Future Tense

What’s Missing From Conversations About Designer Babies

If we worry too much about genetic inequality, we risk overlooking all the inequality that is already here.

A mother embracing a genetically engineered baby surrounded by DNA helixes, ominous eyes, and daffodils.
Lisa Larson-Walker

The author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank responds to Alyssa Virker’s “Daffodil’s Baby.”

What if Blue Ivy were your very own? Or Suri Cruise? A fetching little Prince George in your fresh-painted nursery! In “Daffodil’s Baby,” Alyssa Virker taps into the deep fear and fascination we have with eugenic inequality, focusing on a particularly mesmerizing aspect of it: our obsession with children of the famous and talented.

The modern eugenics movement was born when Francis Galton mapped the close genetic connections between the most “eminent” men of England for his 1869 book Hereditary Genius. Ever since then, eugenicists have been scheming up ways to save society by getting the “best” among us to have more children.

And ever since then, those same eugenicists have been fretting that the rest of us—the pig-brained masses—have the wrong idea of who the “best” people are. In the 1930s, one Nobel laureate was certain that mass artificial insemination could ensure that every baby would be a Newton or Leonardo, but worried that, left to their own whims, women would pick celebrities as their sperm donors, leaving us with a trivial society of “Valentinos, Jack Dempseys, Babe Ruths, and even Al Capones.” Hello, Daffodil and Breadbowl!

When stared at hard enough—actually when merely glanced at—all utopian ideas turn out to be dystopian ideas. That communist Shangri-La—actually a totalitarian failed state. That charming free-love commune down the road—an apocalyptic sex cult. This is certainly true of eugenics, which is inspiration for both one of the most persistent utopian fantasies the world has ever known and also one of the mostly vividly imagined dystopias. Since humans first understood how to make babies, we’ve been trying to make better ones, to build a Lake Wobegon world where we’re all stronger, faster, and smarter (and to gloss over how that punishes the weaker, the slower, the dumber—that is, most of us). In fifth century BCE Sparta, a husband could enlist one of the best men of the city to impregnate his wife. Down the road in Athens, Socrates suggested that the state should select the best men and women—the Daffodil and Breadbowl of the Agora—and assign them to reproduce.

This dream reached its zenith in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The invention of artificial insemination combined with social Darwinism to inspire a eugenic carnival. Everyone imagined a eugenic Eden. Across the U.S., state fairs held Fitter Family Contests to celebrate Caucasian fertility. In the 1920s and ’30s, novelists and scientists imagined futures where only geniuses and beauties would be allowed to breed, babies would be hatched in vats, and the masses would be so grateful to live in such an advanced society that we wouldn’t mind the extinction of our own genes. Somehow even Nazism, with its Aryan baby farms and its mass murder of those deemed unfit, didn’t completely vanquish the idea that societies would be better if we just identified the best people and had them make more babies.

For example, starting in the 1960s, a California gazillionaire named Robert Graham, inventor of shatterproof eyeglasses, teamed up with Nobel Prize–winning scientist Hermann Muller to open a genius sperm bank. When it finally launched in 1980, the Repository for Germinal Choice offered the sperm of Nobel Prize winners, but only to women who belonged to the high-IQ society Mensa. The repository was promptly parodied on Saturday Night Live and nicknamed “the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank” but kept operating in some fashion (not with Nobel donors—that’s a whole long story) for nearly 20 years and spawned more than 200 children. There’s no sperm bank for Nobelists today, but all sperm banks are effectively eugenic sperm banks, carefully selecting for—and marketing—height, intelligence, and musicality. Egg donation ventures pay ultrapremiums to harvest and sell the ova of Ivy League students. Around the world, scientists are quietly trying to figure out how to embryonically boost genes that contribute to intelligence and athletic ability.

But every utopian eugenic impulse has been countered by fierce dystopian skepticism. When scientists sketched cheery eugenic futures in the early 20th century, Aldous Huxley replied with Brave New World, a novel (and soon-to-be TV show!) that envisioned the crushing horror of such schemes taken to their extreme. The Boys From Brazil imagined Josef Mengele, having survived World War II, breeding 95 little Hitler clones for a future Reich. More recently, the movie Gattaca anticipated how genetic inequality would tear apart societies.

The pull between utopianism and dystopianism has allowed for very little middle ground. Eugenics is either the salvation of humanity or a goosestep toward the Fourth Reich. But maybe it’s actually a lot less interesting. Here’s a small real-world example. In 2005, I wrote a book called The Genius Factory about that ludicrous Nobel Prize sperm bank. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past 20 years keeping up with the 200 children born via the bank. They’re now in their 20s and 30s, and what’s remarkable about them is how ordinary they are. When I look at their lives, it’s striking how little they have been shaped by their donors’ genetic gifts, and how much they have been influenced by the mothers who raised them and the places they grew up. The biological children of the superb donor scientist and the Olympic gold medal–winning donor are not themselves scientists or star athletes. The boy raised by a professor mother is now a professor in the same field, and owes nothing to his donor father that I can see, except great hair. A boy raised by a working-class mother in a Midwestern suburb is a working-class striver in a nearby Midwestern suburb. These children, with their special genetic heritage, have grown into very regular adults—exactly the kind of adults you’d expect them to be, based on who their mother was, where they grew up, and what kind of education they received. Their lives demonstrate not the extraordinary influence of genes, but rather the monumental influence of all the economic and social forces in American society that guide and shackle us.

If we worry too much about genetic inequality, we risk overlooking all the inequality that is already here. This is the original error of the eugenicists: Galton’s Hereditary Genius concluded that the eminent men of his time were eminent because they had inherited intelligence from their eminent parents, failing to see how they were helped by being born into families of money, education, and station. (They were born on third base, and he thought they hit a triple.) Blue Ivy probably won’t grow up to be a multiplatinum superstar, but if she does, it will largely be because she was born incredibly rich, famous, and connected, not because she inherited a special Beyoncé performance gene.

We’re still in the very early days of genetic manipulation, and in 20 or 50 or 100 years we might well have the kind of precise gene manipulation that “Daffodil’s Baby” envisions—though I bet it will take longer, do less, and affect fewer people than we might dream today. And I’d also bet, as “Daffodil’s Baby” hints, that the genetic benefits—and the dangers—of designed babies will be swamped by much more potent cultural and economic forces. It will not be a utopia or a dystopia, just the mostly mediocre, occasionally improving, world we’ve built for ourselves.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.