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Friday, October 21, 2005

I Do, However, Agree That Jews Are Smarter Than People From Utah

I have followed with interest the reports beginning last summer that, according to research assembled by some guys in Utah, there is an evolutionary theory to explain why my wife is smarter than I am. But I continue to be confused by one sticking point (cut me some slack, I'm not Jewish), and wading through Jennifer Senior's lengthy wrestling match with the "Ashkenazi Jews evolved to be smarter than you--just look at Larry David!" theory hasn't cleared it up.

Here's the theory in a nutshell, as related by Senior and other reports:

1) Ashkenazi Jews are susceptible to several genetic and debilitating neurological diseases, including Tay-Sachs, that are caused by recessive genes in both parents being passed on to their children. When only one parent has the recessive gene, no disease results. These sorts of diseases are difficult to explain unless, as in the case of Africans and sickle-cell anemia, inheriting the single recessive gene has some benefit, like resistance to malaria. (Otherwise, the gene ought to pass by the wayside, since getting the double-whammy makes it unlikely that the inheritor will reproduce and pass along the bad gene. But with sickle-cell, the recipient of the single recessive gene is more likely to survive to reproductive age, so the gene persists even though it causes disease when doubled up.)

2) Ashkenazi Jews are wildly successful in everything they do and win all the Nobel Prizes and Einstein was one.

3) Ashkenazi Jews were historically confined to money-lending occupations and the like in Medieval Europe. Those occupations rewarded intelligence.

4) The various genetic conditions afflicting Ashkenazim all affect the brain, and all arose at the same time around 900 A.D.

5) Ergo, the wild and unhinged success of Ashkenazi Jews in all they endeavor to achieve and the persistence of Tay-Sachs et. al. and the relatively recent and simultaneous arrival of those diseases on the scene can all be explained by the proposition that the recessive genes for Tay-Sachs et. al., when passed on only by one parent, confer intelligence, just like the single sickle-cell anemia gene confers resistence to malaria. And the reason they arose around 900 A.D. is that that's roughly when Ashkenazi Jews were pushed into money-lending trades in Europe. In other words, Jews had to do math to survive, so a random mutation that otherwise would have just passed out of the genetic pool wound up persisting because, when it was passed on only by one parent, it made them better at math.

Now here's the part where a completely untrained and uncredentialed reporter and "physics for poets"-type who graduated from high school with a 2.0 GPA demolishes an esoteric and complex evolutionary theory with the stroke of a few keys:

Isn't the key to evolutionary theory survival? If you're advancing a theory that Ashkenazi Jews are smarter because there was evolutionary pressure on them to be smarter in the form of restrictions on the jobs they could have, don't you have to prove that less-smart Jews didn't reproduce? Sure, smarter Jews made better lenders. But that doesn't mean that they reproduced any more than dumber Jews did. The reason that sickle-cell genes continue to get passed on is that, when passed on by one parent, the inheritor is more likely to survive to reproductive age, and hence more likely to pass the gene along. In order for the Ashkenazi Theory to work, the inheritor of a single recessive Tay-Sachs gene has to be more likely than a non-inheritor to survive to reproductive age. But according to the Ashkenazi Theory--and keep in mind, the relationship between intelligence and these recessive genes is purely hypothetical--that single Tay-Sachs gene inheritor would only be a more successful banker than the non-inheritor. That doesn't make him more likely to reproduce, or even--contraception being it what it was--have more children.

In other words, the evolutionary benefit allegedly conferred by the Tay-Sachs et. al. genes doesn't even become a benefit until the inheritor has already reached child-bearing, and banker-becoming, age. For the theory to work at the level of logic, the Utahns would have to make the case that, in Medieval Europe, Jews who failed as bankers for lack of the requisite intellect suddenly stopped reproducing for one reason or another at a very young age, allowing the smarter one-half-Tay-Sachs-inheriting bankers to have more children over time and flood the gene pool with the Tay-Sachs-smart-banker gene. And that seems unlikely, to say the least. You'd essentially be making the case that unsuccessful Medieval Ashkenazi Jews always starved young, an assertion that doesn't jibe with my understanding of Jewish cultural traditions as they relate to philanthropy, community, and caring for those who can't care for themselves.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the alleged evolutionary benefit would only have been conferred on one-half of the population. Only Jewish men became bankers in Medieval Europe. Female intelligence didn't matter. So even if we accept the theory, the smart genes would be highly diluted because non-smart Jewish women would continue to thrive and pass on their non-smart genes.

All of which is by way of saying to my wife: Don't worry, honey. Our kids will have a shot.