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 those?”
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, ‘Because 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 of volleys.”
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 ‘races’ 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 “Looking Jewish.”
“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 ‘Just 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?