“Jewish Genius”

Below, as a special service to VFR’s readers in today’s busy world, is my summary (812 words long) of Charles Murray’s above-named article in the April 2007 Commentary (4,673 words long). Many people have sent me the article over the last couple of months, but I’ve just gotten around to reading it. The second and more interesting half of Murray’s article, which I focus on here, consists of various theories explaining how and when the Jewish cognitive abilities came into existence.

Jews have the highest mean IQ of any ethnic group, somewhere between 107 and 115 (Murray adopts 110 as his working figure). IQ is inherited. The widely noted Cochran-Hardy-Harpending study last year said that high Jewish IQ had its origins in the European Middle Ages as a result of Jews being confined to cognitively demanding professions; only those Jews who did well in these areas would be successful, make money, and have lots of children, thus spreading their intelligence among the Jewish population.

However, Murray thinks high Jewish IQ began earlier, and was not limited to Northern European, Ashkenazi Jews, since Sephardic Jews also exhibit high IQ, though not as high as the Ashkenazis. He cites a 2005 article by Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein which says that even when Jews were free to pursue agriculture, they instead chose urban, cognitively demanding professions. Botticini and Eckstein point to an ordinance issued by the Palestinian rabbi Joshua ben Gamla in 64 A.D. mandating universal schooling for all Jewish males starting at age six. “The ordinance was not only issued,” Murray writes, “it was implemented. Within about a century, the Jews, uniquely among the peoples of the world, had effectively established universal male literacy and numeracy.” And this is the reason why Jews naturally gravitated toward jobs requiring literacy and numeracy, even when they weren’t forced to do so by legal restrictions on their activities.

Botticini and Eckstein make a further fascinating argument based on ben Gamla’s ordinance. Between the first and sixth centuries A.D., the Jewish population in the world dropped precipitously from 4.5 million to 1.5 million or fewer. Some of this is explainable as a result of war and persecution, but not all of it. Botticini and Eckstein argue that during this period, Jews who were not intellectually adept drifted away from a religion that required cognitive abilities they did not possess. Also, around the same time as ben Gamla’s ordinance, Judaism as a result of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. became focused in the synagogue, requiring out-loud reading of difficult Hebrew texts, another factor that would lead the less verbally gifted Jews to leave the religion. “In short,” writes Murray, “during the centuries after Rome’s destruction of the Temple, Judaism evolved in such a way that to be a good Jew meant that a man had to be smart.”

But this fascinating theory of high Jewish IQ is still not adequate, says Murray, because it is doubtful that the Jews prior to 64 A.D. were cognitively average. Are we to believe that the Bible, the greatest book in the world, “was produced by an intellectually run-of-the-mill Levantine tribe?” He then references another fascinating theory, by geneticist Cyril Darlington, that during the Babylonian Captivity in the sixth century B.C., in which the Jewish elites were exiled to Babylon, the ordinary Jews who had been left behind in Judah intermarried with and were absorbed into other peoples, so that when the descendants of the Jewish elites returned to Judea after two generations the Jewish community now consisted of the more intelligent half of the pre-exile population.

However, Murray does not find the Darlington theory entirely satisfactory either. He says that from the time of Moses,

Judaism was intertwined with intellectual complexity. Jews were commanded by God to heed the law, which meant they had to learn the law. The law was so extensive and complicated that this process of learning and reviewing was never complete. Moreover, Jewish males were not free to pretend that they had learned the law, for fathers were commanded to teach the law to their children. It became obvious to all when fathers failed in their duty. No other religion made so many intellectual demands upon the whole body of its believers. Long before Joshua ben Gamla and the destruction of the Second Temple, the requirements for being a good Jew had provided incentives for the less intelligent to fall away.

But, Murray continues, these considerations lead to a further question: was Israelite intelligence (I say “Israelite” rather than “Jewish” because the word “Jew” did not come into existence until the time of the Babylonian Exile) created by the selective pressures of the Israelite religion, or did the Israelites create such an intellectually demanding religion because they were already a highly intelligent people? Murray concludes:

This reasoning pushes me even farther into the realm of speculation. 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.

- end of initial entry -

Robert B. writes:

Murray is showing his own ignorance—“Jews” and Talmudic law did not exist before the Babylonian exile, as I’m sure you are aware. Thus, it was not a factor until Hebrews became a “wandering people.” However, I would agree that from that time on, there was a “culling” process. Especially once the Romans expelled them from the Holy Land. From that time on, Jews had to survive by their wits and the fools soon perished.

As an aside to this theory, there is what I would call “the Catholic Church Effect” upon the remainder of European society during the Middle Ages. Since there were only two ways an intelligent man/woman could gain an education during those 1000 odd years, there was an opposite “culling effect”—be born into the nobility on some level, or join The Church and forswear marriage and children. Thus, the best and the brightest from the non-nobility/guild classes joined the Church. Obviously there were some priests who broke their vows, however, most did not. Thus, their genes were forever lost from the pool. That might provide for a 2 to 5 point drop on average. There was also a custom in some tribes to the East whereby high intelligence was seen as a sign of “evil” and those who exhibited these traits were either driven out, or out right killed. You will notice that the nations who adopted Protestantism first are those with the higher average IQs today.

LA replies:

Re Robert’s first point, Murray is not speaking of Talmudic law, but of the Mosaic law. However, many biblical scholars believe that the Mosaic law itself was not fully written until around the time of the Exile, in which case Robert’s basic objection to Murray’s point would still hold.

However, I would suggest that whatever belief system or theory we follow concerning when the various parts of the Five Books of Moses were written, the Mosaic tradition, even in its “earlier” form (i.e., assuming that the core parts of it were written much earlier and other parts were added later), still evidences the qualities that lead Murray to suggest that it was the expression of a people who had the same psychological and mental “profile” as the Jews of later periods. Take the story of Jacob: the soft man “dwelling in tents,” who is yet fiercely ambitious and contends with man and God (as a result of which he is renamed “Israel”). The character type is consistent from the time of Genesis to the present day, and therefore it is a reasonable assumption that the cognitive traits of present day Jews are also consistent with those of the ancient Israelites. Further, even if we accept the view that the Pentateuch was written at different times and that the Mosaic law was not finalized until the time of the Exile, the story of Jacob is presumably among the earlier strata of the Pentateuch. Therefore the psychological and cognitive traits of the Jewish people as they are known in history would seem to be consistent from the time of the Jews’ earliest origins.

Ben W. writes:

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

Good! Then does he realize that his conclusion presupposed the existence of God? Moreover does he realize why God chose a group of people? Or why God didn’t choose other groups? And what is the historical meaning of why a group was chosen and another wasn’t in terms of God’s interests and selectivity?

Also what is the implication for Western civilization and culture which has as one of its foundations the Judaic law? If this law is a concomitant of God’s choosing a people, what is the implication of society rejecting that ethic (either piecemeal or in its totality)?

This also has implications for other social, cultural and racial groups in history. If they were not “chosen,” how do they approach and absorb (or assimilate) the chosen’s laws, procedures, ethics and blessings as their own?

His conclusion opens the door to other considerations …

LA replies:

I haven’t read it, but apparently Murray’s book on human achievement strongly correlates Christianity with high civilizational achievement .

JS writes:

Charles Murray’s remaining hypothesis was tongue in cheek, wasn’t it?, but either way Ben W. might want to know that Charles Murray is not an atheist. He has written:

“My other movement has been less dramatic, but has been intensifying—and will not please the founders and probably most of the readers of Gene Expression. I have been an agnostic since my teens. But I am increasingly drawn to the proposition that of all the hypotheses about God, simple atheism is the least probable. That to be a confident atheist is the silliest of intellectual positions. That thinking about spiritual issues, despite all the difficulties, must be part of being a grown-up.”

James W. writes:

There is another lesson in this discussion. In none of these posts—to this point—are there indications of angst, resentment, or outrage at the idea that a particular ethnic group may be more intelligent than that of the posters.

Ben W. writes:

Here’s a corollary to Charles Murray’s research on Jewish intelligence. Can Jews outsmart themselves in the application of their intelligence thus voiding this gift? Example: Karl Marx…

LA replies:

My intuition about this, as I’ve told about previously, is that Jews have some extra psychic “charge.” This can be seen positively, as talent and drive, or negatively, as pushiness and zealotry. Whether they originally acquired this “charge” from genetics, or from Mount Sinai (meaning their encounter with God as told in the Hebrew scriptures), or from some other source, such as their long history as an outsider people, we don’t know, but to me it is inseparable from the Sinai experience. Also, we don’t know whether Sinai was the cause of their intensity, or whether the intensity was the cause of Sinai. Either way, the spiritual/psychological/emotional freightedness of Israel’s relationship with God as portrayed in the Bible is like nothing else in world literature, as seen, for example, in Abraham’s encounters with God, in Jacob’s flight from Laban, in the story of the Exodus, and in the entire book of Deuteronomy in which God speaking as a loving but stern father tells the people of Israel what he wants of them, the good things that will happen if they follow him, the bad things that will happen if they don’t.

Thus this “charge” of which I speak is an expression of the fact that the Jews are a people specially designed for God. What happens then if they turn completely away from God? That same “charge,” deprived of its proper transcendent direction and purpose, is turned toward the things of this world, becoming social discontent, revolutionary leftism, aggressive atheism, and so on, as well as achieving many positive things.

In short, the Jews are a people designed for God, and become distorted and troublesome when they don’t follow God, which is basically the theme of the entire Jewish Bible. But of course the same is true of mankind generally. In this, as in other ways, we see a confirmation of the idea that the Jews are “just like everyone else, only more so.”

Why do the Jews play this unique, and uniquely odd, role in history? I suppose it’s because in order for God to reveal himself to mankind, he couldn’t reveal himself to the whole human race at once, he had to start by revealing himself to a particular people, and that people happened to be the Hebrews. And this is also the reason why Jesus came to earth, not as a generic everyman, but as a member of a particular people at a particular time, as a Galilean Jew under the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius. Both Judaism and Christianity teach us that the universal truth expresses itself through particularity.

The above can also be seen as an explanation for the uniquely pathological phenomenon of anti-Semitism, that it springs ultimately from resentment at Jews’ role as the original carriers of ethical monotheism to mankind.

James W. writes:

You have stated that when a people fundamentally alter the core of their character, what was once the fruit of genius may become its vinegar. The Jews went from being, in John Adams’s words, “the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations” (for two thousand years), to aggressively bringing us the madness of Marxism.

It is then that you draw the parallel to our own change of character and decline (“But of course the same is true of mankind generally”), or, as Conservative Swede had noted, the suicidal notions that (secular) Christianity brings us when God is removed from the creed.

All this is perfectly obvious—after it has been pointed out. Very neatly done.

Mark Jaws writes:

Bravo to Murray for a comprehensive insight into Ashkenazic smarts. To my pleasant surprise, he even included the Bar Mitzvah effect, which has publicly branded cognitively challenged young Jews throughout the ages and contributed to their expulsion from the Jewish Gene Pool. After all, in the age of arranged marriages who would want to match their daughter with that Moishe Rosenbaum, who stumbled through his Torah readings?

However, I don’t believe Murray mentioned the most basic ingredient necessary to build and maintain smarts—little if any intermarriage with outsiders. Thus smart Jewish men throughout the centuries selected smart Jewish wives with little dilution taking place. This trend lasted up until World War II, when my mother started dating my father in 1949. Of course, Grandpa Benjamin Goldner was not too keen that his daughter had eloped with a good looking Polish Catholic from the Midwest, but in the long run it turned out well. From a cognitive stand point, the good news is that when Jews do intermarry, they tend to select for smarts.

PS. I love your blog. It has become mother’s milk to my 50 percent Jewish brain.

Alan Levine writes:

Read the exchange over Jewish intelligence with some interest. While I have my reservations about Murray’s excessive dependence on IQ as a measure and more about his excessively hereditarian emphasis as the determinant of IQ, he is at least on sounder ground than the arguments of the Harper group. Aside from the point that Sephardim and Mizrachim—and perhaps also the Ethiopian Jews—also seem more intelligent, successful and “middle class” than the peoples they live among, his argument greatly exaggerates the extent to which ASHKENAZIM were so. ( My own ancestors were peasants!)

As for one of the commentators’ emphasis on Jews avoiding intermarriage, I think this too is exaggerated. Stand a crowd of Polish or German Jews next to a fully Mediterranean group, whether Sepahardim, Sicilians or Greeks, and you will see ample evidence that their ancestors mixed, willingly or unwillingly or both, with the peoples north of the Alps.

I suspect Jewish tradition, not inheritance, to be the most important factor.

By the way, I entirely agree with the point you made about why Jews are hated. Did you work this out independently? Something like this was argued long ago by Eva Reichman, Ernst Nolte, and others, whose names I cannot recall at this moment.

LA replies:

I thought that was a common view that I was just repeating.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 14, 2007 04:58 PM | Send

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