[Paleopsych] New York Magazine: The Master Race: Are Jews Smarter?
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The Master Race: Are Jews Smarter?
Did Jewish intelligence evolve in tandem with Jewish diseases as a
result of discrimination in the ghettos of medieval Europe? That's
the premise of a controversial new study that has some preening and
others plotzing. What genetic science can tell usâ"and what it
By Jennifer Senior
New York Magazine
This story begins, as it inevitably must, in the Old Country.
At some point during the tenth century, a group of Jews abandoned the
lush hills of Lucca, Italy, and--at the invitation of
Charlemagne--headed for the severer climes of the Rhineland and
Northern France. These Jews didn't have a name for themselves, at
first. They were tied together mostly by kinship. But ultimately, they
became known as Ashkenazim, a variation on the Hebrew word for one of
In some ways, life was good for the Jews in this strange new place.
They'd been lured there on favorable terms, with promises of
physical protection, peaceful travel, and the ability to adjudicate
their own quarrels. (The charter of Henry IV, dated 1090, includes
this assurance: "If anyone shall wound a Jew, but not mortally, he
shall pay one pound of gold . . . If he is unable to pay the
prescribed amount . . . his eyes will be put out and his right hand
cut off.") But in other ways, life was difficult. The Ashkenazim
couldn't own land. They were banned from the guilds. They were
Yet the Ashkenazim did very well, in spite of these constraints,
because they found an ingenious way to adapt to their new environment
that didn't rely on physical labor. What they noticed, as they set
up their towns, located mainly at the crossroads of trade routes, was
that there was no one around to lend money.
So there it was: a demand and a new supplier. Because of the Christian
prohibition against usury, Jews found themselves a financially
indispensable place in their new home, extending loans to peasants,
tradesmen, knights, courtiers, even the occasional monastery. The
records from these days are scarce. But where they exist, they are
often startling. In 1270, for example, 80 percent of the 228 adult
Jewish males in Perpignan, France, made their living lending money to
their Gentile neighbors, according to Marcus Arkin's Aspects of
Jewish Economic History. One of the most prolific was a rabbi. Two
others were identified, in the notarial records, as "poets."
Success at money-lending required a different set of skills than
farming or any of the traditional trades. Some, surely, were social:
cultivating connections, winning over trust (or maybe bullying your
way there, Shylock's awful pound of flesh). It probably required
some aggression, because the field was competitive, with Jews
suffering so few professional options. But it also required cognitive
skills, or something my generation would call numeracy--a fluency in
mathematics, a dexterity with numbers--and my grandmother's
generation would call "a head for figures." If you were Jewish in
Perpignan in 1270, and you didn't have a head for figures, you
didn't stand much of a chance.
Numeracy, literacy, critical reasoning: For millennia, these have been
the currency of Jewish culture, the stuff of Talmudic study, immigrant
success, and Borscht Belt punch lines. Two Jews, three opinions . . .
Keep practicing, you'll thank me later . . . Q: When does a Jewish
fetus become a human? A: When it graduates from medical school.
Of course, there's another side to this shining coin. Jewish
cleverness has also been an enduring feature of anti-Semitic paranoia.
In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther said Jewish doctors were so
smart they could develop a poison that could kill Christians in a
single day--or any other time period of their choosing (and four
centuries later, Pravda suggested Jewish doctors were spies sent to
kill Stalin). After the calamities of September 11, one of the
creepier conspiracy theories to whip through the Muslim world was the
idea that only Jews were cunning enough to have pulled off the
Last summer, Henry Harpending, an evolutionary anthropologist at the
University of Utah, and Gregory Cochran, an independent scholar with a
flair for controversy, skipped cheerfully into the center of this
minefield. The two shopped around a paper that tried to establish a
genetic argument for the fabled intelligence of Jews. It contended
that the diseases most commonly found in Ashkenazim--particularly the
lysosomal storage diseases, like Tay-Sachs--were likely connected to
and, indeed, in some sense responsible for outsize intellectual
achievement in Ashkenazi Jews. The paper contained references, but no
footnotes. It was not written in the genteel, dispassionate voice
common to scientific inquiries but as a polemic. Its science was
mainly conjecture. Most American academics expected the thing to drop
like a stone.
It didn't. The Journal of Biosocial Science, published by Cambridge
University Press, posted it online and agreed to run it in its
bi-monthly periodical sometime in 2006. The New York Times, The
Economist, and several Jewish publications risked their reputations to
legitimize it. Today, the paper has a lively presence on the
Internet--type "Ashkenazi" into Google and the first hit is the
Wikipedia entry, where the article gets pride of place.
Ascribing an ethnic or racial explanation to any trait more ambiguous
than skin color is by definition a dangerous idea, the kind of notion
that can seep into the political arena with disastrous consequences.
Institutionalized racism has always found sanction in the scientific
community, from eminent biologist Louis Agassiz's racial typologies
justifying slavery in the 1850s, to the Nazi scientists' depraved
use of calipers to establish Jewish inferiority, to psychologist
Arthur Jensen's call in the sixties to stop funding Head Start
because most of its poor, black recipients were intrinsically
We may consider ourselves the products of a new, more enlightened age,
and scientists may carry on with more sensitivity than they did in the
past. Yet to invoke the genome as an explanation for anything more
complicated than illness or the most superficial traits (like skin
color) is still considered taboo, as Harvard president Larry Summers
discovered when he suggested the reason for so few female math and
science professors might lurk in scribbles of feminine DNA (rather
than, say, the hostile climes of the classroom, the diminished
expectations of women's parents, or a curious cultural receptivity
to Pamela Anderson's charms).
For this reason, and the fact that it did not meet the standards of
traditional scientific scholarship, Harpending and Cochran's paper
attracted a barrage of criticism from mainstream geneticists,
historians, and social scientists.
"It's bad science--not because it's provocative, but because
it's bad genetics and bad epidemiology," says Harry Ostrer, head
of NYU's human-genetics program.
"I see no positive impact from this," says Neil Risch, one of the
few geneticists who's dipped his oar into the treacherous waters of
race and genetics. "When the guys at the University of Utah said
they'd discovered cold fusion, did that have a positive impact?"
"I'd actually call the study bullshit," says Sander Gilman, a
historian at Emory University, "if I didn't feel its idea were so
Cochran mirthfully bats their complaints away. "I don't see what
the big deal is here," he says when I reach him at his New Mexico
home. "I haven't actually told people how to make a hydrogen bomb
out of baking soda in their garages."
But there's no question that Cochran and Harpending knew what they
were doing. They were advancing a theory with a patina of sexiness and
political incorrectness, one that would generate a good deal of
discussion. And that it did. Some of that discussion was positive, and
some was not, as one might expect. That's always the problem with
theories that exploit stereotypes--they're titillating, sure, but
also handy refuges for the intellectually lazy. The trick is not to
harden and grow cold as we turn backward, as sure as Lot's wife.
"Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that âThings should be
described as simply as possible, but no simpler,' " reads the
first sentence of Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence. "The
same principle must be invoked in explaining Einstein himself." The
authors, clearly, have no fear of getting personal. Einstein, they
seem to be saying. Need we say more? The man whose very name is a
shorthand for genius was an Ashkenazi Jew.
The world's proliferation of Einsteins--well, maybe not Einsteins
exactly, but distinguished Jewish thinkers, particularly in math and
the sciences--form the stark, quantifiable basis for Cochran and
Harpending's hypothesis. Though Jews make up a mere 0.25 percent of
the world's population and a mere 3 percent of the United States',
they account, according to their paper, for 27 percent of all American
Nobel Prize winners, 25 percent of all ACM Turing Award winners for
computer science, and 50 percent of the globe's chess champions.
(What the paper doesn't say is that these numbers seem to be tallied
for optimum Jewishness, counting as Jews those who have as few as one
Jewish grandparent to claim; it also wrongly assumes these winners are
all Ashkenazim. But still.) Cochran and Harpending also cite studies
claiming that Ashkenazim have the highest IQ of any ethnic group for
which there's reliable data, perhaps as much as a full standard
deviation above the general European average, which means, at the far
end of the spectrum, that 23 per thousand Ashkenazim have an IQ over
140, as opposed to 4 per thousand Northern Europeans.
Reading these numbers, I was reminded of a story a friend once told me
about a peer of his at Cambridge who wearily dismissed the intellect
of another student with a five-word declaration: "Just your average
Most social scientists--and biological scientists, for that
matter--would argue that a complex combination of culture, history,
and religious tradition has been responsible for the steady,
metronomic production of average Jewish geniuses. Cochran and
Harpending make a different case.
Their reasoning is straightforward enough: If the gene mutations
responsible for diseases in Ashkenazim didn't confer some
evolutionary selective advantage, they wouldn't persist. Cochran and
Harpending liken these defective genes to the genes in Africans that
often deform hemoglobin. Carrying one copy of the gene, most research
suggests, helps ward off malaria--surely an adaptive advantage. Two
copies, however, cause sickle-cell anemia.
Cochran and Harpending reasoned the same must be true of the genes
that cause illness among Ashkenazi Jews, particularly the four that
cause mutations in the enzymes responsible for breaking down fats:
Tay-Sachs, Niemann-Pick, Gaucher disease, and mucolipidosis type IV.
Two copies cause devastating illness, but one, they speculate, mutely
aids the carrier.
How? By enhancing intelligence. Without this extra edge, they
hypothesize, the Ashkenazim would never have survived. The Jews
"experienced unusual selective pressures that were likely to have
favored increased intelligence," they say. "Their jobs were
cognitively demanding, since they were essentially restricted to
entrepreneurial and managerial roles as financiers, estate managers,
tax farmers, and merchants. These are jobs that people with an IQ
below 100 essentially cannot do."
"I have a stack of books, like four feet high, on all metabolic
diseases," Cochran tells me. "And the four sphingolipid diseases
affecting Ashkenazi Jews "--the ones he and Harpending believe
enhance intelligence--"are all in the same chapter. That's like
one in 100,000 odds. People could say it's chance, I suppose--in
the same way it's chance that 27 percent of all of those guys go to
Stockholm every year."
There's scant physical evidence for this assumption. But what the
authors found was intriguing. Among the papers they unearthed were
studies by Steven Walkley, a neuroscientist at Albert Einstein College
of Medicine, that showed growth of additional dendrites in the tissues
of humans and cats with Tay-Sachs and Niemann-Pick. They also cite a
1995 study in the Journal of Biological Chemistry that shows increased
neural growth in the brains of rats with Gaucher disease. The authors
decided to contact Ari Zimran, the head of the Gaucher Clinic at the
Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. It turns out that 81 of his
255 working-age patients have jobs that require, by the author's
estimates, an IQ of at least 120. Twenty-three are engineers, and
fourteen are scientists--a number that, if it were consistent with
the Israeli workforce, should be just six.
Yet there are many who'd find a very different way of explaining the
intelligence of these patients. They wouldn't invoke their extra
dendrites. They'd invoke their mothers.
To say that the Jews have a history of emphasizing scholarship is not
just the fantasy of ethnic chauvinists and Woody Allen fans. To look
at a single page of the Talmud is to understand this, with its main
text at the center, its generations of rabbis arguing around the rim.
The dialectic and critical reasoning are at its core.
Growing up, most children in Jewish households are at least vaguely
aware of their intellectual aristocracy--who do you think was
counting all those Nobel Prize winners? The Swedes?--and if it's
not the intellectuals they're aware of, it's the high-achieving
Jews, the ones who killed on Dick Cavett, played lead guitar, helmed
the Starship Enterprise. (The one season I attended Sunday school, one
of my first assignments was to find the name of a Jewish celebrity;
when I returned the following week with the name of Beverly Sills,
rather than Gene Simmons, my teacher didn't find it the least bit
strange.) All minorities have their private halls of fame, of course,
but it was a Jew, Adam Sandler, who took this obsessive curatorial
tendency and set it to music. " David Lee Roth lights the menorah /
So do James Caan, Kirk Douglas, and the late Dinah Shore-ah . . . "
It's staggering what an emphasis on scholarship, both secular and
religious, combined with a history of relentless displacement will do.
One could argue it's a near-certain recipe for achievement. Just
last month, Sherwin Nuland, author of How We Die, wrote a meticulous,
almost pointillist essay for The New Republic explaining why Jewish
doctors have been held in high esteem for centuries. (The title of the
article: "My Son, the Doctor.") He notes that physical healing has
always been privileged by Jewish scripture, and therefore became the
province of learned rabbis, the apotheosis of whom was Maimonides. If
the Jews were expelled from a particular country, as they so often
were, they could take their profession with them--medicine was
From there, Nuland draws on the work of John Efron, a historian at the
University of California at Berkeley, pointing out that once
universities opened their doors to Jews, much of the Jewish emphasis
on scholarship shifted from the religious to the secular, partly as a
result of their tremendous desire for social respectability. At the
fin de siÃ¨cle, for example, Jews made up a mere 1 percent of the
German population, but they made up 50 percent of all the doctors in
Berlin and 60 percent of all the doctors in Vienna. "It had to do
with emerging from the ghetto," says Efron, author of Medicine and
the German Jews: A History. "There were enormous social pressures
to succeed--part of the emancipation process was to show that Jews
were good Europeans, good Austrians, and medicine was a universal,
non-parochial science, where the barriers to entry were low but the
prestige was enormously high. It's the same pattern you're seeing
in the United States today, if you have a look at medical-school
acceptances: There are much larger numbers of Asian and Indian
students." Numbers from the American Association of Medical Colleges
bear this out: Today, 18 percent of all med students are Asian, as
opposed to 6 percent just a dozen years ago.
"I have always believed that the smartest people in the world are
Asians," declares Ed Koch, former mayor of New York (and, let's
face it, a pretty smart Ashkenazi Jew). "If you look at the special
schools in New York City, they have so many. I think Stuyvesant's 40
percent Asian now, and Bronx Science is 50"--actually, 53 and 49
percent--"so this paper is something I question."
Jews have long debated the origin and nature of intelligence. In
Kaddish, his beautiful book of aphorisms and ruminations about the
rite of mourning, Leon Wieseltier notes that Rabbi Akiva postulated in
the second century that sons inherit not just wealth, beauty, and
strength from their fathers, but wisdom. Centuries later, Maimonides
came to the opposite conclusion: It's "great exertion" that
makes us who we are. To attribute it to anything in our blood would
trivialize our own agency, our hard work, our humanity. Wieseltier
can' t even countenance another point of view. "The important
question is, even if there is an Ashkenazi gene, what does it explain
and what does it not explain?" he asks, when I reach him by phone.
"The idea that it explains intellectuality seems empirically and
philosophically spurious. The world is riddled-- riddled!--with dumb
Ashkenazi Jews, so it's empirically false, and it's
philosophically spurious because it flies in the face of human freedom
and the belief in human freedom."
He thinks. "We're living in a new golden age of scientism--the
idea that there are scientific answers to all human questions," he
says. "People are so rattled by the speed and complexity of their
lives that they need rock-solid certainty. They cannot bear to live
inconclusively. Religion provides one definitive answer; science
provides another. The important thing for most people is to feel that
the way they live is an inevitable outcome."
"I probably have a lot to say about this," he concludes,
"because I'm an Ashkenazi. So I must be really smart."
Harpending and Cochran are hardly the first scientists to suggest that
the diseases of the Ashkenazim are the product of genetic selection.
Until fairly recently, many geneticists believed these mutations may
have helped protect Jews from tuberculosis, because the disease so
frequently surfaced in ghettos, though no one has been able to show
how these mutations protected Jews--or why neighboring non-Jewish
populations didn't develop the same immunity.
If geneticists are disinclined to believe a trait is the result of
natural selection, they attribute it instead to something called
genetic drift, a process by which a mutation, for some random reason,
evolves in one population but not in another. The smaller the
population, the more glaring this mutation will seem. Geographic
isolation, for instance, can explain radical genetic differences--if
two groups evolve in separate places with little intermingling,
different mutations are bound to pop up and spread in each. Natural
disasters are another explanation--a rock slide could kill off a
species of purple petunias, say. Or--in the case of Jews--one of the
founders of a small settlement has a lot of children, and these
children have lots of children. What the founder doesn't know is
that he or she has a gene mutation, like the one for Tay-Sachs. It
takes hold and spreads, like an epidemic. (Geneticists call this "
the founder effect.")
"Ashkenazi neurological diseases are hints of ways in which one
could supercharge intelligence, so it seems likely we could develop
pharmaceutical agents that had similar effects."
The problem with this theory, as Cochran and Harpending rather
forcefully argue using mathematical models and a long disquisition
about medieval Jewish economic history (starting from the expulsion of
the Jews by King Dagobert of the Franks in 629), is that Tay-Sachs is
just one of four sphingolipid diseases common to Jews, which seems
like a rather unlikely coincidence. It suggests they all evolved for a
reason, a similar reason. How could random mutations account for such
a closely related cluster of ailments?
"That's one of the ways this paper is actually strong," says
Sheila Rothman, a Columbia professor of public health who specializes
in questions about genetics and group identity. "Geneticists don't
have a great grasp of Jewish history. They often tend to cite each
other. Sometimes they cite themselves."
It's not just social scientists who concede this part of the paper
is strong. So, too, do many mainstream geneticists, who've never
been entirely comfortable with the theory of genetic drift to explain
so many interrelated diseases among Jews.
"If these genes were shuffling randomly," says Gregory Pastores,
director of the neurogenetics unit at NYU, "then why is it that we
see the clustering of four diseases in Jews--Gaucher, Niemann-Pick,
mucolipidosis type IV, and Tay-Sachs--when the genes are in different
chromosomes entirely? They're not even next to one another."
But this doesn't mean that Pastores buys the message of the paper,
and neither do most of his colleagues. Ostrer, from NYU, points out
what he believes is a major flaw: The authors assume Jews are selected
for sphingolipid diseases, and not for some other gene that may happen
to be passed along with these diseases. "Blocks of the genome are
inherited together," he explains. "They' re saying heterozygotes
carrying these sphingolipid mutations are smarter. Fine. But who's
to say it's that gene and not the gene next door? Or down the
Furthermore, the authors' hypothesis that what's being selected
for is intelligence is a sexy guess, but it's based on almost
nothing concrete--just a handful of smart Gaucher patients, some
extra dendrites in cats, and a rat. " Jews have been accused of
being frugal, cheap, aggressive," says Neil Risch. " There's a
clear survival advantage to those traits too. Why not pick on
Risch is a big believer in genetic drift. He thinks the large number
of mutations in Jews is random, coincidental, and has no causal
relationship with the number of children they've had or why
they've survived. He points out Ashkenazim are prone to other
illnesses besides lysosomal storage diseases (such as clotting
disorders and breast cancer). Anyway, what's so unique about Jews?
Finns are prone to at least twenty diseases, as are French Canadians,
Costa Ricans, Louisiana Acadians, the Amish, and European Gypsies. The
Gypsies have interrelated diseases too, just like the Jews have
interrelated sphingolipid disorders.
Risch is underwhelmed. "This is like saying, âBecause Europeans
have a high rate of cystic fibrosis, hemochromatosis, and Crohn's
disease, the genes for those disorders must cause great ability to
play tennis,' " he says. "And then the authors would come up
with some elaborate theory about how those particular mutations are
involved in hand-eye coordination, which allows for better retrieval
Yet here's the irony: During the past year, the taboos surrounding
the genetics of race and ethnicity have been significantly eroded, in
no small part because of the efforts of Risch. A population geneticist
at the University of California at San Francisco, a fiercely
independent thinker, a fun gossip, and a liberal Jew, he published a
paper in the American Journal of Human Genetics in February that
rather boldly claimed that the races we claimed to be almost always
corresponded with our continents of ancestry. It seemed to represent
the consensus view that's slowly emerging among geneticists. Many
have now stopped quarreling with the same vigor about whether race is
or is not a genetic fact.
"I am not sure that most geneticists have agreed to âraces' per
se," says Ostrer. "But continental groups or clusters, yes." To
deny these clusters, he says, would be folly; it tells us to willfully
ignore what all of us can see --that people look different all over
the world. He quotes me a line from Jews: A Study in Race and
Environment, written by his NYU predecessor, Maurice Fishberg: "One
can pick out a Jew from among a thousand non-Jews without
difficulty." Ostrer is now writing a book himself, about genetics
and Jewish history. He has decided to call the first chapter
"There's no doubt their paper is polemical," says David
Goldstein, director of the Center for Population Genomics and
Pharmacogenetics at Duke University. "But just because it's
polemical doesn't mean I'd be dismissive of everything they had to
say. I think their paper's interesting."
Goldstein, in fact, seems to rather appreciate its Zeitgeist. "Until
recently, most human geneticists almost . . . disalloweddiscussion
about genetic differences among racial and ethnic groups," he says.
"Really. So many awful things had been done with genetic research in
this last century that they developed a policy of âJust say no.'
But there's actually a lot of difference between groups, when you
consider there are 10 million polymorphic sites on the genome. So
it's not scientifically sound to rule out the possibility of
differences corresponding to our geographic and ethnic heritages. It
overlooks the basic point: The genome is just a huge place."
"If I had to choose between Jewish genes and Jewish mothers,"
Goldstein hastens to add, "I'd choose Jewish mothers." (He has
both.) "But I would like us to carry out research in a way that
doesn't imply that we have anything to be afraid of. That's what
upsets me about the way this work has been approached in the past."
Using the notion of race, for example, has proved highly useful in
medicine. Today, if you're an ambitious young geneticist, the
world's awash in money to study racial difference and disease.
It's even encouraged by statute, thanks to the Minority Health
Disparities Act of 2000. This summer, the National Institutes of
Health announced it was exploring links between African-Americans and
elevated rates of prostate cancer; this spring, NitroMed introduced
BiDil to reduce heart disease in African-Americans.
"Historically, in medicine, white males have been the subjects of
study," says Risch. "But you can't always apply to women and
minorities [lessons] from them. You need to be inclusive. So while
I'm always afraid people will misuse information about genetic
differences, this is a positive development."
Just because pharmaceutical companies are developing race-specific
drugs, however, doesn't mean race is the most useful way to parse
genetic differences. The fact remains that there's more diversity
within racial groups than between them. What does "black" mean
when discussing the 11,700,000-square-mile expanse of Africa? There
are Pygmies and Nigerians, Zulus and Ethiopians. What, precisely, is a
Mexican? Or--for that matter--a Semite?
"BiDil is more effective for some, rather than all, African-American
hypertensives," says Ostrer. "Race, in this context, should always
be used as an interim measure to see us through a period of
ignorance," agrees Goldstein. " Once we know the underlying
genetic or environmental factors that influence individual responses,
you consider those directly and ignore race."
Talk to most geneticists, and they'll say that it's a combination
of genetics and environment that inevitably makes us who we
are--attempts to link specific behaviors, aptitudes, and weaknesses
to genes and genes alone almost always come up short. Lynn Jorde,
professor of genetics at the University of Utah School of Medicine,
gives but one example: For a while, it was assumed that a particular
variant of monoamine oxidase caused antisocial behavior. Then several
thousand children in New Zealand with this variant were followed for a
period of more than twenty years. Researchers found that their
subjects misbehaved only if they'd been abused as children--if they
hadn't, there was none. "We'll probably find that there are
genes that influence behavior," says Jorde. "But I'm quite
certain we won't find genes that determine behavior."
Risch noted something similar in Nature Genetics last year: Until
recently, a famous study seemed to suggest that Asian children were
more likely than Europeans to have absolute pitch. Then along came
another study, this time showing that absolute pitch is most likely to
manifest itself only if children take music lessons before the age of
6. No one in the first study had bothered to ask whether their Asian
subjects were exposed earlier to music than their European
And that's just absolute pitch, easily measurable. Intelligence
isn't even possible to define, except maybe in the sense that
Justice Potter Stewart famously said of porn: He knew it when he saw
it. Intelligence is almost impossible to model in animals. How do you
create a brainy Jewish mouse? (Replicate Michael Eisner?) There's
book-smart and street-smart; numbers-smart and letters-smart. Matisse
dreamed in paint, and Nabokov did magic tricks with words, but could
either of them do multivariable calculus? How about calculate the tip
on a bar bill?
"The problem is with phenotype," says David Rothman, a Columbia
historian (and Sheila's husband). "Take schizophrenia. There's
four kinds listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental
Disorders. Or take alcoholism. The phenotypes are also
varied--there's weekend bingers, hard drinkers, occasional bingers.
Depression comes in many phenotypes. I don't know where to begin
with shyness. So intelligence? I'm baffled."
"More important," he adds, "I don't know where they get the
idea that mercantile life and high IQs go together. I wouldn't mind
IQ-testing the bulls of Wall Street to find this out."
In the 1860s, Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin and father of
eugenics, argued that Protestants were smarter than Catholics because
they let their smart offspring reproduce, rather than shipping them
off to monasteries. The idea didn't hold up too well over time. In
the early part of the twentieth century, the mathematician Norbert
Wiener suggested Jews were smarter because the daughters of wealthy
Jewish men were married off to scholarly rabbis, who went on to have
more children. Then Lewis S. Feuer, a sociologist, came along and
showed that wealthy Jews married other wealthy Jews. "These were
Fiddler on the Roof fantasies, a myth created by people in New York
who romanticized the shtetl," says Sander Gilman. "The shtetls
were horrible places. Do you think the man who wrote Tevye's story
did it from a crummy little shtetl? No! He was sitting in the south of
France on the Riviera. He's no fool."
"This study is putting forward one of these arguments you hear
regularly but with new window dressing," Gilman says. "Today, that
dressing is genetics. A hundred years ago, it was vitamins--as soon
as they were discovered, everything was explained by a vitamin
deficiency. Cancer. Schizophrenia. Hair loss." He pauses. "Okay,
not hair loss. I made that up. But you see my point."
So who, exactly, are these people who've caused such a fuss?
Harpending is certainly the more conventional of the two: a tenured
professor, a respected population geneticist, and a member of the
National Academy of Sciences, an organization to which few slouches
are accidentally admitted. When I speak to him on the phone, he sounds
good-humored, cheerfully indifferent to academic niceties, and
slightly bored. "I wouldn't think of letting a grad student work
on this," he says. "I'm very senior. I don't live off grants.
If I were running a lab, dependent on funding from the NIH, this would
be the kiss of death."
What do his colleagues think of his work?
"They think it's probably right," he says. "But in public,
their only reaction is a primate fear grimace."
But is that really the case? I ask Jorde what his colleagues in the
Utah genetics lab thought of Harpending's study. He answers with
extreme tact. "Most of us work on very different kinds of things,"
he says. "It's really peripheral to our kinds of interests."
Cochran, however, is another matter. He's a bit of a wild card, a
fellow who has developed a knack for pushing unorthodox notions under
the aegis of more mainstream intellectual patrons. In the late
nineties, he teamed up with a biologist at Amherst, Paul Ewald, to
explore the possibility that many of the diseases we consider
intractable are mere germs, which ultimately made them the subjects of
a cover story in The Atlantic Monthly in 1999. (Their idea is less
crazy than one might think; for years, surgeons removed stomachs to
get rid of ulcers, only to discover they were caused by . . . a germ.)
Cochran's latest kick, though, is population genetics. Although
Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence is written with a modicum of
academic restraint, his independent essays, posted online, are much
more freewheeling, and they betray a much more unsettling agenda:
"[I]f this is what I think it is," he writes, in an essay called
"Overclocking," the term programmers use to describe supercharging
a computer's brain capacity by weakening it, "all these Ashkenazi
neurological diseases are hints of ways in which one could supercharge
intelligence . . . so it seems likely that we could--if we wanted
to-- develop pharmaceutical agents that had similar effects."
To Cochran, in other words, Jews are the smart mice of history.
The Times, The Economist, and every other media outlet somehow missed
this when they first reported that Cochran and Harpending's paper
had been accepted for publication. Or at least they chose not to
report it. Nor did they choose to report another interesting fact: The
Journal of Biosocial Science, though part of a family of Cambridge
University Press publications, went by the name The Eugenics Review
"This guy is not some proto-Zionist," says David Rothman. It was
Rothman's researcher, Nate Drummond, who shrewdly unearthed this
information about Cochran. "What's driving him, as you read this,
is bioengineering, not philo-Semitism."
So the plot thickens. At one point, I ask Cochran if he's serious
about studying Jews in order to create "pharmaceutical agents" for
mankind's general intellectual enhancement. Has he thought about
taking this idea to pharmaceutical companies?
"I've thought about it halfway seriously," he says, hesitating a
bit. "I'm probably not supposed to say. Because let's say it
happens. Come patent time, I'll have told people."
So. Is this study good for the Jews? I talk to Abe Foxman, legendary
head of the Anti-Defamation League, whose life's mission is the
pristine upkeep of the Jewish reputation. His answer surprises me.
"If it's a genetic condition," he says, "it's not for us to
embrace or reject. It is what it is, and that's the way the genetic
cookie crumbles." I detect a note of pride in his voice.
Of course, I recognize that tone. I've heard it in my own voice from
time to time. When the site existed, I used to love poking around
Jewhoo, a catalogue of prominent Jews in Western life. Then, in the
middle of a Google search one day, I stumbled across jewwatch.com and
discovered that under one if its many rubrics--Jewish Controlled
Entertainment--was a nearly identical list.
Freud and Marx, Einstein and Bohr, Mendelssohn and Mahler. The
brothers Gershwin. The brothers Marx. Woody Allen. Bob Dylan. Franz
Kafka. Claude LÃ©vi-Strauss. Bobby Fischer. Jews may take tremendous
pride in their aristocracy, but we fetishize it at our own peril; to
suggest that we're chosen, rather than that we make our own choices,
curdles quickly into a useful argument for anti-Semites who'd love
to claim that the objects of their derision are immutable vermin. It
can't be an accident that the most aggressive debunkers of Jewish
essentialism, including the participants in this story, are generally
Jews themselves. The arguments come in handy when the ugly stuff is
trotted out, too.
Personally, I'm always struck by how many Jews confess to a certain
ambivalence about the volume and visibility of their accomplishments,
as if there were something slightly vulgar or shameful about them. The
friend who introduced me to Jewhoo confided that a friend of his, also
Jewish, kept a list of Jews he wished were not. I realized I kept the
same mental list. (Andy Fastow, the crook from Enron, is currently No.
A few years ago, I myself lunged for the easy joke when a non-Jewish
friend asked what I did the summer I attended--for one miserable
season only, I'd like to stress--Jewish summer camp. Oh, I told
him. More or less what you'd expect. Banking lessons rather than
canoeing, moot court rather than color wars. Recently, I also found
myself quoting--with relish--Sarah Silverman's reaction to being
taken to task by a watchdog group for using the word chink in her
stand-up: "As a Jew, I'm really, really nervous we're losing
control of the media." Perhaps one of the most subtle, insidious
things about Cochran and Harpending's study is how it plays off a
bias privately held by many Jews themselves--that the Ashkenazim are
in fact intellectual superiors, and the Sephardim, originally from the
Iberian Peninsula, are the handlers, the shylocks, the merchants of
Q: How do you tell the difference between an Ashkenazi and a Sephardi?
A: Show him a chessboard. This, even though Maimonides, arguably the
most influential Jewish thinker to ever live, was a Sephardi, and the
Sephardim have a perfectly dazzling intellectual history of their own.
From the eighth to the eleventh centuries, Spanish Jews served in the
courts, served as doctors to the caliphs, and translated all manner of
texts, converting Greek and Hebrew into Arabic, and Arabic into
Yet in America, that sense of otherness, which for so long has served
as a kind of incentive to strive and achieve, may be dissipating.
"I'm no demographer, but I think what's happened in the U.S. is
the normalization of the Jew," says Leon Botstein, who, as the
president of Bard College, has seen all sorts of students cross his
field of vision. "They've become as complacent and culturally
undistinguished as the average, suburban, white middle-class
And maybe that's the price we pay for our current freedoms. Not, as
Seinfeld or Larry David might say, that there's anything wrong with
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