The Genius Factory: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank by David Plotz

Do the white thing
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Plotz's daddy-love is significant. This is a book about spunk, jism, the white stuff - and how in the past century or so artificial insemination has moved from being a whispered about dark art to becoming a multi-million dollar business. It's an account of how a disciple of eugenics called Robert Graham, a millionaire optometrist who invented shatter-proof plastic lenses for spectacles, founded a sperm bank in 1980, the aim of which was to seed the wombs of American women with "genius babies". Graham believed that humanity was going to hell in a handcart because the wrong kind of people – black, poor, stupid – were having too many children, while the right kind (Aryan, rich, smart) were having too few.

Together with a maverick physicist called William Shockley, who'd won the Nobel Prize for his part in the development of the transistor, Graham grabbed massive media attention for his sperm bank. Shockley made Graham look like Mr Moderation, his views on eugenics were explicitly racist and he probably wouldn't have minded joining Mengele at Auschwitz to do a few "selections". Nevertheless, with his imprimatur – and spunk – the Repository for Germinal Choice was got going in California, and for nearly 20 years it doled out allegedly superior, donor sperm free to wannabe mothers; provided they were married, white and reasonably intelligent.

To give Plotz credit, he only uses Graham's bank as a shooting-off point for a wider discussion of the whys, wherefores, history and ethical implications of artificial insemination. He's good on its development, from the first, recorded description (in the 1880s), of a chloroformed woman being injected with freshly "harvested" semen, to the contemporary practises of the Californian Cryobank. Plotz's potted history of the discovery of the significance of semen was worth the price of the book – not that you couldn't read about this elsewhere, but it's still salutary to be reminded that it wasn't until the late 18th century that anyone had any idea what semen was for, and not until 1827 that the mammalian egg was discovered. It was experimentation with artificial insemination that revealed the mysteries of human reproduction; indeed, without it we'd probably all still be wandering around believing the sky god shaped us from primordial muck.

Graham was an optometrist, and his cockamamie reasoning about "genius" sperm reveals this. He understood Darwin – but he hadn't factored in Mendel. Not that he ever got his hot little hands on that much Nobel spunk anyway. Apart from Shockley there were only a couple of other Nobellist donors – and their sperm never fathered any children. So, given that the aims of the Bank were nonsense, and soon to be supplanted – as Plotz shows – by mainstream banks offering a bespoke product, why write about Repository for Germinal Choice, rather than artificial insemination in general?

The answer is that it gives Plotz some great human interest stories. He uses his net savvy to track down children who were conceived using the Bank's donor sperm, and in two cases unites them with their biological fathers. The confusion of teenagers discovering that their nurturing dads are not their biological parents, and that the act that conceived them was part-masturbation, part-injection, is rich in tragic – if not comic – possibility. Plotz accompanies Tom to visit Jeremy, a slimy doctor renting a duplex off some drug dealers in South Miami Beach. Jeremy, who has fathered so many children that Plotz refers to the total as "X", is well limned-in. He's a man whose relentless and selfish drive to serial propagation, shows how sperm banks have created a new kind of opportunistic psychopath.

Sadly, the rest of Plotz's yarns (some of which are intolerably twee) would have been fine as colour supplement 2,000-worders, but lack substance when pasted end-to-end. He has nothing much to say about where artificial insemination has led us in terms of our conception of parenting, beyond the kind of depth-psychology favoured by fifth-rate agony aunts; he has no ethical perspective either, beyond accepting the inevitable – that donor anonymity is crumbling. It's a shame, because it's a subject that deserves better than the sound of one hand thwacking.

Will Self's 'Dr Mukti and Other Tales of Woe' is published by Penguin

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