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Are Jewish Smarts All in the Genes?

By Daniel Treiman

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Is Jewish intelligence genetic? Slate’s William Saletan, who recently attended a panel discussion on the topic, doesn’t want to think so. Still, he grudgingly admits:

A culture that trains its young people to procreate only with one another becomes, over time, a genetically distinct population. And if that culture glorifies intelligence to such a degree that it drives less intelligent people out of the community—or prevents them from attracting mates—it becomes an IQ machine. Cultural selection replaces natural selection.

In other words, even though Saletan isn’t convinced, he admits that proponents of Jewish genetic intelligence may have a case. In any event, the whole subject sort of creeps him out, particularly since any possible genetic predisposition for intelligence could be linked to the prevalence of genetic diseases among Jews.

The whole article is quite interesting and well worth reading.

A few additional points worth noting:

First, I don’t think there would any great benefit if we discovered a genetic predisposition toward above-average intelligence among Jews (or any group for that matter). Any discovery that intelligence is correlated with membership in particular ethnic groups would fuel prejudice, even though individuals wouldn’t necessarily fit into group patterns

Second, I think that the discovery of a genetic basis for Jewish achievement would only diminish our own regard for the worth of our cultural and religious heritage. If Jewish contributions to the world are due to genetics, then maybe our traditions aren’t that important.

Third, while I’m uncomfortable with the notion of a genetic predisposition toward intelligence among Jews, my concerns are not identical to those of others.

For instance, there’s a general aversion in some circles to the notion that Jews are an ethnic (or descent-based) rather than a religious community. Saletan notes that a concern of this sort was raised at the discussion:

Zoloth, speaking for many liberals, recalled a family member’s revulsion at the idea of a Jewish race. Judaism is about faith and values, she argued. To reduce it to biology is to make it exclusive, denying its openness to all.

This, I think, is a legacy of a time in America and the West when religious diversity was tolerated but ethnic (or “national” — a term that was once popular) difference was frowned upon. It’s why liberal Jews in Germany and the U.S. would describe themselves as Germans or Americans of the Mosaic or Hebrew faith.

To this day, this Jewish ethnicity-aversion remains a cause of confusion. It’s why, when asked if they’re Jewish, some feel compelled to answer, “Yes, but I’m not religious” (as if Jewishness were a purely religious identity). It’s also why one often hears American descendants of Eastern European Jews say that their ancestors were Russians or Poles, even though their ancestors quite likely spoke primarily Yiddish and had not intermarried much with the larger non-Jewish populations.

Ethnicity involves something that we inherit, whereas modernity and liberalism privilege the idea that we are the authors of our own identities. That’s why liberal Jews often prefer (wrongly in my view) words like “culture” and “religion” to concepts like “peoplehood” and “ethnicity.”


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