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June 03, 2005

What Price Intelligence?

The NY Times has an article today about a scientific paper that suggests that the myriad of genetic diseases confronting Ashkenazi Jews (with Tay Sachs at the forefront) may be a by-product of a gene pool that also leads to an unusual concentration of very smart people. The author writes:

In describing what they see as the result of the Ashkenazic mutations, the researchers cite the fact that Ashkenazi Jews make up 3 percent of the American population but won 27 percent of its Nobel prizes, and account for more than half of world chess champions. They say that the reason for this unusual record may be that differences in Ashkenazic and northern European I.Q. are not large at the average, where most people fall, but become more noticeable at the extremes; for people with an I.Q. over 140, the proportion is 4 per 1,000 among northern Europeans but 23 per 1,000 with Ashkenazim.

What is really interesting about this is just how fast genetic selection produced these favorable and unfavorable traits.

Posted by dag at June 3, 2005 08:55 AM

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» Ashkenazi Jews have higher IQs because of their genes from Half Sigma
This is not news to anyone familiar with the literature on intelligence. The news here is that major news organizations, including The New York Times and The Economist have picked up on the story, thanks to a soon to [Read More]

Tracked on June 3, 2005 07:06 PM


Hmmm. I look forward to reading the paper. I read the Half Sigma blog entry (linked via trackback) about this, and I'm not convinced that this relates at all to a super-concentration of geniuses. Even accepting the use of Nobel prizes as a gauge of high intelligence (which is as good of a test as any, I suppose), I find that this is a highly correlative topic (race/ethnicity and intelligence). I think it's almost impossible to prove a causation here.

While on one hand, to be an observant Jew entails being educated (to be able to read the Torah, and the rabbinical commentaries, and write opinions), I'm not convinced that being intelligent (which is different from being educated) is caused by being Jewish (Ashkenazi or Sephardi). There is an increased focus on education in Jewish families, and I would argue that Jews have their fair share of geniuses, but at the same time, I'm naturally suspicious of ties to ethnicity. I guess it's a nature vs. Nurture question.

I'm also troubled that the guy at Half Sigma finds that the book The Bell Curve was a seminal work on the topic. I (as a layman economist that has some statistical modeling experience) have some serious questions about the methods used to get that data, particularly the assumptions that were made (I'm therefore surprised that statistical experts didn't skewer the author). The conclusion may very well be accurate, however the methods used to derive that point are questionable at best.

In the end, I don't think that it is possible to prove a link between intelligence (or lack thereof) and race/ethnicity. There are just too many variables (including how you define a member of a particular race).

Posted by: The Good Rabbi at June 7, 2005 12:07 PM

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