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Why the disproportionate number of highly accomplished Jewish scientists and scholars? The question continues to provoke robust debate and controversy.
Why the disproportionate number of highly accomplished Jewish scientists and scholars? The question continues to provoke robust debate and controversy.
With this month’s announcement from Stockholm that Daniel Shechtman won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Israel adds to its growing list of Nobel laureates. Since 2002, six Israelis have won Nobel prizes. Significantly, none of the Israeli laureates won the Peace Prize, which does not necessarily indicate any great intellectual achievement (or sometimes any achievement at all). Many vastly larger countries with highly educated populations have not outperformed tiny Israel. France has produced six Nobel laureates in the same span, Germany and Russia five, Canada two, and India only one.
Israel’s success in producing Nobel laureates is part of a larger trend that demands explanation. Continuing a century-old pattern, five of the thirteen winners this year are Jewish. Indeed, Jews have long been wildly over-represented in Nobel and similar prizes. In the words of the American Enterprise Institute’s political scientist Charles Murray, “In the first half of the 20th century, despite pervasive and continuing social discrimination against Jews throughout the Western world, despite the retraction of legal rights, and despite the Holocaust, Jews won 14 percent of Nobel Prizes in literature, chemistry, physics, and medicine/physiology. In the second half of the 20th century, when Nobel Prizes began to be awarded to people from all over the world, that figure rose to 29 percent. So far, in the 21st century, it has been 32 percent.”1 Jews constitute about 0.2 percent of the world’s population.
The question is clear: why the disproportionate number of highly accomplished Jewish scientists and scholars?
Suggestions, even scientific evidence, that a particular ethnic group possesses a higher average IQ than others will invariably lead to accusations of scientific racism.
Though this question has been posed in popular and scientific literature before, it continues to provoke both robust scholarly debate and controversy. The issue has often served as a front in the “nature vs. nurture” war—whether Jewish achievement is best explained by the way Jewish parents and communities raise their children, or whether there is a hereditary trait that drives Jews toward high achievement in some fields.
The discussion naturally turns toward intelligence and its sources. But is there actually a correlation between high intelligence and achievement in complex mathematical and scientific fields? After all, women have won only 5 percent of Nobel prizes, but are no less intelligent than men. Intelligence is a necessary precondition to noteworthy accomplishment in science and mathematics, but it is insufficient without opportunity (which held back women for many years). “Intelligence plays the same role in an intellectually demanding task,” relates Murray, “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.”2
The subject of Jewish intelligence is a potential minefield. Suggestions, even scientific evidence, that a particular ethnic group possesses a higher average IQ than others will invariably lead to accusations of scientific racism. Anti-Semites are naturally drawn to and infuriated by the idea that the Jewish mind is different. “Today,” wrote Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf, “[the Jew] passes as ‘smart’ and this in a certain sense he has been at all times.”3 Jews themselves are somewhat schizophrenic on this issue. Jews enjoy discussing Jewish achievement so much that there is even an insider word for the feeling one gets when discovering his favorite celebrity is Jewish—jewbilation. But among Jews there is an understandable discomfort with studies that examine their intelligence. “The dangers are real,” writes Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, who is Jewish. “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… [This] could lower people’s resistance to more invidious comparisons, such as groups who historically score lower, rather than higher, on IQ tests.”4
Barred from owning land and allowed to perform banking and middleman functions forbidden to Christians, Jews with mathematical and business acumen flourished.
Still, serious, peer-reviewed studies continue to examine the source of intelligence— environment or genes—in the debate around the causes of Jewish achievement. Scholars also debate whether high average intelligence is characteristic of all Jewish populations, or whether it is limited to the Ashkenazi population that coalesced in central and eastern Europe.
There is ample scholarly work to suggest that Ashkenazi Jews, at least, have significantly higher IQs than surrounding populations. In Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence, Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending of the University of Utah conclude that “Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group for which there are reliable data. They score 0.75 to 1.0 standard deviations above the general European average, corresponding to an IQ of 112-115 … This fact has social significance because IQ (as measured by IQ tests) is the best predictor we have of success in academic subjects and most jobs. Ashkenazi Jews are just as successful as their tested IQ would predict, and they are hugely overrepresented in occupations and fields with the highest cognitive demands.”5 While Ashkenazi Jews score well on mathematics and verbal problems, their visuospatial scores are noticeably lower than average Europeans.
A 2004 article by Richard Lynn, “The Intelligence of American Jews,” revised down the average Jewish IQ to half a standard deviation above the American mean. This equals about 7.5 IQ points, which does not seem like it would produce the disproportionate result of Jewish accomplishment.6 However, on the extremes of exceptional intelligence, from which Nobel laureate scientists and chess champions emerge, Jewish representation is much higher.7 A mean intelligence 7.5 IQ points above the American average would result in four times as many Jews with an IQ above 130 compared to their gentile counterparts,8 and a mean Jewish IQ of 10 points above the average would indicate the proportion of Jews with IQs above 140 is six times the norm.9
‘Growing up in a given home within a culture seems to leave no lasting stamp on intelligence.’
Indeed, as the models predict, Jews are present in ever-greater disproportion the further one looks in the rarified IQs above 150. Murray points to a 1954 IQ test in New York City’s public schools used to discover the 28 students in the school system with IQs over 170. Twenty-four of these students were Jews.10
If we accept the idea that Jews, or at least some populations of Jews, have a high mean IQ, the major question remains—Why Jews? What aspect of Jewish history created the conditions that selected for higher IQs? And do these conditions apply only to one population of Jews?
The nurture camp looks to the cultural environment in which Jewish children are raised—both the home and the community—as the source of their high average intelligence. In order for this hypothesis to hold, there must be an identifiable difference between the homes in which the leading Jewish scholars are raised and comparable gentile homes, and this unique feature must be sustained over multiple generations. This is a reasonable hypothesis—after all, a central component of Jewish faith is the rigorous study of sophisticated and complicated religious texts. Jews are highly literate and place a premium on education, so their children, though no more intelligent genetically than others, might be off to a much better start. This idea would be compelling if most Jews today grew up in traditional homes. However, the vast majority of Jewish households, both in the United States and in Israel, are secular and not especially different from those of their gentile neighbors in similar socio-economic conditions. Orthodox Jewish Nobel laureates like Robert Aumann, who tackled the Talmud in yeshiva studies in his youth, are the exceptions. Oftentimes, Jews grew up in homes that pushed them toward retail business and out of school at a young age. This was especially true of the children of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who grew up in early 20th-century America, a generation that still produced scholars of great renown.
The Bible has Pharaoh calling the Jews ‘numerous and strong,’ God repeatedly referring to them as ‘stiff-necked,’ and Haman asking for permission to destroy the ‘scattered and distinct’ Jews.
Moreover, the evidence for environmental factors producing an outcome as distinct as this is weak. “There is scarcely any support in the literature,” write Cochran, et al., “for social effects like home environment on IQ.”11 Pinker supports their conclusion: “Siblings reared together are no more correlated in IQ than siblings who were separated at birth, and adopted siblings are not correlated at all. Growing up in a given home within a culture seems to leave no lasting stamp on intelligence.”12
The “nature” camp supports the idea that heredity gives Jews a higher average intelligence. Charles Murray firmly believes this: “It is no longer seriously disputed that intelligence in Homo sapiens is substantially heritable. In the last two decades, it has also been established that obvious environmental factors such as high income, books in the house, and parental reading to children are not as potent as one might expect. … Even the very best home environments add only a few points, if that, to a merely okay environment.”13
Not all scholars accept the possibility of inheriting intelligence. Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man argues against the idea of intelligence as a measurable quantity, and attacks biological determinism (the notion that one’s genes determine the course of one’s life).14 Robert Sternberg, Elena Grigorenko, and Kenneth Kidd argue that there is currently no conclusive identification of the genes that account for intelligence, and therefore any attempt to definitively link ethnicity and IQ is conjecture.15 Others contend that studies suggesting a higher average Jewish intelligence relied on samples too small to be statistically conclusive, and point to a study showing Jewish students scoring lower than their gentile peers. The use of social constructs such as “race” and “ethnicity” for scientific analysis is similarly controversial. Though Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities do represent entities that members are born into, the precise boundaries between them is not always clear. There is marriage between the communities, which often live in close proximity to one another. After all, Jewish law itself does not see any ethnic difference between the two communities—rather, it understands them as communities that adhere to particular sets of customs and traditions in their religious practice.
What aspect of Jewish history created the conditions that selected for higher IQs? And do these conditions apply only to one population of Jews?
Still, many prominent scholars accept the idea of inherited intelligence, and their camp is increasingly ascendant. Harvard’s Pinker notes the American Psychological Association panel of scientists that found “IQ tests measure a stable property of the person; that general intelligence reflects a real phenomenon (namely, that measures of different aspects of intelligence intercorrelate); that it predicts a variety of positive life outcomes; and that it is highly heritable among individuals within a group.”16 To use inherited intelligence as the explanation for Jewish achievement, scholars must identify a historical circumstance in which Jews possessing a higher IQ held a reproductive advantage. It is not enough to demonstrate that Jews were primarily involved in a certain type of demanding intellectual pursuit—they must identify how those excelling in that field were able to procreate more prolifically than their less intelligent kinsmen. And scholars arguing that the higher IQ average only applies to Ashkenazi Jews must show a condition unique to that population that would cause selection for greater intelligence.
Cochran, et al., conclude that Ashkenazi “occupation of an unusual social niche” in early medieval Europe likely explains their cognitive abilities. All the necessary preconditions during this period were present, including low gene flow from the outside and unusually high reproductive reward for particular intellectual skills over a long period.17 Ashkenazi Jews had moved almost entirely away from the farming lifestyle of their ancestors in Judea. Barred from owning land but allowed to perform banking and middleman functions forbidden to Christians, Jews with mathematical and business acumen flourished, and were thus able to raise larger and more successful families. Sephardi Jews in Muslim lands, on the other hand, labored as tanners and butchers, jobs in which those with high IQ would have no distinct reproductive advantage. This explains nicely the results showing high mathematical abilities among Ashkenazim, but low spatiovisual scores.18
The Cochran, et al. hypothesis rests on underlying assumptions. Evidence of Jewish intelligence must begin to appear in the Middle Ages, and not before, if their theory is to hold. Also, once Jews begin showing signs of mathematical and verbal ability, it should be mainly Ashkenazim performing in those fields.
Scholars debate whether high average intelligence is characteristic of all Jewish populations, or whether it is limited to the Ashkenazi population that coalesced in central and eastern Europe.
It is impossible to know what the average Jewish IQ was before the Middle Ages, but it is noteworthy that many descriptions of the Jews by ancient historians and the Bible do not associate Jews and wisdom. The Bible has Pharaoh calling the Jews “numerous and strong,” God repeatedly referring to them as “stiff-necked,” and Haman asking for permission to destroy the “scattered and distinct” Jews—but none of these descriptions indicate intelligence or business acumen. Classical historians focused on the godlessness of the Jews, sometimes calling them a base people, full of lust, but never smart. And Jews barely make a mark in the “annals of philosophy, drama, visual art, mathematics, or the natural sciences during the eighteen centuries from the time of Homer through the first millennium C.E., when so much was happening in Greece, China, and South Asia.” Compare this to George Sarton’s findings in The Introduction to the History of Science, which shows that in the years 1150-1300, 15 percent of the world’s 626 known scientists were Jews.19
Even so, there is a case to be made for significant Jewish achievement in the ancient world. The Hebrew Bible is a work of great artistry, poetry, and insight, the most influential written work in human history. The Talmud is intricately complex, and Jews committed its detailed arguments to memory for centuries. Some hints of Jewish intelligence and business skill can be seen even in the anti-Jewish writings of classical historians. Tacitus writes of the Jews’ “swelling exchequer” and “increasing wealth.”20 Claudius Ptolemaeus calls Jews “bold and scheming” in his Apotelematica.21
Though Cochran, et al. maintain that non-Ashkenazi Jews do not show high average IQ scores, and are not disproportionately represented in cognitively demanding fields, there is evidence to the contrary.22 The Jewish scientists in Sarton’s studies were not Ashkenazim of central Europe, but rather Sephardi Jews living in more tolerant Spain and Islamic countries. After the 1492 expulsion from Spain, Sephardi Jews were especially prominent in the trade centered around Amsterdam, in the age of discovery, and in building Jewish communities around international trade in the new world. Still, the disparate societal pressures on Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities could have pushed them in opposite directions, resulting in the pattern seen in recent IQ tests.
Anti-Semites are naturally drawn to and infuriated by the idea that the Jewish mind is different.
If it is possible that Jews already had a high average IQ before the Middle Ages, is there any historical circumstance that might account for it? In “From Farmers to Merchants, Conversions, and Diaspora,” Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein argue that the drastic change of Jewish communities from illiterate farmers to highly literate urban businessmen and scholars caused major demographic changes in the Jewish community.23 In the first century BCE, the Pharisee sect pushed for the creation of free schools throughout Israel. They issued a religious decree in the first century CE mandating that fathers send their children to religious schools. The defeat of the Great Revolt at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE wiped out the rival Sadducee sect, and the Pharisees were able to implement their model of universal Jewish male education.24 Jews then pursued new economic opportunities in the Diaspora cities, pressing their advantage in a mostly illiterate world.25 Botticini and Eckstein also show that most of the Jewish converts to Christianity in the first centuries CE were uneducated farmers, concentrating literacy among Jews even further.26
Others reach back even further into Jewish history to find an episode in which more intelligent Jews survived or remained in the fold while others disappeared. Controversial English geneticist C.D. Darlington looks to the biblical account of the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE. The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar carried away King Jehoyachin, and “all the princes, and all the mighty men of valor … and all the craftsmen and the smiths, none remained, except for the poorest people of the land.” (2 Kings 24:14).27 This elite community returned to Israel to reestablish Jewish life there, and formed a talented nucleus from which future generations sprang. This could have been the event that selected more intelligent Jews for survival as Jews, and thus procreation.
Other theories abound. In his Commentary article “Jewish Genius,” Charles Murray argues that the commandment that Jewish fathers teach their children the Law would cause Jews incapable of meeting the intellectual and literacy demands of their faith to abandon the community. The less intelligent would drift off to join other groups, leaving behind a more intelligent core.28 The problem with this theory is that there were many periods in early Jewish history in which many Jews were simple peasants, and either did not follow Jewish law, left their worship in the hands of the priests, or developed the superstitions of folk Judaism.
‘Someday someone could test whether there was selection for personality traits that are conducive to success in money-lending and mercantilism.’
Others argue that there was never any selection for intelligence among European Jews—rather, European Christian society selected against intelligence.29 Christian clergy were celibate, and knights fell in battle, giving reproductive advantages to the less accomplished and intelligent. Another theory holds that since Ashkenazi Jews had to read both Hebrew and European languages, which are written in opposite directions, their minds developed in ways other Europeans did not. Jews living in Arab lands, however, read Arabic and Hebrew, both written from right to left.30
Does this leave us any closer to an explanation for disproportionate Jewish achievement in some fields? We can say definitely that Jews are overrepresented in math, science, economics, medicine, and other cognitively demanding fields. IQ scores, as good a measure of intelligence as we have, indicate a high mean Jewish score. These same tests show that Ashkenazim, not Sephardim, score higher, but history suggests that in the Middle Ages, Sephardim were more accomplished in arts and sciences. Jewish achievement took off as Jews found more fields opened to them, and though it cannot be definitely proven, a reasonable case can be made for Jewish intelligence well before the Middle Ages.
As for why Jews would have a high mean IQ, it is likely a combination of factors. With contemporary Jews growing up in fairly typical middle class American homes, the hereditary hypothesis must play a significant role. The limits of professional opportunity for Jews, and pressure to survive and prosper—not through might but through intelligence and innovation—may well have selected for certain traits. The emphasis that traditional Jewish communities place on erudition and Talmudic scholarship creates an atmosphere for intelligent Jews to grow, but this alone would not account for the disproportionate result.
The opportunities available to Jews, often in non-traditional fields, played a significant role as well. Farming and nobility were closed to Jews in the Middle Ages, so they turned to international trade and banking. European universities barred Jews for centuries, so Jews steered away from classics and literature and toward science, done largely outside the traditional universities. This explanation, of course, is less applicable to contemporary laureates, who no longer face Jewish quotas at universities.
As Jews continue to perform disproportionately in scholarly pursuits, the debate will go on. Political correctness and accusations of racism will restrict the academic discourse, but, as is often the case with Jewish history, this case study will tell us much about broader topics: What intelligence really is, how it is fostered, what factors promote intellectual achievement—and whether we as a society are mature enough to debate these questions honestly.
Lazar Berman is the American Enterprise Institute’s program manager for foreign and defense policy studies.
1. Charles Murray, “Jewish Genius,” Commentary, (April 2007), 30.
2. Murray, “Jewish Genius,” 31.
3. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (Translation by Ralph Manheim), (London: Pimlico, 1992), 273.
4. Steven Pinker, “The Lessons of the Ashkenazim,” The New Republic, June 26, 2006.
5. Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending, “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence,” (University of Utah, 2005), 2-3.
6. Richard Lynn, “The Intelligence of American Jews,” Personality and Individual Differences, 36, no. 1, (January 2004), 204.
7. Cochran, Hardy, Harpending, “Ashkenazi Intelligence,” 4.
8. Richard Lynn, “The Intelligence of American Jews,” 205.
9. Cochran, Hardy, Harpending, “Ashkenazi Intelligence,” 4.
10. Murray, “Jewish Genius,” 31.
11. Cochran, Hardy, Harpending, “Ashkenazi Intelligence,” 6.
12. Pinker, “Lessons.”
13. Murray, “Jewish Genius,” 31.
14. Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1996).
15. Kenneth K. Kidd, Elena L. Grigorenko, Robert J. Sternberg, “Intelligence, Race, and Genetics,” American Psychologist, 60, no. 1, (January 2005), 46.
16. Pinker, “Lessons.”
17. Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending, “Ashkenazi Intelligence,” 31.
18. Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending, “Ashkenazi Intelligence,” 14.
19. Murray, “Jewish Genius,” 30.
20. Cornelius Tacitus, The Histories, Book 5.
21. Claudius Ptolemais, Apotelematica, 2, 65-66.
22. Cochran, Hardy, Harpending, “Ashkenazi Intelligence,” 3.
23. Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, “From Farmers to Merchants, Conversions, and Diaspora,” Journal of the European Economic Association, 5, No. 5 (Sep., 2007), 885.
24. Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, “From Farmers to Merchants, Conversions, and Diaspora,” 891.
25. Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, “From Farmers to Merchants, Conversions, and Diaspora,” 914-915.
26. Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, “From Farmers to Merchants, Conversions, and Diaspora,” 887.
27. C.D. Darlington, The Evolution of Man and Society, (London: George Alien & Unwin Ltd., 1969) in Murray’s “Jewish Genius,” 34.
28. Murray, “Jewish Genius,” 34.
29. Jonathan Weinberg, “Jews and IQ-An Exchange,” CommentaryMagazine.com. Available from http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/jews-iq%e2%80%94an-exchange/.
30. Stephen H.Schwartz, ““Jews and IQ-An Exchange,” CommentaryMagazine.com. Available from http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/jews-iq%e2%80%94an-exchange/.
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