Jewish Genius

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The American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray has published an article in this month’s issue of Commentary Magazine that is already raising journalistic eyebrows — and is sure to raise even more.

Murray picks up where Gregory Cochran and company left off, citing the unusually high level of Jewish influence in the arts and sciences and tying it to a supposed above-average mean IQ.

The IQ mean for the American population is “normedâ€? to be 100, with a standard deviation of 15. If the Jewish mean is 110, then the mathematics of the normal distribution says that the average Jew is at the 75th percentile…

The key indicator for predicting exceptional accomplishment (like winning a Nobel Prize) is the incidence of exceptional intelligence. Consider an IQ score of 140 or higher, denoting the level of intelligence that can permit people to excel in fields like theoretical physics and pure mathematics. If the mean Jewish IQ is 110 and the standard deviation is 15, then the proportion of Jews with IQ’s of 140 or higher is somewhere around six times the proportion of everyone else.

Murray — who outs himself as a Scots-Irish Gentile from Iowa at the beginning of the article — is, of course, jumping into controversial waters here: polite company, we’re told, should avoid discussing the intersection of race and genetics. But I don’t fault Murray for raising a difficult issue — though I may fault him for taking such a wildly speculative take on the subject.

Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending believed that the genetic predisposition to intelligence was limited to Ashkenazic Jews and began to develop in the Middle Ages as these Jews became increasingly involved in sales, finance, and trade — occupations that privileged intelligence.

Murray, however, believes that Jewish intelligence goes back much further. He spends significant time focusing on the intellectual demands of Judaism and a 1st century call for universal (male) education.

To study the Talmud and its commentaries with any understanding requires considerable intellectual capacity. In short, during the centuries after Rome’s destruction of the Temple, Judaism evolved in such a way that to be a good Jew meant that a man had to be smart…

I suggest that the Jews who fell away from Judaism from the 1st to 6th centuries C.E. were heavily concentrated among those who could not learn to read well enough to be good Jews — meaning those from the lower half of the intelligence distribution. Even before the selection pressures arising from urban occupations began to have an effect, I am arguing, the remaining self-identified Jews circa 800 C.E. already had elevated intelligence.

Murray goes on to argue for an even earlier proclivity for intelligence that seems to weaken the structure of his article, but leaving that aside, I wonder about the historical veracity of his ideas.

Murray would have us believe that your average Jew was capable of serious scholarship: “Jews were commanded by God to heed the law, which meant they had to learn the law. The law was so extensive and complicated that this process of learning and reviewing was never complete.” This might be correct, but my instinct is otherwise. I assume that study and scholarship was, for the most part, the purview of an intellectual elite.

I’ve sent some emails out to historian friends for some insight into this, but if any of you readers know the history of Jewish lay-education, feel free to weigh in.

In the end, however, Murray’s speculation about the role of Jewish education is not even essential to his argument. He continues to imagine Jewish intelligence further and further back in history until he arrives at Moses and concludes by abandoning his genetic discourse in favor of a theological assertion that may or may not be meant as a joke.

Insofar as I am suggesting that the Jews may have had some degree of unusual verbal skills going back to the time of Moses, I am naked before the evolutionary psychologists’ ultimate challenge. Why should one particular tribe at the time of Moses, living in the same environment as other nomadic and agricultural peoples of the Middle East, have already evolved elevated intelligence when the others did not?

At this point, I take sanctuary in my remaining hypothesis, uniquely parsimonious and happily irrefutable. The Jews are God’s chosen people.

None of this is meant to refute claims of Jewish accomplishment or mean IQ. But with such a sensitive subject, one might expect a little more rigor — and sensitivity — than Murray seems to offer.

Posted on April 12, 2007

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17 thoughts on “Jewish Genius

  1. The Doctor

    If I might tread into the dangerous waters of evolutionary theory for a moment [and quoting an interesting theory by one of my rabbis that got him a lot of heat for daring to suggest genetic differences between different ethnic groups]…

    Consider in the non-Jewish world [over most of history at least] what characteristics lead to the production of many children? Being a successful warrior, which produced the wealth necessary to support children. What characteristics lead to production of no children? Intellectual achievement, which frequently meant a carreer in the [celibate] priesthood.

    In the Jewish world [at least over most of our history] what characteristics lead to the production of many children? Scholars were those who were seen as the most desirable husbands.

    You can argue that we have been breeding for intelligence and our non-Jewish colleagues have been breeding intelligence out.

  2. clara1

    You are so right Doc. I am lucky that my gentile family were very education oriented. But with three degrees, I don’t have the training of the mind that Jewish students have. My daughters had IQ’s of 135 while in grade school and the only reason that they did anything with their college education is because I demanded that they had to go college for the pleasure of learnng–I didn’t care if they got PHDs and then stayed at home and raised children. The learning for its own sake is very important (as well as for a job).

    The problem is that the gentiles don’t take an active part in their childrens education. And the ones who do are met with an inadequate school system.

    ///You can argue that we have been breeding for intelligence and our non-Jewish colleagues have been breeding intelligence out.

    Jews have always been known for high intellignce.

    Just the way born Jews like yourself can debate and most gentiles (and me) don’t know how to debate unless they were on the debating team.

    A person with a high IQ can be stupid and a person with a normal IQ can be a genius–it’s in the training.


  3. Ezekah

    While there are several exceptions, for the most part my non-Jewish friends boast about their children’s athletic accomplishments. I hear about this gymnastic event, that cheerleading squad, or some football player’s fantastic catch. When I ask about their scholastic achievements, I usually get a blank stare or a quick “fine”. There’s one dad whom I’ve heard about his son’s middle school football accomplishments ad nauseum for the past 3 years. Judging by his talk, I would never guess that his son actually attends any classes. If he mentions them at all, they are just barriers to time on the football field.

    When talking in synagogue with my Jewish friends, we typically discuss our children’s schooling and their grades. Last week, some mother was gushing on and on about their son’s science fair project. Sunspots anyone?

    So it seems to me, not just genetic selection, but also, what we as parents, value as important to our offspring.

  4. Bat Melech

    I dunno – this is purely anecdotal, but in high school I was part of a group of misfits whose core began in an elementary school “gifted children’s class,” and expanded as some of those kids connected thru Unitarian & synagogue youth groups and thru jr hi & high school classes with kindred souls. We spanned four different high schools & three age groups, had no institutional or adult sponsors or organizers, but met every week to discuss philosophy, religion, history, psychology, the arts, and politics, bringing in guest speakers from the community and establishing a standard of intellectual inquiry & debate in an emotionally supportive peer community that most of us have striven in vain to duplicate in the adult world. The interesting thing about the group is that a large percentage of the members were Jewish, and of those who were not, many went on to either embrace Judaism or marry Jewish spouses.

    I doubt if this was coincidental…

  5. David79

    While I see Doc’s point I think the waters of evolutionary theory are dangerous and more difficult to read than we imagine. I see that for the most part people are going the way of cultural predisposition or preference, and I agree with that. But in general this discussion about Jews being brainier than everyone else is a bit smelly for whatever reason. It’s part stereotyping and almost backslapping or something. Jew’s are mostly smart, and gentiles are mostly dumb. We’re smarter than they are! What about the Asian kids who are apparently born with calculators hooked to their navels? I guess it feels good to talk about how Jews are so intelligent, particularly if you’re a Jew. At the end of the day it’s still a stereotype. I’ve met plenty of not-so-bright Jews, and some with serious mental illnesses, and at the Synagogue I go to the conversations are not likely to be that much different than at the Catholic parish I’ve been to. Would we talk about blacks being genetically predisposed to be better athletes? Would we talk about East Indian men being genetically predisposed to burn their wives? Not without some words like racist being tossed around.
    So there, a rant.

  6. David79

    “I’m in the private sector, and for the first time in my life I’m earning money.You know, that’s sort of part of the Jewish tradition and I do not find anything wrong with that.”
    GOP presidential candidate Tommy Thompson, speaking to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

    “What I was referring to, ladies and gentlemen, is the accomplishments of the Jewish religion. You’ve been outstanding business people and I compliment you for that.”
    Tommy Thompson, by way of apology
    This was quoted on the Doonesbury website.

  7. The Doctor

    [David79]But in general this discussion about Jews being brainier than everyone else is a bit smelly for whatever reason.

    As I said, this risks flames and when our teacher brought it up in Melton, he was immediately accused of being a racist and eugenist, and was denounced to the course director.

    The part about it being evolution in action is obviously a bit of poetic exaggeration, as there hasn’t been enough time for genetic drift to make such big changes. But it cannot be denied that in Jewish culture intellectual talent has traditionally been rewarded, and in the greater surrounding culture it has been a liability.

  8. David79

    Thanks for your response, Doc. It’s a tricky subject and I would agree that in Jewish culture intellectual talent has traditionally been rewarded. Regarding the greater surrounding culture I would say that intellectual talent in general has not been encouraged or rewarded as much as in the Jewish culture. I don’t think I would say intellectual talent has been a liability. The part about intellectually gifted males being shipped off to the celibate priesthood was not typically the case over the centuries, particularly when you take into account the wider culture. Not sure you were arguing that in the first place, but just in case.
    I think Jews show a lot of intellectual greatness and there’s no need to compare or to say better than or smarter than. It is self-evident and something to be proud of.

  9. The Doctor

    [David79]The part about intellectually gifted males being shipped off to the celibate priesthood was not typically the case over the centuries, particularly when you take into account the wider culture.

    Ever notice who the cheerleaders date in high school? Not the math or physics or band people…

    I’m reminded of a very shapely young lady I knew in college who wrote a letter to the paper complaining that the men on campus paid too much attention to her figure and not enough to her mind. Her point was well taken until it was noted that her last five boyfriends were varsity athletes…

    In the “greater culture” who are lionized as the popular people? Athletes and cheerleaders. Who are ostracized? The nerds, geeks and trolls.

    Apply that observation to our discussion.

  10. David79

    Yes, but it gets real complex at that point and what matters is production outcome-which takes two. In the movie Yentl, just a movie, but the preferred brainy Talmud scholar ends up preferring and getting the beautiful but intellectually less gifted Hadass. In the wider culture since the nerdy boys can’t get the cheerleaders perhaps they are most likely to make babies with-the less preferred nerdy girls, right, and increase the likelihood of producing intellectually gifted children? Just because someone is a nerd doesn’t mean they don’t reproduce. This is just a simple example, overly simple probably but I think it shows that the genetic outcome is not all that clear.

  11. The Doctor

    In the American high-school/college mileau, the cheerleader/jock combination is considered successful, they get the food and the opportunity to reproduce early and often. The nerd has no contact with the female, intellectual or not, until later in life [past the prime reproductive age]. But in the Jewish culture the nerd is the one who gets first choice of women at a younger age and has the higher likelihood of reproducing. Which is what evolutionary theory is all about…

    All theoretical of course, and not at all projecting my feelings about my high-school experience…

  12. David79

    Ah well, nothing like biological mandates.
    And I’d rather not talk about my high school experience either.

  13. Matzah2

    I am a little concerned about the apparent sour grapes over the choices made by cheerleaders.

    Who would want to go after cheerleaders anyway? Athletes, of course.

    Nerds should go after nerds, no? Why would a nerd want a cheerleader?

    Einstein, Einstein, rah rah rah. I don’t know. It just doesn’t sound right.

  14. The Doctor

    We all have our issues to work out, but there’s no question in my mind American society still puts a higher value on athletic ability and physical appearance than it does on intellectual capability; why else is nerd an insult rather than a compliment?

  15. Matzah2

    Actually, I think in some caes nerd affinity is on the rise.

    My point is that not only is it that most girls go for the athletes, but that most boys go for the athletic look in girls too, no? Perhaps that was your point too.

    My highschool recollection was that girls went especially for the bullies, and that often these bullies were athletes, but not necessarily at all.

  16. clara1

    America also put more value on business/money than on humans. As a business person I made two to three times than if I worked with delinquent kids.

  17. mbczion


    IMHO, what it comes down to is common interests. People are more likely to date those they have common interests with and are more likely to spend more time with. A “computer geek” is more likely to want to spend more time with a girl who is also interested in computers, science fiction, experimenting in the lab, etc. etc. while a “Jock” is more likely to want to spend more time with a girl who also likes to run, lift weights, party, etc. etc. And vice-versa. This is just the way it is.

    While I agree, that society in general (not just in America, it is catching up here in Israel to) puts more value on looks and materialism, I don’t think it is the end of the world that I never went out with a cheerleader. As a “nerd” I dated girls/women with similar interests and, ultimately, ended up marrying a woman
    who was more concerned with intelligence and personality as opposed to athletic prowess.

    מנחם בן צבי הכהן

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