Saturday, 26th September 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Immortality: The Kid Could be the Key

Posted on 30. Aug, 2008 by in Personal essays

Designer sperm banks; nature vs nurture

DALAT, Vietnam

The creation of Dolly the Cloned Sheep a few years ago stirred our imagination – we were suddenly closer to cloning people than anyone had imagined.

Since Dolly, cloning technology has advanced with such staggering speed that she seems almost anachronistic.

The latest news in the cloning sweepstakes is that three South Korean scientists say that they’ve cloned a human cell from an infertile woman.  Theoretically this embryo could have grown into a physical replica of the woman.  The scientists said they destroyed the living cells because of the legal and ethical implications of their work.

I thought about this as I called up my son to wish him happy holidays.

He’s my only child, and I’m proud of him.

This is hardly a staggering claim.

But unless I clone myself, which seems unlikely, my son David is likely to offer me my best shot at immortality.

There are precious few chances for normal folks like us to become immortal.

If you were Verdi you could write an opera.  If you were Faust you could make an unsavory deal.

One sure path to eternal glory is to get a new creature named after you.

Olaf Rudbeck gave the great Swedish botanist Linnaeus his first job.  In thanks, Linnaeus saw to it that Rudbeck became a flower, Rudbeckie hirta, the American black-eyed susan.  Linnaeus wrote to his professor: “So long as the earth shall survive, and as each spring shall see it covered with flowers, the Rudbeckie will preserve your glorious name.”

[There is an historical precedent to name unattractive plants after enemies.  Johann Siegensbeck denounced Linnaeus as “lewd” and “loathsome” so Linnaeus retaliated by dubbing an “unpleasant small flowered weed” Siegensbeckia.]

Hugh Hefner, of Playboy fame, is reputed to have unsuccessfully offered a very large sum to name a newly discovered rabbit hefneri.

Some people have themselves frozen, awaiting the day when the illness they died from can be treated, and the troublesome effect of the freezing process itself can be reversed.  This has the benefit that you will be around to live in person, although you’ll probably be hopelessly out of date with the soaps.

But the surest path to immortality is via genetic success. Not to mention financial bonanza.

* * * * *

I was researching a golf story in Dalat, in central Vietnam, and staying at the Dalat Palace Hotel.  A friend and I were drinking in Larry’s Bar and I asked who the “Larry” was who gave the pub its name.

Turns out that a man named Larry Hillblom spent $40 milion to restore the Dalat Palace Hotel and the Dalat Palace Golf Course – he could be considered the financial godfather of golf in Vietnam.

Mr. Hillblom was a millionaire many times over – he founded and was the “H” in the courier and air freight company DHL. Besides golf he had another passion – he enjoyed deflowering young women, paying big money to madams in Vietnam, the Philippines and Micronesia for certified virgins.

When Hillblom died numerous women who bore children by Hillblom consulted their lawyers and made a claim for his estate.

These women and children faced two obstacles —  Mr. Hillblom did not acknowledge the illegitimate children in his will, and he disappeared in a plane crash leaving behind no DNA – rather surreally his home and office had been wiped clean of anything — a piece of hair, sweat on a sheet, a dirty Q-tip — that could have been used to prove paternity.

Considerable money was at stake.  Eventually a bit of DNA was found and after a lengthy court battle four Asian children were awarded $50 million apiece.

* * * * *

While an argument could be made that the Asian virgins were victims of a rich perverse American and the madams who supplied him, it is nevertheless a truism that most women, at least among the better educated classes, have always had significant control over their genetic partners.  Now wannabe western mothers with a line of credit can catalogue shop for those perfect genes in a “boutique sperm bank”.

I found three such establishments on the web, including an anonymous donor who is willing to give away his sperm. “Donor sperm available free,” is the title of his site, which is a variation, I guess, of what we used to euphemistically refer to as dating.  This genetic philanthropist describes himself as “Caucasian, 6 ft tall, with black hair, fair skin.” In 4th grade he won 3rd place in a school science fair with a project entitled “Using Red Cabbage Juice to Determine Acidity.”  As an adult he has been “awarded more than 10 patents for various inventions.” His web-site shows cute photos of babies he has fathered, and perhaps some of them might reach similar heights as dad, whose 9th grade science project was “A Computer Program for Simplifying Boolean Expressions.”

The original outlet for super-sperm-shopping is The Repository for Germinal Choice, which bills itself as “an activity of the Foundation for Advancement of Man”.  The California-based Repository is widely referred to as the Nobel Sperm Bank since it includes Nobel laureates and other “superlative donors”.  Although donors are anonymous (and unpaid), one donor went public: inventor of the transistor William B. Shockley, controversial for his theory that blacks are genetically inferior to whites.

I wrote to the Repository’s founder, Robert K. Graham.  I was fishing for information (and maybe an invitation to donate), he was fishing for a prince, writing: “I have long admired the thinking of the Duke of Edinburgh [at that time I worked for WWF-World Wide Fund for Nature, and Prince Philip was WWF’s international president], as well as his splendid physical presence, and should be glad to consider him as a donor if he were willing.”  I sent the letter to Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace.  Don’t know if he forwarded a condom filled with royal sperm.

Even without the Duke of Edinburgh, women in need of high quality sperm had a dizzying array of options offered by the Repository.  Donor No. 28, for example was “voted the best-looking man in his department.”  He sails and hikes.  He twice scored 800, the highest possible, on the mathematics section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test.  Minor drawback: “Slight hemorrhoids.”  Or, if myopia and dental malocclusion are no problem, Donor No. 27 offers “Remarkable intellectual ability (professor of mathematics), excellent character and health, and high fertility.”  He is tall (6′ 1″), with dark brown curly hair (no balding!), enjoys a good sense of humor, likes playing with children, and possesses an IQ of 206 measured at age 8.

I wonder whether Graham might have read Roald Dahl’s novel Uncle Oswald, in which an attractive female sperm-obtainer named Yasmin used a “Sudanese fly” aphrodisiac to collect sperm from James Joyce, Puccini, Henry Ford, Monet, even asexual George Bernard Shaw, for re-sale to upwardly-mobile would-be mothers.

Whatever Graham’s inspiration, he bases the Repository’s efforts on the warnings of the late Nobel laureate Hermann Joseph Muller, who wrote: “If the human species was to keep from regressing, natural selection had to be replaced with artificial selection.”  Muller, a geneticist, theorized that a special sperm bank could “conserve intelligence.”  He also thought that his creation of the Repository was more significant than the research on mutations that won him a Nobel Prize. Muller, however, withdrew his support for Graham’s sperm bank shortly before he died.

Eugenics scares the hell out of a lot of people, and not everyone thinks that Graham’s idea is terrific.  Ann McMillan Nunes, of Santa Clara, California, describes herself as “the product of a ‘Nobel sperm bank'” where the donation came directly from her father (Edwin McMillan, winner of the 1951 prize for chemistry) to her mother.  “I am reasonably smart and reasonably happy, but I am not smarter, richer, or happier than anyone else,” she says.  “What bothers me about the sperm-bank idea is that I fear women will believe that obtaining Nobel genes for their children is more important than having a father present when their offspring are growing up.  In my case, it was not my father’s Nobel prize that brought joy to my childhood but his presence.  He was always there, sharing his wit and humor, giving me things to think about, and listening when I had something to say.  It was my father, not his genes, that made my childhood special.”

So, what’s the answer? Nature or nurture? Cloning or gene flow? Either way, a kid’s the fast lane to immortality.  Providing he has some kids of his own.  Start procreating, David.