[Paleopsych] Jerusalem Post: Are Jews born smart?

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Fri Dec 9 01:55:17 UTC 2005

Are Jews born smart?
[The idea that we use only 5-7% of our brain flies in the face of 
evolutionary logic. The brain uses 12% of the body's calories yet 
constitutes only 2% of its mass.]


Ashkenazi Jews are genetically intellectually superior to everyone else. 
This is the conclusion of a recent "scientific" study entitled Natural 
History of Ashkenazi Intelligence that triggered several articles in 
popular publications such as New York Magazine, The New York Times and the 
Economist. In this study, Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy and Henry 
Harpending of the University Of Utah's anthropology department suggest a 
genetic explanation to account for this remarkable intellectual 

They base their hypothesis on four observations. First, that
Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ of any ethnic grouping.
Second, Ashkenazim have a very low inward gene flow (low

Third, historic restrictions on professions allowed to Jews, such
as money-lending, banking and tax farming, in which higher
intelligence strongly favored economic success, in turn led to
increased reproductive success. Low intermarriage acted as a
selective process genetically favoring these abilities.

Fourth, genetic mutations responsible for diseases commonly found
in Ashkenazi Jews, such as Tay-Sachs, are responsible for improved

My initial reaction to a theory like this is suspicion laced with a
healthy dose of skepticism.

Undoubtedly Ashkenazim have made a disproportionate contribution to
Western intellectual and cultural life - think Freud, Einstein,
Mahler, or Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld, to name but a few. But
saying that Ashkenazi genes are different calls into question the
motivation behind the research.

SHOULD 'RACE' be dignified as a subject of scientific study? To
refuse to investigate a subject, however objectionable, would in
itself be unscientific. Yet the attention of the scientific
community alone lends it credibility. This study is to be published
in The Journal of Biosocial Science in 2006 by Cambridge University

The paper drew considerable criticism for both its aims and methods
from geneticists, historians, social scientists and other academics
as "poor science" - condemning its polemical style and the lack of
usual rigor and dispassion of scientific texts.

But what do we do with the conclusions of the thesis? Maybe file
them with Jewish conspiracies such as The Protocols of the Elders
of Zion? Claiming we are a race genetically differentiated from the
rest of humanity could provide excellent material for anti-Semites.
It could share a shelf with other "scientific" works on race and
intelligence such as those of Arthur Jensen or The Bell Curve by
Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein - which questioned
affirmative action in the US, claiming that African-Americans are
genetically inferior in intellectual abilities.

Is the Harpending and Cochran study any less odious for the fact
that it portrays Jews in a positive light?

JUDAISM HAS never advocated Jewish racial superiority. Indeed, the
Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a) explains that Adam, the biblical first man,
was created singly as the common forebear of all mankind so that
future families would not quarrel over claims of superiority in
their respective ancestry.

If racial purity was important the Jewish people would not have
accepted converts, or would maybe maybe reconsider the status of
their offspring. Yet we have the biblical story of Ruth, a convert
who is not only accepted into the Jewish people, but whose
descendents include King David and, ultimately, the Messiah.

Down the centuries, reluctance to accept converts was based on
concerns about the smooth transmission of family traditions,
religious observances, history and culture, and not the
watering-down of blood, diluting DNA, or contamination of the
Jewish gene pool.

Being "the chosen people" does not make Jews superior either. The
idea of chosenness first appears in the book of Exodus (19:5-6)
where, contingent on complying with and keeping the Divine
covenant, the Jewish people is singled out to become "a kingdom of
priests and a holy nation."

In the words of Henri Atlan: "Election does not imply superiority
or inherent sanctity, since the correct reading of the Bible in
fact implies conditional chosenness. The election is one of duty,
not of rights or attributes."

IF JEWS aren't racially superior, then, how does one account for
the undeniably disproportionate achievements of Jews (numbering
0.2% of the world population) at winning Nobel prizes, for example?

There is a "self-fulfilling prophecy" explanation. Nobel prizes are
awarded according to a set of culturally-rooted values - extolling
the virtues of Western civilization and rewarding its paradigms, we
should bear in mind that Judaism made a significant contribution to
that civilization.

Jews have always been literate, and historically the professional
restrictions on Ashkenazi Jews encouraged them to promote
"exile-proof" skills. They valued and encouraged learning, hard
work and achievement. These were a cultural legacy, not innate

If race is the source of those achievements, where does hard work
or personal endeavor enter the equation? If I am an Ashkenazi Jew,
is it my destiny to achieve?

And what do we do with this within the Jewish world? We really
don't need another source of divisiveness along the
Ashkenazi/Sephardi rift.

My own view as an educator is that everyone has the same
intellectual potential, regardless of lineage. Psychologists
maintain that the average person uses only 5-7% of that potential.
Differing levels of achievement among people are accounted for by
the amount of their potential they have managed to exploit.

If there is any common factor accounting for the achievement of
some exceptional Ashkenazi Jews it may be their cultural legacy
that has enabled them to make more of themselves. Their
achievements are not predestined by an accident of birth.

The writer, a member of Kibbutz Alumim, is senior educator in
Melitz Centers for Jewish-Zionist Education.

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