Did Discrimination Enhance Intelligence of Jews?

July 18, 2005

Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Leonard Bernstein, Saul Bellow, to name a few, all shared European Jewish ancestry.

Known as Ashkenazim, this ethnic group is blessed with more than its fair share of talented minds.

But they are also prone to a number of serious genetic diseases.

Researchers now suggest that intelligence is closely linked to such illnesses in Ashkenazi Jews, and that the diseases are the result of natural selection.

The Ashkenazim are descended from the Jewish communities of Germany, Austria, Poland, and Eastern Europe that date back to the 10th century. Today they make up around 80 percent of the world's Jews.

Ashkenazim have the highest average IQ of any ethnic group, scoring 12 to 15 points above the European average. They are also strongly represented in fields and occupations requiring high cognitive ability. For instance, European-origin Jews account for 27 percent of U.S. Nobel science prize winners but make up only about 3 percent of the U.S. population.

But the group is also associated with neurological disorders, including Tay-Sachs, Gaucher's, and Niemann-Pick. Tay-Sachs is a fatal inherited disease of the central nervous system. Sufferers lack an enzyme needed to break down fatty substances in the brain and nerve cells. Gauchers and Niemann-Pick are similar, often fatal diseases.

Researchers at the University of Utah's anthropology department investigated a possible link between these genetic illnesses and above-average intelligence in Ashkenazi Jews. They suggest both are the result of natural selection for enhanced brainpower.

Because Jews were discriminated against in medieval Europe, they were often driven into professions such as moneylending and banking which were looked down upon or forbidden to Christians.

Writing last month in the Journal of Biosocial Science, the researchers said, "For the most part they had jobs in which increased IQ strongly favored economic success, in contrast with other populations, who were mostly peasant farmers. They lived in circumstances in which economic success led to increased reproductive success."

Historians suggest Jews with lucrative jobs often had four, six, or sometimes eight or nine children. Poorer families, meanwhile, tended to be smaller, possibly because they lived in overcrowded areas of town and children were more prone to disease.

Continued on Next Page >>


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