Jewish Genius

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.

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