A reported link between Ashkenazi intelligence genes and susceptibility to genetic disorders is clearly mixed news for the descendants of Eastern European Jews. It may come as little surprise, then, that reactions to a new study linking the two are a mixed bag as well.
After all, if what the University of Utah researchers say is true, some Jewish mothers may just have had their dreams for brilliant children turned to nightmares.
Beyond that, it may also mean that Ashkenazim have, albeit unwillingly, “been part of an accidental experiment in eugenics,” as The Economist magazine put it in a recent article.
“It has brought them some advantages. But, like the deliberate eugenics experiments of the 20th century, it also has exacted a terrible price.”
The mere mention of eugenics — which refers to a movement to improve humankind by controlling genetic factors through mating — is enough to ring bells that many Jews would rather not hear 60 years after the Allied defeat of the Nazis.
According to the study, slated to appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Biosocial Science, Ashkenazim do better than average on IQ tests, scoring some 12-15 points above the test’s mean value. But they also are more likely than any other ethnic groups to suffer from diseases such as Tay-Sachs, Gaucher’s disease and Niemann-Pick — related conditions that can be debilitating and deadly.
The new study hypothesizes that the genetic disorders could be the unfortunate side effects of genes that facilitate intelligence.
But for some people, ascribing collective traits to entire ethnic groups — especially to European Jews — reminds them that the Nazis heaped a pile of supposed genetic characteristics on that continent’s Jews and used the characteristics as a basis to exterminate them.
Indeed, the researchers say they had difficulty finding a journal that would publish their findings.
For other people, criticizing such research on this basis reeks of political correctness. This is real science, they say, with real potential to help save Jewish — and other — lives.
“When you study genetics in order to cure diseases, that’s great,” said James Young, a Jewish studies professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the author of “Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation.”
“But when genetics are studied as a way to characterize or essentialize a whole ethnic group or nation of people, then I think it’s very problematic.”
Still, he said, “I was kind of intrigued by this connection, and the dark irony of what it means to have your intelligence gene linked to a so-called genetic disease gene. It’s kind of striking.”
For Dr. Guinter Kahn, a Miami physician who lectures internationally on German doctors during the Holocaust, studies like this have real scientific merit.
“This stuff is being done with genes, and they’re actually finding true results,” he said. “The stuff they did in World War II was pure baloney motivated by the greatest geneticists of that time in Germany — but they all fell into the Hitler trap.”
Although no one is questioning the researchers’ motivations, some observers worry that their findings may be misused.
“Will bigots use this? Bigots will use anything,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation league.
However, he said, their abuses should not block research that could benefit the Jewish community.
Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt agrees.
When it became clear that fewer Jews were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau than had originally been thought, some Jews worried that this information would be manipulated by Holocaust deniers to back their claims, said Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University.
“I had people say to me, ‘We shouldn’t talk about these things,’ ” Lipstadt recalls, “I said, ‘No, no, no. It’s always good to talk about the truth.’ We should never be afraid of the truth.”
As to concerns about what it means to say that one group of people is genetically smarter than others, Henry Harpending, a professor of anthropology at the University of Utah and one of the study’s three authors, told JTA that such complaints boil down to political correctness.
“It’s no secret,” he said of the Ashkenazi IQ numbers. “Your grandmother told you this.”
Indeed, the study notes that although Ashkenazi Jews made up just 3 percent of the U.S. population during the last century, they won 27 percent of the country’s Nobel Prizes in science and account for more than half of the world’s chess champions.
However, Harpending added, this is “the kind of thing that you’re not supposed to say these days.”
“We regard this as an interesting hypothesis and are a little surprised at the attention. On the other hand, geneticists kind of know that variation between populations is almost certainly in the DNA and they kind of don’t talk about that” for fear of losing federal funding for their research, Harpending said.
“What we’ve done is started out with an idea and followed it, so what we have is a pretty interesting and pretty good-looking hypothesis — and it ought to be tested.”
But could this research actually end up helping anybody? Gregory Cochran, one of the study’s authors, hopes so.
“I don’t have the cure to any disease in my pocket. I wish I did,” he said. But “if this all pans out, you learn something about how the brain works. Who knows? Maybe you can do something to help some people one day.”
The study says that because European Jews in medieval times were restricted to jobs in finance, money lending and long-distance trade — occupations that required greater mental gymnastics than fields such as farming, dominated by non-Jews — their genetic codes over the course of some generations selected genes for enhanced intellectual ability.
This process allowed these Jews to thrive in the limited scope of professions they were allowed to pursue. Further, in contrast to today, those who attained financial success in that period often tended to have more children than those who were less financially stable, and those children tended to live longer.
It is for this reason, the researchers said, that many Ashkenazi Jews today have high IQs — and it may also be the reason they suffer from the slew of genetic diseases.
According to the researchers, many individuals carrying the gene for one of these diseases also receive an “IQ boost.”
Rabbi Moses Tendler, who holds a doctorate in biology and teaches biology at Yeshiva University, said there is “no doubt that genetic makeup determines intelligence and, indeed, predisposes as well as offers resistance to genetic diseases.”
But he took issue with the study’s findings.
The fact that Jews did not intermarry until relatively recently, Tendler said, led to a concentration of various genes among their numbers, some good and some bad.
“Wherever they were, Jews lived on an island,” he said.
In scientific terms, arguments similar to Tendler’s are known as a founder’s effect.
Rabbi Arthur Green, dean of the Rabbinical School at Boston’s Hebrew College, wondered whether the findings took into account all relevant factors in the development of Jewish intelligence.
He noted that during the period in which the researchers believe the Jewish intelligence gene began to be selected, the majority Christian world was, in a sense, selecting against such a gene.
“In that same period of 1,600 to 1,800 years, Christian Europe was systematically destroying its best genetic stock through celibacy” of priests and monks, he said.
“The Christian devotion to celibacy, particularly for the most learned and highest intellectual achievers, diminished the quality of genetic output and created a greater contrast with the Jewish minority,” he said.
The Jewish devotion to study and learning, meanwhile, also probably worked in tandem with economic factors in the development of intelligence, Green surmised.
In some of the Ashkenazi disorders, individuals experience extra growth and branching of connectors linking their nerve cells. Too much of this growth may lead to disease; increased but limited growth, though, could breed heightened intelligence.
In an effort to determine the effect of Gaucher’s on IQ, for example, the researchers contacted the Gaucher’s Clinic at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem. Although the center did not have specific IQ numbers on patients at the clinic, the jobs they held were high-IQ professions: physicists, engineers, lawyers, physicians and scientists.
“It’s obviously a population with enriched IQs — big time,” Harpending said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.