The Chosen People: A Study of Jewish Intelligence and Achievement

Moshe Zeidner finds an analysis of Jewish success scores well on IQ but downplays social factors

February 9, 2012

One source of continued fascination with Jewish people has been their high intellectual prowess and remarkable achievements. I was intrigued to read Richard Lynn's systematic documentation and analysis of the intelligence and intellectual achievements, worldwide and over time, of the Jewish people.

The bulk of this book represents a commendable feat in summing up a plethora of historical and cultural accounts, and presenting detailed statistical data and myriad indices documenting the concentration of members of the Jewish fold at the top of the human intellectual, occupational and financial pyramid, throughout the globe and most of modern history. These notable successes include: high ability and cognitive test performance; over-representation in high-status occupations; an inordinately high number of chess and bridge champions; and many recipients of coveted international honours including the Fields, Turing and Nobel prizes. The formula offered for the high success of the Jewish people is encapsulated in the terms IQ x Motivation x Opportunities. The thesis proffered is that the success of the Jewish people, primarily the Ashkenazi (European descent) subgroup, is based mainly on high genetically determined IQ, with motivation and opportunity as enabling factors. This is coupled with "eugenic" marital practices related to intelligence (based on scholarly achievements in men and financial resources in women).

But Lynn's argument draws mostly from a small slice of history and of place. The fact that exceptional Jewish intelligence and intellectual achievement is limited to Western Europe and North America from 1850, say, through to the present, is hardly supportive of a genetic model. In addition, the role of so-called "eugenic practices", purportedly accounting for the selection of high IQ genes in Ashkenazi Jews, is presently unclear in terms of its prevalence and duration over the years.

Whereas the role of genetically based IQ in determining Jews' success is showcased, the role of social, cultural and broad environmental factors in shaping the Jewish intellectual mystique is underplayed. These factors include socialisation practices, inculcating the value of literacy, and education emphasising verbal knowledge, abstract ideas and concept formation - the very skills tapped by verbal ability tests. Furthermore, Mizrahi Jews, stemming from the Near East, Middle East and North Africa, are claimed to be less intelligent, on average, than Ashkenazi Jews, representing a differentiated gene pool (presumably due to genetic drift and geographic separation over time). But this analysis minimises modern genetic evidence showing that these subgroups are basically part of the same gene pool, and downplays the powerful role of historical events and socialisation practices. Mizrahi Jews have long resided in Islamic cultures under chronic conditions of low levels of formal education, fewer intellectual resources at home and authoritarian child-rearing practices, all of which are arguably causal factors in ethnic group differences in ability.

Furthermore, while touting the adaptive advantages of high group IQ, Lynn glosses over the liabilities and costs that may adhere to superior intellect. While high IQ may have served as a weapon of survival for Jews in hostile environments, such prowess may also have been a lightning rod for envy and scapegoating by rabid forces of anti-Semitism. In fact, Francis Galton and Karl Pearson, two pioneers of modern intelligence research, conceded that Jews were of high intelligence, but at the same time believed that Jews used their superior intelligence to prey on Gentiles.

Lynn makes a number of curious assertions. For example, the introductory chapter states that the "Jews of Palestine before the Christian era ... did not produce the great cultural and intellectual achievements of the Greeks". But the author would be hard pressed to explain how the Old Testament, one of humanity's greatest cultural and literary masterpieces and the cornerstone of the Judaeo-Christian heritage, was forged (if perhaps not yet fully canonised) during this period.

Curiously, the book fails to mention or document the seminal contributions of Jewish psychologists to the major thrust of the book - intelligence research. A few examples: William Stern, who minted the popular term "IQ"; David Wechsler and Alan Kaufman, who developed widely disseminated intelligence tests; Louis Guttman and Lee J. Cronbach, who made major advances in intelligence research methodology; and Howard Gardner and Robert J. Sternberg, prolific scholars who developed widely acclaimed models of human intelligence.

What I found disturbing was the contrast between the broad scholarship evidenced in the bulk of the book, and rather eccentric accords embodied in the final two chapters, focusing on theory and future implications. A careful reading of the material presented herein gives the reader the uneasy feeling that there is an ulterior motive underlying the book's massive documentation of Jewish intelligence - that is, to provide further evidence in favour of genetic theories of between-group differences in intelligence and to argue for the advantages of eugenic practices. Under the assumption that IQ is inherited, the purported eugenic practices among Jewish people are claimed to result in natural selection for genes associated with high IQ. However, natural selection principles, typically emphasised at the gene or individual level by mainstream Darwinian theory, are arguably generalised in this book to the group level. Accordingly, selection for high IQ is viewed in this book as a group selection strategy shaped by evolutionary factors.

Basically, the book appears to be designed to add another brick to the hereditarian edifice in intelligence research, with the thrust of the material serving as a reverse image of the genetic argument for the poor intellectual achievements in blacks in the US, but with an emphasis on the genetically determined high achievement of Jewish people. Moreover, that Jews suffered from every conceivable form of persecution and discrimination yet demonstrated high intelligence and achievement, serves, according to Lynn, to debunk environmental accounts of majority-minority differences in ability, which have often attributed group differences to cultural bias, discrimination, ethnic stereotyping and the like.

In his concluding chapter, drawing on undocumented CIA reports, Lynn predicts that Jews in Israel, for a variety of reasons (an eventual "one-state" solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the increasing birth rate of the Arab minority, the continued threat to Israel's survival), will eventually feel uncomfortable in the Holy Land and make their exit en masse and return to the diaspora. According to the author, there is a bright side to this process: the eugenic blending of the intellectually superior Jewish gene pool with the Western world's wider, often dysgenic, gene pool. Personally I believe that this future trajectory is wrong: I trust that the Jewish people will continue to thrive in their historical homeland and contribute to the intellectual and cultural achievements of mankind, as is copiously documented throughout The Chosen People. Furthermore, I would question whether the Western gene pool is in fact becoming increasingly "dysgenic" (as explicitly argued by the author in another recent book on dysgenics). In fact, some individual-difference scholars, such as myself, would see variation in genotype as a strength, rather than a weakness. In any event, the reader is advised to exercise extreme caution when reading and interpreting the findings presented in this intriguing, but highly contentious book, on the intelligence and achievement of the Jewish people.

The Chosen People: A Study of Jewish Intelligence and Achievement

By Richard Lynn

Washington Summit Publishers

408pp, $.99

ISBN 9781593680367

Published 5 September 2011

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