[Paleopsych] Next Book: Genius in the Making

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Genius in the Making

If a scientific theory about Jews being smart is so politically
incorrect, why aren't more people complaining?

BY David Berreby

During the persecutions that marked the last millennium of European
history, many Jews refused forced conversion to Christianity.
Instead, they died as martyrs al kiddush hashem, in sanctification of
the Name.

Others, of course, preferred to live. Tradition accords them no
honor. It appears to be human nature to celebrate those who choose
death over a convenient change of identity. But not everyone is
prepared to kill or die for "my people," and we can disagree about
what "my people" means and what its interests are. But no one finds
the notion of dying for identity to be incomprehensible.

Why is this so? What's the source of these religious, ethnic,
national, and cultural identities that inspire and terrify us all?
They could reflect real differences in measurable quantities, like
skin color or height. Or the boundaries between one people and
another could be rooted in the mind-consequences of the way we're
taught to perceive ourselves and other human beings.

Both perspectives-call them objectivist and subjectivist-have
respectable histories dating back centuries. In Aristotle's time, the
objectivist tradition led him to explain that Asians were flighty and
Northern Europeans stupid, but the Greeks were just right because
they were shaped by the temperate climate. Today, it causes some to
believe there's a reason why Kenyans run faster than Inuit-and that
reason explains why these two groups really are distinct. This kind
of thinking gives us the rules of thumb we use to make sense of
strangers in ordinary life: Because he is an X, he will do Y.

The subjectivist tradition, on the other hand, says the difference
between Kenyans and Inuit is in the eye of the beholder. That doesn't
mean they're imaginary or easily wished away, but it does mean these
differences begin in the circumstances and mentality of the observer.
After all, while Kenyans and Inuit are different in many measures,
they are also, judged on other criteria, exactly alike. They are
members of the same species; fathers and mothers; non-Western peoples
coping with a Western-dominated world. To a subjectivist, the world
doesn't naturally divide into peoples. It is divided-by observers,
whose categories will change depending on their purposes.

This view led Aristotle (who was all over the map) to note that
people are shaped by life with other people, in a process that never
ceases to change. The Enlightenment philosopher David Hume noted how
readily people change-both on the scale of historical time
(18th-century Greeks were not the same as ancient Greeks, he said)
and at the scale of an individual life (as when an average man
becomes an elite soldier, because he has joined a high-prestige unit
and molded himself to its ways).

The subjectivist outlook has been derided as postmodernism, a label
that connotes faddish and fancy academic footwork, remote from real
life. Yet this view, too, is common sense. It is what tells us not to
be guided by stereotypes: just because she is an X, doesn't mean she
can't do Y. It lets us envisage a politics in which the future is
better than the past. That's important in any democracy. In the
United States, it is how, for example, Italians, once regarded as
non-white, were incorporated into the American mainstream. And it is
how the descendants of Jewish immigrants entered the elite
institutions that once excluded their grandparents.

In practical affairs, in other words, most people use both the
objectivist and subjectivist interpretations of ethnic, religious,
national, and cultural categories. Like physicists who decide whether
to regard light as particles or waves, depending on the experiment
they're performing, most Americans deal with ethnic-cultural
information in whatever mode suits the occasion.

Yet these two ways of understanding aren't really compatible, so
people who have thought systematically about these questions tend to
take a side. Surely, says the objectivist, if many people say, "Jews
are smart," it's because Jews are measurably intelligent. Well,
answers the subjectivist, people used to say Jews were particularly
well-suited to play basketball. (A Daily News sportswriter put it
this way in the 1930's: "The reason, I suspect, that basketball
appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background is that the game
places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness,
artful dodging and general smart aleckness.") So let us not be too
sure that today's talk has got free of today's narrow circumstances.

There are good reasons to feel ambivalent about this endless debate.
The emancipation of Diaspora Jews over the past two centuries of
Western history could only take place in a subjectivist context.
Everyone's shared humanity is more real and certain, that view tells
us, than the changeable, supposedly important differences that let us
tell one ethnic group from another. In fact, Jewish thinkers
contributed enough to the spread of this subjectivist view that
anti-Semites from Goebbels to the Islamist Sayyid Qutb portrayed the
thought of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Franz Boas and others as a
specifically Jewish attack on the Gentiles.

Then too, the idea of intrinsic Jewish traits has been a tool of
anti-Semitic propaganda for centuries. Still, what would identity be
without a sense of indelible peoplehood? Without the feeling that
Jewishness is a fact, not a choice or circumstance, it would be hard
to make sense of politics, culture, or one's own family. And that
sense of factuality requires facts: Statements about what is and
isn't Jewish, which don't depend on changing circumstances. Many Jews
were pleased to hear about the 1997 paper, published in Nature, in
which Karl Skorecki and his colleagues showed that the DNA of many
kohanim carries a distinct marker of descent from an ancestor who
lived several thousand years ago. People like to feel definite about
their identity, so they welcomed news that the genetic level of
analysis seemed to confirm the cultural tradition of priestly descent
from Aaron. That got a lot more attention than the fact that some 30
percent of kohanim lack the genetic marker; and that many Iraqi Kurds
possess it.

That paper exemplifies a trend that will make the
objectivist-versus-subjectivist problem more urgent in the future.
Not long ago, doctors and physical anthropologists could deal with
the genetics of Jewish populations without touching on cultural and
religious issues such as the nature of stereotypes about smart Jews
or the effects of Diaspora history. Sociologists could study the
history of Ashkenazic Jews in America without confronting claims
about genes. This peaceful coexistence is coming to an end.
Subjectivist and objectivist thinkers are increasingly converging on
the same issues and problems.

A striking case in point turned up last month, when The New York
Times and other news outlets announced the imminent publication of a
objectivist research paper, by Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy, and
Henry Harpending of the University of Utah, which proposed (a) that
Ashkenazic Jews are said to be smart because they really are; (b)
that this is so because Ashkenazim spent nearly a thousand years in
Europe in a social "niche" that required brains-traders and
financiers in a society that forbade them to be farmers or soldiers;
(c) that certain genes found among Ashkenazim are the cause of their
high intelligence; and (d) that these same genes are also responsible
for a cluster of hereditary diseases, including Tay-Sachs, Gaucher's,
and breast cancer, that are more common among Ashkenazim than they
are in other groups.

It's a fascinating and disquieting paper, not least because it gives
no easy comfort to the objectivist school. If you would like to think
that Jewish smarts are a real biological fact, the paper will side
with you. But only about the Ashkenazim, which might put a dent in
your joy, especially if you happen to be Sephardic. The paper says
Ashkenazic history created a legacy of unusual abilities (that's
flattering and it's pleasant to think there's a solid explanation).
But the reason it gives is the role of Jews as financiers and
moneylenders (which reminds you of stereotypes that are none too
pleasant to contemplate).

The Times piece was written by Nicholas Wade, a first-rate science
writer who is, I think, sympathetic to the objectivist camp. Wade
gave the paper a well-spun launch, prominently featuring a quotation
from another scientist with a objectivist tilt, Steven Pinker of
Harvard. "It would be hard to overstate how politically incorrect
this paper is," Pinker said.

It was a savvy preemptive move-one favored by media-wise scientists
of the objectivist school. By warning that the ideas to follow might
offend the "politically correct," Pinker gives them the allure of
forbidden truths and protects against counterarguments. After all,
the implication is that if you reject this paper's arguments, you're
doing a kneejerk.

In this case, however, Pinker didn't need to protect the paper from a
PC assault. It got a friendly reaction from the media that covered
it. It was, for several days, on the Times' most-emailed list. And in
fact, its senior author, Harpending, told me last month that he had
not received a single phone call or email of the "how-could-you?"

Why? One reason is simple: Most regular people love objectivist
explanations of human differences. They're so pleasantly
straightforward, and they seem, somehow, to confirm your intuitions.
Never mind that those same intuitions tell you that the earth is flat
and that the sun revolves around us.

On top of that, science journalism, despite each article's inevitable
quotation or two from someone reminding the reader that these matters
are complex and culture is involved, inevitably favors the
"objectivist" school. The form of the newspaper, news website, or
blog presumes that source, reporter, and reader agree upon the nature
of facts and causes. But the subjectivist perspective requires that
you think about points of view, and how perceptions, including
perceptions of fact, are affected by history and experience.

News articles tell you that facts exist, and that these facts have
causes, which consist of other facts. That's an easy fit for an idea
like "Jews are smart because for centuries they worked at jobs that
require brains." But it doesn't work so well for a thought like:
"People we call Jews today are related to, but not the same as,
people called Jews in 1300, and, by the way, IQ tests that measure
intelligence in the 21st century weren't around in the 14th, so we
have to think about what we mean by intelligence, and how it is

So the largely favorable journalism about objectivist ideas shouldn't
mislead anyone into thinking these ideas are stronger and truer.

Of course, this doesn't mean they're invalid, either. So how should
to think about this paper, and the wave of largely favorable coverage
it got? First, it's important to realize that the real-or-mental
issue isn't going away. In fact, the debate over group
differences-what are they? where do they come from? which ones
matter?-is becoming ever more practical as pharmaceutical companies
seek racially and ethnically specific drugs. The FDA recently
approved the first one, BiDil, a medication for treating heart
disease in African-Americans.

Second, neither the objectivist nor subjectivist school of thought
consists of stupid people. For example, people who believe that IQ
tests measure something real and consistent do not believe this means
every single person of Ashkenazic descent is supersmart. Every fact
about populations is a matter of probability-a claim that someone in
Group A is X percent more likely to score Y than a generic human-not
an all-or-nothing assertion. Conversely, subjectivists aren't
emotional Stalinist morons, too afraid of facts to allow a debate.
They are scientists and other intellectuals whose doubts about the
notion of intrinsic, unchanging traits are well-founded. Everyone
realizes now that the question is not Nature or Nurture, but Nature
and Nurture. The fights are about how we tell them apart, and how
they interact.

Third, and most importantly, today's attempts to link levels of
analysis and cross disciplinary lines represent an opportunity, not a
threat. Engaging with alien-sounding objectivist and subjectivist
versions of what it means to be Jewish is a way to understand the
issues better, and to tell speculation apart from anti-Semitism.

Among those who have claimed to study Jewish history from a Darwinian
perspective is the psychologist Kevin MacDonald of California State
University at Long Beach, who, in a trilogy of books, has interpreted
Jewish tradition as an "evolutionary strategy" that gives Jews an
advantage in competition for resources with Gentiles. MacDonald cites
Freud and Marx (and Star Trek!) as examples of Jews promoting
universalism to get an edge over Gentiles. "A multicultural society
in which Jews are simply one of many tolerated groups is likely to
meet Jewish interests," he wrote in 1998.

MacDonald claims, then, that even the atheist and antireligious Marx
served an eternal Jewish drive to win out over gentiles. Judith
Shulevitz, writing in Slate in 2000, noted the obvious similarity of
this supposedly new biological argument to familiar tropes of
anti-Semitism. (The occasion was MacDonald's testimony on behalf of
the Holocaust denier David Irving.)

Though the recent Utah paper shares Darwinian language (genes,
evolution, IQ tests) with MacDonald's books, it is, in substance,
very different. The Utah researchers define who they are talking
about-Ashkenazim-much more precisely. They name the genes that, they
believe, are explained by their theory. And they say why they think
intelligence would be selected for in this population, and why that
effect could explain facts about genetic disease.

Their ideas, in other words, are specific and novel, where
MacDonald's are sweeping and familiar from centuries of anti-Semitic
propaganda. To see the difference-to avoid the mistake of thinking
all evolutionary thinking is crudely reductionist or racist-you have
to engage it.

Not taking sides in the vapid Nature-Nurture war saves your attention
for the real controversies taking place within disciplines. The Utah
paper's ideas aren't daring forbidden knowledge; nor are they
stalking horses for prejudice. The paper merits some thought. And if
you find yourself comfortably pleased by it, or comfortably
disdainful of it, you probably want to think about it some more.
David Berreby has written for the New York Times Magazine, The New
Republic, Slate, The Sciences, Smithsonian, and Discover. His book Us
and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind will be published in
October. He also has a blog.

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