three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
18-Sept-Oct-2005
By: 
David Plotz
user_rating: 
0

The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank

A-GeniusFactoryIn 1980, the California-based Repository for Germinal Choice opened with the purpose of inseminating women with the seed of Nobel laureates and thus staving off what its founder saw as an imminent American genetic catastrophe. For the next 20 years, women descended upon the clinic to bear children from the cream of the genetic crop. The bank closed in 1999 with its founder dead, its records sealed, the fate of its donors and children unknown. Plotz set out to discover what happened to them. Thanks to some early bad publicity, genius genes were more difficult to come by than one might think, and none of the 215 children conceived through the clinic actually had Nobel Prize-winning parents. What could have been a strange tale of racism and eugenics takes on more significance as the day when parents can design their babies draws ever closer.
Random House. 288 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 1400061245

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"… an engaging, highly enjoyable book that is personal and cultural, exploring the individual quest for roots and the popular ideas about identities, potentials and aspirations that frame such a quest. … Plotz tells a wonderful tale, acting in turn as narrator, ethnographer, historian, social critic and even go-between, brokering reunions between children and their genitors." Jonathan Marks

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"The Genius Factory story—by turns personal, confounding, creepy, defiant of expectations and touching—isn’t over, but it is worth telling now. ‘Eugenics,’ Plotz writes, ‘was the confluence of three rivers of Anglo- American thought: late eighteenth-century theories about overpopulation, late-nineteenth-century Darwinism, and early-twentieth-century racial paranoia.’ Add to that early 21st century techno-fetish and what Plotz self-mockingly calls ‘yuppie parental ambition,’ and his book’s contribution becomes clear." Jonathan Kiefer

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Whether dealing with families and donors or negotiating the ethical shoals of his sensitive subject, Plotz is an unfailingly modest and insightful guide. … The book’s biggest shortcoming is the author’s inability to resolve his own conflicting views on just how important genes are." Daniel Akst

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Most of The Genius Factory is so perfectly pitched—blithe, smart, skeptical, yet entranced by its subject—that the awkward sections stand out. … This book manages to avoid voyeurism as long as its story is told in the abstract, with only a couple of nutty, racist tycoons as its targets." Janet Maslin

Washingtonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[W]hile The Genius Factory does uncover an offbeat corner of American entrepreneurship … the surprise is how, for all of the author’s humor and skepticism, this is ultimately a moving, even tender, tribute to the multiple ways in which families are created, revised, and sustained." William O’Sullivan

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"The Genius Factory began as a series for the online magazine Slate, and it shows; the book is occasionally too hip for its own good. … But most of the time Plotz is an engaging and confident storyteller—and he has a terrific yarn to tell." Robin Marantz Henig

Critical Summary

Critics are split on whether the book, which emerged from a series of articles Plotz wrote for Slate, is better when it focuses on personal stories or when it discusses the larger issues. The light tone that Plotz takes is never disrespectful. The author’s seeming ambivalence about the genetic component of intelligence, and the lack of scientific context, might leave the reader equally undecided about both the morality and feasibility of this exercise in voluntary eugenics. In any event, the story is consistently interesting, particularly in light of the increasing role that sperm banks now play in America.