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:
For example, under our system of government, the 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 Canada and 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," "nativists," and "xenophobes."
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 way, as Slate.com's David Plotz points out in his new book The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank:
"In 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 fill out.
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 donors were 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.
"Robert 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 men…
"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.
"Where 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 hero.
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 in it.)
For example, Plotz trots out the old chestnut,
"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) Samuel Gompers.
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, author of 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 has fallen hook, line, and sinker for celebrity economist Steven D. Levitt's crypto-eugenic theory, as promoted in his enormous bestseller Freakonomics, that legalizing abortion cut crime by 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, the direct 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 effect on 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 century, only 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 "eugenics" was Sir Francis Galton, the half-cousin of Charles Darwin (their one grandparent in common was the remarkable 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:
"It 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 geniuses themselves.
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 prodigies?
Definitely not. According to psychometrician 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 certainly will.
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 Columbus to 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 before.
But heroes sometimes make those kinds of courageous—and creative—errors.