The Jewish Question

I recently bumped into a friend in the city who had just returned from visiting a medical specialist. After discussing what he had been told by the doctor, he said that he would be seeking another opinion because he suspected the specialist was a Jew. He went on to lament that so many of the specialists in that field were also Jews and that there were not too many Arabs or Muslims — hinting, of course, at some sort of conspiracy. Although I wasn’t impressed that he would be seeking a second opinion based purely on some imported ethno-religious hangups rather than out of prudence alone, I suggested, somewhat tongue in cheek, that maybe it was because Jews were just very intelligent and so they excelled in these sorts of professions.

There is, however, a kernel of truth to that. Indeed, as these interesting statistics on the intellectual excellence of Ashkenazi Jews suggest:

Ashkenazim have earned 27% of the Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans, 25% of ACM Turing Awards, and 26% of the Fields Medals. They account for more than half the world chess champions. Ashkenazic Jews, 2 percent of the US population, make up 30% of elite-college faculty, 30% of Supreme Court law clerks, and 27% of Ivy Leaguers.

I suspect that Jews are likewise disproportionately well represented in other professions favouring high intelligence. To give just one example from my own field, the father of murdered journalist Daniel Pearl is a man named Judea Pearl, a giant in artificial intelligence research (he popularised Bayesian networks). Pick the leaders in any field favouring high intelligence, and Jews will almost certainly be amongst them in significant numbers. Indeed, so prolific are Jews in some fields, that it is almost understandable that some people might assume a conspiracy of sorts.

This, of course, brings up the real Jewish question: why are Jews so smart?

One answer may lie in genetics and particularly a form of positive eugenics that some researchers believe has been taking place in European Jewish communities for several hundred years. It is argued that the social conditions faced by Jews in medieval Europe selected for high intelligence. On this point, there is an interesting research paper here [pdf] that laid a lot of the groundwork for the ongoing discussion of Jewish achievement and what has caused it. National Geographic provide a useful summary of the research.

The argument is essentially that discrimination and persecution forced Jews into certain professions in which high IQ happened to favour economic success — such as banking and finance — and that this in turn then led to increased reproductive success (large families). In simple terms, the smart Jews succeeded economically and could therefore afford to have more children; whereas those who were not smart enough to succeed in the few professions available to them at the time could afford to have fewer children. If smart people are having more children, and less smart people are having less children, then it’s fairly obvious what the effect is when it is multiplied over many generations: you end up with a smarter population.

There are, of course, other theories. Charles Murray, writing in Commentary recently, discusses two additional possibilities:

Two potential explanations for a Jewish gene pool favoring high intelligence are so obvious that many people assume they must be true: winnowing by persecution (only the smartest Jews either survived or remained Jews) and marrying for brains (scholars and children of scholars were socially desirable spouses). I too think that both of these must have played some role, but how much of a role is open to question.