Home > Timeline > 2010 > BEHIND THE MYTH OF JEWISH GENIUS

Statistically the facts speak for themselves. Among the 804 Nobel prizewinners up till today, 176 are Jews – 100 times larger than their proportion in the world’s population. In general, the IQ of Jews is some 10-15 times points higher than in their surroundings. But is this because of some genetic wonder, focused education or simply exceptional motivation?

Some years after the multi-million project to reveal the hidden code of the human DNA and the detailed chain of the human genome, the discoveries of “gene hunters” only increase. Not a week passes without some new discovery which links genes to strokes, heart disease, cancer, neurological disease and others. Other researchers attempt to link genetic mutations to morning sickness, obesity, premature white hair, nicotine addiction, sex, gambling, an inborn tendency to crime, and even delayed bachelorhood.

Last week, researchers from the London School of Economics and the University of California, announced that they suspect that there is a possible genetic link to the excessive use of credit cards. Before them, researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem maintained that the willingness of people to take financial risks is evidently linked to some mischievous gene – chromosome X. This gene is responsible for the breakdown of protein in the brain which controls moods, aggression and fulfilling hedonistic desires. Or if you are inclined to act over-carefully in the stock exchange – you should point an accusatory finger at your mother.

Together with these research projects, theories constantly appear concerning the possibility of a “Genius Gene” called by some the “Intelligence Gene” or the “Jewish Gene.” which lies within the Jewish brain and which produces scientific patents and the marked distinction of Jews – way beyond their proportion among the nations – in the sciences, medicine and in banking.

“The conclusion that genius is the result of a certain genetic structure has spread in the world at the same speed that it has been proven that it is basically wrong.” David Shenk, the author of “The Genius in All of Us” which was recently published in the US, states dismissively, “Genius is not a question of genes.”

In an interview with the London newspaper, The Observer, Shenk discussed with great interest the results of research led by the psychologist, Prof. Anders Ericsson from the University of Florida, whose team studied how certain people are particularly successful in their professions. In this research, the daily practice sessions of professional violinists over a long period of time was studied. Shenk observed that when the practice sessions were carefully analysed, it transpired that what makes some better than others is not the extensive practice sessions but rather the fact that between the sessions, their playing becomes better and better, and that they work extremely hard in order to improve.
And that is the point which Shenk believes is genetic. “Mozart was not born a genius,” he says. “He became a genius because of the inner drive that he possessed. Evidently genes have an effect on the quality and level of the motivation drive – a drive that becomes an integral part of the personality and psychology of the individual, and it is these that are the developing factors.” That is to say, not intelligence but motivation is the genetic factor.

Five years ago, three American scientists published a paper in the Journal of Biosocial Science. The article was subsequently featured on the front page of the New York Times, in the prestigious journal, The Scientific American, and as the leading story in other important periodicals.

Later, it transpired that the Journal of Biosocial Science serves as a platform for advancing biogenetic research aimed at improving racial characteristics. The article that was published was widely criticized and caused an outcry in the US. The reason: it posited that there is indeed a specific “Jewish gene,” and it is that gene that is responsible for a level of intelligence that is much higher among Jews than it is in the rest of the population – especially among Ashkenazi Jews.

The three scientists concerned, Gregory Cochran, a controversial expert on the biology of evolution, the anthropologists Henry Harpending and Jason Hardy, went even further and drew a connection between genetic diseases such as Tay-Sachs and Gaucher’s Disease (both of which occur in an especially high rate among Ashkenazi Jews) and their high IQ level. In the same way that Tay-Sachs is passed on from generation to generation, the researchers maintained that so is the IQ level.

Factually and statistically, this whole controversy has a solid foundation. Among the 804 Nobel prizewinners, 176 are Jews. The rate is 21.9 percent – one hundred times higher than the relative size of the Jews in the world’s population (0.2 percent today and never higher than 0.6 percent). Most Jewish Nobel prizewinners are in the field of physics (47 out of 186); chemistry (30 out of 156); medicine (51 out of 195); economics (26 out of 64) – but only 13 out of 106 for literature and nine out of 97 for peace.

If that were not enough, 25 percent of recipients of the T?�ring Prize, considered the equivalent of the Nobel prize for computer science, 30 percent of the Fields Medal for Mathematics and 50 percent of world champions in chess are Jewish, as are one in every three scientists teaching in US universities.

The controversial article extensively quoted earlier research findings in which it was posited that 23 out of every 1,000 Ashkenazi Jews have an IQ in excess of 140 (as opposed to four in every 1,000 among Northern European gentiles). The research states, “It is accepted today, based on American research, that the average IQ among Jews is 110 with a divergence rate of 15. Among them are those with an IQ of 140 or even higher, about six times the rate in the general population.” The research goes on to quote an additional experiment in IQ testing carried out in 1954 in New York public schools. The experiment identified 28 students possessing an IQ of 170 or more – 24 of them were Jewish.

On the face of it, these facts speak for themselves – but is there real substance behind them? Is there indeed a “Jewish” gene or at least a special thought process prevalent among Jews – some inherited factor to which can be ascribed their success? Why do they excel in the natural and financial sciences, and in the entertainment industry – yet not in other fields and occupations?

Three Israeli scientists, specializing in genetics, demography and the history and philosophy of science, were invited to confront these questions. “It was once said that if you are like your father, there is genetic element, but if you are like the neighbor, that is certainly an environmental factor.” Ariela Oppenheim a professor of genetics at the Hadassah School of medicine of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, says this with a smile, and quotes another joke; “When they began setting up sperm banks in the US, someone involved boasted that among the donors were Nobel prizewinners which would ensure there would be brilliant descendents. One Nobel prizewinner noted in response, ‘my father was a tailor, my mother, an ordinary housewife. None of my children have any interest in science. My conclusion is that someone who wants their sperm to result in a future Nobel prizewinner should search for a donor among tailors.”

On a more serious note, Prof. Oppenheim says that at the beginning of the 20th century it was thought that genetics was a God-given force beyond control and from that standpoint terrible developments took place, such as the Nazi racial beliefs. She states that “after the Second World War research showed that we are all the result of both genetics and the environment. It is a fact that when an over-high cholesterol level or diabetes is diagnosed, a change in the style of life – which is an environmental factor – will help in treatment.”

The link between heredity and the environment is illustrated by Prof Oppenheim through examples such as ambition, curiosity, openness and even excessive talkativeness. It is possible that there are genetic factors at work in all of these, but they are dramatically influenced by the environment – curiosity can be developed or suppressed, ambition can be encouraged or extinguished, talkativeness can be silenced.

Another example is mental retardation, which is widely considered to be a “genetic accident.” Prof. Oppenheim says that in the 1960s, an interesting experiment was carried out in an institution for mentally handicapped young people. Some of the girls were given the task of helping the younger children with their studies. To the researchers’ great surprise, the IQ level of the girls was shown to have risen substantially – a fact which led to the conclusion that their retardation was actually a result of environmental factors.

“Thought process” explains Prof. Oppenheim “derives from many factors but also many genes, and it is therefore impossible to point to one specific gene that is responsible. At the same time, it is possible that the speed of thought indicates genetic function triggered by fast inter connections between the neurons in the brain.”

According to Oppenheim, Jews developed fast-thinking processes and curiosity in order to compete with their environment in which they found themselves. “They learnt from their parents and teachers to pose questions and to think quickly; these are evidently essential elements in order to succeed in banking. These are characteristics that have been passed on by the environment and by education – and not by genes.”

Oppenheim adds that there is a link between finance, sciences and high-tech: “One sees today brilliant Indians in high-tech, evidently there was a quality that was hidden within them – similarly with the Chinese and Japanese. They live in ambitious societies. If we look closer to home, we see that educated Palestinians are ambitious and are beginning to go places. They are definitely developing quickly – possibly because of their proximity to Israel and to the educational possibilities that have opened up to them in the last decades – much more than in the past. Therefore today one finds many more excellent doctors among the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs – who in genetic terms, can be considered to be our cousins.”

Dr Noah Efron, a philosopher and political historian at Bar Ilan University and author of “Judaism and Science,” states that Einstein, possibly the most famous Jew in the world (sic) is the archtypical genius who has been dubbed “the greatest scientist in the world since Newton,” thought of himself as just one among many. In fact, statistics that measure success according to prizes, medals, certificates and plaques, ignore the contribution of most scientists who have never received a phone call from Stockholm.

“It is true,” states Efron, “that the achievements of science in the last century can not be distinguished from that of the Jews in the same fields,” – which is what bought the British physicist and novelist, Charles Percy Snow to ponder, already 50 years ago, that maybe “there is something in the genetic pool of the Jews that produces talents on a different scale from that of the general Anglo-Saxon genetic pool.” Efron even admits that he “tends to believe that there is such a thing. Jews are simply cleverer and maybe there is something here connected to genes but I leave such speculations to others.”

One of the first theories of this kind was expressed by Norbert Wiener, a noted Jewish mathematician. In 1953, he wrote that rabbis who were considered very wise in their communities always married off their children to the offspring of other rabbis like themselves or to the daughter of a successful trader, or at least attempted to do so, so as to ensure the success of the next generation.

Among Catholic societies particularly promising children were sent off to study for the priesthood (who would then not marry and would not continue the genetic chain). This factor created a gulf in natural selection. Jewish intellectualism could be considered to be the result of more than 1,700 years of inter-marriage between educated people,” explains Efron, who says that all the theories that support an inherent Jewish genius are no more than urban legends.”

“It is possible that the Jews themselves perpetrated the idea, or at least supported it proudly,” muses Efron. “The theory that the existence of genes that are responsible for Jewish genius, that is to say that there is a biological component, is discredited and has no connection to reality. This idea of a Jewish genius gene is rubbish on the one hand, but is very popular on the other, and maybe that is what makes it so interesting.”

At the same time, Efron does not discount the possibility that there is a particular Jewish thought process that developed over the years as a consequence of the particular traditional learning methods involved in studying the Talmud. “The study partners, the minutiae of analyzing abstruse points, the constant phrasing of difficult questions and considering more and more deeper answers – all this by its very nature encouraged the development of intellectual curiosity,” explains Efron.

But what is surprising is that Jews who won the Nobel prize did not undergo a traditional Jewish education. For example, Dr Richard Feynman who won the Nobel prize for physics in 1965, once said that after a lecture at Columbia University, a young student wearing a kipa asked him a question concerning electricity and Sabbath observance. Feynman had no answer and agreed to accompany the young man to the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary where he saw, for the first time, a copy of the Talmud and was impressed by the page layout.

“In that little story,” says Efron, “I detect more than a little hint that genius in physics has no connection to traditional learning processes. Jews turned to medicine because the governing authorities allowed them to – similarly with finance. When the universities in the United States and Europe opened up studies in other fields, the Jews hurried to enroll, even in huge numbers, because they wanted to distinguish themselves in any field possible. But that is a typical situation concerning all immigrant communities and at the end of the 19th century, virtually all Jews [in America] were immigrants.”

A similar situation occurred in the sport of boxing. More than 50 percent of boxing champions in the USA in the 1920s were Jews. “But at that time, boxing was a sport of immigrants, who sought for success in any occupation open to them,” explains Dr Efron.

The demographer, Prof. Sergio dellaPergola maintains that the Jews found themselves in a political and economic situation that forced them to develop their senses and a special, investment in personal awareness in order to succeed. “They were a minority that strove to be better than their neighbors, in order to be ‘as good as them.’ The existential rule that every mother taught their children at birth was to strive for achievement, which is essential for survival.’”

DellaPergola also refers to the link drawn by American scientists between genetic diseases and intelligence. DellaPergola points out that certain genetic diseases are common among Ashkenazi Jews, and others among Jews of Sephardi or Mizrachi origins. And the reason is the familial connection between them.

“Certain physical characteristics carried by a few are passed among many because of this family connection. Jewish communities in Europe developed through a high internal reproduction rate and that was the price paid for the high rate of certain hereditary diseases. But the idea that there is a mutual symbiotic relationship between genetics and these diseases and intelligence is strange, even as a paradox.”

By way of example, dellaPergola says that in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe there was a lower rate of tuberculosis – a disease that was prevalent throughout the continent. “Possibly because another genetic, disease, gave the Jews some form of immunity.” The mosquito that spread malaria did not sting people suffering from Thalassaemia (Mediterranean anaemia) which is also a “Jewish” disease. But all this is just theory. I am not convinced that there is a connection between genetics and intelligence.”

Prof. dellaPergola adds that the Jews of Eastern Europe are a large population that developed rapidly as a minority. They had first arrived in Germany (Ashkenaz) from Italy and Southern France many centuries earlier and their ancestors came from Eretz Israel and the Babylonian exile. “The Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe are the descendents of the Jews of the ancient Middle East. Genetic research confirms this. A Polish Jew is much more genetically similar to an Iraqi Jew than to a non-Jewish Pole.”

Therefore, according to dellaPergola, to believe that higher intelligence is a characteristic Askenazi phenomenon which began only after the Midle Ages is absurd. It is a fact that during the Middle Ages, the Jewish geniuses on a world level were Maimonides, the astronomer Avraham Zechut, and the philosopher and mathematician, R. Levy Ben Gershon (Gershonides).

At the same time, dellaPergola agrees with the others that a special Jewish thought and learning process does exist. “It is an analytical thought process. In the same way, in contemporary terms, the ancient texts that were studied were, from a technical point of view, comparable to algorithms. They are the basis of computer software today and they were partially extant in ancient Jewish cultures. You cannot find them developed and polished to the same extent in other cultures. That is the tool that allowed Jews to distinguish themselves.”

Translated by Asher Weill

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