New York Times columnist Bret Stephens on Meet the Press in Washington, DC, on August 25, 2019. | William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC Newswire/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Inquiries into Jewish genes always seem to lead someplace ugly.

Any conservative columnist writing for the mostly liberal audience of the New York Times op-ed page is bound to attract their share of controversy. But Bret Stephens’s latest column, on the subject of Jewish genius, drew so much criticism that it now appears on the website with an editor’s note saying it was a mistake to cite a study whose co-author has a long track record of racist statements.

According to the note, “Stephens was not endorsing the study or its authors’ views,” but citing it left “an impression with many readers that Mr. Stephens was arguing that Jews are genetically superior. That was not his intent.”

That’s an interesting media controversy in its own right and a prime example of the dangers of discussing complicated science based on casual googling. But the controversy is so intense both because of growing concern about anti-Semitism and because time and again arguments about Jewish achievement seem to morph into efforts to paint blacks as inferior and efforts to help the poor as misguided.

What Stephens’s column originally said

One of the many oddities of this story is that the citation Stephens got in hot water for included factual assertions:

The common answer is that Jews are, or tend to be, smart. When it comes to Ashkenazi Jews, it’s true. “Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group for which there are reliable data,” noted one 2005 paper. “During the 20th century, they made up about 3% of the US population but won 27% of the US Nobel science prizes and 25% of the ACM Turing awards. They account for more than half of world chess champions.”

The 2005 paper in question — “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence” — advances a number of controversial claims, and one of its authors, the late Henry Harpending, has a long track record of advancing racist anti-black views in other contexts. Interestingly, the paper that Stephens and the Times opinion section is disavowing received a somewhat favorable write-up from the New York Times at the time from Nicholas Wade. Wade was a science correspondent for the paper who eventually left to write a book about race and IQ that geneticist David Reich characterized — again in the New York Times — as advancing the “unfounded and irresponsible claim” that “genetic factors explain traditional stereotypes.”

All that said, the fact that across all categories and nationalities over 20 percent of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish is both striking and true and can be verified by sources other than a paper co-authored by a notorious racist.

Stephens’s column, as written, did not dwell on the ideas advanced in “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence,” but he did repeatedly make specific reference to Ashkenazi Jews — those descended from Jews living in the Holy Roman Empire about a thousand years ago, rather than Jews of Spanish or Middle Eastern origin — which have since been changed to simply refer to Jews. The controversial paper, however, is specifically about Ashkenazim.

“Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence”

The paper by Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy, and Henry Harpending is not exactly about geniuses. It asks why Ashkenazi Jews have IQs that are higher on average than the general population. They are also clearly only interested in Ashkenazi Jews, writing: “It is noteworthy that non-Ashkenazi Jews do not have high average IQ test scores, nor are they overrepresented in cognitively demanding fields.”

The theory they advance about this is that compared to other medieval peoples, Ashkenazi Jews were unusually likely to be concentrated in occupations where intelligence was likely to lead to financial success. Early on, for example, they write that “the Ashkenazim specialized more and more in one occupation, finance, left particularly open to them because of the Christian prohibition of usury.” Later in Poland, Jews branched out from moneylending and “became tax-farmers, toll-farmers, estate managers, and they ran mills and taverns.”

Under premodern conditions, richer people had more surviving children than poorer people. So the unique occupational profile of the Ashkenazi community, allegedly, created a unique situation in which elevated intelligence led to elevated earnings which led to elevated reproductive success.

They then further speculate that there is a relationship between the genetic underpinnings of high intelligence and the genetic underpinnings of sphingolipid disorders — Tay-Sachs, Gaucher, Niemann-Pick, and mucolipidosis type IV (MLIV) — all of which are unusually common among Ashkenazi Jews.

As these are highly deadly diseases, you would ordinarily expect them to be bred out of a population. But if the genes that cause these illnesses are also associated with high intelligence, then under social conditions where high intelligence is intensely associated with reproductive success they might survive anyway.

This is a multi-step argument that could be questioned at virtually every turn. And notably, the fact that Jewish people have won a lot of Nobel Prizes is not the crux of this paper. Indeed, though I’m not sure whether this makes Stephens’s decision to cite the paper better or worse, he actually advances a very different account of why there are so many Jewish Nobel Prize winners.

Bret Stephens’s theory of Jewish genius

“Aside from perennial nature-or-nurture questions, there is the more difficult question of why that intelligence was so often matched by such bracing originality and high-minded purpose,” Stephens writes. “One can apply a prodigious intellect in the service of prosaic things — formulating a war plan, for instance, or constructing a ship. One can also apply brilliance in the service of a mistake or a crime, like managing a planned economy or robbing a bank.”

Stephens instead sketches what’s essentially a cultural explanation for Jewish genius, arguing that “there is a religious tradition that, unlike some others, asks the believer not only to observe and obey but also to discuss and disagree” and also “the never-quite-comfortable status of Jews in places where they are the minority — intimately familiar with the customs of the country while maintaining a critical distance from them.” He then pivots to what’s essentially a complaint about political correctness, Trumpian nationalists, and Palestinian rights activists, mixed with alarm at recent anti-Semitic assaults in the New York area.

At its best, the American university can still be a place of relentless intellectual challenge rather than ideological conformity and social groupthink. At its best, the United States can still be the country that respects, and sometimes rewards, all manner of heresies that outrage polite society and contradict established belief. At its best, the West can honor the principle of racial, religious and ethnic pluralism not as a grudging accommodation to strangers but as an affirmation of its own diverse identity. In that sense, what makes Jews special is that they aren’t. They are representational.

The West, however, is not at its best. It’s no surprise that Jew hatred has made a comeback, albeit under new guises. Anti-Zionism has taken the place of anti-Semitism as a political program directed against Jews. Globalists have taken the place of rootless cosmopolitans as the shadowy agents of economic iniquity. Jews have been murdered by white nationalists and black “Hebrews.” Hate crimes against Orthodox Jews have become an almost daily fact of life in New York City.

Since Stephens ends up not advancing a genetic theory of Jewish genius, it’s a bit unclear why he originally cited a paper that does. And it’s very unclear why his first draft repeatedly singled out Ashkenazi Jews, who are the subject of the genetics paper but who do not differ from other Jews in the cultural factors he mentions.

It’s also worth saying that if you accept the validity of modern IQ metrics at all (read here, here, and here for more on that), then Ashkenazi Jews having moderately higher average IQs is probably a fully adequate explanation for winning so many Nobel Prizes.

Small average differences make big differences to outliers

People who write grants and organize scientific experiments have not, in reality, been incredibly eager to organize credible studies that would definitively answer whether or not it’s true that Ashkenazi Jews have above-average IQs. What we have instead is a series of non-ideal studies, often undertaken by somewhat disreputable researchers who appear motivated by a larger prurient interest in race science.

Brian Ferguson, a professor in the department of anthropology and sociology at Rutgers-Newark, concluded from his view of the fragmentary evidence that, “Taking all the information together, it is fair to say that most, though not all, studies give Ashkenazi descendants a higher IQ than non-Jewish whites. How much? Take your pick.”

An important thing to note, however, is that small average differences can have big impacts on outliers. Many people, for example, struggle intuitively to understand why a 3- or 4-degrees Celsius increase in average global temperatures could be catastrophic given that temperatures swing by that much all the time.

The reason, as shown here, is that even a small rightward shift of a bell curve leads to a wildly disproportionate increase in the number of extreme climate events.

IMG_5012 The controversy over Bret Stephens’s Jewish genius column, explained

That’s a chart about climate change specifically, but the same logic applies broadly to all kinds of domains. A difference in average intelligence levels that is not particularly large or noteworthy could lead to a drastic difference in the share of the group that is capable of doing Nobel-level work.

It’s possible to believe that IQ science is all bunk or that the studies showing an Ashkenazi IQ advantage are wrong, but if you believe those studies, they provide a fully adequate explanation for the phenomenon Stephens was investigating. There’s no need to posit a separate quality of thinking differently.

Indeed, the reason the “Natural History” authors brought up the Nobel Prizes in the first place is that the large number of Jewish achievement outliers is clearly true. The evidence in favor of higher average Ashkenazi intelligence, by contrast, is somewhat fragmentary and disputable so they were trying to bring the geniuses in to bolster support for their premise. Stephens appears not to have really understood the argument of the paper he was citing, though of course what got him in hot water was citing race scientists in the first place rather than mangling their statistical evidence.

The fraught history of Jews, genes, and IQ

Most disfavored racial or ethnic groups are stereotyped as inferior.

But as Tara Isabella-Burton has written for Vox, anti-Semitism typically casts Jews as puppet masters who are working together to manipulate world events. In part, this simply serves a necessary structural role in racist narratives. If non-whites are so inferior, why worry so much about them? The trope of a group of Jewish schemers who undermine the master race helps make the story work, and in somewhat modified form can be pressed into service as an explanation for why Israel can prevail against numerically much larger groups of Arabs.

Under the circumstances, Jews are typically not eager to hear the “good news” about our genes.

But beyond that, arguments about Ashkenazi intelligence that have no particular policy relevance are typically the thin edge of the wedge of an argument that ends up being about black inferiority. The Times’ note says that “after publication Mr. Stephens and his editors learned that one of the paper’s authors, [Harpending] who died in 2016, promoted racist views.”

Charles Murray, for example, takes a strong interest in questions about Ashkenazi IQ. But he’s better known for his work promoting the idea that spending money on education and social assistance is at best useless and at worst actively harmful because it encourages low-intelligence people to breed. Murray also, and relatedly, believes that efforts to attribute gaps in black/white outcomes to racism are fundamentally misguided. All of this, however, is clearly wrong — not as a matter of genetics but as a matter of policy analysis. There is overwhelming evidence, for example, of racial discrimination in hiring, that affirmative action admissions policies lead to better outcomes for black students, that social assistance programs genuinely help kids, that pollution has important cognitive consequences, and that generally speaking genetics-driven pessimism about improving society is fundamentally misguided.

Murray-style views of these pressing policy questions have been broadly influential in the United States. We have, for example, by far the highest relative child poverty rate in the western world because the United States is unique among our peers in not providing cash assistance to parents of young children.

The stakes in the argument over whether outcomes for African Americans and people who grow up in poor households represent potentially remediable matters of social justice or genetic realities that it would be counterproductive to try to solve are, therefore, quite high. The stakes in the Ashkenazi intelligence debate, by contrast, are a little bit hard to discern. It appears to arise primarily because people with an anti-black agenda see it as a useful entry point into race science, which then provokes antipathy from progressives less because of strongly held views about occupational choice in pre-modern Poland than because they see where the argument is heading over the long-term.

Author: Matthew Yglesias

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