Those Genius Jews

Conservative author Charles Murray begins his piece “Jewish Genius” in Commentary thusly:

Since its first issue in 1945, COMMENTARY has published hundreds of articles about Jews and Judaism. As one would expect, they cover just about every important aspect of the topic. But there is a lacuna, and not one involving some obscure bit of Judaica. COMMENTARY has never published a systematic discussion of one of the most obvious topics of all: the extravagant overrepresentation of Jews, relative to their numbers, in the top ranks of the arts, sciences, law, medicine, finance, entrepreneurship, and the media.

The article begins with a historical perspective, making a case that post-haskalah (enlightenment), Jewish involvement and accomplishment in the brainy parts, namely arts and sciences (notice we’re not very good at sports) of the broader society has been vastly disproportionate to our meager numbers (“our” not including Murray, who isn’t Jewish).
Next, Murray explains that the mean IQ of the Jewish community is about 10 points higher than the public at large. He writes:

The imbalance continues to increase for still higher IQ’s. New York City’s public-school system used to administer a pencil-and-paper IQ test to its entire school population. In 1954, a psychologist used those test results to identify all 28 children in the New York public-school system with measured IQ’s of 170 or higher. Of those 28, 24 were Jews.
Exceptional intelligence is not enough to explain exceptional accomplishment. Qualities such as imagination, ambition, perseverance, and curiosity are decisive in separating the merely smart from the highly productive. The role of intelligence is nicely expressed in an analogy suggested to me years ago by the sociologist Steven Goldberg: intelligence plays the same role in an intellectually demanding task that weight plays in the performance of NFL offensive tackles. The heaviest offensive tackle is not necessarily the best. Indeed, the correlation between weight and performance among NFL offensive tackles is probably quite low. But they all weigh more than 300 pounds.
So with intelligence. The other things count, but you must be very smart to have even a chance of achieving great work. A randomly selected Jew has a higher probability of possessing that level of intelligence than a randomly selected member of any other ethnic or national group, by far.

Murray claims that this is genetic, because, as he puts it, we’ve been breeding for brains. He cites the Talmud – “A man should sell all he possesses in order to marry the daughter of a scholar, as well as to marry his daughter to a scholar,” (Pesahim 49a) -as proof-text.
Murray spends quite a bit of time distinguishing his claims from the study published a while back in New York Magazine (which claimed, among other things, that this phenomenon was just Asheknazi). It all works up to an especially enjoyable finish:

From its very outset, apparently going back to the time of Moses, Judaism was intertwined with intellectual complexity. Jews were commanded by God to heed the law, which meant they had to learn the law. The law was so extensive and complicated that this process of learning and reviewing was never complete. Moreover, Jewish males were not free to pretend that they had learned the law, for fathers were commanded to teach the law to their children. It became obvious to all when fathers failed in their duty. No other religion made so many intellectual demands upon the whole body of its believers. Long before Joshua ben Gamla and the destruction of the Second Temple, the requirements for being a good Jew had provided incentives for the less intelligent to fall away.
Assessing the events of the 1st century C.E. thus poses a chicken-and-egg problem. By way of an analogy, consider written Chinese with its thousands of unique characters. On cognitive tests, today’s Chinese do especially well on visuo-spatial skills. It is possible, I suppose, that their high visuo-spatial skills have been fostered by having to learn written Chinese; but I find it much more plausible that only people who already possessed high visuo-spatial skills would ever devise such a ferociously difficult written language. Similarly, I suppose it is possible that the Jews’ high verbal skills were fostered, through secondary and tertiary effects, by the requirement that they be able to read and understand complicated texts after the 1st century C.E.; but I find it much more plausible that only people who already possessed high verbal skills would dream of installing such a demanding requirement.
This reasoning pushes me even farther into the realm of speculation. Insofar as I am suggesting that the Jews may have had some degree of unusual verbal skills going back to the time of Moses, I am naked before the evolutionary psychologists’ ultimate challenge. Why should one particular tribe at the time of Moses, living in the same environment as other nomadic and agricultural peoples of the Middle East, have already evolved elevated intelligence when the others did not?
At this point, I take sanctuary in my remaining hypothesis, uniquely parsimonious and happily irrefutable. The Jews are G!d’s chosen people.

All in all, I find the argument he puts forth fascinating, and I suppose somewhat plausible. I want to avoid “good/bad for the Jews” navel gazing, but I wonder – what might this mean, both in terms of the way we’re viewed by the broader world and in the expectations we hold for ourselves and our community? I won’t speculate on the former, but as far as the latter – in my mind, chosen-ness (however you understand it) is a double standard – the expectations are just higher.
Full story.

20 thoughts on “Those Genius Jews

  1. Oy! Murray’s end sickens me, and I’m grossed out to see us fall for his line on Jewschool. There are other ways to feel good about ourselves than supporting his yucky take.

  2. April, it’s clear Jew perform disproportionately highly on all levels of intellectual achievement. What’s your explanation (and why does Murray sicken you)?

  3. if we’re such f’in geniuses, how did we wind up with a country falling apart at the seams and surrounded by enemies on all sides?
    wouldn’t geniuses have, i dunno, found a way to build a state and build positive relationships with their neighbors?
    wouldn’t have geniuses found a way to keep their economy growing while providing fully for the needs of the public?
    we’re not geniuses. we’re too smart for our own good.

  4. Murray ends his research at 1950 – may or may not have anything to do with the founding of the state, and its implications for his theory.
    I have questions about the values that have been stressed in Israel since ’48. Are we still breeding scholars? How might required military service shift one’s outlook?
    Also, achievement in arts and sciences (which Israel does pretty well) do not necessarily correlate to governance or diplomacy. Smart kids aren’t always the most personable (and I don’t think PR has ever been a Jewish strength).

  5. The economist and others ran an article about 2 years ago about the relationship between certain genetic disorders and higher intellectual capacity. Basically, it says there is a high relatedness between increased IQ and prevalence of sets of genetic disorders that occur more commonly in Ashkenazi Jews, so typically in science like this you cannot show the directions of a relationship only that there is a high likelihood of relatedness. Not that is matters per se.
    (and what is naval gazing?) ($$) if you want me to cut and paste it to you lemme know.
    and to April, it is exactly the corresponding lack of patience, and deeper insight common to those with higher degrees of intelligence that could be responsible to the situations you describe.
    Or it could be we are just not worthy of our own nation…

  6. I meant navel, not naval. “Excessive introspection, self-absorption, or concentration on a single issue.”
    I think the Economist and New York were covering the same research. Murray spends the middle third distinguishing his findings from those.

  7. Mobius…read Mamet’s non-fiction book about Jews, Self-hatred and anti-Semitism.
    I do believe it’s possible to be extremely bright, talented, and still have people hate you. It happens everyday to other bright and talented folks.

  8. While Jews were busy breeding for intelligence and scholarliness, Christians spent a millennium doing the exact opposite, shipping off the smartest Christian boys to seminaries where they would become celibate monks and priests.
    That doesn’t justify Kahanism or anti-gentile bigotry, but it does help to explain why the average Jew of European descent might score higher on IQ tests than the average Christian of European descent.

  9. Ah!! This whole debate is frightening. On the one hand, it reeks of classic racism. Might we add that blacks are stupider because they were bred as slaves for physical prowess? Or, should we go on to explain that this is why Hasidim are dumb? Since they are descended from the simple folk of the Jews?? (I say this in jest, to make a point.) Anyway, you can see the downward spiral…
    At the same time, there’s a logic to it. Jews IN THEORY breed for intelligence but it’s not as if our lineage is made up exclusively of rabbinic scholars. There are also gabbais, milkmen, sandlers, and all the rest. I’m sure we all know some Jewish simpletons. I would argue it’s a mix of genetics and the cultural value placed on scholarship, intellectual achievement, and intellectual curiosity.
    But, in response to the idea that if we were so smart, we would find a way to make friends with our neighbors and quell Jew-hatred, I agree — this has nothing to do with intelligence. First of all, people hate Jews BECAUSE they are successful. It makes people suspicious. Secondly, intellect has nothing to do with “people skills”, diplomacy, or even wisdom, unforunately.
    And, lastly, the fact that Israelis are successful in their academic fields supports the argument that there is something inherent in Jewish genetics or Jewish culture that breeds intellectual excellance – they succeed despite the fact that the educational system is falling apart.

  10. look because it is racist doesn’t make it less true. if you were to make a conjecture about how Y are better at X because of Z and did a good genetic assay that showed that people of particular subset had better adapted gene 123 and traced it to external selection pressure and it stood up to peer review you are not in anyway shape or form a a racist, you are a scientist. to confuse the two is so dangerous to advancements in science and medicine. I will give you a real concrete example, because of the concern of racism up until very recently medical research was not divided into sex and race. What we found out is s cure that works well for white guys kills black females and people were shocked! YOU MEAN WE ARE NOT ALL THE SAME!!! GASP!!!
    so while liberal arts types can wander the grassy fields waxing poetic, scientists have to deal with number and facts (at least as much as they can) and the fact is we are not all the same.

  11. Dear Nathan,
    Our views on life and the nature of knowledge are so widely divergent that I don’t think there’s a point responding to your comment.

  12. I actually have no idea what the disagreement is about on this thread. Whether or not Jews are on average smarter or less smart than others in a question of fact – it may or may not be true, but its truth can measured (in the same way that we can measure whether men are on average stronger than women, or whether women are on average smarter than men). Now what we derive from that may or may not be racist, on two levels – lumping members of a group together is racist (e.g. Jews are smart, therefor all Jews should be admitted to college is racist, obviously there are mulitidudes of individual non Jews who are way smarter than individual Jews, and one shouldn’t get the benefit or detriment of group membership when individual dertiminations are being made, that’s why we conservatives believe in a colour – blind society); and as to worth and merit, so what if Jews score on average higher on iq tests than non Jews when it comes to determining worth – a high intelligence has no correlation with goodness or badness – I’m sure Noam Chompsky has high intelligence, but I’d trade him off for a 80 iq ditchdigger any old day. It’s not racist to recognize actual facts – it may be racist if we misuse those facts.

  13. It’s not racist to recognize actual facts – it may be racist if we misuse those facts.

    My thought exactly. The problem comes in defining “misuse.”
    Let’s assume somebody conclusively proves that the average Ashkenaz Jew is on average genetically smarter than the general population. Not just higher average IQ scores (which could be due to a bias in how IQ is measured), but actually smarter. I think we’d almost all agree that using this knowledge to make college admissions decisions would constitute misuse.
    On the flip side, I think we’d almost all agree that it makes sense to test Ashkenaz couples for Tay-Sachs when we don’t normally test other couples for the same disease. That’s ethnic discrimination, too, but it’s almost certainly not misuse.
    But aren’t there gray areas in between?

  14. Judaism encouraged (as a whole) learning and literacy for even the “simpleton” at a time when Christianity generally did not.

  15. Christians spent a millennium doing the exact opposite, shipping off the smartest Christian boys to seminaries where they would become celibate monks and priests.
    It might not be that simple. Those monks ad priests were supposed to be celibate, but I don’t think that was always the case.

  16. It might not be that simple. Those monks ad priests were supposed to be celibate, but I don’t think that was always the case.

    [insert inappropriate joke stereotyping monks/priests as gay]

  17. Murray plays with numbers a lot. I’ve learned never to trust anything he writes until you can look at the source data or see several other trusted people vouch for the data. Also, I’d rather not be called genetically intellectually superior by the same person who calls people of African origins genetically inferior (The Bell Curve)
    As for why Jews are disproportionally represented, it can just as easily be explained by culture and nuture as genetics. A disproportionate number of Jewish families value education and learning and teach this to their children. This is going to generate a disproportion number of Jewish intellectuals. As far as IQ, Jews were among the list of dumb people in the 1920’s because we had low IQ scores. Add a generation with a better understanding of English and our scores jumped. IQ is a virtually worthless number for these types of studies.

  18. How come no one has said anything about Asian intellectual superiority? Just take a look at all the Asian students at places like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and MIT. There are probably more Asians than Jews at those schools. And the number of Asian students at Ivy League schools is wildly out of proportion their actual percentage in the general population. So how did they get so smart? Is it the result of a Medieval breeding program? Was there a winnowing down of Asians as a result of persecution so that only the smartest Asians survived? Or could it be related to certain Asian genetic diseases or to the special Asian passion for learning and education?

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