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The quest to breed gifted children

Exceptionally talented individuals hold the power to change the world, so imagine what a whole race of geniuses could achieve. In the 1970s, one man’s vision for sharing genius genes for the greater good became, for a brief moment, a reality.

Anna Fahertyaverage reading time 7 minutes

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In his 1936 book ‘Out of the Night’, American geneticist H J Muller outlined a plan for future populations to access “the innate quality” of men like Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Ludwig van Beethoven and Karl Marx. 

Muller’s scheme involved artificially inseminating thousands of women with semen from a single exceptional man. These mothers, like mares mating with a pedigree stallion, were expected to give birth to children with characteristics inherited from the sperm donor.

Mankind has a right to the best genes attainable.

H J Muller writing in ‘Out of the Night: A biologist’s view of the future’, 1936

Deliberate selection 

Muller wasn’t the first person to suggest that traits of eminent men could be inherited, or that humans should make selective decisions when it comes to reproduction. 

In 1869, the polymath Francis Galton published a landmark study of several hundred “illustrious” Englishmen. Galton concluded that “man’s natural abilities are derived by inheritance” and suggested that several generations of “judicious” marriages could lead to a “highly-gifted race”. 

Black and white illustration of a group of men and women voting.

An Oneida Community couple seek approval to become parents.

In the same year, young men and women of the Oneida Community in Madison County, New York signed up to an experiment in which parent pairings were subject to approval or deliberate organisation. 

The community, overseen by theologian John Humphrey Noyes, prioritised couplings likely to produce children with highly developed spiritual characteristics. The second factor it valued was intellectual development.

Noyes, Galton and Muller were advocates for eugenics, the deliberate control of reproduction to increase the incidence of desirable characteristics within a population. The concept thrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Inspired by the principles of natural selection, published by Charles Darwin in 1859, eugenics was based on the idea that deliberate selection could solve practical challenges, like the management of booming urban populations or the building of new nation states. Such thinking came under fire after it was applied by the Third Reich during the World War II.

Black and white image of a woman holding a young sleeping baby.

Frontispiece from ‘The Eugenic Marriage: A personal guide to the new science of better living and better babies’.

In some forms, eugenics focuses on preventing or ending lives that have been classified as unfit. In others, it promotes the proliferation of supposedly positive characteristics, often through voluntary participation. While the aims and methods of these two approaches diverge, they each place a higher value on some human lives than others. Muller and Galton both put genius high on their list of desired characteristics.

Inherited brilliance 

Galton’s claim that genius is inherited was based on the assumption that exceptionally intelligent people always succeed. In the 19th century, just like today, that couldn’t have been the case. Women and people of other classes and races had limited access to the opportunities Galton himself benefited from.

Scientists now accept that at least half the diversity we see in intelligence is down to genetic factors. However, we still don’t understand how these factors work. That’s partly because, as we discovered in the first instalment of this story, intelligence is a tricky thing to measure. It’s also such a complex trait that its genetic components probably spread across hundreds of genes.

Of course, you can try to breed a race of geniuses without understanding all the genetic details. But even if you succeed in producing a crop of naturally gifted children, is that enough to guarantee their future success? British psychologist Joan Freeman doesn’t think so. Her research suggests hard work, educational opportunities, emotional support and an independent, courageous spirit are more important. As is a desire to keep learning.

Some of these aspects have genetic components, but environment also plays a role. For instance, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart may have inherited some of his abilities from his composer father, but his parentage also ensured he had access to musical opportunities, one-on-one tuition and a supportive creative environment.

Colour image of a family tree.

A pedigree chart of genius in the Mozart Weber family.

Breeding genius babies 

Nine years after H J Muller’s death, his idea became a reality when, in 1976, Robert K Graham, a 74-year-old optometrist, set up the Hermann J Muller Repository for Germinal Choice in California. 

Graham described the venture as a genius sperm bank. The press, who made its existence public knowledge in 1980, called it the Nobel Prize sperm bank. Neither was quite true.

Though Muller himself had won the Nobel Prize, only three Nobel Laureates contributed to the bank and none fathered a child. Many donors were successful mathematicians, computer scientists and engineers – intelligent people, but not potential candidates for a prize honouring work that delivers great benefits to mankind.

Saving the world in different ways 

Muller viewed his idea as the most important work of his life. He believed the human race was deteriorating and wanted to take positive steps to prevent humans losing their position as the dominant species on Earth. For Muller, a race of geniuses was the first step in a long-term plan of genetic advances.

A communist sympathiser who yearned for a more cooperative society, Muller identified two priorities for breeding decisions: high intelligence and “comradeliness”. “The conscious withholding of these gifts from the people at large,” he wrote, would be an anti-social course of action.

Graham, who made a fortune from his invention of shatterproof plastic glasses, provided frozen sperm to women at no cost and asked his donors to contribute out of “enlightened generosity”. However, his aims differed from Muller’s. Graham wanted to produce thousands of children fathered by “the brightest men” in order to drive down the proportion of undesirables in the population. Graham’s bank never implemented Muller’s requirement that donors should have an altruistic streak, and only provided sperm to married couples “of good repute”.

Medical science is keeping more of the defective population alive than ever before, while our best brains… do little to correct the decrease in their own numbers.

Robert K Graham in ‘The Future of Man’, 1981

Muller’s already compromised vision finally came to an end when one of the donors was revealed to be William Shockley. Shockley, a British-born Nobel winner, was known as a co-inventor of the transistor and a racist. He claimed black people were genetically inferior to whites and – among other schemes – proposed voluntary sterilisation ‘bonuses’ for the “genetically disadvantaged”. On discovering Shockley’s involvement, Muller’s widow asked Graham to remove her husband’s name from the project, which she described as a racist mistake.

Schematic image of an egg being fertilised.

Schematic image of an egg being fertilised.

A new generation of geniuses?

Despite these troubles, the genius sperm bank operated for almost 20 years, during which time over 200 children were born. Graham had planned to study them but this never happened. Even if a follow-up study had been completed, it’s likely that couples who sourced sperm from the bank supported their children’s development in many ways, not just by selecting the characteristics of their genetic fathers. 

The most well-documented person to have been conceived with the help of Graham’s genius sperm bank is Doron Blake. In 2001, at age 18, Blake told American journalist David Plotz that a loving family was more important to him than genes. Blake explained that he felt pressured by people’s expectations and didn’t want “to be special”. Making genius people, he said, “was a screwed-up idea”. 

Blake may have been brought into this world with specially selected genes but, like all geniuses, it is the world around him that singled him out as different.

So, if you had the chance, would you choose a genius baby? Personally, I think we should simply accept the view of Courtney Ramm, another child conceived with sperm from Graham’s bank. “I really believe,” said Ramm in a 2004 interview on CNN, “that there’s genius in every person”.

About the contributors

Anna Faherty

Anna Faherty is a writer and lecturer who collaborates with museums on an eclectic range of exhibition, digital and print projects. She is the author of the ‘Reading Room Companion’ and the editor of ‘States of Mind’, both published by Wellcome Collection.