The Genius Factory manages to be a page-turner that pokes fun at its subject while simultaneously giving it serious treatment. Many books that start out as magazine articles merely feel stretched out when expanded into a book. In the case of the Genius Factory the extra pages, and expanded treatment are well worth it.
The book deals with three interesting and important stories, weaving them together in a first person account as the author learns more about his subject. The first story is the history of the eugenics movement and how the quest for more perfect people (often motivated by simplistic racist notions) led to the idea of a sperm bank that would hold the sperm of geniuses (crudely defined as Nobel prize winning scientists). This story is filled with colorful characters such as Robert Graham - the originator of the sperm bank - the inventor of plastic eyeglass lenses, and William Shockley - one of the Nobel Prize winners who contributed sperm - winner of the Nobel Prize for inventing the transistor (he is the father of Silicon Valley and his company was the progenitor of intel). It is also a story of racism, misguided notions of improving mankind, and a philosophy that leads to Nazism.
The second story is the story of the families. Plotz tracked down several of the children that resulted from the sperm bank, and he got to know the children and their parents. He also tracked down some of the donors, and their stories are in some cases more complex and interesting than I would have imagined. I don't want to give away too much, so I'll just say that the experience of the families and the impact of the experience is fascinating.
The third story is the story of fertility treatments. While this story is not as developed as the other two, as events develop, the history of fertility treatments becomes significant as it intertwines with the story of artificial insemination.
I read this book in one sitting, and it was as compelling as any mystery. While it is written in a playful tone, it does takes its subject seriously and observes its characters with compassion. This is far from the most authoritative source you can find on the subjects covered, but it is highly entertaining, informative and thought-provoking.
on January 6, 2008
My husband is one of the children Mr. Plotz writes about in his book and in his articles on Slate. Unfortunately, Mr. Plotz is much more concerned with creating a sensational story than with fairly or accurately presenting the lives of the people involved in the Repository.
My husband's experience with Mr. Plotz demonstrated to us that Mr. Plotz's sole interest is in dramatizing and sensationalizing, even to the point of distortion, the experiences of those he interviews in order to benefit from their stories himself. Please read all his writings with a critical eye - he was neither "sensitive" to the "emotional consequences" of his journalism in our encounters with him, nor was he respectful of the youth and vulnerability of his subjects in our experience.
This book tells the spectacular story of the "Nobel" sperm bank started by an American enthusiast of eugenics. High IQ and good looking individuals were recruited, although their claims to being superior specimens would not always hold up years later when they were met by their surrogate children in person. Indeed with lax security (and journalists like the author) it was possible to bridge the gap and contact one's donor. Results, as you might expect, are varied.
Although some of the derision and disgust toward the donors and their families was justified, I felt it should not have been so marked. While it is easy to lose your professional distance writing about people who are by turns moving and repelling, I thought the author should have contained himself.
It did not seem to me that donating sperm gave him a more understanding and empathic view of those who did. Instead it simply gave him a sense of inflated self-importance because he was told he had superior sperm. While pride is understandable, I felt it should have been omitted, as it detracted from the stories of the donors and their families.
What was moving, however, was the story of the elderly donor and his "granddaughter," and the conclusions several children came to that it was the heart not the brain that ultimately influenced how worthwhile an individual is. As the author points out, advances in gene technology now make it possible to screen for various characteristics of the fetus, and more are in the works. Sometimes it's the "soul" that gets lost in the process.
on June 21, 2005
From my first glance between the pages, I knew I wouldn't be able to put this book down. It is part history, part science, part editorial, part sociological study; and has an appeal to a wide audience.
The success stories are few but they are well-written and are more detailed than one might expect from a news report. It is very easy to get emotionally involved with the outcomes of the children which resulted from the sperm donors. Plotz has a unique style, providing enough information to satisfy the reader at every chapter, but leaving the reader curious of the outcome. I very much enjoyed Plotz's speculative prose as it made each story a personal journey as well.
Plotz also places the sperm bank, Graham, and others in historical context. He provides short biographies of the scientists involved with the project, a short history of IVF, and events and anecdotes which depict the sociology of the times. He makes some vast reaching claims on the relationship between American eugenics and Nazism and others; and while all are abhorrent, no evidence for direct links was provided. The speculation however, was nonetheless interesting.
There is a chapter in which he discusses the significance of the mother's genetic material in regards to the personality and success of each child, which put the sperm donation in a more complete and proper perspective. He also briefly describes the phenomenon known as imprinting.
My largest criticism of the book is in regards to the occasional word choice. The author clearly states his background, which to some degree puts his comments in perspective. But one wonders if the author is aware of how his subconscious views are closer to the eugenics perspective than he might think. While the author clearly aims to make eugenics seem nothing other than a bigoted pseudo-science, he uses derogatory labels to refer to some groups, particularly those without secondary education. The trail of the putative Nobel children appears to have been not only a journalistic passion but a personal one; a journey to define intelligence and to some extent, success.
The Genius Factory is a fascinating glimpse into the obsessive minds of Graham, the fear-ridden pseudo-science of the 1950's, the plight of the parents and children of Grahams experiment, and a look into a world not dictated by genes but of possibility.
on March 10, 2006
Starting off with the premise that this book is a review of the lives of the 200 children born of Nobel prize winning sperm donors is completely misleading to the reader. It has been a long time since I actually felt lied to in the preamble to purchasing a book. Readers should know that no children are born of Nobel prize winners, no examination of the lives of 200 sperm donors from the bank is undertaken and no scientific information on genetics are even discussed throughout the whole book. In fact, even the data collection of the few lives the author does research seems adhoc at best.
What this book is about is a look at some kids who find their true fathers through the help of the author, but more so through a Canadian director researching the same topic for a movie documentary. The author seems to ride on the coattails of this director in finding out a lot of his information. All the while he makes enormously ridiculous comments and judgments about the supposed Nobel prize winning sperm bank and genetics. He never once looks at the topic with an open mind, that maybe, just maybe extremely bright parents might be more likely to have extremely bright children.
He does some good research in unraveling the Nobel sperm bank and the people behind it. But it seems he relies on old interviews and tv show spots from the 70s and 80s, a time when these topics of genetics and race and IQ were strictly taboo.
The book feels to me that it was trying to use the hype around a Nobel prize winning sperm bank to create a marketing buzz when infact this book is nothing but a review of what could be any sperm bank and any children born of it. Quite disappointing.
on June 8, 2005
The Genius Factory is both a gripping mystery, and a compelling social history. Plotz vividly brings to life the fascinating, strange millionaire behind the Nobel Prize sperm bank, and then uncovers the effect he had on the lives of the men who donated their sperm and the supposedly "superior" children they spawned. What a fabulous story! And Plotz tells it movingly and with great wit. A must read.
on July 30, 2005
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and found it difficult to put down.
As others have stated, it's the story of a sperm bank (the Repository for Germinal Choice) founded in 1980 with the intention of 'solving the genetic quality' "problem" (depending on your perspective).
In spite of the problems with the bank, potency problems due to age and even the relaxing of standards for submission (though they still provided a lot of information to purchasers) - by and large the portion of the 200 or so progeny (admittedly somewhat self-selected) Plotz was able to contact seemed above average. They didn't all have the same levels of achievement (think Alton vs Tom) but even the low end of the bunch showed unusual ability in mathematics, music, etc... Although Plotz tries to toss this up to environment (what sort of mom goes to a "nobel" sperm bank?) I can't help being struck by how important the genes appear.
I was especially struck by this because the children almost uniformly didn't get along with their adoptive fathers. It wasn't so much outright hostility as simple lack of connection. A few even indicated that they knew the adoptive fathers weren't their real fathers before their mothers revealed it to them. I wonder how much of this is due to personality differences vs. biochemical compatability (pheromones and the like).
All in all it was a wonderful read. It isn't heavy on statistics or a central theme. It's a loosely connected tale of stories each of which is interesting in its own right. IMHO, well done Plotz!
Let's say you are a member of a married couple and you want to conceive a child, but the husband had a vasectomy years and years ago. If given the chance to conceive by artificial insemination, would you accept a sperm from a healthy but otherwise undistinguished anonymous donor, or would you be more eager to accept the sperm from a healthy Nobel Prize winner? It's a simple choice, isn't it? It's a choice that women used to be able to make, and they cannot any more, not because there is no interest in producing genius children, but because what was known as the "Nobel Prize Sperm Bank" once existed and exists no more. The story of the bank, funny, bizarre, and sad, is told in _The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank_ (Random House) by David Plotz. The bank folded in 1999, and was, according to Plotz, "the most radical experiment in human genetic engineering in American history." However, no one had followed the results that the bank had produced, so no one knew how the experiment turned out. Plotz determined to do so, breaking through the secrecy and (since he worked for the famous Internet magazine _Slate_) using the Internet's power to make connections and uncover the untold stories. The result is a fascinating story that undercuts our current devotion to the power of the gene.
Robert Graham was a multimillionaire who, several decades after eugenics had become an American fad and then faded, had taken up the crusade. His was not the dark eugenics of sterilization, but that of ensuring that outstanding males were able to produce lots and lots of outstanding children. Graham in 1980 encouraged scientists (he had little appreciation for "genius" in other fields) to donate their seed for the good of their race. Most of the Nobelists were not at all interested, thinking the idea silly. One who was interested, and donated, was William Shockley, who had won his Nobel for inventing the transistor, and parlayed the fame it gave him into a bully pulpit for his retrograde racist views. He drove many donors away. There were only three Nobel laureates who participated, and none bore fruit; other donors were accomplished in some other, lesser scientific way. Graham died in 1997, and his brainchild did not long outlive him. There were 215 babies born from its seed, but their stories were unknown until Plotz started his research. He adopted the role of Semen Detective, verifying that children were products of the bank and trying to put the evidence together that would indicate just which donor produced which child. Some donors and children he was able to unite, if both sides wanted it. The donors, twenty years on, were not generally great specimens; one turned out a failed physician who lied about his IQ on his application. Some of the meetings produced jubilant new relationships, and some were disappointments. There is inherent interest in stories of lost children and lost fathers finding each other, and Plotz's stories are beautifully told.
So, what were the results of the grand experiment? There is only a limited amount Plotz can tell us. He got in touch with thirty of the children, or their parents, and met some face to face. It isn't a random sample; for instance, they are the ones ready to talk about the sperm bank. A few of the kids are brilliant, most are good students, some are below average, so there does seem to be a skew toward intelligence. But like all nurture versus nature questions, there is no good answer. The mothers of these kids were motivated to get involved with the bank because they themselves were highly motivated, and also undoubtedly because they were at least middle class and thus in prosperous homes. They had not themselves been interested in any eugenics goals; they just wanted healthy sperm from reliably healthy men. They wanted successful children, but it wasn't just a matter of hunting up good sperm; their desires to have their children succeed led them to raise their children in ways to make that happen. Certainly, Graham would not have found that his kids turned out to be a super cadre ready to lead America into new scientific and genetic success. Playing with genes in this way is too much of an unpredictable crapshoot, but we are still doing the same thing. The Nobel Prize Sperm Bank is gone, but it is not missed because it has been replaced. Most sperm banks now test and quiz donors and allow women to make refined choices of whose sperm to take. As Plotz writes, for better or worse, "All sperm banks have become eugenic sperm banks."
on August 19, 2007
I'm only half way through the book, but I'm not sure I can go on. I may return to it later. There is definitely thought provoking material here, but I was looking for more scientific "meat". Interesting that when Graham opened up to the sperm bank to any woman, it became a market driven company for the short time it was around and women began selecting for qualities other than Nobel type intelligence, qualities like "looks", happiness, athleticism. Darwin strikes again!!!
on June 21, 2005
Bravo! David Plotz's book is absolutely a fascinating read. As a mother of Repository children I thought my interest would be obviously skewed to the applicable parts. I was pleasantly surprised by the information detailing the sperm bank's interesting background and Eugenic connection. I was even more pleased with the intimate and most honest details presented through the stories of the people involved. Meticulously written, the background and stories unfold and develop to describe complex and strange tales laced with fear, compassion, humor, and prescribed destiny. This book touches each and every one of us as beings interested in life, conception, and the genetic influence of our forefathers. It brings to light the essence of the age-old Nature vs Nurture controversy and gives hope to the idea that our choices influence us more than genetics ever could.