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November 23, 2007

BACK OF THE BOOK: The Jewish Genius Debate

By Eric Herschthal

When Jon Entine published Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We are Afraid to Talk About It, his bestseller from 2000, he was trying to make a point: We mustn’t let the perversions of racists get in the way of hard science. To the legions of the politically correct, Entine gently condescended: “Any evidence that innate differences exist between the races or the sexes is considered inflammatory and inadmissible by the prevailing intellectual Zeitgeist.” But bigots be forewarned: “It cannot be stated too strongly that the data that conclusively links our ancestry to athletic skills have little or anything to say about intelligence.”

But the newest scientific research on just that fact––inheritable intelligence––has proven too titillating, and Entine has now taken the bait. His new book, published this month and titled Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People, carefully links the history of the Jews with the science of genetics, saving the juiciest bit, inheritable intelligence, for the very end.

And what has Entine found? Or, more appropriately, what have the scientists Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy and Henry Harpending found? They are, after all, the group of scientists, all non-Jews, who wrote the highly publicized article “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence” last year in the Journal of Biosocial Science. It’s their paper that Entine carefully, but with high hopes, entertains.

Cochran (let’s assume the et al.) begins with what we already know: Jews are significantly overrepresented in intellectually demanding fields. The easiest way to make it quantifiable is to look at intellectual prizes. In America, for instance, Jews comprise about 2 percent of the population but account for 25 percent of its Nobel Prize winners in literature, and 40 percent of its winners in science and economics. Internationally, 54 percent of the world’s chess champions have one or two Jewish parents, and yet Jews make up just two tenths of 1 percent of the world’s population.

That’s just statistical fact though, not science. We need something we can test, and this we can: Jews of Ashkenazi descent have an average I.Q. of 110, compared to a world average of 100. And, well, we can test that, but it’s awfully tricky. Within the scientific community, a consensus has grown that indeed I.Q. is the best measure we have for general intelligence and that, according to studies, 48 percent of general intelligence is inheritable.

Which, of course, leaves the other 52 percent open to non-inheritable factors. Studies both old and new show that growing up poor, or in an emotionally fraught household, lowers an I.Q. score. And while an I.Q. test is our best measure of mental aptitude, it’s far from perfect. Over the past century, I.Q. scores have risen, inexplicably, three to six points every decade.

Still, Cochran gives a Jewish genius theory a go. Combining the scientific fact of partially inheritable intelligence with inheritable Jewish diseases Ashkenazim disproportionately carry genes for recessive diseases like Tay Sachs and Parkinson’s they suggest a possible connection. This is based on the idea that the most common Jewish genetic diseases are ones that affect the nervous system, which includes the brain, and that, of course, controls intelligence. Jewish diseases get passed down­­––in part and perhaps––because they are part of the same genetic code that dictates intelligence. And, again, perhaps intelligence is a greater force for natural selection––whom we choose to have sex with ––than recessive genes are a deterrent; recessive diseases only become apparent if two carriers pass on that gene to their children.

“Did the authors offer definitive proof for their speculative theory? No,” Entine writes. And he cites, diligently but lightly, the work of its sensible critics. Steven Pinker, the advocate of evolutionary biology at Harvard, called the Cochran hypothesis “extremely iffy,” in a lengthy essay last year devoted to the study in The New Republic. The crucial postulation Jewish genes link their diseases with their intelligence  “is the one for which we have the least evidence.”

So what is Entine’s point this time? His best argument––that we shouldn’t be scared to talk about racial differences that are embedded in our DNA––is nothing new. Evolutionary biologists may be skittish about revealing what they find, but they know the obvious benefits. Understanding certain diseases through an ethnic prism, for instance, helps pinpoint and vitiate them.

But when it comes to identifying innate racial qualities like intelligence or athletic ability, these studies seem highly circumspect. If, like Cochran suggests, they may be linked to diseases, then it may make them more palatable. But worthy in their own right? I doubt it.

We know that while certain characteristics are innate, environmental forces have at least as much sway. I bet Shawn Green, the Jewish baseball star, cares as much about the details of the research as does Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prizewinning African American author.

Common sense tells me that  and, I might add, trying to understand all the science makes me feel like an idiot.