The Genius Factory – book review

May 3, 2013

in Musical prodigies, Raising children


Yesterday I re-read the excellent book The Genius Factory by Slate editor David Plotz, published in 2005. It tells the story of the “Repository for Germinal Choice” aka “The Nobel Prize Sperm Bank”, a project in the late 80s and 90s to give women access to sperm of Nobel laureates in order to raise the average IQ of society. Journalist David Plotz worked hard to track down parents who had taken part in the project and their “Nobel offspring” to see how these children had turned out – intellectually and emotionally.

There’s the well-known case of Doron Blake who was paraded through talk shows and documentaries of high IQ children in the past, but David Plotz found he steered of the path intended by the initiator of this project. After graduating from Philipp Exeter Academy, he went on to study comparative religions, got interested in spirituality and nowadays describes his career as “house dad”, though I assume this might not be the end of his story. He contrasts the lives of two boys he calls Tom and Alton, half-brothers of the same donor. Tom lives the life of an average midwestern teenager listening to rap and getting his girlfriend pregnant, Alton is a music and maths prodigy in New England making his high flying mom proud. Their story is repeated among many other cases of the “genius offspring”; very often, the kids resemble their mothers first and foremost in terms of intelligence and ambition.

One reason if that these kids obviously still have inherited 50% of their genes from their moms. But David Plotz also mentions an hypothesis about imprinting in mammals that suggests children tend to inherit cognitive functions predominantly from their mothers, while inheriting bodily midbrain functions from their fathers (this has been proven in mice, but not in humans so far!). But another explanation is clearly that nurture may have a much larger effect on the phenotype of intelligence than the media will have you believe. Lastly, some of it is simply down to fraud – in its early days, the “Nobel Prize Sperm Bank” did not adhere to professional standards and some handsome narcissists who walked through the door bragging about their high IQs were accepted as donors without further testing. This donor happens to be Tom’s and Alton’s father. Clearly, Alton’s gifts do not come from the genius sperm, as we find out as the story unfolds.

I particularly enjoyed how the author tells the story of the Nobel sperm bank from a psychological standpoint – the regrets and doubts of parents who took part, the resentment it created in some of the offspring, and how in the end love of your child is completely independent of their IQ and achievement. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the nature and nurture debate and gifted children.

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