Steven Pinker Discusses "Jews, Genes, & Intelligence" at the Center for Jewish History.

Steven Pinker shares a laugh with Seed editor-in-chief Adam Bly. On the morning after his lecture, Pinker visited the Seed offices.

Of the twelve billion people who have graced this earth, fewer than one hundred have earned the title of “Gentile Adored by My Jewish Grandmother.”

Mark Twain successfully infiltrated the order when he penned Concerning the Jews, an article discussing the intellectual prowess and survival skills of the Jewish people. The membership otherwise consists largely of Europeans who helped Jews during the Holocaust and political leaders who have gone out of their way to make peace with Israel.

Three University of Utah anthropologists have done their darndest to reach that rarified group close to my grandmother’s heart: Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy and Henry Harpending collaborated on “The Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence,” a paper recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Biosocial Sciences. In the article, they unveil a theory for why Jews have an average IQ that’s one standard deviation above the European norm.

If there’s one thing that Jews love more than gentiles raving about Jews, it’s Jews raving about Jews, which is probably why a lecture I attended last week was completely packed with Jewish blue-hairs. Steven Pinker, rock star cognitive scientist, bestselling author, and Yid-to-the-core, was to give his take on the paper, and the exiles from Egypt flocked to the Center for Jewish History on 16th Street for the occasion. Never one to miss a meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society, I flocked, too.

Upon entrance, we had to pass through metal detectors. On the same day the Transportation Security Administration lifted the ban on small scissors in airplanes, the woman in front of me was told she had to remove her tiny shears from her bag before she could go any further. Perhaps she was planning to crop the speaker’s luxuriant, flowing hair and thereby deprive him of his superhuman intellectual strength. More than likely, she probably wanted to clip her nails.

It’s possible that the center has these metal detectors up every day, but the message for this lecture was clear: We must acknowledge that others will be jealous of our brilliance and seek to destroy us for it. Forget the subways, a concentration of New York Jewish intellectuals is too good a target for anyone to pass up.

I sat down next to a sophomore anthropology major from NYU and scanned the audience: Jews all the way down with maybe the occasional goy hoping to catch a glimpse through the chosen peephole. Not many. And a black guy. Just one.

Steven Pinker climbed onto the stage and immediately laid out his most convincing credential: a fully-stocked reservoir of Jewish linguistic humor. He defined such words as “jewbilation”—pride in finding out that one’s favorite celebrity is Jewish and “meinstein”— slang for, “my son, the genius.”

The crowd was hooked; the man could do no wrong. And so the substance of the lecture began.

Apparently, Ashkenazi Jews—the Eastern European ones—really do have an average IQ that’s eight to 15 points higher than the northern European average. The Cochran/Hardy/Harpending paper says about four out of every thousand northern Europeans have an IQ of 140 or above. So, if Ashkenazi Jews have an average IQ of 110, that means 23 out of every thousand Askenazi Jews have above a 140 IQ. Sephardic Jews, those descended from Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century, have the same IQ distribution as the rest of Europe.

So, how did Ashkenazi Jews get to be the blindingly brilliant people we are today? Long ago, before the Diaspora, Ashkenazi Jews were unusually literate, but otherwise nothing special. As Christians were forbidden from lending money, the Jews grew to dominate the usury industry and other areas of finance, mercantilism and management. In medieval Europe financial success correlated well with reproductive success, and therefore the Jews underwent rapid natural selection for the mathematical and verbal traits that supported those occupations.

Pinker talks to the staff of Seed.

The second part of the story concerns how these genes get passed along. While Jews tend to have the smarts, we also frequently have mutated genes that put us at risk for a host of debilitating and life-threatening disorders including Tay-Sachs and breast cancer. At first glance these genes would appear to be poor candidates for natural selection; however, they’re all recessive. When a person receives a recessive gene from only one parent, it doesn’t cause the disorder and may even give the person some sort of “heterozygous advantage.” (For instance, people who carry just one recessive gene for sickle-cell anemia are immune to malaria rather than anemic.) The Cochran/Hardy/Harpending paper posits that, in the case of Ashkenazi Jews, deleterious recessive genes likely have the heterozygous advantage of above-average intelligence.

The exact mechanism by which these genes raise intelligence is still a little shaky, but, as Pinker pointed out, the theory is extremely testable: Take several sets of Jewish siblings. Test their IQs. Test their blood for these genes. Is there a strong correlation between gene presence and high IQ? Yes? Babe, you’ve just got yourself a validated hypothesis.

Pinker acknowledged the current academic trend of denying the existence of intelligence and then proceeded to tear it apart. Studies have uniformly indicated that IQ is highly heritable and not affected by family environment. He framed his argument by emphasizing that the disparity of intelligence between ethnicities should not influence us on a moral level: He said “we must “prohibit discrimination of individuals based on averages of groups,” and we have to keep helping people in discriminated-against groups to live up to their potential.

At this point, as with my reading of Larry Summers’ remarks on women in science, I could see no flaw in Pinker’s position. His point on the heritability of IQ was supported by years of research. His in-depth knowledge of linguistics helped him frame his arguments so as not to come off as offensive or demeaning to anyone. While the anthropology major to my left looked at Pinker with polite disagreement—maybe she liked her nurture better than her nature—I was wrapped around his little finger.

Unfortunately, all of that ended when moderator Noah Feldman, a handsome thirtysomething NYU law professor, Rhodes Scholar and former law clerk to Supreme Court Justice David Souter—who probably received 40 marriage proposals on behalf of daughters of audience members— opened up the floor to questions.

I’ll paraphrase a comment from one elderly female attendee: As a sociology professor at CUNY (City University of New York), I teach mostly minorities, and every single time I have a Jewish student, that student is invariably at the top of the class.

I’ll paraphrase another: We should realize there are differences. The Jews are different. The Jews became money lenders because they could.

Pinker may have spent half of his speech time emphasizing that the Ashkenazi IQ disparity doesn’t have moral implications. He may have called for better evidence before he’s willing to commit to any individual conclusion. He may have indicated that there are plenty of Jews with IQs below the European average. He may have clearly implied that had more Jews reproduced successfully back in the day, there would presently be no difference in average IQ. But, people will hear what they want to hear.

And many in attendance were there to hear that Jews are naturally smarter than everyone else.

So now they’ll head out into the world, and spread the twisted word in their homes, at parties, in op-ed columns. And a paper that proposed an intriguing and plausible theory, and the man who eloquently analyzed it, will cause an impassioned backlash. Would that people were like genes and the deleterious ones weren’t so darn dominant.

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Originally published December 9, 2005


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