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Are Jews Smarter?

Did Jewish intelligence evolve in tandem with Jewish diseases as a result of

discrimination in the ghettos of medieval Europe? Thats the premise of a
controversial new study that has some preening and others plotzing. What
genetic science can tell usand what it cant.
This story begins, as it inevitably must, in the Old Country.
At some point during the tenth century, a group of Jews
abandoned the lush hills of Lucca, Italy, andat the invitation of
Charlemagneheaded for the severer climes of the Rhineland
and Northern France. These Jews didnt have a name for
themselves, at first. They were tied together mostly by kinship.
But ultimately, they became known as Ashkenazim, a variation
on the Hebrew word for one of Noahs grandsons.
In some ways, life was good for the Jews in this strange new
place. Theyd been lured there on favorable terms, with promises
What's Larry David's
of physical protection, peaceful travel, and the ability to
evidence for his
adjudicate their own quarrels. (The charter of Henry IV, dated
exceptional brainpower? 1090, includes this assurance: If anyone shall wound a Jew, but
"To be paranoid, you need not mortally, he shall pay one pound of gold . . . If he is unable to
a very good imagination." pay the prescribed amount . . . his eyes will be put out and his
(Photo: Jill Greenberg)
right hand cut off.) But in other ways, life was difficult. The
Ashkenazim couldnt own land. They were banned from the guilds. They were heavily taxed.
Yet the Ashkenazim did very well, in spite of these constraints, because they found an
ingenious way to adapt to their new environment that didnt rely on physical labor. What they
noticed, as they set up their towns, located mainly at the crossroads of trade routes, was that
there was no one around to lend money.
So there it was: a demand and a new supplier. Because of the Christian prohibition against
usury, Jews found themselves a financially indispensable place in their new home, extending
loans to peasants, tradesmen, knights, courtiers, even the occasional monastery. The records
from these days are scarce. But where they exist, they are often startling. In 1270, for
example, 80 percent of the 228 adult Jewish males in Perpignan, France, made their living
lending money to their Gentile neighbors, according to Marcus Arkins Aspects of Jewish
Economic History. One of the most prolific was a rabbi. Two others were identified, in the
notarial records, as poets.
Success at money-lending required a different set of skills than farming or any of the
traditional trades. Some, surely, were social: cultivating connections, winning over trust (or
maybe bullying your way there, Shylocks awful pound of flesh). It probably required some
aggression, because the field was competitive, with Jews suffering so few professional
options. But it also required cognitive skills, or something my generation would call
numeracya fluency in mathematics, a dexterity with numbersand my grandmothers

generation would call a head for figures. If you were Jewish in Perpignan in 1270, and you
didnt have a head for figures, you didnt stand much of a chance.

Numeracy, literacy, critical reasoning: For millennia, these have been the currency of Jewish
culture, the stuff of Talmudic study, immigrant success, and Borscht Belt punch lines. Two
Jews, three opinions . . . Keep practicing, youll thank me later . . . Q: When does a Jewish
fetus become a human? A: When it graduates from medical school.
Of course, theres another side to this shining coin. Jewish cleverness has also been an
enduring feature of anti-Semitic paranoia. In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther said Jewish
doctors were so smart they could develop a poison that could kill Christians in a single day
or any other time period of their choosing (and four centuries later, Pravda suggested Jewish
doctors were spies sent to kill Stalin). After the calamities of September 11, one of the
creepier conspiracy theories to whip through the Muslim world was the idea that only Jews
were cunning enough to have pulled off the hijackings.
Last summer, Henry Harpending, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Utah,
and Gregory Cochran, an independent scholar with a flair for controversy, skipped cheerfully
into the center of this minefield. The two shopped around a paper that tried to establish a
genetic argument for the fabled intelligence of Jews. It contended that the diseases most
commonly found in Ashkenazimparticularly the lysosomal storage diseases, like Tay-Sachs
were likely connected to and, indeed, in some sense responsible for outsize intellectual
achievement in Ashkenazi Jews. The paper contained references, but no footnotes. It was not
written in the genteel, dispassionate voice common to scientific inquiries but as a polemic. Its
science was mainly conjecture. Most American academics expected the thing to drop like a
It didnt. The Journal of Biosocial Science, published by Cambridge University Press, posted
it online and agreed to run it in its bi-monthly periodical sometime in 2006. The New York
Times, The Economist, and several Jewish publications risked their reputations to legitimize
it. Today, the paper has a lively presence on the Internettype Ashkenazi into Google and
the first hit is the Wikipedia entry, where the article gets pride of place.