Sperm banking may sound derisible.
But it`s a heartrendingly serious matter to those who
have the misfortune to need the industry`s services.
About one million Americans alive today were conceived
with donor sperm. Another 30,000 are born every year.
And sperm banking is worth thinking
about in depth because it vividly illustrates two
general principles that the American Establishment
doesn`t want you to think about:
differ strikingly, so selection—whether
choosing who will father a baby or which foreigners
will be allowed to immigrate to the United States—is
important. Yet in American public discourse, we are
all supposed to ignore the 800 pound gorilla of
Nature. We`re supposed to talk only about the 10
pound poodle of Nurture, whether
- Just because American elites
and other interest groups want to banish debate over
human selection from polite society doesn`t mean
these questions don`t matter. Somebody always
has to do the selecting. What they are trying to do
is keep you from doing it.
For example, under our system of
voters` elected representatives are supposed to
decide how many immigrants are admitted and how they
should be chosen. Then the laws are supposed to be
enforced by the executive branch.
Yet powerful people don`t want that
to happen. President Bush, for example, simply
refuses to enforce some of the immigration laws and
hamstrings the enforcement of others. And the
political elite will simply not entertain the idea that
we should make more of an effort, as
Australia do, to choose from among the hundreds of
millions of foreigners who would like to immigrate to
America those who would most benefit the
general welfare of existing citizens.
You see, to select is to
Discriminate. And Discrimination is the worst thing in
the whole world.
But somebody gets to choose.
Under our current system, recent immigrants, legal and
illegal, just end up getting to choose their relatives
in foreign countries.
Nobody can explain why this is just
or efficient. But then nobody needs to. The current
system benefits potent groups—ethnic lobbies, the
Democratic Party, employers looking for
cheap labor. And they are quick to
smear anybody who asks questions as "racists,"
The artificial insemination
business isn`t as important as immigration in
determining America`s future. But in that field,
fortunately, there`s been encouraging progress.
It may seem reasonable that how
many and who get born in America are
decisions that should be made by American citizens
in the privacy of their own bedrooms.
But doctors sure didn`t feel that
Slate.com`s David Plotz points out in his new
The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel
Prize Sperm Bank:
this first generation of AID [Artificial
Insemination by Donor], doctors tyrannized their
patients. When a red-faced couple appeared at the
office, mumbling about infertility, the doctor told them
he would take care of everything. Mothers were
discouraged from asking questions about the donor. The
doctor did a little poking around for a suitable
donor—often the closest medical student at hand. The
doctor would make sure the donor was the right skin
color—white parents got white donors. If the doctor was
feeling benevolent, he would also try to match the eye
color of the father."
Doctors assumed that doctors` DNA
was the ideal—and that the parents who would actually
raise the child shouldn`t get a say.
But today, the consumer`s
freedom of choice reigns supreme in the sperm
market. For instance, if you have a fast web connection,
you can download the 26 page (and 2 meg)
application that donors at the California Cryobank
Lesbians and other feminists are particularly
enthusiastic and choosy clients.
Thus, according to
numerous reports in the British press in 1998,
two-time Oscar winning actress
Jodie Foster had proudly announced to friends that,
after a long search for the perfect DNA, she had had
herself impregnated with the gametes of a
tall and handsome scientist with an IQ of 160.
She was apparently so pleased with
how her first child turned out that she obtained more
sperm from the same brainy hunk for her second child.
What accounted for this dramatic
increase in customer choice? The single most important
individual in liberating the sperm bank industry from
elite paternalism, according to Plotz`s book, was the
elderly, eccentric millionaire eugenicist
Robert K. Graham. In 1980 he founded the
endlessly-denounced Repository for Germinal Choice,
better known as the Nobel Prize sperm bank.
Unsurprisingly, because Graham
valued IQ so highly, a disproportionate fraction of his
Ashkenazi Jews, like Salk.
Also, unsurprisingly but under the
circumstances ironically, Graham was constantly
denounced as a Nazi.
Yet, despite the calumny he had to
put up with, Graham vastly improved the industry.
Graham strolled into the world of
dictatorial doctors and
cowed patients and accidentally launched a
revolution…All he wanted to do was propagate genius. But
he knew that his grand experiment would flop unless
women wanted to shop with him… So Graham did what
no one in the business had ever done: he marketed his
Repository catalog was very spare … but it thrilled his
customers. Women who saw it realized, for the first
time, that they had a genuine choice… Thanks to its
attentiveness to consumers, the Repository upended the
hierarchy of the fertility industry. Before the
Repository, fertility doctors had ordered, women had
accepted… Mother after mother said the same thing to me:
she had picked the Repository because it was the only
place that let her select what she wanted.
Graham went, other sperm banks — and the rest of the
fertility industry—followed… All sperm banks have become
eugenic sperm banks.”
I quote Plotz at length to show
that, by any objective standard, Graham is an American
Graham`s place as a national
benefactor is secure not because he accomplished his
goal of improving the national germ plasm—donor
insemination is rare enough and the results variable
enough that the entire industry could barely move the
most sensitive needle on a national scale—but because he
turned the process of selection over to the people who
rightfully should have the choice.
I`ve admired Plotz`s journalism in
Slate.com since the 1990s. His book The Genius
Factory is an outgrowth of his excellent 2001
series of articles in Slate, in which he used
the power of the Internet to facilitate introductions
between some of the so-called "genius babies" and
their biological fathers.
This was a touching journalistic
feat on the emotional level. And on the intellectual
level, it was refreshingly free of the usual knee-jerk
denigration of Graham`s Repository. (For the sake of
full disclosure, let me note that Plotz requested my
help with his original series, and I may—or may not—have
made some trivial contributions to it.)
So I was looking forward to his
book. Unfortunately, I can`t say that four more years of
work have added much.
Although there are many nuggets of
independent insight still buried within it, Plotz has
added a lot of conventional cant of the
Stephen Jay Gould School of
Tendentious Demonology. (That Plotz`s book has no
source notes or index does not increase one`s confidence
For example, Plotz trots out the
eugenicists … won passage of the
1924 Immigration Act, which choked off the flow of
immigrants from southern and eastern Europe."
As Harvard`s Mark Snyderman and
Richard J. Herrnstein pointed out in the
American Psychologist journal way back in 1983
after reading the Congressional debates, the most
important backers of immigration restriction were union
leaders, such as American Federation of Labor founder
(and Jewish immigrant)
But the fact that the left was the
biggest force behind the immigration cutoff doesn`t suit
the demagogic mythology concocted by leftists like Gould
about how IQ-test-wielding anti-Semitic eugenicists
pushed through the 1924 Act.
The early 20th Century eugenics fad
has plenty of actual faults to account for, without the
biased blarney you read in popular accounts like Plotz`s.
In reality, early supporters of
eugenics tended to be the same sort of people as those
who read Plotz`s Slate.com today: secular
centrists and leftists who enthusiastically endorse
Darwinism without actually knowing much about it.
Eugenics` opponents were primarily religious, led by
the brilliant Catholic controversialist G.K. Chesterton,
Eugenics and Other Evils.
Chesterton pointed out that
the "positive eugenics" of society arranging
marriages among the most fit was self-defeating. If
arranged marriages actually succeeded in breeding
better men and women, the first thing these healthier,
smarter, more robust individuals would do would be to
tell society to butt out of arranging their marriages,
and they`d go back to choosing their own mates!
Unfortunately, Plotz dodges many of
the most interesting questions about sperm banking, such
as whether or not it works.
Also, his tone has grown more snide
and lowbrow—more like that of all the other purveyors of
the conventional wisdom who have condemned Graham.
Plotz is a smart, sensible,
good-hearted guy. All I can imagine is that he suffered
a failure of courage. Perhaps someone made clear to him
that a frank, thought-provoking, independent-minded book
about heredity would not be good for his career.
The demonizing of eugenics doesn`t
make American elites immune to eugenic reasoning.
Instead, it just makes them more susceptible to
incorrect eugenic logic.
Look at how the chattering class
sinker for celebrity economist Steven D. Levitt`s
crypto-eugenic theory, as promoted in his enormous
Freakonomics, that legalizing abortion cut crime
pre-emptively executing those fetuses most likely to
grow up to be criminals.
Six years ago in my
debate with Levitt in Slate.com, I pointed
out that, as seductive as Levitt`s eugenic logic may be,
opposite actually happened. The first cohort born
after abortion was legalized grew up to be the most
violent teens in American history. (The problem with
Levitt`s theory is that the biggest impact of legalizing
abortion was not to cut down on "unwanted
births" as he implies, but to increase
unwanted pregnancies, which had a highly uncertain
who ended up getting born.)
So let`s take a look at a question
that Plotz simply fails to do any research upon: does
selecting a donor with the genes you want mean your
child will inherit his traits?
A few minutes` thought demonstrates
there are no guarantees. Look at how different siblings,
born of the same parents, typically turn out to be.
Consider two famous pairs of
Hollywood brothers, the Bridges and the Quaids. The
amusing thing is that Jeff Bridges and Dennis Quaid, the
two leading men, are in many ways more similar to each
other than they are to their respective brothers, Beau
Bridges and Randy Quaid, who are both character actors.
Similarly, Graham`s assumption that
Nobel Prize-winning dads would generate abundant
geniuses was obviously silly. For example, over the last
six offspring of Nobel-winners have gone on to win
their own Nobels. So the odds that the child of a Nobel
Prize-winner will grow up to be a Nobel Laureate are
hundreds to one against.
On the other hand, the odds that
somebody who is not a Nobel winner will be the parent of
a Laureate are millions to one against.
The coiner of the word
Sir Francis Galton, the half-cousin of Charles
Darwin (their one grandparent in common was the
Erasmus Darwin). Among Galton`s extraordinary range
of inventions, including the forensic fingerprinting,
the weather map, and the silent dog whistle, was the
idea of "regression toward mediocrity" (what we
now call "regression to the mean") and the
associated statistical concepts of correlation and
regression. Jim Holt recently wrote in
The New Yorker:
took Galton nearly two decades to work out the
subtleties of regression, an achievement that, according
to Stephen M. Stigler, a statistician at the University
of Chicago, `should rank with the greatest individual
events in the history of science—at a level with William
Harvey`s discovery of the circulation of blood and with
Isaac Newton`s of the separation of light.`”
As an admirer of Galton, Graham
should have understood how little assurance there would
be that children of geniuses would turn out to be
For example, consider the alleged
160 IQ of Jodie Foster`s baby daddy. That`s an
extraordinary number: Only 1 out of about 30,000
Americans scores so high. (Indeed, the score is so rare
that you can be sure that a lot of the people you meet
who claim to have a 160 IQ … don`t.) Does this guarantee
that the Foster family will be blessed with two
Definitely not. According to
Chris Brand, the "narrow sense"
heritability (i.e., the heritability between the average
of both parents and their child, who shares half of
their variable genes, rather than the "broad sense"
heritability found between identical twins, who share
all their genes), is about 0.4. That means the expected
boost in a kid`s IQ from using a sperm donor with an IQ
of 160 instead of a one with the average IQ of 100 is
only 12 points. And your results may vary … and almost
Now, twelve IQ points (80% of a
standard deviation) is nothing to sneer at. It`s the
difference between the 50th percentile and the 79th
percentile on the Bell Curve.
Still, I fear Jodie might find
herself a tad disappointed.
But nothing is certain in the human
world. All you can do is nudge the odds a little.
And keep in mind: I`m not aware of
any other technique, apart from selective breeding, that
would provide an average expected IQ boost of 12 points.
Just because eugenic sperm banking
won`t have any noticeable impact on the national average
IQ, doesn`t mean Graham wasn`t a valuable innovator.
It was also silly of
underestimate the circumference of the Earth by
7,000 miles, making Asia look within easy reach—even
though scholars had known the true size ever since
Eratosthenes had accurately measured it 1,700 years
But heroes sometimes make those
kinds of courageous—and creative—errors.
[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and