Are Jews a race? Is Jewish intelligence genetic?
If these notions make you cringe, you’re not alone. Many non-Jews find them offensive. Actually, scratch that. I have no idea whether non-Jews find them offensive. But I imagine that they do, which is why Jews like me wince at any suggestion of Jewish genetic superiority. We don’t even want to talk about it.
Actually, a bunch of us did talk about it, three days ago at a forum at the American Enterprise Institute. The main speaker was Jon Entine, an AEI fellow and author of a new book, Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People. He was joined by fellow AEI scholar Charles Murray and by Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University. Entine and Zoloth are Jewish. Murray isn’t but talks as though he wishes he were. “One of my thesis advisers at MIT was a Sephardic Jew,” he announced proudly, turning the old “some of my best friends” cliché upside down.
Entine laid out the data. The average IQ of Ashkenazi Jews is 107 to 115, well above the human average of 100. This gap and the genetic theories surrounding it stirred discomfort in the room. Zoloth, speaking for many liberals, recalled a family member’s revulsion at the idea of a Jewish race. Judaism is about faith and values, she argued. To reduce it to biology is to make it exclusive, denying its openness to all. Worse, to suggest that Jews are genetically smart is to imply that non-Jews are inherently inferior, in violation of Jewish commitments to equality and compassion. My friend Dana Milbank, who’s a better (if I may use that word) Jew than I am, watched the discussion, went back to his office, and wrote a column in the Washington Post poking fun at all the talk of superior Jewish intellect. The column, as usual, was really smart.
But what if Judaism as a genetic inheritance is compatible with Judaism as a cultural inheritance? And what if the genes that make Jews smart also make them sick? If one kind of superiority comes at the price of another kind of inferiority, and if the transmission of Jewish values drives the transmission of Jewish genes, does that make the genetics and the superiority easier to swallow?
According to Entine, the rate of Jewish “outbreeding”—procreating with non-Jews—is half a percent. That’s the lowest rate of any population in the world today. What drives this phenomenon? Culture. Ten years ago, my childless Orthodox uncle came up to me and said, “I hear you’re dating a Jewish girl.” When I replied in the affirmative, he added, “If you marry her, I’ll come to the wedding.” That was pretty much the whole conversation. A year and a half later, he was at my wedding. Today, he’s got a grandniece and grandnephew living in my house. I’d like to think he had no influence, but maybe I’m kidding myself. Explicitly and implicitly, Jews have been getting this message for millennia. As Murray pointed out, the Bible is full of instructions to marry within the faith.
A culture that trains its young people to procreate only with one another becomes, over time, a genetically distinct population. And if that culture glorifies intelligence to such a degree that it drives less intelligent people out of the community—or prevents them from attracting mates—it becomes an IQ machine. Cultural selection replaces natural selection. For example, Jews have long emphasized male literacy. For this reason, Murray argued, anyone who was Jewish and stupid 2,000 years ago found “it was a lot easier to be a Christian.” Entine called this kind of process a “bio-cultural feedback loop.”
The theory still sounds arrogant, until you hear the IQ machine’s possible costs. Some scholars now hypothesize that the genes that make Jews smart also give some of them nasty diseases such as Tay-Sachs. Entine finds this plausible. He pointed out that some genes associated with brain growth are also associated with breast cancer, including in his own family. During the question-and-answer session, someone brought up another tradeoff: Supposedly, Jews are deficient in visio-spatial skills, possibly because their brains allot extra space for verbal intelligence. That might explain the average Ashkenazi Jewish score of 122 on verbal IQ tests.
Pondering these nuances and tradeoffs, Zoloth reconsidered her aversion to the idea of Jewish genes and Jewish intelligence. What should we do, she wondered, if we find genes that predispose children both to genius and to early death? And should Jewish biological differences be minimized if they’re expressions of—and vehicles for—Judaism as a value system?
Zoloth didn’t have answers to those questions. Neither do I. Part of being Jewish, after all, is talking in questions more than answers. Whether that habit is cultural or biological, I don’t know. But this much I can tell you: I walked out of the AEI conference room that day with a cut on my nose because, in an attempt to pick something up off the floor, I whacked my face on the chair in front of me. Probably I’m just a moron. But maybe visio-spatial deficiency really is a sign of intelligence, in which case, I’d like to thank my ancestors for making the trade. Including my uncle, who, come to think of it, may not be childless after all.