Nick Schulz: Robert Graham
feared that, in late-20th-century America, “cradle-to-grave social
welfare programs paid incompetents and imbeciles to reproduce. As a
result, ‘retrograde humans’ were swamping the intelligent minority”.
only way to save mankind was for the best intellectual “specimens” of
the species to reproduce at a higher rate. And the best way to make that
happen was to have the planet’s brightest — Nobel Prize-winners —
donate their genetic material for the betterment of humanity. “Ten men
of high intelligence,” Graham mused, “can be more effective than 1,000
morons.” He envisioned replacing Darwin’s natural selection with
But the plan met resistance. “It’s pretty silly,” Max Delbruck, a Nobel
winner in medicine said at the time. Nobelist Linus Pauling joked that
“the old-fashioned way is still best.” Such caviling was a problem.
Graham’s sperm bank had no hope of being marketed “to a skeptical
public,” Mr. Plotz writes, unless he scored some blue-ribbon sperm.
That’s when William Shockley stepped up to the cup, er, plate. Shockley
had won a Nobel for his work on the transistor and helped launch the
Silicon Valley tech boom. He also shared Graham’s pessimistic view of
mankind’s genetic destiny, arguing that “humanitarianism gone berserk”
— by which he meant mostly welfare — was keeping undesirables alive
and, worse, procreating. Thus he was eager to do his part to skew the
gene pool toward intelligence. With Shockley’s seed, Graham was ready to
go, and on Feb. 29, 1980, the Nobel Prize sperm bank was introduced to
According to Mr. Plotz, the bank was a product of a specific time, place
and culture. California in the 1970s was the home of America’s
freedom-loving political and technological vanguard, filled with a
spirit of limitless possibility. It was embodied in everyone from Ronald
Reagan to the academics at Caltech and Stanford and the digital pioneers
of Silicon Valley. An extreme, messianic form of the era’s spirit took
root in men like Graham and Shockley.
In 2001, Mr. Plotz set out to find out what happened to the fruit of
this odd, two-decade experiment in “positive” eugenics. “The Nobel sperm
bank kids, I realized, were messengers from our future.” Over the years,
other journalists had tried to learn more about the donors and children
of the bank, but unsuccessfully: The bank was set up to ensure that the
donors didn’t know who their kids were and that the kids didn’t know who
their fathers were.
So Mr. Plotz, a writer and editor with the online magazine Slate,
figured that he would use the Internet to break through this secret
screen. He published an article in Slate asking anyone who had ever been
involved with the bank or who knew anything about its donors or children
to contact him. And the experiment worked. Donors and mothers reached
out by email. Over three years he was able to track down dozens of
children of the bank deposits. In several tense, hilarious and touching
episodes, Mr. Plotz describes how he midwifed the meeting of some
children and their donor fathers.
Regardless of the ethical merits of Graham’s plan — or, one should say,
its demerits — the bank was doomed to failure. Most Nobelists are
older, relative to the rest of the population. Their sperm is generally
of substandard quality — lower in number and, so to speak, reproductive
energy — and thus less likely to fertilize an egg. So shortly after
opening the bank, Graham had to seek out as donors younger, high-IQ
folks who weren’t Nobelists.
But once Graham watered-down the requirements, the reason for the bank’s
existence — its cachet — was gone. Standards slipped. As Tom Legare
was later to find out, his father didn’t win a Nobel. No genius, he was
something of a lovable loser living next to a drug den in Florida. As
for the other “genius” children: Many were moderately bright, but only
one exceptionally so. Many had psychological problems, although it is
impossible to say whether the “genius” part of their makeup played a part.
Nick Schulz: Robert Graham