is a story about the mothers who utilised the bank but in many ways that turns out to be easy to understand. Moreover, when it comes down to it, today’s sperm banks are modelled on similar principles: they make more money by supplying attractive sperm.

David Plotz turns this into a story about an industry. There are apparently 1 million children of anonymous sperm donors out there and there is considerable debate about the anonymity. Plotz, on a mission of journalistic exploration, is able to match donors and children on two occasions and recount what happens. It is those tales that are the meat of this book and make it well worth the read.

Ultimately, the Genius Factory itself had low productivity — both for reasons of being ill-conceived but also because it wasn’t implemented according to its original designs. The industry it lead, however, has moved the productivity of such factories to another level.

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