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Bell Curve to Bell Jar

From the archives: The neverending fetishistic fascination with Jews and intelligence

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This article was originally published on June 12, 2007.

In April 2007, Charles Murray made the claim that Jews “are smarter” than everyone else. It wasn’t his first time doing so. In 1994, Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein published The Bell Curve, the book in which they first presented their argument about the intellectual superiority of “Ashkenasic Jews of European origins,” who “test higher than any other ethnic group.” Now Murray has again made the argument for an unmistakable “Jewish Genius” in Commentary, but this time with an explanation:

Insofar as I am suggesting that the Jews may have had some degree of unusual verbal skills going back to the time of Moses, I am naked before the evolutionary psychologists’ ultimate challenge. Why should one particular tribe at the time of Moses, living in the same environment as other nomadic and agricultural peoples of the Middle East, have already evolved elevated intelligence when the others did not?

At this point, I take sanctuary in my remaining hypothesis, uniquely parsimonious and happily irrefutable. The Jews are God’s chosen people.

Who could resist such a claim? Especially if it clearly echoes the claim that Herrnstein and Murray made earlier, that “high intelligence also provides some protection against lapsing into criminality for people who otherwise are at risk.” Jews are smarter and morally better than everyone else. At least they have “smartiness,” a quality analogous to and proven by Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”: “truth that comes from the gut, not books.” It isn’t really that Jews are smarter than everyone else; it is just that everyone believes they are.

This belief in superior Jewish intelligence echoes another recent philo-Semitic argument explaining it. In 2005, Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy and Henry Harpending—anthropologists at the University of Utah—made quite a splash with a study suggesting that superior Jewish intelligence was the inadvertent result of “inbreeding.” Their paper, “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence,” argued that Jewish intelligence is simply a compensatory genetic error linked to other genetic diseases, such as Tay-Sachs, Gaucher’s Disease, or Fanconi’s anemia. As the authors write:

Perhaps most of the characteristic Ashkenazi genetic diseases fall into this category. Selection has imposed a heavy human cost: not crippling at the population level, cheaper than the malaria-defense mutations like sickle cell and G6PD deficiency, but tragic nonetheless.

This sounds like an updated version of Parisian neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot’s claim—made to Sigmund Freud in the fall of 1888—that the predisposition of Jews for specific forms of illness, such as diabetes, could be attributed to intramarriage. The Jews may be smart, but the cost is that they are an ill people, and smartiness, then, is a sort of compensatory booby prize. Every brilliant Jew is simultaneously a frail one, living the life of the mind rather than that of the body (like the stereotypical Eastern European Luftmensch).

Now who but me (clearly a Jew with smartiness) is going to argue with the claim that Jews are smarter than everyone else, a racial myth that has its origin in the 19th century? Isn’t it obvious? Just count the number of Nobel Prizes, violin virtuosi, and so forth. “Jewish” inherited smartiness is proven by the accomplishments of individuals. If I had to trade away my Ph.D. against the BRCA 2 gene for breast cancer in my children, would it be worth it? Well certainly—if, as Charles Murray has it, it were part of the Divine Plan.

Speaking about the Jews as a biological entity, or, to use the new/old term, a “race,” is tempting, especially if we want to see them as part of a grand plan. And yet there is a real disadvantage to this. Francis Collins, head of the National Human Genome Research Institute, recently commented in The Economist,

The downside of using race, whether in research or in the practice of medicine, is that we are reifying it as if it has more biological significance than it deserves. Race is an imperfect surrogate for the causative information we seek. To the extent that we continue to use it, we are suggesting to the rest of the world that it is very reliable and that racial categories have more biological meaning than they do. We may even appear to suggest something that I know is not true: that there are bright lines between populations and that races are biologically distinct.

The desire to draw these “bright lines” is human nature. The need to define and control, to identify from where succor or fear comes from, is built into all social groups as central to their self-definition. We need to know what we are and what we are not.

Now I could loose a screed against the creation of a unitary racial (or ethnic or even genetic) definition that lumps radically diverse people of radically diverse experience and background into a category labeled the “Jews” or even “Ashkenasic Jews.” I could join the late Stephen J. Gould, among many others, to inquire about the relationship between “race” and yet another suspicious category, “intelligence” (smartiness writ scientific), but is it worth doing this? When you have two categories, both of which are created by social consensus, defining one in terms of the other leads to pure nonsense, as Murray and Herrnstein showed in The Bell Curve by claiming that we could determine who would steal our hubcaps by knowing their IQ. Sadly, they did not ask whether such tests or claims about the relationship between IQ and race would predict who would loot Enron (Ken Lay, a Christian) or Drexel Burnham Lambert (Michael Milken, a Jew).

Claims of a divine Jewish smartiness seem just as superficial. Certainly there are corners of the world, such as Australia, where Jews bemoan the absence of “smart Jews.” One can point to the simple fact that 1954 Nobel Prize winner Max Born’s granddaughter is Olivia Newton-John (her family moved from England to Australia when the actress was five) as evidence that there is a decay of smartiness when one goes South of the equator, at least if you detest Grease as much as I do. But just who is the German (born in Breslau, then in Prussia, now in Poland) and Jewish (by parentage if not religion) and Scots (he taught for decades at Edinburgh) Max Born: In his official Nobel biography, he was a “German” physicist who “as [with] so many other German scientists…was forced to emigrate in 1933….” How odd. Why were German scientists fleeing Germany in 1933? An example of German smartiness?

The argument for Jewish smartiness rests on individual accomplishments which may well be a reflex of a culture of learning and performance by individuals placed in a Diaspora situation. As Albert Einstein pointed out long ago, “if relativity is proved right the Germans will call me a German, the Swiss call me a Swiss citizen, and the French will call me a great scientist. If relativity is proved wrong the French will call me a Swiss, the Swiss will call me a German, and the Germans will call me a Jew.” Being “Jewish” was only one identity for him, if an important one. He never made the same claim about his rather amateurish but passionate violin playing. Such categories as “Jewish Nobel Prize winners” are used to chronicle the accomplishments of individuals, especially at moments when the social situation permits these individuals to excel and a group needs to identify with these accomplishments to answer charges of inherent difference and assumed inferiority.

Perhaps such smartiness declines as the pressure to excel in any identifiable group diminishes and the group ceases to need heroes. If this were not the case, the recent rapid decrease in the number of Jews who are applying to medical schools (a number used as an index of population intelligence ever since Francis Galton‘s work in the 1890s) could mean that Jews may have lost God’s grace, but perhaps also that they are becoming less diseased or more at risk for criminality as their smartiness declines. Actually what has happened in the United States is that self-identified Jews are fitting more closely into the profile of the American middle class! They are making choices about their professions based on this identity rather than the desires of their parents. (And the “New Jews,” the Asian-Americans, an equally invented category, are filling the medical schools because of the social pressures that define this as a major route of success in the American Diaspora.) Are the Jews also becoming “healthier?” OK, maybe I would trade my Ph.D. (“almost a doctor,” as my beloved mother used to say) for a healthier body. It would be simpler than working out.

There is a larger—and certainly less comic—aspect to the bright line that the claim of Jewish smartiness makes and the longstanding role that non-Jews have had in this argument. For self-identified non-Jews such as Murray, there seems to be value to the claim that Jews are smarter than they are, and it has little to do with philo-Semitism. Jews are defined by their special relationship with God (Murray) or by group inheritance genetics (Harpending) or by a mix of both, as Kevin MacDonald demonstrates in A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy (1994), which argues that Jewish smartiness created and perpetuated anti-Semitism as a means for group genetic cohesion.

We can think about these functions of Jewish smartiness in terms of what the psychoanalysts call projective identification. I so admire (or fear) someone that I wish to be exactly like them. Yet I know that is impossible for me to become them (since they are genetically or divinely different), so there is always a gap between my “real” self and my desired self. And that gap between who I am and what I wish to be means that I must generalize about universals that capture all difference (philo-Semitism). The gap between who I am and who I want to become can never be bridged; I can never become “Jewish” in this absolute sense. If being Jewish means joining a peoplehood and a religious practice, no such barriers exist. They only exist in the absolute fantasy of inherent Jewish difference, even if this difference is defined in terms of “smartiness.”

Something very similar takes place within Evangelical Christianity, which envies the Jews—because they were God’s first “chosen people” and are necessary for the plan of the End of Days—but detests Jewish religious practice because the Jews continue to deny Christ. Like Murray, the Evangelicals can never “be” Jews; they remain always a poor simulacrum of Jewish belief or, in Murray’s case, Jewish “smartiness.” Philo-Semitism creates the Jews as a universal and therefore poisoned category. All Jews are…. The same happened by extension to the Israelis after the Six-Day War: they were all powerful and resistant and ethical; since then, and as international sympathy for the Palestinians has grown, when any given Israeli acts against type all are damned as too powerful, too rigid, too corrupt. The stereotype of Super Jew has transformed itself in Jewish barbarity.

But there is yet another turn of the wheel in the debates about Jewish smartiness. By extension no individual Jew today can be quite smart enough to apotheosize the category of the stereotypical Smart Jew. By this line of thinking, if you are not a smart Jew then you are not much of a Jew at all. The Jews are merely clever or facile or glib or superficial, but not really smart! For, as the philo-Semite Murray and his ilk imply, my insight understands the essence of the Jews and thus I am in control of the bright line that devides the healthy from the sick, the smart from the merely clever. In the end, says Charles Murray, I am the smartiest one of all.

Sander L. Gilman, a distinguished professor of the liberal arts and sciences at Emory University, is the author or editor of more than 80 books.

Gilman gave a talk on “Jews and the Invention of Plastic Surgery” in 2006 as part of a Nextbook public program. In his lecture, delivered at the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C., Gilman discussed how new notions of race, beauty, and happiness arose in the 18th and 19th centuries, and how these turned “the Jewish body”—especially the nose—into an obsession for Jews and non-Jews alike. You can find audio audio excerpts from the talk here and here.

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Robert Ridley says:

This article provides an opportunity to share cultural & personal experiences, and complels one to read further in the articles named before speaking much outside one’s one experience. I was fascinated by the premise of Murray & Herrnstein. In my undergraduate years at Emory in chemistry in the 1960’s, my observation was that my chief competitors for grades were the Jewish members of my classes. Several major professors, including the Department Head, were Jewish. I felt fortunate to compete and to graduate from such a program. Yet I felt at an extreme disadvantage because they studied together, took old exams together to hone their skills, and were better prepared from the beginning by their lifelong emphasis upon schooling and competition. Having always admired this quality in my classmates, I rejoice tonight to learn a new term – philosemitic. My professional studies in psychology taught me that expression of traits is governed half by genetics and half by nurture. Jews may likely be smarter. but not by any skewing of the distribution curve over such a diverse population. They are, as a group, as a people, cuturally predisposed to work hard and to make the most of whatever resources are at hand. I knew mostly “Southern Jews” in Atlanta all my lfe. Perhaps, as Miss Daisy’s son lamented, “New York Jews are smarter” but I doubt that stereotype. Thanks for this excellent article.

I believe that the focus in Jewish families on moral values, getting an education, and doing “good” gives the Jew a different perspective. This usually ends up making a “smarter” person.

I had the same experience as Robert Ridley, second post above me, described. Almost came to the exact same conclusion. One additional observation was that I found the same was true for some Cambodian students in my chemistry class. Before Vietnam War flared, these were the cream of the crop students Cambodia sent over to get their degrees in forestry. It was amazing how they studied as a unit and all made straight A’s. It is a very effective strategy and they used all sorts of tactics to ensure they all succeed. Frankly, I became their de facto interpreter and worked with them. We worked together doing the lab experiments. I only had to stand back after reading and explain the lab manuels and then they did everything perfectly. Actually, I felt pretty smart because hot chemicals that can explode was extremely unpleasant for me. I no longer have any idea how to define “smart.” What is smart?

Is smart just running up the score or is it mainly about getting what you want? I don’t have a clue what smart means anymore. I am reminded of that strange movie and the theme song, “What’s It All About, Alfie?” Today, I don’t have a clue.

Pure drivel. Politically correct academics should just avoid discussions of race instead of come up with ridiculously far-fetched explanations for what everyone else sees as obvious. “There is no such thing as race”. Then why do we not attack genetic profiles which tell us what percentages of different races individual people possess? Why is race used in medicine? Or, the races haven’t been distinct for long enough for a trait such as intelligence to diverge. Then why do different breeds of dogs differ in intelligence?

Azkhenazi Jews are not genetically diverse at all and Sephardic Jews have been shown to possess many of the same genes. In every country throughout history, Jews have overcome obstacles and risen to the top. Are Jews not applying to medical school because they are trying to become investment bankers instead? Many people have become disillusioned with medicine.

A French-Jewish boy who was raised by the Catholic church became the head bishop of all of France. The leading citizens of almost every country are Jewish – recent nobelists such as Nadine Gordimer of South Africa, Kertesz of Hungary and Pinter of England.

The world needs Jewish smartiness and denying it just encourages us to squander our genetic heritage by intermarrying. We shouldn’t deny it to protect other races. That’s not our mission. We shouldn’t hide it to protect ourselves against anti-semitism either. You are an academic – you need to speak the truth or avoid the topic altogether.

N.Shum-Ish says:

If you think we Jews are fascinated and obsessed by the existential and genetic puzzle “How come Jews are so smart?” you should see how ethereal-class brahmans think when they are inter-se (some of which can be found on the www if you look hard)! They take it summarily for granted that they have been selecting (including sexually, I imagine) for “intelligence” for eons.

And this bottom-to-top class-elitism is still embedded (as a remnant ?)in their sub-culture even now in North America. A recent colleague of mine was a brilliant young ethereal-class brahmin, and as highly regarded in our company as matched his youthful enthusiasm and pure intelligence. Yet, while it should have been corporate-culture anathema, his office door was always locked — a unique way to demand and assert “Don’t call me; I’ll call you”. But it was incredible how deferringly and absolutely his cadre of co-cultural compatriots, usually otherwise cocky young females, leapt to fulfill his requests.

Maybe it can be argued that over the eons that social system had positive survival (or other Darwinian-context) value to promote its thrust. I am glad, however, to muse that within the slightly different historical context of Judaism, chance and evolutionary forces seem to have led towards a somewhat similar but essentially different state.

Steve Caudill says:

I’ve been a nuclear engineer for over 20 years, and have worked with many Jews are in this field, or similar engineering/science fields. Based on my observations, most of the Jews I met were smart in one specific area, but lacked general well-rounded “smartiness” that goes along with common sense. For example, the Jewish Ph.D. who could visualize rotating crystal lattices in his head, but could not balance his checkbook, could not have stable marriages or raise stable kids, and had to work a desk-bound job as he couldn’t communicate well enough to be a nuclear inspector. On a similar note, the smartest ethnic group I observed over the years were the Vietnamese.

Jill Beerman says:

How about a bit of genetics? If Jews are smarter, I think it’s because for hundreds of years, the smartest Christians lived celibate lives as priests, monks, and nuns.

ted lazarus says:

It was suprising to note in both the article and in all the responses,the absence one of the more intriguing of the many hypotheses that have been offerred over the years regarding Jewish “smartness”. In his 1938 monograph on Moses (in one sense a study of the “jewish Question” in the face of contemporary events) Freud points out that with the abandonment of visusal perception as a means of understanding their world and their own tribal history or myth, and with the resultant substitution of the abstract for the concrete, the Jews began a long and productive history of ‘intlectualization’ that both reinforced and was reinforced by their separateness from whatever surrounding cultures they found themselves in. This addresses the “how”. The “why” is to be found in anything from religous texts to biogentics, and the choice of the banner is purely a matter of taste.

Larry says:

Your editor should be reported to the ASPCA for the Bell Curve crap revival.
Bury the horse already, it’s stinking up the joint!

Is the Butt of the Joke photo supposed to be a counterpoint to the Teachable Moment photo on this page?

Your focus is slipping. Send your layout maven to rehab.

phyllis nimkoff says:

I actually overheard a conversation between my mother-in-law and step-daughter [both Prebyterian] that the reason Jews have high foreheads is because their brains are bigger; why, because they were for so many hundreds of years prevented from a formal education, and thereby had to learn by assimilating all that was about them, increasing their brain cells. And she an anthropologist!

I’ve never told anyone about this until now, I was too flabergasted!

That’s a great use for old hubcaps. I bet you could find a lot of other uses as well.

All the things you could be if Sigmund Freud's wife were your mother says:


Roberto says:

I think that the apparent Jewish intellectual superiority is very easy to explain.For almost two thousand years the majority of the Jewish people had a very tough life indeed. You had to be smart to survive. Besides, for Jews, learning has always been a priority, partly because the possession of certain skills helps in the struggle for life, but also because of the strong connection between the Jewish People and the Torah and the Talmud, which required reading skills. When I went to public school in Argentina, I was the only Jew in the class, and yet I was one of the best pupils. But my migrant grandparents read and write when they arrived in Argentina, whilst many of the grandparents of my classmates (who came mainly from Italy or Spain) were illiterate. I was the only pupil who had a professional father. There were lots of books at home, whilst they were scant at my classmates´homes. In short, I had an advantage from an intellectual point of view, due more to nurturing than nature. My point is: our supposed superiority is related more to our culture than to our genes. As Jews gradually become part of the establishment, that urgent need to excel , subsides. Jews are no longer studying hard sciences. Their place is occupied by Chinese and Indians (which in a sense are the new Jews). Things are easier for us now, but in return, we are losing something.

Sarah says:

While infrastructural biases against Jews might result in the survival of smarter people, culling events like the Holocaust and the centuries of pogroms that preceded it were largely random events. Sure, some smart people escaped death on their wits alone- but how many more died? How many had- I guess literally- dumb luck?

I think the concept missing in this (distasteful, though thankfully at least slightly nuanced) discussion is that intelligence isn’t a strictly dominant/recessive trait. While it is perhaps unlikely that two Nobel laureates would have a child that is dumb as a brick, it is quite standard for the merely intelligent.

If a person killed all the dumb people in a group, or all the smart people, the initial distribution of intelligence would be fully restored within a few generations. This is because even people who are smart overall have some dumb genes, and even people who are dumb overall have some smart genes.


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Bell Curve to Bell Jar

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