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Book Report: The Genius Factory
Old 10-23-2005, 11:35 PM   #1
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Book Report: The Genius Factory

Hey, I read a lot this week.

The book's full title is The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank. David Plotz is a deputy editor of MSN's Slate 'zine, and the book grew out of his article on the bank's closure. He asked people who'd donated to or "withdrawn" from the bank to contact him so that children could be traced to fathers. Then he hired a team of researchers to trawl the Internet and make the connections.

The book is a powerful statement on nature vs nurture. Plotz eventually tracked down 30 (out of over 200) kids and wasn't able to link their success (or failure) to the donors. Every kid seemed to be affected at least as much (if not more) by their mother's involved parenting-- especially their confidence that their kids would succeed. After all, their kids had been conceived with Nobel-worthy sperm. The advertising became a self-fulfilling prophesy.

That prophecy was based largely on lies. It turns out that the sperm bank did have three Nobel donors, but none of them were actually fertile enough to impregnate any customers. One of them was William Shockley, the transistor inventor, whose personal paranoia & eugenics beliefs generated a tsunami of bad publicity that nearly shut down the bank. (Shockley's behavior would fill a book of his own. He was so hated by his employees-- guys like Gordon Moore-- that they left his company as soon as they could and founded the rest of Silicon Valley.) After Shockley's publicity the bank had significant difficulty finding fertile Nobel donors so they started accepting whoever was willing (not that they shared that info with their clients).

Although the bank looked for pedigrees, they weren't so good at verifying their candidate's statements. One of their most prolific donors lied about his IQ, his book publishing, his occupation, and pretty much everything else. He was certainly fertile, though, and was estimated to have produced at least 50 kids. He also went on to a very "successful" career of serial impregnation with many other women who bore more children. (He must have made the news. Plotz wouldn't reveal the guy's name or even the number of women & children he'd been associated with, so they could have been two- or three-digit numbers.) By the time Plotz caught up with him he was living in squalor with a woman & their two kids in a filthy rundown house with a low-paying civil-service job. After court-ordered child support payments he wasn't making enough money to afford a decent life, but he didn't change his behavior.

Plotz concludes that many of the mothers & kids believed for decades that destiny was in their genes, only to have their cherished illusions destroyed by actually meeting the biological fathers. They decided pretty quickly that individual initiative & hard work were far more important than DNA.

This was one of the earliest high-volume (so to speak) sperm banks, but its ground-breaking ideas were quickly copied by other entrepreneurs. Eventually publicity and controversy caused the govt to step in and regulate the industry to avoid some of the more flagrant abuses. The bank lost huge sums of money from 1980-99 and was never a competitor. The founder died in 1997 and an angel investor died in 1999 so the heirs shut down the facility. Recordkeeping was a disaster and employees scattered or died so there's no way to tell who's related to whom.

By the way, if you guys are thinking of supplementing your income with a different kind of (ahem) job, Plotz also takes you through the mechanics of applying at a bank and making a contribution (OK, I swear that's the last one). His description thoroughly demystifies the process and removes any last vestige of romance or profitability. Delivering pizzas would probably be more profitable-- and certainly more entertaining.

Co-author (with my daughter) of “Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence.”
Author of the book written on "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement."

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