The Crazy and Racist Libertarian Ideology that Drove the Founder of America's First Sperm Bank.
Every year thousands of children are born who will never meet their father. And neither will their mothers know more about him than maybe his blood type: Sperm banks have long become a normal way of conceiving a child. To an uncomfortably large extent, this is thanks to the work of visionary millionare, philantrope, optician, and passionate advocate of eugenics, Robert Klark Graham. At the time that he founded his "Repository for Germinal Choice" in the early 80s, artificial insemination was already widely practiced in the U.S. - the 'technology' is fairly simple, after all. However, the process was far from today's consumer-friendly and professional sperm banks – for the most part, women had to make do with whatever semen their doctor happened to have at hand. Graham, in contrast, offered only the choicest of sperm: it was not for nothing that his sperm bank was soon nick-named the "Nobel Prize Sperm Bank." Even though he failed to collect much sperm from actual winners of the Nobel Prize – the three who did volunteer turned out to be too old, as Nobel Prize-winners are wont to be, to produce high-quality sperm – the quality of the genetical material on offer was his primary concern. And quality, in Graham's mind, had one measure only: the IQ of the donor. Initially, then, only brilliant scientists were permitted to participate, later athletes, succesfull businessmen, and other notables as well. (At some point, allegedly on customer request, looks were taken into consideration, while a gift for the arts always remained only a secondary concern.)
Let Them Eat Birth Control
But intellect remained Graham's prime obsession. His goal was never simply to provide women with a simple and safe way to an artificial insemination – this was only a side effect of his program. The goal he pursued all his life, and to which he sacrificed a large part of his considerable fortune, not to speak of his reputation, was nothing less than to save the human race from genetical decay. Already as a young man, Graham was certain that only his vision of eugenics could possibly counter-act the, as he saw it, almost unavoidable decline in the quality of humankind. His apocalyptic reasoning was simple, putting merely a pessimist twist on the narrative of social darwinism: As the amenities of material progress were softening the struggle for existence, he believed, natural selection could no longer work its age-old magic. The less fit and intelligent would therefore have more and more offspring and humanity would "do away with itself."1 The only solution, according to Graham, was a "soft" form of eugenics, sometimes called "positive," because it was primarily concerned with encouraging the reproduction of intelligent people, a more innocent approach compared to the various beastly froms which "negative" population control had taken in the last century. An intelligent person, Graham always said, should have at least five children – and to take care of the rest, Graham hoped they would be open to voluntary birth control, more radical measures, like forced sterilisation, having gone out of style after the Nazi crimes had sunk in in the American public.
Going Galt in the Space Age
In the 60s Graham had already established a foundation that supported intelligent, but poor parents who wanted to have children – in retrospect a very modest and comparably sane endeavour. Soon, however, after having made a fortune by the early 70s developing unbreakable plastic spectacle lenses, his ambitions grew and he decided to found his own country: Grahamland, a refuge for all the oppressed geniuses of this earth. There, unmolested by the un-smart masses, they would be able to be brilliant in peace, without ever having to see anyone again moving his lips while reading. His plan was to buy a leftover colonial British island in the Atlantic and set up and fund a small community of scientists, who could work in perfect conditions. Soon, he calculated, the profits of their work would make the community completely autonomous. What sounds like science-fiction was going to look like it, too: They would live in specially designed flying-saucer-like buildings, being fed from from 'food factories,' and traveling through a vacuum-driven system of tubes. It would look a little like as if a "James Bond" villain decided to "give back to the community" – and a lot more stylish than the ships that are nowadays being proposed as potential libertarian exclaves for Silicon Valley-types who want to escape the oppressive atmosphere of U.S. jurisdiction.
It never materialized, though: Being too occupied by his business, Graham never went beyond drawing up these plans and recruiting some real estate agents to scout for the perfect island. But the dream never died. Finally, 74 years old, father of eight, and having retired from his business, he made another attempt at saving humanity and founded the sperm bank. Again, in world-saving terms, this venture did not achieve much. No more than 200 children came out of it until it closed in 1999. To Graham, however, that was not the point. He had a vision of an America in which one day every little town would have its very own collection of hyper-intelligent semen. His own sperm bank was only a test, a way of demonstrating to the world that positive eugenics worked and only this way the world could be saved. And taken as a sperm bank, at least, it was a resounding success: Thousands of women approached him, looking for an easy and safe way to an artificial insemination. And to Graham, at least, it did not seem to matter that most of them weren't interested in his eugenical theories at all. As the journalist David Plotz found, who interviewed many of them years later, barely any of them stayed in touch with Graham or filled out his elaborate questionaires with which he tried to prove that his program worked. Sure, they did not mind having smart children, but they did not have the kind of idealist consciousness that made them believe that they were doing their bit in saving Wester civilization. The opposite could be said about the male donors: As Graham's assistant Paul Smith explained, they were idealists, convinced they were doing a valiant deed for the common good – like any blood- or organ-donor, one imagines, only more vain. And while they were screened carefully, the "genetical quality" of the women, in another chauvinist twist, did not concern the sperm bank much at all – while it was of grave concern that they be married and heterosexual, as well as financially secure. The semen was then delivered by FedEx directly to their door step. To give their husbands some sense of accomplishment, it was suggested they do the insemination themselves, right at home.
(By the way, if there is any interest: Paul Smith is now head of his own sperm bank, with some of the same donors he had already recruited for Graham, the "Hereditary Choice Sperm Bank of High Achievers, Las Vegas." He is based in Nevada now, after the authorities in California shut down his business for, among other things, storing human and dog semen in the same containers...)2
Graham's Stalinist Brain
All this is not to say that the eugenic vision underlying the project was of little importance. Eugenics have always fascinated many people, and not all of them have been scary racists – many, as Graham proved, were ordinary folks in sunny late-20th century California. And some had even been communists, like Hermann Joseph Muller, Robert Klark Graham's mentor and eminence grise of the sperm bank project. He had such an influence on Graham's thinking that even though he died in 1967, he remained on the letterhead of the "Repository for Germinal Choice" until the very end. Herrmann Muller received the Nobel Prize in 1946 for his genetical research, and advocated for eugenics all his life. He also had been a stalinist. In 1936, at the height of the purges, he was in Moscow working for the Soviet Institute for Genetics, and wrote a letter to Stalin himself, passionately laying out the case for eugenics. In this letter he repudiated the perverted racial ideology of Nazism (being "quarter-jewish" himself), but more importantly argued against bourgeois defeatism in human biology, and for the compatibility of marxist principles with those of eugenics. One day, the masses would all be geniuses! He wrote: "In the future – freed from the fetters of religious superstition – it will be the pride of many mothers, to mix their germplasm with that of Lenin or Darwin himself and to contribute a child with their biological characteristics to society..." He suggested to Stalin the exact same program which was carried out decades later in the free world by Graham: to collect high-quality sperm and distribute it, the only difference being that he envisioned it to go primarily to unmarried women – a difference in moral priorities propably related to both the lack of Russian men after the Civil War as well as his lack of "religious superstition."
At first, Stalin was receiptive, and even had Muller's book Out of the Night translated into Russian so he could read it himself. But ultimately, genetics lost out to the competing neo-lamarckian theory of, later to be discovered, scientific fraud Trofim Lysenko, which was declared stalinist dogma soon after – one more chapter in scientific insanity, leading to countless famines and the loss of thousands of lives, as it was attempted to "train" wheat to grow in harsh climates. For Muller, this spelt disaster. From now on, genetical research was suppressed in the Soviet Union and he had to fear for his life. In order to escape Russia – and the Gulag – without putting his colleagues' lives at risk by actually fleeing, he volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War. From there, he preferred to return to his native USA, ultimately becoming the spiritual and intellectual father of Graham's philantropy.
A Smart Man Too Racist for His Own Good
Other figures connected to Graham's project better fulfill the expected clichés of enthusiasts of eugenics. The only one of the three Nobel Prize-winning donors, for example, who ever publicly admitted that he had participated, was named William Bradford Shockley. He won the prize for his physics research, was one of the inventors of transistor-technology, and one of the founders of Silicon Valley and the commercial computer industry. He was also passionate about scientific racism. His entire WASP-aristocratic reputation as a professor at Stanford, winner of the Nobel Prize, and descendant of one of the earliest English families to settle in New Englad, was destroyed by his angry and fanatical attempt to prove at any cost, all through the 1960s of all times, that Afro-Americans were less intelligent than whites. Isolated by the changing times, he died bitter and alone, and it may give us still some satisfaction to know that none of the sperm he donated ever produced any offspring – no matter what 'brilliance' was lost to the world this way.
Graham may have officially distanced himself from Shockley's racial theories. Still, it can hardly be called a coincidence that all his donors were lily-white. In the official, anonymous catalogue you can find, next to a short description of the donor ("outstanding athlete, succesfull writer with countless publications, graduate of a great university": that's donor "Fuchsia #1"), always his provenance ("caucasian"), and skin color ("light") as well – just to calm any potential concerns.
Of Parasites and Men
Still, more than by simple racism, Graham was driven by the ur-American libertarian belief that all the achievements of civilization are the product of a select few extraordinary individuals, superior in talents, creative spirit, and daring to the sullen, resentful, parasitical masses, who constantly threaten to constrain the freedom of this elect elite, pulling them down to their own mediocre level. Grahamland, the never-built utopian community of which he dreamed in the 70s, is almost directly like something out of Atlas Shrugged, after all. Ayn Rand may not have the same genetical theoretical background, being more inclined to soap-opera moralism revolving around "character" rather than biology, but the basic plot is the same: The productive, heroic elites of industrial society, fed up with being imposed upon by the unproductive masses, simply leave and set up shop in their own little community – not on a futuristic island, in Rand's case, but Huck-Finn-style in the wilderness. Ayn Rand, like Graham, was a product of the post-war moment, when all reactionary certainties about aristocratic classes and social rigidities were challenged by a democratic turn in Western society and a democratic labor movement. Her genius lay in reformulating and celebrating the conception of a natural elite in a way that made sense in this environment: what made somebody part of this elite was not his hereditary place at the top of the social order, but instead, in her individualist ethos, it is his own intrinsic value as a creator and producer that places him at the top – it is not his hreditary, but moral right to be placed above the masses, where he nonetheless naturally belongs. It is this veneration of a (in Graham's case, genetical) elite, and a contempt, if not hatred ("parasites" was one of her favourite words, after all), for the rest of the people that unites Rand and Graham.
It is strange that this dark, social-darwinist aspects of his world-view, even less than the racism, barely, if at all, figure in all the press accounts about the 'Genius Sperm Bank.' Strange, but understandable, too: After all, who wants to ruin a good, fun homestory about a quirky millionaire, uber-ambitious parents, and super-smart teenagers in an identity-crisis with a discussion of this crypto-fascist bullshit? If we are honest, though, his political views are of one piece with whatever else he worked for – just as the dark dreams of eugenics are merely the seedy underbelly of a society based on hierarchies, exclusion, and competition, which even in its liberal form can't let go of the idea that a person's quality of life must be a direct result of his usefulness as part of the productive process.
The Decline of Western Civilization
So, let's take a look at Graham's ideology, and ask: what was he thinking? Thankfully, he layed it all out for us in his 1970 book, The Future of Man, a book which, in its reactionary hysteria, is almost calmingly old-fashioned. (Thanks again, by the way, to "Great White Desert – White Power Online Library," for the upload.) Graham combines classical vulgar social-darwinism with a political theory of modern society: In his view, all of modern history does indeed consist of a series of class struggles, except that the classes opposing each other have always been the intelligent elites and the dumb masses. Intelligent people may be responsible for all of human progress, but they are only digging their own grave: As technological progress softens the struggle for existence, the "unfit" increase in numbers and influence. And these resentful, unfit masses have only one goal: to take revenge on the intelligent and eradicate them as punishment for their superiority. From the French Revolution to modern communism, it is the same eternal struggle between the victimized elites and the hateful, envious masses (zukurzgekommene, as Nietzsche would say). Like any good reactionary, and fitting to the historical moment of his writing, Graham could already discern the signs of the coming, almost unavoidable breakdown of American society: rising crime rates, declining scores in college admission exams, but most of all the left insurgency holding American society in its grip. He was convinced that, if decisive genetical counter-measures were not taken soon, this would mean open war on the intelligent and their extermination in the very near future. This, in its turn, would result in the apocalyptic collapse of Western civilization: the lower orders, increasing in numbers and poised to take over, however intent on looting and consumption, left to their own devices would not be able to realize just how great a system the free market really is. And that would be America's end.
It's the sort of apocalyptic treatise that flowered in the 60s both on both the left and the right, and if you keep in mind that he was writing at the time of great race riots all over the US, the rather abstract less intelligent, looting masses of which he is talking all the time gain a little bit in depth and, well, color. But still, it's worth considering this strange book and not dismiss it out of hand as simply ridicoulous.3 After all, Graham only takes to his own surrealist conclusion basic ideas which form the bed-rock of today's conservatism: that it is anyone's own fault if he ends up at the bottom of the social order, that societies are hierarchically ordered for good reasons, that the masses can't be trusted to realize by themselves how great a gift the elites bestow upon them by governing them, that elites are vicitims, and attempts at retribution of wealth merely theft in the name of resentful, lazy losers, etc. And finally, in Spenglerian fashion, that any revolt by the lesser orders is nothing but a sign of the coming, total collapse of everything that is dear to a sensible person. Graham's theory of genetical hierarchies is merely a naturalistic reformulation of this political narrative.
And as much as he was a failure in all his noblest goals, and as much as his old-fashioned biological determinism seemed out of place already in the 80s, his ideas live on in the work of smarter, more smooth-talking writers such as Charles Murray. Murray is a well-connected careerist, offering, in his book The Bell Curve, a strangely respectable renovation of the social-darwinist narrative. It would serve us well, thinking about his ideological heirs, to remember Graham as the ugly and crazy person he was.
1This is a reference to the 2010 bestseller by Thilo Sarrazin, something like the German "Bell Curve," which makes a similar argument about the German welfare state, titled "Germany Does Away With Itself." I've cut all other references to the German context.
2It seems he later ran afoul of Nevada law as well, but I can no longer find the police report online. Who knows what became of him...
3Not to say that it isn't ridicilous. Just take his dedication, in which he thanks his wife that, thanks to her (and her great genetical material, one assumes), he can see himself improved in his sons...