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Are Jews Smarter?


“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 until 1968.

“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 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 Lévi-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. 1.)

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 47th Street.

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