Bell Curve to Bell Jar
From the archives: The neverending fetishistic fascination with Jews and intelligence
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.