Are Jews Smarter?

There’s an article on Jewish intelligence from 2005 in New York, “Are Jews Smarter,” by Jennifer Senior. It’s a story of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Senior identifies herself as Jewish with  the result that, as always, there is a tension between pride in Jewish intelligence and accomplishment and fear that there might be negative consequences if people buy into the idea that Jewish intelligence results in Jews being better able to pursue their interests and, in particular, being better able to influence culture and the political process in a way that conflicts with the interests of non-Jews.

The general tone of the article can be seen from her statement that “Ascribing an ethnic or racial explanation to any trait more ambiguous than skin color is by definition a dangerous idea, the kind of notion that can seep into the political arena with disastrous consequences.”

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The focus of the article is Harpending and Cochran’s study of Ashkenazi IQ. Senior is amazingly dismissive of the article: “The paper contained references, but no footnotes. It was not written in the genteel, dispassionate voice common to scientific inquiries but as a polemic. Its science was mainly conjecture.” Now I have problems with C&H’s approach too, but it’s ridiculous to describe their paper as conjecture or as polemic. And standard procedure in the hard sciences is to use references, not footnotes. The article does mention the main point that several Jewish genetic diseases are associated with IQ and brain metabolism and that they are exceedingly unlikely to have come together in the Ashkenazi population by chance. But Senior doesn’t mention the overwhelming evidence that in general IQ is highly heritable and that a great many other genes contribute to IQ–probably hundreds. The genetic basis of IQ goes far beyond the few genes for genetic diseases found at unusually high levels among the Ashkenazim.

In fact, she doesn’t even take the idea of intelligence seriously, making the idiotic comment that “intelligence isn’t even possible to define, except maybe in the sense that Justice Potter Stewart famously said of porn: He knew it when he saw it.”

In other words, let’s just throw out a century of research on the validity and reliability of IQ testing as well as research on the biological basis of IQ. And never mind the long history of behavior genetic studies showing a very substantial heritability for IQ–whether Jewish or not.

On the other hand, the article does cite genetic data indicating that race is more than simply a social construction. Now race realists have always known this, but it’s nice to see it in a popular magazine. Ironically, she makes it sound like the biological basis of race is a recent discovery made possible by the work of Jewish scientists.

During the past year, the taboos surrounding the genetics of race and ethnicity have been significantly eroded, in no small part because of the efforts of Risch. A population geneticist at the University of California at San Francisco, a fiercely independent thinker, a fun gossip, and a liberal Jew, he published a paper in the American Journal of Human Genetics in February that rather boldly claimed that the races we claimed to be almost always corresponded with our continents of ancestry. It seemed to represent the consensus view that’s slowly emerging among geneticists. Many have now stopped quarreling with the same vigor about whether race is or is not a genetic fact.

The science of race is presented as a conversation among Jewish scientists. (Incidentally, she cites IQ data showing that Jews are almost 6 times more likely to have an IQ over 140 than northern Europeans, but even if true, it would imply that there are a great many more northern Europeans than Jews in that range.)

Then another Jewish scientist is quoted:

“I am not sure that most geneticists have agreed to ‘races’ per se,” says Ostrer. “But continental groups or clusters, yes.” To deny these clusters, he says, would be folly; it tells us to willfully ignore what all of us can see—that people look different all over the world. He quotes me a line from Jews: A Study in Race and Environment, written by his NYU predecessor, Maurice Fishberg: “One can pick out a Jew from among a thousand non-Jews without difficulty.” Ostrer is now writing a book himself, about genetics and Jewish history. He has decided to call the first chapter “Looking Jewish.”

Not races but clusters?? Now there’s a new discovery! I rather doubt that anyone who has believed in the reality of race ever thought anything else. But it’s nice to see Fishberg’s work on looking Jewish taken seriously.

Population geneticist David Goldstein has a nice comment on self-censorship by geneticists on the topic of race–without noting the role of Jewish social scientists, particularly Franz Boas and his followers, in disestablishing scientific study of race and race differences in the West:

“Until recently, most human geneticists almost . . . disallowed discussion about genetic differences among racial and ethnic groups. Really. So many awful things had been done with genetic research in this last century that they developed a policy of ‘Just say no.’ But there’s actually a lot of difference between groups, when you consider there are 10 million polymorphic sites on the genome. So it’s not scientifically sound to rule out the possibility of differences corresponding to our geographic and ethnic heritages. It overlooks the basic point: The genome is just a huge place.”

Senior provides a cultural alternative to the genetic theory:

Yet there are many who’d find a very different way of explaining the intelligence of these patients. They wouldn’t invoke their extra dendrites. They’d invoke their mothers.

To say that the Jews have a history of emphasizing scholarship is not just the fantasy of ethnic chauvinists and Woody Allen fans. To look at a single page of the Talmud is to understand this, with its main text at the center, its generations of rabbis arguing around the rim. The dialectic and critical reasoning are at its core.

But the cultural explanation is not really an alternative explanation to the genetic explanation. Eugenic explanations of Jewish intelligence emphasize that Jews who were good at scholarship had a variety of advantages, including good business and marriage prospects (see here).  Moreover, behavior geneticists have long known that the environments provided by bright parents are quite different from environments provided by dull parents, and the natural children of these bright parents benefit more from the stimulating environments provided by their natural parents than dull children would.

Perhaps most revealing about the article is that the entire subtext is not whether there is truth to be had on Jewish intelligence but whether it’s good for the Jews. Sadly, that about sums up the approach of the Jewish intellectual movements reviewed in The Culture of Critique.

In any case, the topic continues to excite. I just received John Glad’s new book, Jewish Eugenics, and Richard Lynn’s book on Jewish intelligence should be out soon. Best to ignore Senior’s article and use the time on better things.

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