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Saturday, October 22, 2005

The latest from Genes 'r' Us!: Why European Jews are genetically smarter than other people — but do THEY see it that way?

An article arguing this case was rushed into print by The Journal of Biosocial Science:

Last summer, Henry Harpending, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Utah, and Gregory Cochran, an independent scholar with a flair for controversy, skipped cheerfully into the center of this minefield. 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. The Journal of Biosocial Science, published by Cambridge University Press, posted it online and agreed to run it in its bi-monthly periodical sometime in 2006. The New York Times, The Economist, and several Jewish publications risked their reputations to legitimize it. Today, the paper has a lively presence on the Internet—type “Ashkenazi” into Google and the first hit is the Wikipedia entry, where the article gets pride of place.

Then the commentariat weighed in. Here's a sample:

In the 1860s, Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin and father of eugenics, argued that Protestants were smarter than Catholics because they let their smart offspring reproduce, rather than shipping them off to monasteries. The idea didn’t hold up too well over time. In the early part of the twentieth century, the mathematician Norbert Wiener suggested Jews were smarter because the daughters of wealthy Jewish men were married off to scholarly rabbis, who went on to have more children. Then Lewis S. Feuer, a sociologist, came along and showed that wealthy Jews married other wealthy Jews. "These were Fiddler on the Roof fantasies, a myth created by people in New York who romanticized the shtetl," says Sander Gilman. "The shtetls were horrible places. Do you think the man who wrote Tevye's story did it from a crummy little shtetl? No! He was sitting in the south of France on the Riviera. He’s no fool.

"This study is putting forward one of these arguments you hear regularly but with new window dressing," Gilman says. "Today, that dressing is genetics. A hundred years ago, it was vitamins—as soon as they were discovered, everything was explained by a vitamin deficiency. Cancer. Schizophrenia. Hair loss." He pauses. "Okay, not hair loss. I made that up. But you see my point."

The whole thing is hilarious, and a great weekend read. It's interesting how any idea, no matter how poorly sketched out, is rushed into print if it supports genetic determinism or evolutionary psychology. A science would not need that kind of support.
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