No Nobels, One "Failure," a Few Regrets

Exploring the "Nobel Prize sperm bank."
March 30 2001 3:00 AM

No Nobels, One "Failure," a Few Regrets

How did the genius sperm-bank donors turn out?

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Another donor says, "I thought it was a little dream come true. I could have children and still have my life, and have the sense that I did something productive before I died."

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They also donated because Graham flattered them. Most were gratified to be included in such a (purportedly) elite group. Graham flew around the country to close the sale with donors. He really buttered them up. He studied their work, quizzed them about it, and listened attentively to them. "I just felt if it was so important to him and not important to me, I could give it a trial for a little while," says the Entrepreneur. "Even though I knew it was not going to make much of a difference, I was happy that Graham was happy."

Only one of the SlateSeven shared Graham's fascination with eugenics, but most sympathized generally with his goals. They agreed that genes matter, and that a child would benefit from the DNA they could pass on. "I can solve relatively complex problems. If there is a better chance that offspring of mine will be able to solve problems, that's a good thing. So I was happy to help parents," says a donor who is now a professor. "I like the idea of producing more intelligent people. After all, if you could produce one person who could change the world as much as Shockley did, that would be worth it."

(The Average Guy dissents, arguing that Graham should have selected for altruism rather than intelligence and success. It was the interview Slate published with the Entrepreneur, in fact, that confirmed to the Average Guy that Graham chose badly. "Do we want people who will spend their lives on self-promotion and greed? Is it good to provide the world with more people like him?" says Average Guy.)

Altruism was their last-but-not-least reason for donating. The donors recognized that even if their offspring were not Shockleys, at least they could give some women with infertile husbands the kids they craved. "I knew it was not going to turn the world around, but if you make a couple of mothers happy, what's wrong with that?" says Entrepreneur.

So that is what the SlateSeven were. What are they now? There are no Nobels and no criminals. All of them seem smart and engaged in the world. Most write a good e-mail and talk a good game on the phone. Two are quite prominent. The rising young businessman became a fabulously successful middle-aged businessman. The emerging political activist has become a semi-famous, sometimes controversial political activist. The two promising graduate students are now junior professors at decent universities. One of the prodigies has retired from a successful career in the intelligence trade to do consulting and muck about with high I.Q. organizations (groups like Mensa, but higher I.Q.'s required). The Average Guy has returned to grad school, where he's finishing a degree in environmental policy. Most of the Slate Seven remain connected to hard science, which would please Graham, who valued science and scorned just about everything else.

The second child prodigy, who has abandoned hard science, has transformed most radically. He donated in the early '80s when he was a math whiz. Today he writes, "In many respects I feel I am a failure. The closest I have come to conventional success was when I made my living writing term papers for rich kids at Columbia, NYU, etc." But I don't think he really feels like a failure: He has just discarded the notion that intelligence, especially analytical intelligence, is an important measure of life. He has abandoned math and academia to become an artisan. "I have gone from being an intellectual whore to … I dunno what … I will never win a Nobel Prize, but I don't care. I will never make any 'great' contribution to science. No matter. I have come to terms with myself and who I am. This is the best part of growing old."

Some other donors, too, seem to be grappling with the burden of expectation. Several seem conscious of how well they have done in their profession versus how well a "genius donor" ought to have done. (In one sense, the burden of performance weighs more heavily on the genius donors than on the kids. The donors know they were supposed to be extremely accomplished, while most of the kids don't.)

Most of the donors have something unusual in common: an unsteady personal life. The vast majority of men their age are married and the vast majority have children. Yet only two of the seven, I believe, are married. Only three have their own (non-repository) children. Only one of the fathers is married to the mother of his child. (At least two men had relationships that foundered in part because the woman desired children. "She wanted to have children and I did not. But sometimes I would be in the next bedroom donating sperm. She did not try to stop me, but she was not happy about it," says Average Guy.)

I can't tell if this rockiness reflects sample bias or a deeper similarity among all repository donors (or even among all smart men). It may be that donors who don't have steady relationships or kids are more likely to contact me: They may be curious about their other genetic family. Donors with solid families, by contrast, may not think as much about their repository service.

Or perhaps there was a subtle selfishness among repository donors generally: Men who gave to such an ego-massaging sperm bank may tend to be more self-centered and thus less likely to maintain relationships. (Several of these donors, remember, say they gave so that they could pass on their genes without being inconvenienced by the actual work of fatherhood.) But this is all wild speculation.