[Paleopsych] JTA: Study on Ashkenazi genes sparks intrigue, debate and reflection
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Thu Jun 9 01:07:11 UTC 2005
Study on Ashkenazi genes sparks intrigue, debate and reflection
By Chanan Tigay http://www.jta.org/page_bio.asp#Chanan Tigay
NEW YORK, June 7 (JTA) A reported link between Ashkenazi intelligence
genes and susceptibility to genetic disorders is clearly mixed news
for the descendants of Eastern European Jews.
It may come as little surprise, then, that reactions to a new study
linking the two are a mixed bag as well.
After all, if what the University of Utah researchers say is true,
some Jewish mothers may just have had their dreams for brilliant
children turned to nightmares.
Beyond that, it may also mean that Ashkenazim have, albeit
unwillingly, been part of an accidental experiment in eugenics, as The
Economist magazine put it in a recent article.
It has brought them some advantages. But, like the deliberate eugenics
experiments of the 20th century, it also has exacted a terrible price.
The mere mention of eugenics which refers to a movement to improve
humankind by controlling genetic factors through mating is enough to
ring bells that many Jews would rather not hear 60 years after the
Allied defeat of the Nazis.
According to the study, slated to appear in an upcoming issue of the
Journal of Biosocial Science, Ashkenazim do better than average on IQ
tests, scoring some 12-15 points above the tests mean value. But they
also are more likely than any other ethnic groups to suffer from
diseases such as Tay-Sachs, Gauchers disease and Niemann-Pick related
conditions that can be debilitating and deadly.
The new study hypothesizes that the genetic disorders could be the
unfortunate side effects of genes that facilitate intelligence.
But for some people, ascribing collective traits to entire ethnic
groups especially to European Jews reminds them that the Nazis heaped
a pile of supposed genetic characteristics on that continents Jews and
used the characteristics as a basis to exterminate them.
Indeed, the researchers say they had difficulty finding a journal that
would publish their findings.
For other people, criticizing such research on this basis reeks of
political correctness. This is real science, they say, with real
potential to help save Jewish and other lives.
When you study genetics in order to cure diseases, thats great, said
James Young, a Jewish studies professor at the University of
Massachusetts at Amherst and the author of Writing and Rewriting the
Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation.
But when genetics are studied as a way to characterize or essentialize
a whole ethnic group or nation of people, then I think its very
Still, he said, I was kind of intrigued by this connection, and the
dark irony of what it means to have your intelligence gene linked to a
so-called genetic disease gene. Its kind of striking.
For Dr. Guinter Kahn, a Miami physician who lectures internationally
on German doctors during the Holocaust, studies like this have real
This stuff is being done with genes, and theyre actually finding true
results, he said. The stuff they did in World War II was pure baloney
motivated by the greatest geneticists of that time in Germany but they
all fell into the Hitler trap.
Although no one is questioning the researchers motivations, some
observers worry that their findings may be misused.
Will bigots use this? Bigots will use anything, said Abraham Foxman,
national director of the Anti-Defamation league.
However, he said, their abuses should not block research that could
benefit the Jewish community.
Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt agrees.
When it became clear that fewer Jews were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau
than had originally been thought, some Jews worried that this
information would be manipulated by Holocaust deniers to back their
claims, said Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust
studies at Emory University.
I had people say to me, We shouldnt talk about these things, Lipstadt
recalls, I said, No, no, no. Its always good to talk about the truth.
We should never be afraid of the truth.
As to concerns about what it means to say that one group of people is
genetically smarter than others, Henry Harpending, a professor of
anthropology at the University of Utah and one of the studys three
authors, told JTA that such complaints boil down to political
Its no secret, he said of the Ashkenazi IQ numbers. Your grandmother
told you this.
Indeed, the study notes that although Ashkenazi Jews made up just 3
percent of the U.S. population during the last century, they won 27
percent of the countrys Nobel Prizes in science and account for more
than half of the worlds chess champions.
However, Harpending added, this is the kind of thing that youre not
supposed to say these days.
We regard this as an interesting hypothesis and are a little surprised
at the attention. On the other hand, geneticists kind of know that
variation between populations is almost certainly in the DNA and they
kind of dont talk about that for fear of losing federal funding for
their research, Harpending said.
What weve done is started out with an idea and followed it, so what we
have is a pretty interesting and pretty good-looking hypothesis and it
ought to be tested.
But could this research actually end up helping anybody? Gregory
Cochran, one of the studys authors, hopes so.
I dont have the cure to any disease in my pocket. I wish I did, he
said. But if this all pans out, you learn something about how the
brain works. Who knows? Maybe you can do something to help some people
The study says that because European Jews in medieval times were
restricted to jobs in finance, money lending and long-distance trade
occupations that required greater mental gymnastics than fields such
as farming, dominated by non-Jews their genetic codes over the course
of some generations selected genes for enhanced intellectual ability.
This process allowed these Jews to thrive in the limited scope of
professions they were allowed to pursue. Further, in contrast to
today, those who attained financial success in that period often
tended to have more children than those who were less financially
stable, and those children tended to live longer.
It is for this reason, the researchers said, that many Ashkenazi Jews
today have high IQs and it may also be the reason they suffer from the
slew of genetic diseases.
According to the researchers, many individuals carrying the gene for
one of these diseases also receive an IQ boost.
Rabbi Moses Tendler, who holds a doctorate in biology and teaches
biology at Yeshiva University, said there is no doubt that genetic
makeup determines intelligence and, indeed, predisposes as well as
offers resistance to genetic diseases.
But he took issue with the studys findings.
The fact that Jews did not intermarry until relatively recently,
Tendler said, led to a concentration of various genes among their
numbers, some good and some bad.
Wherever they were, Jews lived on an island, he said.
In scientific terms, arguments similar to Tendlers are known as a
Rabbi Arthur Green, dean of the Rabbinical School at Bostons Hebrew
College, wondered whether the findings took into account all relevant
factors in the development of Jewish intelligence.
He noted that during the period in which the researchers believe the
Jewish intelligence gene began to be selected, the majority Christian
world was, in a sense, selecting against such a gene.
In that same period of 1,600 to 1,800 years, Christian Europe was
systematically destroying its best genetic stock through celibacy of
priests and monks, he said.
The Christian devotion to celibacy, particularly for the most learned
and highest intellectual achievers, diminished the quality of genetic
output and created a greater contrast with the Jewish minority, he
The Jewish devotion to study and learning, meanwhile, also probably
worked in tandem with economic factors in the development of
intelligence, Green surmised.
In some of the Ashkenazi disorders, individuals experience extra
growth and branching of connectors linking their nerve cells. Too much
of this growth may lead to disease; increased but limited growth,
though, could breed heightened intelligence.
In an effort to determine the effect of Gauchers on IQ, for example,
the researchers contacted the Gauchers Clinic at Shaare Zedek Hospital
in Jerusalem. Although the center did not have specific IQ numbers on
patients at the clinic, the jobs they held were high-IQ professions:
physicists, engineers, lawyers, physicians and scientists.
Its obviously a population with enriched IQs big time, Harpending
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