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Are Jews Smarter?

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From top, Dr. Henry Harpending and Dr. Gregory Cochran.  

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 uncoachable.

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 insulting.”

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 ‘Things 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 Jewish genius.”

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.


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