Want your kid to grow up to be a doctor, or at least an orthodontist? Dominic Green gives an insider’s perspective on the Ashkenazi Jewish penchant for intellectual achievement.
There I was, watching my old VHS copy of The Boys from Brazil, idly reading the lab reports on the swabs I took from my gentile neighborâ€™s kids when he wasnâ€™t looking, and revising the bassoon part of a concerto Iâ€™ve been working on, when I saw something alarming trending on Twitter. Not â€˜eugenicsâ€™, but â€˜Bret Stephensâ€™.
â€˜Whatâ€™s he done now?â€™ I asked in six languages, two of them not from the Indo-European language family.
In todayâ€™s New York Times, Bret Stephens discusses Norman Lebrechtâ€™s excellent new history of the Jews in modern times. Lebrecht describes the unparalleled contributions of notorious underachievers like Marx, Freud, Heine, Disraeli, Herzl, Trotsky, Kafka, Wittgenstein and Einstein but, inexplicably, he fails to mention the contributions of members of the Green family â€” a lacuna that I, with my inherited Ashkenazi acumen, can already see him correcting in the paperback edition.
Lebrecht specifically does not attribute Jewish success to â€˜Jewish DNAâ€™. He attributes it to environmental factors: the Jewish tradition of Talmudic study, which produced near-universal adult literacy among Jewish males when most Europeans couldnâ€™t even write â€˜well-poisonerâ€™ in blood; to the cultural imprint of intellectual labor even among secular Jews; to the Jewish emphasis on hard work, family and education; and to the perennial threat of violence, as nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of your neighbors burning you and your children alive in your home.
There is solid evidence for all these environmental factors, and plenty of evidence that similar factors apply to many other minorities. There is less solid evidence for genetic factors in Jewish achievement, and especially epigenetic factors (changes in gene expression in living organisms, presumably due to environmental factors). Bret Stephens summarizes all this by saying, â€˜Jews are, or tend to be smartâ€™.
This is not terribly smart. Perhaps it reflects the errors of compression that go into editing. The evidence that we have â€” and it would be interesting to have more â€” is that Jews arenâ€™t much smarter than any other group. The difference is that they produce high-achieving intellectual outliers at a slightly higher rate. As in athletics, so in the life of the mind: the higher you get, the more marginal the advantages become.
Stephens also refers to a genetic study from 2005. This is an interesting study â€” you see, we read all the time. In particular, it challenges the â€˜bottleneck theoryâ€™ (Ashkenazi genes were â€˜bottleneckedâ€™ in the early Middle Ages) and instead focuses on how â€˜intelligence in heterozygotesâ€™ are increased by the â€˜well-known clusters of Ashkenazi genetic diseases, the sphingolipid cluster and the DNA repair clusterâ€™. I want you to know that I understood that first time round, while making a pastrami sandwich. …
If you wish to avail yourself of the secrets of Jewish genius, there are two simple courses of action. One is to enlist your children at an early age in the study of the Talmud, and teach them the values of ethics, work and family, which are also the near-universal immigrant virtues. This will be demanding for both them and you: helping them with math homework will be a cinch by comparison.
The other option is to hire Jewish people who show marginal aptitude in their fields of specialization. This is the much less demanding course to take, and it is much more likely to lead to success in the long run. But it does mean refraining from chasing them out of the universities, the professions and the Democratic party. So, be smart like us.