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Are Jews Smarter?

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“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 counterparts.

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?


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