High IQ in Ashkenazi Jews: What’s the proper reaction?

September 15, 2010

I’ve blogged about two of the three remarkable things said by German economist Thilo Sarrazin — that Muslims were dumbing down Germany and that Jews share a certain gene. He made a third racial statement, of course, about Jews having “high IQs.” Specifically, it’s Jews from central or northern Europe, known as Ashkenazim, that reportedly have the high IQs.

In 2005 three University of Utah researchers made a big splash with a study that sought to explain this IQ advantage in evolutionary terms. Basically, the researchers argued that because Ashkenazi Jews were restricted to intellectually demanding jobs for almost 1,000 years in Europe, they underwent natural selection for higher intelligence, and as a by-product they began to suffer higher rates of certain genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs and Gaucher’s.

If you’re interested, Steven Pinker broke down the researchers’ full argument for The New Republic in 2006. He first summarizes the evidence for Ashkenazi intelligence:

The appearance of an advantage in average intelligence among Ashkenazi Jews is easier to establish than its causes. Jews are remarkably over-represented in benchmarks of brainpower. Though never exceeding 3 percent of the American population, Jews account for 37 percent of the winners of the U.S. National Medal of Science, 25 percent of the American Nobel Prize winners in literature, 40 percent of the American Nobel Prize winners in science and economics, and so on. On the world stage, we find that 54 percent of the world chess champions have had one or two Jewish parents.

… [Jews’] average IQ has been measured at 108 to 115, one-half to one standard deviation above the mean. But statisticians have long known that a moderate difference in the means of two distributions translates into a large difference at the tails. In the simplest case, if we have two groups of the same size, and the average of Group A exceeds the average of Group B by fifteen IQ points (one standard deviation), then among people with an IQ of 115 or higher the As will outnumber the Bs by a ratio of three to one, but among people with an IQ of 160 or higher the As will outnumber the Bs by a ratio of forty-two to one. Even if Group A was a fraction of the size of Group B to begin with, it would contribute a substantial proportion of the people who had the highest scores.

Pinker says the authors, whose initials are CH&H, offer a plausible hypothesis with testable predictions, which means they’re doing valid science. Then he lays out the juicy ethical questions:

But is it good for the Jews? More to the point, is it good for ideals of tolerance and ethnic amity? On one interpretation, perhaps it is. Jewish achievement is obvious; only the explanation is unclear. The idea of innate Jewish intelligence is certainly an improvement over the infamous alternative generalization, a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. And attention to the talents needed in the middleman niche (whether they are biological or cultural) could benefit other middleman minorities, such as Armenians, Lebanese, Ibos, and overseas Chinese and Indians, who have also been targets of vicious persecution because of their economic success.

And yet the dangers are real. Like intelligence, personality traits are measurable, heritable within a group, and slightly different, on average, between groups. Someday someone could test whether there was selection for personality traits that are conducive to success in money-lending and mercantilism, traits that I will leave to the reader’s imagination. One can also imagine how a finding of this kind would be interpreted in, say, Cairo, Tehran, and Kuala Lumpur. And the CH&H study could lower people’s resistance to more invidious comparisons, such as groups who historically score lower, rather than higher, on IQ tests.

Sarrazin’s case would seem to fall squarely into this category. I’ll also note that if your goal is to Otherize Jews — and it’s not 100% clear to me Sarrazin had that goal, despite his ridiculous views on Muslims — then it doesn’t matter whether the trait deemed representative of Jews is valued or disvalued. It still serves to set them apart.

What can be done? In recent decades, the standard response to claims of genetic differences has been to deny the existence of intelligence, to deny the existence of races and other genetic groupings, and to subject proponents to vilification, censorship, and at times physical intimidation. Aside from its effects on liberal discourse, the response is problematic. Reality is what refuses to go away when you do not believe in it, and progress in neuroscience and genomics has made these politically comforting shibboleths (such as the non-existence of intelligence and the non-existence of race) untenable.

Rather than legislating facts, could we adopt a policy of agnosticism, and recommend that we “don’t go there”? Scientists routinely avoid research that may have harmful consequences, such as injuring human subjects or releasing dangerous microorganisms. The problem with this line of thought is that it would restrict research based on its intellectual content rather than on its physical conduct. Ideas are connected to other ideas, often in unanticipated ways, and restrictions on content could cripple freedom of inquiry and distort the intellectual landscape.

I’m not sure if this is the best way to frame the issue. I think the problem is less one of intellectual freedom and more one of researchers smuggling racist assumptions into their work in the name of freedom. According to Greg Laden, “almost all race differences we see bandied about are linked to nefarious racism one way or another.” I’ll have to do more digging to back up that statement, though.

Also, there are positive reasons to study the genetics of groups. Until the day that every person is issued a CD containing his or her genome, medicine will need the statistical boost of data on group differences when targeting tests and treatments to those most likely to benefit from them. Remember that the CH&H study grew out of research aimed at reducing the enormous suffering caused by genetic diseases. Many have effects on the nervous and endocrine systems, and connections with the psychological traits of sufferers and carriers may be unavoidable. And of course the tests could refute claims of group differences as easily as they could confirm them.

Color me skeptical that most genetic research will have the intended effect of “reducing the enormous suffering caused by genetic disease,” which again gets at questions of how academic freedom should be used, but that too is a subject for another day. In the end, Pinker wants us acknowledge that “we have the intellectual and moral tools to defuse the dangers” of treating Jewish intelligence as an object of scientific scrutiny.

“Is” does not imply “ought.” Group differences, when they exist, pertain to averages, not to individual men and women. There are geniuses and dullards, saints and sinners, in every race, ethnicity, and gender. Political equality is a commitment to universal human rights, and to policies that treat people as individuals rather than as representatives of groups; it is not an empirical claim that people are indistinguishable. Many commentators seem unwilling to grasp these points.

I’ll go out on a limb and agree with Pinker on this one. One can accept CH&H’s reasoning and still think Sarrazin has gone off the deep end. Similarly, there may be legitimate “innate” sex differences, and although there’s always the question of how a patriarchal society will use such “facts,” the sky won’t necessarily fall if we acknowledge their existence. That’s particularly so if we use them as jumping off points for creating a better world. And so the proper response if you hear someone talking about high IQs in Ashkenazi Jews is simple: “Meh, sounds plausible. Now give me something I can use.”

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4 Responses to “High IQ in Ashkenazi Jews: What’s the proper reaction?”


  1. I think two big partial truths often get smuggled in to discussions of IQ, and these greatly exacerbate the perceived political and social implications of the discussions. (I suppose for the many people who aren’t really into the science, they are the aspects that make it interesting!)

    (1) the half truth that the talent(s) responsible for IQ are the same as mental ability in general (Spearman’s g = “general intelligence” rather than a positive manifold for the many related abilities being tested) and

    (2) the tiny fraction truth that talent is “hereditary” in the sense of a fixed trajectory.

    In my opinion, if one takes a reasonably well supported scientific position on those two issues, we can at least talk intelligently about the possible reasons for individual and group differences in IQ test scores, and the implications. And we can see more clearly that the differences can be interesting and informative but don’t have quite the direct social policy implications that have often been assumed in political arguments.

    IQ reflects talent(s) that have importance but is not a particularly good metric for comparing people or groups for most purposes in my opinion for various reasons such as not covering a full enough range of abilities (e.g. Sternberg), and its heritability and the reasons for its variation being very difficult to pin down (e.g. Dickens-Flynn).

    David Perkins makes a very clear version of the argument I subscribe to for the technical significance yet limited social and political importance of IQ in his “Outsmarting IQ.”

  2. JR Minkel Says:

    Thanks for the tip. I’ll check out Perkins’ book.


  3. Philosemitism is almost always linked to ant-semitism, for the reasons you outlined above. For a great historical perspective on it, check out this piece on how both, in the minds of Britain’s leaders, led to the foundation of Israel:

    http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/09/08/how_anti_semitism_helped_create_israel

  4. JR Minkel Says:

    Interesting, thanks.


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