Jewish Gene-ius

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Jews are smarter than everyone else. This is the opening premise of an explosive study released last week, and given extensive coverage in the New York Times and the Economist. There is no cause for Jews to gloat.

A team of anthropologists and geneticists at the University of Utah studied the relationship between a group of Jewish genetic diseases and Ashkenazi intelligence, which has been demonstrated in numerous studies to be significantly greater than that of any other group tested. The diseases cluster around discrete areas of functionality, including the storage of a family of substances called sphingolipids, important in the quality of neural transmission.

The horrendous conditions that the Church forced Jews to live in created a selective pressure for intelligence. Unlike their neighbors, who were busy demonstrating their prowess on the battlefield so that 21st century moviegoers could get a distorted appreciation of their exploits in The Kingdom of Heaven, Jews were forced to use their heads to survive, in fields like commerce and finance. Along with the good changes, some nasty chromosomal stuff came along for the ride. The way the researchers see it, the connection is not accidental. Natural selection tweaked the gene pool, to favor some high performance souping up of the old gray matter. In some cases, however, having too much of a good thing backfired, and when two of these recessive genes get together, they produce a variety of conditions like Gaucher and Niemann-Pick. (A group at Shaarei Tzedek in Jerusalem found that its Gaucher patients – representing in effect the entire Gaucher population of Israel – included engineers and scientists far in excess of what one would expect in an equivalent number of Israelis taken from the general population.) One of the researchers sees a parallel to a computer phenomenon called “overclocking,” or pushing a chip’s capacity beyond its safe rating. Sometimes it works beautifully; at other times, the system crashes.

The implications of the study are huge, for people who can get beyond the very un-PC thinking about innate differences between groups. Are the changes that conferred an intelligence advantage upon Jews important enough that they should be artificially introduced in other populations? Should we mimic the changes on the biochemical level to produce “smart pills” for the intellectually challenged? Will Jews get dumber if we control Jewish genetic diseases by eliminating the smart genes from the gene pool? Will the optimum shidduch for Jewish intelligence be a potential mate who is a carrier of these genetic diseases, providing that you test negative for precisely the ones he/she tests positive for?

For those benighted individuals who missed out on the two Jewish secrets to producing smarter kids – natural selection and herring – it is not the genetics that is interesting, but the phenomenon of the intelligence boost itself. Fundamentalist Christians will point to it with glee as further confirmation of G-d’s covenant with His chosen people. Antisemites will point to it as a sign of the Jewish pact with the Devil.

What will Jews make of it? Too many will see it as confirmation of Jewish superiority, another example of how we are G-d’s gift to Man.

Of course, it isn’t. First of all, the findings only apply to Ashkenazic Jews. Intergroup rivalries aside, do we really think that G-d speaks Yiddish, and favors Jews of European extraction?

More important, though, is another line of argument. Hannah Arendt’s classic The Origins of Totalinarianism made the claim that modern anti-Semitism flourished when Jews secularized the notion of chosenness. For millennia, Jews saw their selection only in terms of responsibility. Jews were obligated in more commandments than Gentiles. This was a privilege that most Gentiles were quite willing to forego. That changed when Jews bolted from the ghetto. Their descendents didn’t so much ditch the notion of chosenness as they subverted it. They took it to mean that anything non-Jews could do, we could do better. That gave non-Jews something to be jealous of.

To traditional Jews, G-d’s blessing to us cannot be that we are smarter than others. Such advantage, if it really exists, would amount to an artifact of our history and experience, but it is not the primary blessing, any more than avoiding trichinosis is the “reason” for the prohibition of pork, or the lower incidence of cervical cancer in Jewish women married to circumcised men is the “reason” for bris milah. Like American Express, Jewish membership has its advantages, but they are not why we are carrying the card.

How do I know? Deuteronomy 4:6, tells us that the Nations will look to us in admiration, saying “Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation!” Why? Because “it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples.” The “it” is the Torah. Having it, living by it is what makes us special in the eyes of those who have not crowded G-d out of their lives. They do not say, “You are wise and discerning,” but “it is your wisdom and discernment.”

Being smart is nothing to take pride in. Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto put it pithily in chapter 22 of Mesilas Yesharim. A bright person should not pride himself on his intelligence any more than a bird can pride itself on its ability to fly. We have no cause to pat ourselves on our backs for something given to us without earning it. If it turns out that we are smarter, it just means that G-d has even greater expectations of us to produce. We have no cause to celebrate until we redeem the world.

In the meantime, we do not need research scientist to demonstrate the other side of the coin – the existence of dumb Jews. We can always point to the Knesset.

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1 Response

  1. Moshe says:

    Two thumbs up for the Knesset comment!