Sunday, October 23, 2005

Are Jews Smarter? Or, Does History Determine Ontology?

I meant to post this earlier in the week, but like everyone else currently in the last few days of suffering through celebrating the final onslaught of Jewish fall holidays, I had a bit of a time management problem.

New York magazine has a lengthy feature discussing the question raised last summer by Henry Harpending, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Utah, and Gregory Cochran, an independent scholar, about whether Jewish genius arose through natural selection. The article in NY Magazine, by Jennifer Senior, explores the theory itself and some of the social science problematica surrounding it.

The two shopped around a paper that tried to establish a genetic argument for the fabled intelligence of Jews. It contended that the diseases most commonly found in Ashkenazim—particularly the lysosomal storage diseases, like Tay-Sachs—were likely connected to and, indeed, in some sense responsible for outsize intellectual achievement in Ashkenazi Jews. The paper contained references, but no footnotes. It was not written in the genteel, dispassionate voice common to scientific inquiries but as a polemic. Its science was mainly conjecture. Most American academics expected the thing to drop like a stone.

It didn’t...

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).
I imagine quite a few people -- Jewish and otherwise -- will be troubled by the bare supposition that Jewish intelligence advanced due to being fit into the role of financier in Europe beginning at the twilight of the dark ages. That direct linkage of Jewish properties, even Jewish virtues, with money making will be quite discomfitting to some.

Case in point, on a much narrower basis. Over the summer, I gave a copy of Paul Johnson's, The Anti-Semitic Disease to someone I well know. And was quite flummoxed that he ended up thinking there was an anti-semitic odour to it, despite Paul Johnson's creds and that the original article was published in Commentary. It came down to the fact that Johnson was arguing that anti-semitism has frequently crippled the economies of the countries that pursue it vigorously as a national policy. Thus, anti-semitism is tied into the suppression of Jewish talent with regard to the creation of wealth.

I, myself, had no problem with this notion. But then I'm more familiar with Paul Johnson's record and have far more training as an historian. For example, at this point in time, it is fairly well established in academic literature that the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the last 1400s had a very negative impact on Spain's economy during the next centuries because it destroyed the financier class just before the discovery of the New World, at a time when much gold was to be arriving on Spain's shores. Which had the effect, overtime, of ruining the once vigorous economy, since wealth was accruing in Spain without any national investment. (Not unlike, say, the situation in Saudi Arabia today - when the oil wealth bears no relation to local initiative or investment.) Since I was already familiar with this argument vis-a-vis Spain, I had no problem extrapolating it to other circumstances.

Of course, there are all kinds of places where I would find these kinds of insinuations problematic - and I certainly think the exact same tie in, written up by other people (with other motives) could be extremely disturbing to me as well. But these seem non-problematic to me. I find it interesting to speculate how sociological factors may have impacted the genome over time.

And there are other way in which this kind of a study could be revealing. Is there, say, a condition that relates not just to numerical genius but to spiritual genius as well? The ultra-orthodox certainly believe such a thing is possible, which is why marrying someone with ichus - that is marrying someone from a well known line of people that have displayed characteristics that are religiously admirable - is so important.

What do you all think?


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