The "Genius Babies" Grow Up

The "Genius Babies" Grow Up

The "Genius Babies" Grow Up

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

The "Genius Babies" Grow Up

What happened to 15 children from the Nobel Prize sperm bank?

Slate's "Seed" project is chronicling the history of the Repository for Germinal Choice, the "Nobel Prize sperm bank" founded by millionaire inventor Robert Graham in the late 1970s. We have been searching for the 200-plus children conceived through the bank, their parents, and the men who donated the sperm for them. The left-hand column on this page displays links to the other 12 articles in the Seed series, including the introduction explaining the project.

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Two months ago, a 16-year-old Midwestern boy—let's call him "Jon"—discovered he is not who he thought he was. Jon's mom, "Sarah," informed him that his father was not his biological father and that he was conceived using "genius sperm" from the Repository for Germinal Choice. Jon had been telling his mom that, while he would definitely attend college, he also wanted to enroll in professional wrestling school. She decided he needed to know "he had more potential than that."

David Plotz David Plotz
David Plotz is Slate's deputy editor. If you are interested in sharing any information about the Repository for Germinal Choice, send it toplotzd@slate.com

Jon wasn't shocked to learn of his Nobel sperm bank origins. Sarah had been intimating for years that Jon shouldn't take his father—a difficult man who's had trouble holding jobs—as a role model. "She had been dropping hints since I was in the sixth grade. She told me I had the potential to do better than him. Once, a few years ago, she said something about how I didn't have to worry about Dad's genes—which is good because he's not the most savory character."

(This family home is surely peculiar at the moment. Jon's father, who isn't around much, doesn't know that Jon has discovered his origins. Jon's younger sister has no inkling that her brother is Nobel sperm bank kid—and that she is, too.)

The idea that he was specially conceived through the repository has galvanized Jon. He scoured the Web for information about the repository and e-mailed Slate to see what we knew. He has researched the repository's history, concluding that founder Robert Graham, who died in 1997, "was pretty much a Nazi," but that the results of his sperm bank—such as himself—weren't so bad.

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Is Jon what Graham dreamed of when he built his genius sperm bank? Jon doesn't adore school, but he's still going to graduate a year early. He's "pretty good at math" but not at science. He favors history and English. He likes music, which in his case means rap. (He's writing lyrics for a group that he started with some friends.) He says learning about his genetic head-start has made him concentrate a bit more on school work. "Before I thought I didn't have the potential. Now I think I have got the potential and that I'm just lazy," he says, half-joking.

Jon, in short, is a very typical American teen-ager. His life is slightly more unsettled and his origins are slightly more scenic, but he is not some bizarre Überkid. He is a bright boy, a fine, funny talker, an energetic correspondent. Will he succeed at what he tries? I expect so. Will he be a leader of renown or an inventor of genius or a Nobel Prize-winner? I doubt it, but who knows?—he's only 16.

Jon's biography is echoed in the other repository kids Slate located. They show very much promise, but they are very much children. I have interviewed nine families with 15 children conceived through the repository. (I have also corresponded some with three other families that have four kids and e-mailed cursorily with another child.) These 15—or, counting the brief contacts, 20—kids are a fraction of the entire repository crop of 219 kids. (How did I find them?)

The Slate 15 range in age from 6 to 19, with most falling between 10 and 16. The group consists of eight boys and seven girls. The 15 represent eight different donors, but there is a bizarre bias toward one donor. Seven of the 15 come from Donor Fuchsia. (Click here to read more about this donor and why he might be so popular. The seven Fuchsia kids come from three different families: They don't know each other, but I would be happy to introduce them.)

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I know less than I would like to about these children. I have communicated directly with only three of them, all teen-age boys. Parents have provided detailed information to me about the other dozen, but their second-hand—and admittedly biased—accounts lack the vividness of a real interview. Still, it's hard to fault the moms and dads for their reluctance to bare their children to the world. Many of the parents told me they're horrified by the very public life of Doron Blake, the Nobel sperm bank's most famous kid. They recoil at the idea of similarly exposing their darlings. (Click here to read a profile of Doron, one of the three kids I did interview.)

A final, obvious caveat: This is not a representative sample. These families volunteered to speak. I have no idea how the Slate 15 compare to the entire repository group. I also have no way to test these kids for mental acuity or IQ or anything else. What I gathered is anecdote, not data.

So have the "superbabies" grown into superkids? The Slate 15 seem to be an accomplished bunch. Half a dozen parents credit their kids with 4.0 GPAs. Five parents told me that their kids tested at the top of their school and that their school was the best in the area. Are they prodigies? That's harder to know. Doron Blake was touted as a prodigy as a kid: He has grown up to be a very smart but not supernatural college student. The two teen-age girls in the Ramm family—the only other family besides the Blakes that is public—are artistically precocious: one an outstanding singer, the other an outstanding dancer. A 14-year-old out West, "Sam," is touted by his parents as a math-science genius with "Olympic" potential in skiing. A 14-year-old in California, "Gage," is trading stocks and researching international business at a precocious age. Another teen-ager in California, "Jacob," is a musical whiz who is already studying quantum theory.

There's a curious difference between how parents describe sons and daughters. The Slate 15 includes a cluster of five girls between 10 and 13. Their parents give them a very different kind of rave review than the boys' parents do. The girls' parents marvel that their daughters are wonderful yet normal. All are socially well-adjusted, athletic, and enthusiastic, and all are excellent students. They are, as one mom puts it about her daughters, "Renaissance kids."

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The overall parental enthusiasm should surprise no one. The parents happiest with the repository are the parents most likely to talk to a reporter and most likely to have high-achieving kids.

Do the children resemble their genetic fathers? Three offspring of Olympic gold medalist Donor Fuchsia are reportedly amazing athletes. Gage shares a love of economics with his donor. Several of the science/math enthusiasts were fathered by science/math professors. Three moms who explicitly chose "happy" donors report that their kids have sunny personalities.

All the Slate 15 are in good health, except one. The Ramm's 9-year-old son Logan—a "most happy, wonderful boy," says his mother Adrienne—has a developmental disability. He acquired it, Adrienne says, after a vaccination in infancy. He does not speak but communicates using a talking computer. Adrienne told me she and her husband hope to learn more about Donor Fuchsia—Logan's biological father—so that they might find clues about Logan's disability. They also want to discover what kind of athlete Fuchsia was, so they can know what sports Logan might excel at.

The Slate 15 aren't placid angels. Doron Blake has been bucking at his mom and resents the genetic expectations placed on him. Gage has rebelled against his very liberal parents. "He feels so powerful, with his intelligence, that sometimes it's as though he's the parent, and my husband and I are the kids. He will NOT be controlled by either of us," writes Gage's mom. (She notes that one of Gage's rebellions has been trying to stop her from smoking marijuana.)

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Readers have asked me whether it's nature or nurture that has made the repository kids what they are. The question cannot be answered, even if I could conduct elaborate psychometric surveys on the Slate 15. The repository kids all have hyperinvolved parents. Their moms are constantly enrolling them for music lessons and sports teams. The parents don't seem to be bullies—several explicitly don't push their kids intellectually—but they are incredibly attentive and supportive. As one mom e-mailed, "Both children are the picture of health, quite athletic, which is not a surprise given that they have abundant food, medical care, a safe home, and the opportunity to play. All children would thrive in this environment." Is it their genes or their devoted parents that kick-started them? Probably both.

A dozen of the 15 know they come from the Nobel Prize sperm bank. That makes them unusual: Studies show the vast majority of parents who use sperm banks don't tell their kids. The kids seem unbothered, even blasé, about their origins. Gage says he wasn't very surprised when his mom broke the news: "I have always noticed differences between my dad and me. … His personality is nothing like mine." Many mothers said their kids felt "relief" when they learned dad was not dad. As Jacob's mom put it, "He always knew but he didn't know."

The kids certainly don't credit their genesis with changing them. Most of them were eager students before they knew, and learning about the bank hasn't altered that. Gage, who writes more like a 40-year-old than a 14-year-old, e-mailed me that "the thought that I was genetically engineered to be intelligent might have provided further impetus to my drive to improve my grades, but I do not believe it was the main factor." And the kids don't feel that parents pushed them extra-hard because they are Nobel sperm bank babies. Genetic expectations, it seems, are not so burdensome. (Nor do the kids seem very curious about their genetic fathers and siblings. Click here for why they seem indifferent.)

Many reader correspondents have been prodding me for a final verdict about the repository. I hope it's clear how hopeless it would be to issue a sweeping conclusion based on the Slate 15. My sample is mingy. I have no test scores or personality exams or report cards. Nature and nurture are all tangled up. Statistical judgment is impossible.

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But the repository can be measured against its own ambitions. Over the years, Robert Graham announced three goals for his project. At first, he envisioned the repository as a scientific experiment to prove that genes control intelligence. By that standard, the repository flopped. You can't conduct a controlled scientific study about nature and nurture with a self-selecting group of high-achieving families. Did the superstar sperm give the Slate 15 (or the Graham 219) an intelligence boost? Perhaps, but I don't know, and no one else does either.

Graham's second ambition was that his kids would form a cadre of leaders and elite scientists. Here, Slate arrives too soon. The 219 repository kids may grow up to be the essential men and women of the land. They may not. Many have made a stellar start, but they haven't arrived yet. Graham's question goes unanswered.

As Graham aged and mellowed, he settled on a more modest aim. Eventually he viewed the repository as altruism. It would give parents who couldn't have children themselves a chance to have a child that might be healthier, might be smarter, might be more musical. In this Graham is vindicated. The lasting accomplishment of the repository, I suspect (and the Slate 15 suggests), will not be that it has filled the world with genius children, but that it has filled homes with beloved ones.

If you have a connection to the Repository for Germinal Choice—whether as a donor, client, child, or employee—and you would like to share your story anonymously, please contact me by e-mail at plotzd@slate.comor by phone at (202) 862-4889.

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The Seed Series

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Part 10: The donors

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Click here for Michael Kinsley's explanatory introduction to Seed.

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5. Eugenics, Privatized


If you are interested in sharing any information about the Repository for Germinal Choice, send e-mail to plotzd@slate.com.