Psychology in Everyday Life
The Repository for Germinal Choice
During the 1970s, American millionaire Robert Klark Graham began one of the most controversial and unique sperm banks in the world. He called it the Repository for Germinal Choice. The sperm bank was part of a project that attempted to combat the “genetic decay” Graham saw all around him. He believed human reproduction was experiencing a genetic decline, making for a population of “retrograde humans,” and he was convinced that the way to save the human race was to breed the best genes of his generation (Plotz, 2001).
Graham began his project by collecting sperm samples from the most intelligent and highly achieving people he could find, including scientists, entrepreneurs, athletes, and even Nobel Prize winners. Then, he advertised for potential mothers, who were required to be married to infertile men, educated, and financially well-off. Graham mailed out catalogues to the potential mothers, describing the donors using code names such as “Mr. Grey-White,” who was “ruggedly handsome, outgoing, and positive, a university professor, expert marksman who enjoys the classics,” and “Mr. Fuchsia,” who was an “Olympic gold medalist, tall, dark, handsome, bright, a successful businessman and author” (Plotz, 2001, para. 5). When the mother had made her choice, the sperm sample was delivered by courier, and insemination was carried out at home. Before it closed following Graham’s death in 1999, the repository claimed responsibility for the birth of 228 children.
Did Graham’s project actually create super-intelligent babies? Although it is difficult to be sure, because very few interviews with the offspring have been permitted, at least some of the repository’s progeny are indeed smart. Reporter for Slate magazine David Plotz (2001) spoke to nine families who benefited from the repository, and they proudly touted their children’s achievements. He found that most of the offspring in the families interviewed seem to resemble their genetic fathers. Three from donor Mr. Fuchsia, the Olympic gold medallist, are reportedly gifted athletes. Several who excel in math and science were fathered by professors of math and science.
As well, the offspring, by and large, seem to be doing well, often attending excellent schools and maintaining very high grade-point averages. One of the offspring, now 26 years old, is particularly intelligent. In infancy, he could mark the beat of classical music with his hands. In kindergarten, he could read Hamlet and was learning algebra, and at age six, his IQ was already 180. However, he refused to apply to prestigious universities, such as Harvard or Yale, opting instead to study at a smaller progressive college and to major in comparative religion, with the aim of becoming an elementary schoolteacher. He is now an author of children’s books.
Although it is difficult to know for sure, it appears that at least some of the children of the repository are indeed outstanding, but can the talents, characteristics, and skills of this small repository sample be attributed to genetics alone? After all, consider the parents of these children: Plotz reported that the parents, particularly the mothers, were highly involved in their children’s development and took their parental roles very seriously. Most of the parents studied child care manuals, coached their children’s sports teams, practised reading with their kids, and either home-schooled them or sent them to the best schools in their areas. Additionally, the families were financially well-off. Furthermore, the mothers approached the repository at a relatively older child-bearing age, when all other options were exhausted. These children were desperately wanted and very well loved. It is undeniable that, in addition to their genetic backgrounds, all this excellent nurturing played a significant role in the development of the repository children.
Although the existence of the repository provides interesting insight into the potential importance of genetics on child development, the results of Graham’s experiment are inconclusive. The offspring interviewed are definitely smart and talented, but only one of them was considered a true genius and child prodigy, and nurture may have played as much a role as nature in their outcomes (Olding, 2006; Plotz, 2001).
The goal of this chapter is to investigate the fundamental, complex, and essential process of human development. Development refers to the physiological, behavioural, cognitive, and social changes that occur throughout human life, which are guided by both genetic predispositions (i.e., nature) and by environmental influences (i.e., nurture). We will begin our study of development at the moment of conception, when the father’s sperm unites with the mother’s egg, and then consider prenatal development in the womb. Next, we will focus on infancy, the developmental stage that begins at birth and continues to one year of age, and childhood, the period between infancy and the onset of puberty. Finally, we will consider the developmental changes that occur during adolescence, the years between the onset of puberty and the beginning of adulthood; the stages of adulthood itself, including emerging, early, middle, and older adulthood; and the preparations for and eventual facing of death.
Each of the stages of development has its unique physical, cognitive, and emotional changes that define the stage and that make each one unique from the others. The psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson (1950) proposed a model of life-span development that provides a useful guideline for thinking about the changes we experience throughout life. As you can see in the table below, Erikson believed that each life stage has a unique challenge that the person who reaches it must face, and according to Erikson, successful development involves dealing with and resolving the goals and demands of each of the life stages in a positive way.
|Stage||Age Range||Key Challenge||Positive Resolution of Challenge|
|Oral-sensory||Birth to 12 to 18 months||Trust versus mistrust||The child develops a feeling of trust with their caregivers.|
|Muscular-anal||18 months to 3 years||Autonomy versus shame/doubt||The child learns what they can and cannot control and develops a sense of free will.|
|Locomotor||3 to 6 years||Initiative versus guilt||The child learns to become independent by exploring, manipulating, and taking action.|
|Latency||6 to 12 years||Industry versus inferiority||The child learns to do things well or correctly according to standards set by others, particularly in school.|
|Adolescence||12 to 18 years||Identity versus role confusion||The adolescent develops a well-defined and positive sense of self in relationship to others.|
|Young adulthood||19 to 40 years||Intimacy versus isolation||The person develops the ability to give and receive love and to make long-term commitments.|
|Middle adulthood||40 to 65 years||Generativity versus stagnation||The person develops an interest in guiding the development of the next generation, often by becoming a parent.|
|Late adulthood||65 to death||Ego integrity versus despair||The person develops acceptance of their life as it was lived.|
|Data source: Erikson, 1950.|
As we progress through this chapter, we will see that Robert Klark Graham was in part right — nature does play a substantial role in development. It has been found, for instance, that identical twins, who share all of their genetic code, usually begin sitting up and walking on the exact same days, but nurture is also important. We begin to be influenced by our environments even while still in the womb, and these influences remain with us throughout our development. Furthermore, we will see that we play an active role in shaping our own lives. Our own behaviour influences how and what we learn, how people respond to us, and how we develop as individuals. As you read the chapter, you will no doubt get a broader view of how we each pass through our own lives. You will see how we learn and adapt to life’s changes, and this new knowledge may help you better understand and better guide your own personal life journey.
Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York, NY: Norton.
Olding, P. (2006, June 15). The genius sperm bank. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/sn/tvradio/programmes/horizon/broadband/tx/spermbank/doron/index_textonly.shtml
Plotz, D. (2001, February 8). The “genius babies,” and how they grew. Slate. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/id/100331