Monday, June 13, 2005


Is there a genetic component to the intelligence of Ashkenazic Jews?

Another article in The Forward raises the tricky topic of ethnicity, genetics and intelligence.
The biological distinctiveness of ethnic groups is fraught scientific territory, but a new study plunges into the debate by theorizing that the high intelligence of Ashkenazic Jews is in the genes.1

The study, which will be published in the upcoming issue of Journal of Biosocial Science, argues that natural selection favored more intelligent Jews during 800 years in Northern Europe, when Jews were genetically isolated and intellect was the most important quality for Jewish survival and biological fitness. As genetic evidence for the natural selection, the authors point to what they say is a complimentary group of genetic diseases prevalent among Ashkenazic Jews, including Gaucher disease and breast cancer.

The new study received laudatory coverage in the magazine The Economist and an evenhanded reading in The New York Times. But geneticists who study the Ashkenazic Jewish population are raising hefty questions about the methodology and findings. They say each step of the team's multilayered argument is contentious — down to the notion that what is considered intelligence today would have made medieval Jews better at generating money and finding spouses.

Cochran, the lead study author, is an independent researcher who was trained as a physicist and moved into population genetics late in life. He has not been afraid to dive into controversial material, and he has argued with mathematical modeling that homosexuality can be attributed to a viral infection.

Cochran and his co-authors based their work on two established pillars of previous research. The first is the repeated studies that have shown Ashkenazic Jews to have a higher average IQ score than that of the American population at large. The Utah authors also point out that 27% of American Nobel Prize winners are Jewish.

The second pillar of the Utah study is the previous research that shows sphingolipid diseases to be prevalent among Ashkenazic Jews.

Researchers have long argued over why these diseases are prevalent among Ashkenazic Jews when they would have seemed to make carriers of the disease less likely to reproduce. The authors of the new study take their bold step by arguing that the diseases were passed on because they were the side effect of a genetic mutation that also caused greater intelligence....

The Utah authors argue that the chemical process causing sphingolipid diseases also effects greater neurological development.

The work of Cochran's team has been criticized on a number of levels, but at the most basic, Cochran's critics say his study provides only statistical speculation, not physical proof of a link between the sphingolipid diseases and higher intelligence — and the study team makes no attempt to find the genetic location of the genes responsible for heightened intelligence.

"There's no original data in this," said Harry Ostrer, director of the human genetics program at New York University. "From that point of view, I would argue this is bad science. Bad science is what got eugenics into trouble in the past."

The swift response to the new work was to be expected. In recent years, suggestions that the intelligence levels of large groups can be explained by biological differences have come under steady fire. Earlier this year, Harvard's president, Lawrence Summers, almost lost his job after suggesting that innate differences between women and men might account for the small number of female science professors. A decade ago, a long and angry discussion was provoked by Charles Murray and Richard Hernnstein's "The Bell Curve," which argued that genetic differences are the root of lower IQ levels among African-Americans.

The debate over "The Bell Curve "brought up a number of issues that are playing out in the current give-and-take about Jewish intelligence. Many critics of "The Bell Curve" argued that IQ scores are a signal of socially learned test-taking ability and income rather than innate intelligence.

.... [T]he geneticists studying diseases prevalent among Jews — like the sphingolipid diseases — have actually been treading on the ground of innate Jewish difference for years. These genetic researchers say they have often sensed reluctance in the community they are discussing.

"Any implication that Jews are different than other people causes a backlash," said Ostrer, NYU's human genetics program director. "It creates a typology for Jews which many have objected to."

Here we go again. Since I have nothing to lose but my readers, I might as well dive into this.

I certainly don't want to get into a discussion of intelligence. At the behest of the French minister of education, Alfred Binet, the "father" of intelligence testing, was looking for a predictor of academic problems so that interventions might be introduced to help slow learners in school. This basic notion was expanded by American psychologists to differentiate among all students. (The intervention part was promptly forgotten.) Whatever it is that an IQ test measures, it retains correlations with academic achievement.

As the article almost superfluously notes, any discussion of genetically based group differences—other than diseases—is a political hot potato and basically unwelcome in our society.

Okay. I haven't read Cochran's study and haven't the slightest idea whether it's defensible. But let me put it plainly: I will be absolutely astonished if it turns out that there are no genetically based group differences with respect to intelligence as well as with respect to a great number of other features of humankind.2

The problem does not lie in the existence of these differences but in our societal understanding of what those differences mean. When you live in a society where only around 10 percent of the population believes that natural evolution has occurred, asserting that a genetic component accounts for a certain portion of the variance in the intelligence of groups will be misunderstood—and probably misused—to put it mildly.3

Progressive groups simply don't know what to do here, so instead of confronting and attempting to bring some understanding to the matter (it's called "education"), they have gone into denial within and suppression without. The result has been politically devastating.

A part of the effectiveness of the Republicans' "Southern strategy," which is another name for racism, rests in part on Progressives' unwillingness to confront the possibility of some genetic component in group differences. The charge of being "PC"—politically correct, which is usually code for "denying group genetic differences"—has become a weapon in the hands of the Right. And it plays well because it is almost certainly true, though not as they mean it. Nevertheless, Joe Six-Pack is left with the impression that the Right is telling the truth (because it accords with what he believed to begin with) and that the Left is "covering up."

This is not an easy job to undertake. Research recently published indicates that prejudice itself has a biological (genetic) component. And the authors point to the potential usefulness of recognizing this—

"One important practical implication of this research is that we may need to create different interventions to reduce inappropriate prejudices against different groups," says Neuberg.

For example, if one is trying to decrease prejudices among new college students during freshman orientation, different strategies might be used for bringing different groups together.

"For instance, given that whites stereotypically perceive blacks as threats to physical safety, it would be inadvisable to suggest a game of outdoor night-time basketball, given that darkness heightens people's fear. Sharing a plate of nachos might be a better choice," Cottrell says. "But if the aim is to reduce prejudice against gay men -- viewed to pose a health treat because of association with AIDS, and thereby eliciting physical disgust --sharing finger food might not be a good idea."

Neuberg and Cottrell are both adamant to point out that just because prejudices are a fundamental and natural part of what makes us human, that doesn't mean that learning can't take place and that responses can't be dampened.

I'll leave it to the psychologists to work on methods of overcoming hard-wired prejudice, but prejudice towards individuals is itself irrational insofar as it has to do with treating individuals according to one's categorization of that individual into a group and then acting upon one's beliefs about the group, whether those beliefs are true or not. And this is where studies that show genetically based group differences come into play.

Imagine this conversation—

Speaker 1: Where did you get such beautiful skin?

Speaker 2: I guess it's part of my Ashkenazy heritage.

Speaker 1: Oh, you're Ashkenazy? I've just read that Ashkenazies are brighter than the rest of us. Gracious sakes, you're not only beautiful but smart!

Our poor Ashkenazy may have just flunked Remedial Math for the second time and be wondering if he/she has what it takes to make it in sales. No matter. Speaker 1 attributes an abstraction—a statistical mean or average—to all members of the group.

A group average simply tells us nothing about any individual in the group. So when Progressives are confronted with science, pseudoscience or plain old-fashioned prejudice, we need to have a better response than denial and fear of group differences. One such might begin along these lines—"I haven't paid as much attention to the differences between groups as you have, and you may be right. But what do you think that says about Bob over there?"


1Not the least of our problems is the way that science is communicated in the media. I am sure without even seeing the study under discussion that this sentence should read "a new study plunges into the debate by theorizing that a component of the high intelligence of Ashkenazic Jews is in the genes. [back]

2I probably won't live long enough to be astonished since research into these matters is more restricted than research into the building of nuclear weapons. [back]

3Since any such genetic component would have had to have evolved, you would think that assertions about group differences based on ethnicity would be anathema to the Christian fundamentalist, but my own encounters with them indicate quite the opposite. Oh, I forgot. God made the races that way. [back]

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