February 07, 2007

Doron Blake, the Ramm children, and other Genius Designer Babies

Doron Blake, now 23 years old, is a designer baby. He is one of the people featured in the German film "Frozen Angels, which is supposed to be excellent but which I haven't seen. I want to get my hands on this film! It can be ordered here. Has anyone out there seen it who could comment on this blog? I'd love to know what people thought of it.

Doron is a bit of a star. He is the child of a an acknowledged genius (although not a Nobel Prize winner). The anonymous donor sperm that created him came from the notorious "Nobel Prize Sperm Bank" (officially called "Repository for Germinal Choice”) where the eugenic-minded California nutcase inventor Robert Graham recruited various scientific geniuses to donate sperm in order to improve the human race by making superbabies. Despite the notorious reputation Graham did not end up using Nobel Prize winners, as he decided they were too old for their sperm to be effective. Read a book on this subject by David Plotz, called "The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank" (2005), or read his online summary of the book in the making here. Some 240 children were eventually born using this sperm, but the majority are anonymous, although Plotz talks about several of the children in his online summary of the book.

One of the few known children from this sperm bank is Doron, who was the poster baby for this project to better the human race. His mother ("a middle-aged hippie and New Age psychologist living in Los Angeles") had him as she was nearing 40 and didn't have a suitable male partner in sight. Why should that stop a woman from having children these days? Rather than accepting her fate, she went to a clinic where she could "choose" the kind of baby she wanted - indeed, he would be the child of a genius!

Doron has an IQ of 180 and an extreme talent for music, as his mother had wanted. His mother has intentionally paraded him before the media since his wee years as a walking ad for what sperm donation can do, with all his accomplisments neatly catalogued for the public. When he was little he was on the cover of Mother Jones. He says of himself: "I was [Robert Graham's] emblem. I was the boy with the high IQ who was not screwed up. I was his ideal result."

His mother made him the center of her universe, induged and overindulged him. She even breast-fed him until 6 years old! Doron excelled in school, became a math prodigy, "qualified for a Los Angeles school for the gifted then won a full scholarship to Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire, one of the nation's best high schools."

But Doron was not automatically happy because of his privileged genetic parentage. In fact, quite the opposite. He says:

"Most of being a prodigy was negative. People have always been saying 'prodigy sperm child' all my life. But I am not that wonderful at anything. You feel a lot of pressure because you don't want to let people down, or you don't really feel free to be what you want to be.

"I don't feel safe with people I don't know, and I don't feel very confident with others. That may be the effect of having things expected of me."

So, Doron has rebelled against this genetic determination, and against the parental and societal expectations that he must have felt all his young life. Doron is going to Reed College, not a top school by any means (the only school he applied to), and majoring in comparative religions, not a hard science like his donor father. His ambition is to be a high school teacher. "He has rejected studying elite subjects at elite universities. Instead, Doron is an introverted student of psychology who plays three different instruments but has few social contacts. Doron prefers to investigate the universe alone—and to find his place in it on his own terms."

Indeed, Doron has learned a very important lesson about human worth the hard way. He says:
“It was a screwed-up idea, making genius people. The fact that I have a huge IQ does not make me a person who is good or happy. People come expecting me to have all these achievements under my belt, and I don’t. I have not done anything that special. I don’t think being intelligent is what makes a person. What makes a person is being raised in a loving family with loving parents who don’t pressure them. If I was born with an IQ of 100 and not 180, I could do just as much in my life. The thing I like best about myself is not that I’m smart but that I care about people and try to make other people’s lives better. I don’t think you can breed for good people.”
See the full article.

By the way, it's interesting to see what happened as Plotz wrote the book I mentioned above. According to the Times Literary Supplement:

Plotz soon found himself acting as detective and matchmaker, tracking down donors and brokering meetings with their offspring. These stories are the moral and emotional heart of the book. “Donor White” fathered nineteen children, but became deeply attached to the one whose mother sought him out. His reaction is the reason that sperm banks forbid such meetings; “donor offspring” become real children who laugh, play, have personalities, give you trouble, and make you proud. In this case, the father needed the daughter more than she needed him; she was a contented child who had no emotional void to fill.

Other children had a hole in their souls, and longed to find a “real” father unlike their distant stepdads, or to have any father at all. Many were disappointed. One young man, expecting to find a loving, genius dad, got Jeremy - “an obscure doctor”, Plotz writes, “whose notable accomplishment in life was leaving a wake of ex-wives and forgotten children”. Plotz also interviewed the faintly creepy son of a Nobelist who became a donor - the son, not the dad.

Doron doesn't seem to be very curious about his father, but he says that having a father would have helped him understand men. "I am not a masculine, macho guy. Maybe it would have been good to have more experience relating to men." Of course, Doron now knows who his father is. He says the media showed him an article about his father a while back (name John, a computer scientist of some sort) and he said he would not object to meeting him, but the meeting never happened.

Courtney Ramm, who is 17 (maybe 18 by now), is another one of the Nobel Sperm Bank children. She is a ballerina in New York and in 2006 she graduated from the Laguardia High School of Music and Art. She also has a sister and a brother and both are sperm donor babies. Her sister Leandra is a talented and accomplished singer. Her brother Logan (sperm donor Fuchsia) has autism. Read about their family here, in a brochure featuring her family (pictured below left).

Where are the rest of the Nobel Sperm Bank babies now? Plotz writes the following:

There are no Nobels and no criminals. All of them seem smart and engaged in the world. Most write a good e-mail and talk a good game on the phone. Two are quite prominent. The rising young businessman became a fabulously successful middle-aged businessman. The emerging political activist has become a semi-famous, sometimes controversial political activist. The two promising graduate students are now junior professors at decent universities. One of the prodigies has retired from a successful career in the intelligence trade to do consulting and muck about with high I.Q. organizations (groups like Mensa, but higher I.Q.'s required). The Average Guy has returned to grad school, where he's finishing a degree in environmental policy. Most of the Slate Seven remain connected to hard science, which would please Graham, who valued science and scorned just about everything else.

The second child prodigy, who has abandoned hard science, has transformed most radically. He donated in the early '80s when he was a math whiz. Today he writes, "In many respects I feel I am a failure. The closest I have come to conventional success was when I made my living writing term papers for rich kids at Columbia, NYU, etc." But I don't think he really feels like a failure: He has just discarded the notion that intelligence, especially analytical intelligence, is an important measure of life. He has abandoned math and academia to become an artisan. "I have gone from being an intellectual whore to … I dunno what … I will never win a Nobel Prize, but I don't care. I will never make any 'great' contribution to science. No matter. I have come to terms with myself and who I am. This is the best part of growing old."

Some other donors, too, seem to be grappling with the burden of expectation. Several seem conscious of how well they have done in their profession versus how well a "genius donor" ought to have done.

Sadly, at least some of these donor sperm children seem quite aware of their status as consumerized products, made-to-order for a certain feature: intelligence. One 14-year-old donor sperm baby writes of himself:

"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."


Anonymous said...

I saw "Frozen Angels" and yes, this documentary deserves all the acclaim it receives.

What made the film so amazing was the manner in which the intersecting participants were allowed to speak their own words: one was allowed insight into the differing worlds--the sperm bank, the scientist speaking of the future capacity to "upgrade" artificial genes, the woman who chooses to be a surrogate, the woman who cannot have children....

there are no hard answers provided which makes the film brilliant, and many difficult questions are objectively presented:

do we avoid the reality of human genetic engineering? do we "ban" it in one country or series of countries only for the practice to surface in others under uncontrolled & dubious circumstances for the very rich, thereby creating "genetic injustice"?
what are the limits in what traits parents have the choice in eliminating or adding?

what does it say about humanity when blond/e blue-eyed is the favourite flavour of human sought to be replicated genetically around the world?

has racism and all the stereotypes that travel along with it, won?

provocative is an overused adjective most of the time. but in this case, it is a well-earned accolade.

"His mother had him as she was nearing 40 and didn't have a suitable male partner in sight. Why should that stop a woman from having children these days? Rather than accepting her fate, she went to a clinic where she could "choose" the kind of baby she wanted..."

I find the above an offensive, misogynist comment: a man having a child or seeking to have a child at an advanced age is not spoken of with such underhanded spite.

The problem lies not with her having the choice of the quality of the sperm she wanted, but the ensuing publicity to which she subjected her child.
After all, who would not choose what is perceived as the best, regardless of what the item is?

What do you suggest she have done?

At that point in time, the door might have been closed to her as a single woman---not a disability, or disqualifying as your comment above seems to suggest in that category since many women earn enough---and her age(again your comment seems to imply that she should not have sought motherhood at that stage of life, ignoring the possibility that parenting latter in life brings knowledge that is not likely to be had at 18, 25, or even 30)

Or perhaps, she DIDN'T want to adopt*gasp* preferring to at least TRY to have her own.

I suppose that is simply unacceptable to you, having made the determination that at forty & unmarried, she should have hung up the towel & given up on being a mother.

ageist & sexist.

You even criticise the fact she breastfed her child until 6...ok so that's a long time but are you aware that some cultures breastfeed their children until age 4?

Come on!

The argument that we need to tread very carefully on the issues with regard to genetic engineering and what traits are found to be "acceptable" or "desirable", the screening process for people who are donating genetic material or choosing to be surrogates but the idea that a woman or couple facing infertility should not have the option shows an unconscionable self-righteousness: if there has been wounding within the resulting children from egg/sperm donation, does it lie with the process or with the way the entire subject was handled by the parents?

after all this is new, and with new social change there are adjustments to be made as people learn--or don't-- to deal with the unexpected consequences, good or bad.

Societies & cultures are the ones who need to understand these children are human beings & not points of an argument to be attacked...

You seem to subscribe to the very concept you criticise: your description of the children--in which i detected a note of schadenfreude-- seems to imply you too were expecting great things of them: the fact that most appear to be reflective human beings struggling with finding their niche in life as reflective beings do, doesn't seem to particularly satisfy you.

I don't have the answers.
Neither, i think, do you.

oh where you can buy frozen angels:

Anonymous said...

Well, at least you linked the film FROZEN ANGELS, so reading this wasn't a *total* waste of time. Most of your comments on the situation were nothing short of ignorant. Whether this was intentional or not I don't know; if not though, it certainly shows that you didn't bother to do much research.

These children weren't engineered in any sense other than the mother or couple got to choose the donor from whom the sperm came. They are no more engineered than they would have been if the mother had met the donor in real life and they'd had a child together. Engineering would imply the genes were somehow physically manipulated to remove or add specific traits; this is far from the truth, and frankly it's irresponsible of you to report it as such.

The first commenter is absolutely correct about your comments regarding Doron Blake's mother, by the way. If a single woman of 40 wants to have a child then why should she shouldn't be prevented from doing so simply because she doesn't have a 'partner in sight'?

You're obviously looking at this situation and seeing it as an opportunity to 'prove' some other odd world-view you have; what that world-view might be I can only guess, but I most definitely won't be reading any more of your blog to find out.

Anonymous said...

I have a total different point of view!
The conservative way of reproducing is immoral.

One example: You explain that children produced artificially suffer their life long. But just take a look on all those children, who have no high IQ and know from the very begining, that they will not have a shoice.

It is sad for Mr. Blake, that he had to be drafted fron one talk show to another. But that is failure in education. This man has a gift: The gift to choose!

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