At the intersection of idealism, marketing, and natural selection stands the Repository for Germinal Choice, founded in 1980 by optometry magnate Robert Graham and ignominiously shuttered in 1999, after his death. Graham, who invented shatterproof eyeglass lenses, worried that too many stupid people were breeding. He proposed to counteract this flood of idiot offspring by providing, free of charge, smart sperm to smart women. The resulting superbabies would slowly but surely spread their elite genes through the reproductive pool, stemming the mediocre, mongrel tide spawned by government assistance to the poor and unfit. More than 200 children were fathered by the Repository's color-coded donors, glowingly described in its catalog as eminent scientists, Olympic athletes, and prominent businessmen.
In fact, what the media dubbed "the Nobel Prize sperm bank," an appellation that Graham enthusiastically adopted, only had one openly acknowledged Nobel-winner in its catalog—William Shockley, the notorious racist who invented the transistor—and his donations never resulted in a birth. But hopeful mothers and their maturing children alike hoped for greatness from the bank's frozen straws of semen. In a series of articles for the online magazine Slate, David Plotz solicited customers and children of the sperm bank to contact him as he tried to piece together the Repository's history. Not only did he hear from them, he became their last hope for discovering lost fathers and reconstructing origin stories. Plotz wound up as more a "sperm detective" than a journalist, and in The Genius Factory, he intersperses his oddly intimate investigations into strangers' family dynamics with histories of eugenics, anonymous sperm donation, and Graham's grand folly. This compulsively readable, often heartbreaking book seesaws between discovering history and making history, between sins of commission and sins of omission, between hope and despair. The stories mothers and children tell themselves about these unknown fathers rarely come true as they had imagined. Yet Plotz finds that the secrets he possesses, however unexpected, sometimes let his correspondents discover important truths about themselves.
Plotz is equally adept at reviving the past and recounting his first-person experiences, but as the book progresses, the latter dominates the tale. At one point, he decides he needs to donate sperm himself to understand the bewildering combination of hubris, greed, and benevolence that motivates donors. Plotz is also an important ancillary figure in the paired morality plays of Donor Coral, whom a working-class son hopes will turn out to be Jonas Salk, and Donor White, who skirted the anonymity rules by keeping in touch with the recipient family. These stories lend personal heft and emotion to Plotz's project, but they also illustrate dramatic changes in the way people think about their genetic material in the 21st century. No doubt the rich memes about identity and family disseminated by The Genius Factory will enrich American culture far more than the DNA of Graham's prize male specimens ever will.