Are Jews Smarter?

Back in 2005, in a lengthy article for NY Magazine entitled “Are Jews Smarter?“, Jennifer Senior writes about the emerging science of population genetics, particularly recent research and theorizing regarding the disproportionality to which Jews have higher IQs and exhibit unparalleled cultural achievement. She focuses on a research paper in The Journal of Biosocial Science entitled “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence” by Henry Harpending, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Utah (and a tenured professor as well as a member of the National Academy of Sciences) and Gregory Cochran. (Steve Sailer wrote about this paper here. Steven Pinker weighs in here.)

The abstract of the Harpending & Cochran paper is as follows:

This paper elaborates the hypothesis that the unique demography and sociology of Ashkenazim in medieval Europe selected for intelligence. Ashkenazi literacy, economic specialization, and closure to inward gene flow led to a social environment in which there was high fitness payoff to intelligence, specifically verbal and mathematical intelligence but not spatial ability. As with any regime of strong directional selection on a quantitative trait, genetic variants that were otherwise fitness reducing rose in frequency. In particular we propose that the well-known clusters of Ashkenazi genetic diseases, the sphingolipid cluster and the DNA repair cluster in particular, increase intelligence in heterozygotes. Other Ashkenazi disorders are known to increase intelligence. Although these disorders have been attributed to a bottleneck in Ashkenazi history and consequent genetic drift, there is no evidence of any bottleneck. Gene frequencies at a large number of autosomal loci show that if there was a bottleneck then subsequent gene flow from Europeans must have been very large, obliterating the effects of any bottleneck. The clustering of the disorders in only a few pathways and the presence at elevated frequency of more than one deleterious allele at many of them could not have been produced by drift. Instead these are signatures of strong and recent natural selection.

The Harpending & Cochran paper hypothesizes that a unique Ashkenazi gene matrix evolved, making Ashkenazis susceptible to certain diseases (and not susceptible to others), and that the gene matrix most commonly found in Ashkenazi jews was likely connected to the demanding cognitive occupational work and subsequent cultural achievement of this particular ethnic group over time…

What do colleagues think of their work? “They think it’s probably right,” Harpending says. “But in public, their only reaction is a primate fear grimace.”

In her NY Mag piece, Senior is clearly quite sceptical of the entire, higher-order notion that genetics might play a significant causual role in explaining such group differences. She occasionally hits upon a warranted reason for pause, but more often than not engages in some quite poor reasoning and ad hominems. “The paper contained references,” she intones, “but no footnotes.” She also appears to interpret as almost scandalous the fact that The Journal of Biosocial Science (a journal owned by Cambridge University Press) went by the name The Eugenics Review until 1968. And we all know what that is a code word for!

The negative reactions to Harpending & Cochran’s paper by the late, former NYC mayor Ed Koch (why the hell was Senior asking for his opinion on all this?) and Leon Wieseltier, are both indicative of Senior’s own skepticism, one woefully rife with invalid logical deductions and mischaracterizations. “The fact remains that there’s more diversity within racial groups than between them,” writes Senior in a sentence wrought with gross, misleading, and sweeping rhetoric.

What does “black” mean when discussing the 11,700,000-square-mile expanse of Africa? There are Pygmies and Nigerians, Zulus and Ethiopians. What, precisely, is a Mexican? Or—for that matter—a Semite?

Senior completely ignores the overwhelming body of evidence (literally, hundreds if not thousands of worldwide studies) which have established very significant cognitive differences between (to use old-school, anthropological terminology) mongoloids, caucausoids, and negroids, differences of upwards of one full standard deviation between such groups, in every conceivable social context. She also does not see the apparent contradiction between her reluctant acknowledgement that, yes, “race” is a scientifically useful, descriptive term, and her simultaneous attempt to trivialize such differences by pointing to the fact that there are differences between, say, Thai, Japanese, and Koreans. Of course there are such differences within mongoloids (asians). But these genetic differences between them pale in comparison to the wide differences between all 3 of them and, say, African pygmies.

Arguing against a straw man of genetic essentialism, Senior writes:

Talk to most geneticists, and they’ll say that it’s a combination of genetics and environment that inevitably makes us who we are—attempts to link specific behaviors, aptitudes, and weaknesses to genes and genes alone almost always come up short.

I’m unaware of any scientist studying genetics and race who has ever argued that genes account for all difference between groups. The much maligned work of Charles Murray (The Bell Curve) and Philippe Rushton on race and IQ, for example, has, commensurate with the empirical evidence, argued that genetics accounts for somewhere between 50-80% of group IQ difference.

The auxiliary hypothesis presented by Harpending & Cochran, namely that high Ashkenazi IQs were evolutionarily selected for the cognitively-challenging occupations such Jews were economically pressured into assuming (e.g., banking, entrepeneurship), is quite speculative, but not outlandish.

Whether one finds their hypothesis plausible (I don’t necessarily) or whether one sides with the ‘genetic drift’ argument – that is, large-scale genetic mutation being explained as largely random and coincidental – what does not change, and what cannot be refuted, is the empirical fact that Ashkenazi jews have a disproportionately higher degree of mean IQ relative to other ethnic groups around them. Group difference in IQ is not a figment of someone’s imagination. It exists.

If genetics accounts for, say, any degree of IQ differences between ethnic groups (let alone the 50-80% figure that some researchers estimate), we have entered a radical paradigm shift. The liberal, it should be emphasized, cannot acquiesce to any % greater than zero on this point, for it would completely undermine their tacit “blank slate” notion that all group differences are sociocultural, that we are all born the same and it is exclusively social and environmental factors which account for group stratification.

For the past 50 years, we have essentially been indoctrinated to believe this idealistic portrayal of human nature, the human brain, and the laws of evolutionary science. To think otherwise is still very much taboo. Hence, we are taught that “stereotypes” (e.g., Jewish doctors, bankers, lawyers, entertainers) are not only false in-and-of-themselves (a fact that basic sociological data easily proves otherwise), but were any such differences to actually exist, they would be the consequence of exclusively social, non-genetic factors.

With respect to jewish stereotypes, Senior herself worries that the genetic paradigm will only strengthen “a bias privately held by many Jews themselves—that the Ashkenazim are in fact intellectual superiors, and the Sephardim, originally from the Iberian Peninsula, are the handlers, the shylocks, the merchants of 47th Street.” (I had previously never heard of this intra-jewish stereotype).

Stereotypes exist for a reason. They don’t exist in a vacuum. Nor are they arbitrary. Such is why we don’t possess stereotypes of frugal blacks, lazy asians, or how hispanics dominate the movie-making industry.

At a minimum, Senior’s article is evidence that the science of population genetics is no longer the politically incorrect bogeyman it was just a few years ago. The emerging empirical data is just too strong for liberals to ignore. She writes:

Yet here’s the irony: 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.

“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.”

Senior even manages to find, among the many figures she finds to bad-mouth Harpending & Cochran’s entire approach, a scholar who doesn’t immediately write off Harpending & Cochran’s research as folly:

“There’s no doubt their paper is polemical,” says David Goldstein, director of the Center for Population Genomics and Pharmacogenetics at Duke University. “But just because it’s polemical doesn’t mean I’d be dismissive of everything they had to say. I think their paper’s interesting.”

Goldstein, in fact, seems to rather appreciate its Zeitgeist. “Until recently, most human geneticists almost… disallowed discussion about genetic differences among racial and ethnic groups,” he says. “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.” …

Using the notion of race, for example, has proved highly useful in medicine. Today, if you’re an ambitious young geneticist, the world’s awash in money to study racial difference and disease. It’s even encouraged by statute, thanks to the Minority Health Disparities Act of 2000. This summer, the National Institutes of Health announced it was exploring links between African-Americans and elevated rates of prostate cancer; this spring, NitroMed introduced BiDil to reduce heart disease in African-Americans.

So, the science — irrepressible, as science is wont to be — continues… albeit much slower and quieter than it otherwise would, and with its very real, concomitant career-risks.

Just ask Jason Richwine.

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