by Michelle Lewis
Faux-scientific data, ill-conceived studies, and colorful language, used to name and describe the feeble-minded families, accounted for some of the eugenics movement’s popularity. Poor white families were said to live in huts, or nests, with rickety chairs. They were observed to have a cracked skillet and two sleepy dogs, hair the color of tobacco juice. Cultural experts described them in their natural habitat—it had a sociological ring to it. Data was collected about sexual behavior, and often that behavior was compared with that of animals: images of insects pervade the written findings.
There were intelligence tests with scoring that ranged from idiot (IQ between 0 and 25) to moron (IQ between 51 and 70), with imbecile in between, and numbers are nothing if not facts.
One of the movement’s most interesting characters, William Shockley, volunteered his sperm to help clean so-called polluted bloodlines. He contributed sperm to the Repository for Germinal Choice, dubbed the Genius Sperm Bank, a sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners created to stack the genetic deck of the population. The bank was created by Robert Graham in 1980, long after the movement began, and long after The Kallikak Family was written. By 1997, the so-called Genius Sperm Bank claimed 229 genius babies all over the United States and in half a dozen countries.
At the very core of privilege must be believing your sperm would benefit the American lineage. The literalness of it: More of Me.
Coat of arms or coat with no arms. Who do you think you are?
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Facts about Shockley include the following.
Was co-inventor of the transistor.
Is arguably the single person most responsible for ushering in the computer age.
An ardent eugenicist but had no training whatsoever in genetics, biology or psychology. Advocated replacing the welfare system with a Voluntary Sterilization Bonus Plan,which would pay low-IQ women to undergo sterilization.
Gave an interview to Playboy Magazine.
Was called one of the smartest men who ever lived by an Alabama Klan leader who called for a William Shockley Day to occur on the same day as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
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But the greatest menace of imbecility is not that the imbecile may break into our house and steal our silver or that he may set fire to our barn, but that he may be born of our flesh.
—Gertrude Davenport, wife of Charles Davenport, a prominent American eugenicist and biologist, in a 1914 article for The Independent
Sterilization dropped from favor, but it remained law in many states. William Shockley and others set out to improve the human stock through selective breeding. Shockley eagerly volunteered to donate his own sperm to the so-called Genius Sperm Bank in order to fill the population with what was viewed as more desirable characteristics.
Some examples of those who would be bred out included:
the habitual criminal the professional tramp
the mental defectives the alcoholics
the diseased thieves
those who engaged in unmarried sex (voluntary or not)
and poor people, particularly women, people found on the street, or the children of such people or vaguely associated with any of the above.
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So-called imbeciles were multiplying too fast when they should have been dying off. The Sperm Bank originators believed that DNA dictated intelligence–the father’s sperm was credited with providing most of the child’s intelligence–and society’s DNA was degrading. Idiocy, they thought, was being government-sanctioned through social welfare programs that kept them alive and breeding. Who do you think you are? Well, let me tell you.
The principles of the sperm bank appealed to men prone to boasting about how their boys could swim; whose chip is off the old block. It appealed to housewives, too, because it was built upon the idea of a pristine strain of humans, which brought to mind things that were clean, like the kitchens of cleaning products advertised on TV: the glints of white, the audible twinkle.
The bank produced over 200 children between 1980 and 1989, embryos in frozen vials, lifted from steel tubes in a squall of vaporous smoke. None of the children–at least none of those who have come forward, according to those who have researched the field–are superhuman. They are products of their upbringing with ambitions in ballet or in video game playing, chips off the blocks they grew up on. Only a few of the children could even be considered high achievers. And, in fact, none of the donors themselves were Nobel Prize winners, save for Shockley.
Many, in fact, were a far cry from being considered high achievers. Take the father who lived in a dirty apartment on welfare row, according to journalists who have reported on the men who participated — married four times, whose true children he didn’t bother to care for, who enjoyed white Russians and joked about who will support him when he is in poor health. Write when you can. Dad.
Shockley disseminated his views on talk shows where a host with a mop of white hair sprinted through the audience with a bulbous mic. He tried to breathe life into ideas that in the seventies were already gasping for air. It was the post-Civil Rights era, and the idea of eugenics had become grotesque. At Stanford, where Shockley taught, students protested and burned him in effigy. In the end, his legacy was part pioneering scientist and part joke.
But Shockley can’t be written out of history. The development of the transistor had repercussions that led not just to a Nobel Prize. His invention gave rise to the superior silicon- based integrated circuit, a key technology, along with the microprocessor, that was developed there. And then came IBM, selfies, OK Google, ride share apps, life as we know it.
Blessus, we are always half of something and half of something else.
Michelle is the recipient of the 2018 Marystina Stantiestevan First Book Prize, and she is the author of Animul/Flame (Conduit Press, 2019). Her poetry has appeared in Bennington Review, Indiana Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Denver Quarterly among others, and she is a contributing writer for Anomaly. You can find out more about her at whitechicken.com.