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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Why Jewish Mothers Are Smart: More Study Needed

On my first day at Loyola Law School in L.A., I was sitting in the cafeteria with a group of other first day students. We were chatting about our backgrounds. One guy said he had decided not to attend U.C.L.A. because "there are too many Jews". This was disconcerting to me, a Jew on his first day at a Jesuit run law school, amidst a group of strangers, seemingly a confirmation of my worst nightmare. Somehow, I found the courage to speak up, maybe sensing that I might as well get the pain over with. "What’s wrong with Jews?" I asked.

The guy (who later became an Orange County prosecutor), said "Jews are too smart, I couldn’t compete with them."

I let that ride, opting to accept a stereotype that seemed to be a compliment.

Now I find that he may have been right.

The L.A. Times today reports in a lengthy article that two genetic researchers (Cochran & Harpending) have come up with a highly inflammable theory that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically superior in intelligence to the average population.

They base their theory on findings related to genetic diseases that disproportionately affect Jewish populations, such as Tay-Sachs, Canavan, and Niemann-Pick Type A diseases. These diseases affect the processing by the brain of sphingolipids, the fat molecules that transmit nerve signals. They hypothesize that having one copy of this gene is advantageous, while having two (where both parents have the gene) produces disaster.

Science has a name for this phenomenon: heterozygote advantage. Sickle cell anemia, which is prevalent in African genes is an example. One "bad" copy of the hemoglobin B gene yields a favorable result: protection from malaria, but two deformed genes leads to cells that are too deformed (sickle cells) to carry oxygen, thus are amemic.

A 1970 study of a group of Ashkenazi Jewish children suffering from torsion dystonia, a debilitating muscle disorder revealed that those with the disease had higher I.Q.’s than a control group.

The scientists explain the variance with Darwinian logic. Jews who settled in Europe during the Middle Ages couldn’t and didn’t intermarry, which narrowed their gene pool. Periodic persecution kept the population from growing. Social restrictions forced the population into small communities, in businesses that didn’t require land ownership, but gave opportunities for gaining wealth through trade and finance.

[Here’s where the theory begins to get into trouble.]

According to the Times, they theorize that "the smartest individuals made the most money [not always true], and the wealthiest families had the most surviving children. [I’m not sure that is true; large families were common in poor households to insure a pool of workers.] The genes of the most intelligent Jews spread most, slowly raising the average IQ of the group. Over 40 generations - about 1,000 years - an increase in just .3 points per generation would have added up to a cumulative advantage of 12 points. Some models project a gain of 16 to 20 points."

Again, according to the article, "psychologists and educational researchers have pegged their (Ashkenazi Jews) average IQ at 107.5 to 115. That’s only modestly higher than the overall European average of 100, but the gap is large enough to produce a huge difference in the proportion of geniuses."

"Though Jews make up less than 3% of the U.S. population, they have won more than 25% of the Nobel Prizes awarded to American scientists since 1950, account for 20% of this country’s chief executives and make up 22% of Ivy League students."

Cochran & Harpending (neither Jewish, by the way) have plenty of detractors among colleagues in the scientific community. Some reject the theory as crackpot junk science, another direputable racial theory. Others are intrigued, but demand proof by further study. One said the theory could be tested by comparing the IQ’s of a group with the Tay-Sachs gene with those of their non-carrier siblings.

Clearly, this kind of theory is dangerous. It smacks of Hitler’s Eugenics, and carries implications that we as a society have rejected. For example, if there are IQ genes than it means that some without them are "inferior". Our science doesn’t permit linking behavior to genetics, or does it? Criminal genes? Addict genes?

Oddly, I ran across another out there hypothesis that seeks to explain the prevalence of "dumb blondes" in our population. Long ago, the scientific team of Fenster & Humperdink sought the answer, in a study probably funded by college fraternities and Hugh Hefner. Significantly, they were unable to definitively prove the correlation of intelligence to blondeness, but to their amazement, did find a match between breast size (unenhanced) and I.Q., a finding which their supporters found equally acceptable.

They too relied on Darwinian theory to explain the phenomenon.

The theory went like this. Early women needed to attract mates to reproduce. The most attractive females were able to do so with little effort. The less attractive females needed to devise clever strategies to make up for lesser physical attributes. Thus, most of the less attractive, less intelligent females died off. Evolution preferred the smarter ugly gals. However, more of the most attractive females survived, whether possessing higher intelligence or not. Ergo, there are more stupid women with large breasts than with small ones.

Now, don’t get angry with me. I’m only the messenger. And I don’t fully subscribe to either theory. I can see the flaws in both (like, for instance, some males find prominent bootie more attractive than large boobs) and what about the Ashenazi Jewish women?


  1. Oy, this IQ study is really terrible - if it were not deceptively flattering, it would not be worth talking about at all. As it is, it is insidious and thus particularly deeply evil.

    Here's a few of the more obvious problems: [poor] farmers just about always have larger families than [richer] urbanites, just as you said. It is the cheap labor. Richer groups tend to invest more in their kids (which results in educational skills, often), but they simply have fewer of them. Demographically, poor farm kids are selected for over the course of centuries. Hence, the basic premise of reproductive proclivity in this report is on the face of it backwards.

    Further, I'll bet any real investigation into European History (not my field, but I am familiar enough to take a pretty good guess here) would show that even urban Jews were poorer and less likely to reproduce than their Christian counterparts. That's what happens when you are a loathed minority - you don't prosper. These amateur scientists' thesis that urban Jewish money changers were richer over millennia sounds like it comes directly out of that ancient anti-semitic greatest hits list. It just wasn't true; without a doubt, the vast majority of Jews were poorer than Christians, who had access to every kind of institutional advantage over them.

    Second, a much easier explanation for all of this is that modern Jews are more likely, culturally, to value education and be literate - particularly in America, where that was the primary means of meritocratic competition against the established elites who were able to simply inherit their status (i.e., I believe this study of European Jews over 1000 years is really a study of American Jews over the past few decades). Whereas the connection between Jewish social status and IQ in European history is pretty much bogus, the correlation between education and IQ in the contemporary US of A is much more positive and direct (one reason why IQ tests should not ever be taken as indications of "native" intelligence).

    Occam's Razor tells us that we have two explanations here, one that presupposes a train of contradictory assumptions conspiring together (Cochran & Harpending) and the other that is totally straightforward (Jews, particularly in the past decades, have social pressure, effectively, to prepare for and score better in, what do you know?, tasks pretty much analogous to IQ tests). I think the latter explanation is utterly sufficient to explain any higher scores on those same tests, if they are themselves not totally fictitious.

    Which brings me to my last critique here. Anyone who has ever wasted away for years in Hebrew School not only becomes comparatively more studious at an early age (as well as more cynical) but also, through direct - if anecdotal - observation, realizes that there sure are a lot of dumb Jews out there. Bottom line: most of those Ashkenazi Jews I knew back in the day were fully as moronic as anyone else.

    Heck, when all is said and done, there might actually be some genetic component that makes a some families (native American, Hutu, Chinese, Jewish, Sikh, etc.) 10% smarter than others while predisposing them to weird diseases as a side-effect, but I don't think it has much at all to do with any social characteristics of their culture or religion. If anything, it would simply be due to forced inbreeding by desperately poor, socially ostracized, frequently pogromed populations... You restrict a gene pool and put it under severe pressure and you will frequently get more extremes of genetic oddities. Real genetic work might tell us if that is the case here (I think good preparation for IQ tests is perfectly sufficient as an explanation for any aggregate higher scores there), but this sort of science fantasy built on subtly anti-semitic assumptions that these phonies are promulgating certainly won't.


  2. Jem,
    A few thoughts. While Occam might have been right about scientific theories, I've found that the simplest explanations aren't always the truest when it comes to human behavior. That doesn't diminish the truth of your assault on this latest theory, which may well be seen as a form of anti-Semitism (what is Semitism anyway?) I think I should explain the latter part of my post. The breast / IQ theory is completely my own investion, not Fenster & Humperdink, who only exist in my twerped humerus (or ulnar nerve). I included it as an example of the kind of bogus junk that can pass for truth if it caters to a certain mindset.

  3. Add Re.the breast/I.Q. Theory. Maybe there is something to it after all. See LA Times article about discovery of a 40,000 year old "Venus", a figurine carved from a mammoth tusk, found in a German cave. "It has broad shoulders, prominent breasts and intricately detailed buttocks and genitalia, all grossly exaggerated." It also had no head (typical of such paleolithic fertility carvings), short arms & legs. "The detail indicates 'the amount of energy these guys were willing to invest in these little objects - tens if not hundreds of hours' shows how important these objects were to them." The discoverers apparently haven't considered the possibility that the carver was a woman (maybe because of the lack of a head and focus on breasts, etc.,0,181830.story

  4. Interesting article, great debate. I agree with many things Jem is saying, however, I have often found the Occam's razor argument subject to doubt when it came to us, humans....