The Other Paper

November 8, 2007

Some Thorny Questions About "Race" and DNA

Columbus, OH

Are Jews the smartest people in the world?

That’s one of the questions Jon Entine raises in his latest book, and it’s no doubt one he’ll discuss when he appears in Central Ohio next week as part of the 2007 Jewish Bookfair.

The Cincinnati writer doesn’t shy away from controversy. He proved that with Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, a book he wrote while living in Bexley in the late 1990s. It explained, among other things, why black jocks with ancestral roots in West Africa tend to be good jumpers and sprinters, while those with roots in East Africa tend to be good long-distance runners.

"It was hugely controversial," Entine said, "so I had to wear my intellectual flak jacket for a time."

Talking about racial differences can be dangerous, as the late sports commentator Jimmy the Greek could attest. So can James Watson, a 79-year-old biologist and Nobel Prize winner who was fired from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island two weeks ago for comments he made about the intelligence of Africans.

Even so, Taboo got good reviews, and its general theses have become widely accepted since it came out in 2000, Entine said.

"I don’t think there’s a geneticist alive who would dispute the central theme of Taboo today," he said.

Now Entine has waded back into controversial waters with Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People. Released last week, the book discusses the question of whether Jews are linked not only culturally but genetically.

In one chapter, titled "Jewish Mothers or Jewish Genes," it also ponders the statistical fact that Jews score higher on IQ tests than any other population group. The book offers a genetic theory for such scores, but it doesn’t present it as fact, Entine said.

"There’s no question that Jews have a higher IQ, but it may not be genetic," he said. "It may be totally cultural and environmental."

Kriss Galloway, marketing and communications manager for Columbus’s Jewish Community Center, said such issues bring up frightening memories of World War II and Hitler’s promotion of an Aryan "master race."

"One of the things that come to mind is the Nazi idea of eugenics," she said.

The issue could also be sensitive among Jews for another reason: The high average scores on IQ tests are attained only by Ashkenazi Jews, whose ancestors hail from central and Eastern Europe. Others—such as Sephardic Jews, with ancestral roots in Spain and Portugal—tend to score lower.

That statistic could touch raw nerves as Entine makes the rounds of what he described as the pre-Hanukkah circuit of Jewish book festivals. One thing to remember, the author said, is that genetics refers to averages and trends, not to individuals.

"So any Sephardic Jew," he said, "would be very capable of being a brilliant physicist or mathematician or musician or just a regular person who’s smart."

Non-Ashkenazi Jews "should take no personal offense," he added, "any more than a tall woman should take offense if someone said that men are taller than women."

Galloway said even the question at the center of Entine’s book, on whether Jews are related via their DNA, "raises some eyebrows."

Entine said that’s a relatively recent development.

"If you go back to the 1930s and before, Jews happily considered themselves a race, and they thought it was a pretty cool thing," he said. "It only became a taboo subject because of what happened in the Holocaust."

Entine said genetics is becoming more controversial in general because the science has moved beyond studying the parts of DNA that all humans have in common—what he called its "‘Kum Ba Yah’ phase"—and is beginning to consider the parts that make us different.

It’s unfortunate that this study makes people uncomfortable, Entine said, because it could lead to discoveries about health problems that are prevalent in certain population groups. In fact, Entine first became interested in the subject of Jewish DNA after his sister became the fourth member of his family to contract breast cancer as a result of a genetic mutation that’s common among Jews.

"That’s the reason why we’re looking at population differences," he said. "Not because we care about intelligence, but because we want to solve the mysteries of disease."

"If we fire every James Watson who inelegantly talks about human differences, then we’re never going to be able to have a constructive dialogue, and scientists are going to be discouraged about pursuing the very research that could conceivably ameliorate different diseases that affect different populations differently."