The Chronical Review

The Chronicle Review
November 30, 2007
The Chosen IQ


The latest round in a simmering debate over the claim that Jews are born smarter than other people began last month with the publication of Jon Entine's Abraham's Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People (Grand Central Publishing). Entine, an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, traces the genetics of the Jewish people, seeing a possible link between high IQ and certain diseases to which Jews are prone. He is generally sympathetic to arguments advanced last spring by his colleague at AEI, Charles Murray, in an article for Commentary magazine, and in 2006 by the University of Utah researchers Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending, in an article in the Journal of Biosocial Science.

Murray, co-author of the highly controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (Free Press), argued in the Commentary essay, "Jewish Genius," that the proportion of Jews with high IQs is greater than the proportion of people with high IQs among, well, every other group. The Utah researchers hypothesized in "Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence" that elevated intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews evolved through a process of natural selection — in medieval Europe, Jews were restricted to intellectually demanding professions, and the traits that helped them succeed were emphasized by the fact that they married within their faith. Judging by recent discussion, the debate may continue for a long time.

Howard M. Wasserman, Florida International University College of Law: The obvious concern is the arrogance of the idea that we are, essentially, genetically superior, at least with respect to intelligence. After all, the whole "Chosen People" thing did not go over well in the host countries of Middle Ages Europe; putting a scientific spin on it will not likely fare much better. And there is an inherent danger that genetic differences can be morphed by the majority into arguments about genetic inferiority, justifying all sorts of atrocities. (PrawfsBlawg)

Daniel S. Goldberg, graduate student, University of Texas Medical Branch: The minute we start Othering persons by virtue of their genes, we set the stage for significant mischief. The history of disability policy in the 20th century alone easily shows this, and the linkage of Jewish identity to genes should be enough to give any serious student of the history of science and research ethics the horribles, frankly. ...

Genes don't cause anything per se; rather, their expression is the product of the behavior of a nonlinear dynamical system, with an untold number of variables and causal factors all interacting in iterative, interrelated fashion. This is in part why the study of epigenetics is a much more interesting field of inquiry than the study of genetics — the genetic information itself doesn't really matter, because the expression of that information virtually never (with rare monogenic conditions, like Huntington's chorea, being exceptions) proceeds in a linear, self-determining manner. (Medical Humanities Blog)

Andrew Rosenblum, writer: What is objectionable about the endless obsessing about IQ, and even more so about the heritable qualities of a Jewish "race" (quite deliberately placed in quotation marks because this is an inherently pseudoscientific category), is the need to mystify the status quo. According to eugenic thinking, we are merely blindly carrying out the imperatives of genes, rather than manifesting an interplay between genes, historical accident (for example, the invention of steel, or the lack of immunity of Native Americans to smallpox and other infectious diseases),cultural factors such as Jewish-American mothers of the 1930s or systemic racism against African-Americans, and the billions of contingent choices made daily by the teeming masses of the world. (Accidental Blogger)

William Saletan, journalist: But what if Judaism as a genetic inheritance is compatible with Judaism as a cultural inheritance? And what if the genes that make Jews smart also make them sick? If one kind of superiority comes at the price of another kind of inferiority, and if the transmission of Jewish values drives the transmission of Jewish genes, does that make the genetics and the superiority easier to swallow?

Apparently so.

According to Entine, the rate of Jewish "outbreeding" — procreating with non-Jews — is half a percent. That's the lowest rate of any population in the world today. What drives this phenomenon? Culture. Ten years ago, my childless Orthodox uncle came up to me and said, "I hear you're dating a Jewish girl." When I replied in the affirmative, he added, "If you marry her, I'll come to the wedding." That was pretty much the whole conversation. A year and a half later, he was at my wedding. Today he's got a grandniece and grandnephew living in my house. I'd like to think he had no influence, but maybe I'm kidding myself. (Slate)

Sander Gilman, Emory University: I could loose a screed against the creation of a unitary racial (or ethnic or even genetic) definition that lumps radically diverse people of radically diverse experience and background into a category labeled the "Jews" or even "Ashkenazic Jews." I could join the late Stephen J. Gould, among many others, to inquire about the relationship between "race" and yet another suspicious category, "intelligence" (smarminess writ scientific), but is it worth doing this? When you have two categories, both of which are created by social consensus, defining one in terms of the other leads to pure nonsense, as Murray and Herrnstein showed in The Bell Curve. (Nextbook)

Patrick S. O'Donnell, University of California at Santa Barbara: How does the fact that one may convert to Judaism affect this nonsense?

What do IQ studies measure? All the various kinds of intelligence? (I'm thinking of Howard Gardner's work on "multiple intelligences.") (PrawfsBlawg)

Philip Weiss, blogger: Yes, we value learning. Or valued it. ... Much of our intelligence was sharpened by outsider status. That's over. History is fluid. Human gifts are shared. Our ancient values are now being widely emulated by many other peoples — as they should be. And if it is genetic, well, our genes are being shared because so many others want to marry us. Yes, I agree, right now we are smarter. Not for long. (Mondoweiss)