High on Nature, Low on Nurture

By Zeidner, Moshe; Lynn, Richard | Times Higher Education, February 9, 2012 | Go to article overview

High on Nature, Low on Nurture


Zeidner, Moshe, Lynn, Richard, Times Higher Education


Moshe Zeidner finds an analysis of Jewish success scores well on IQ but downplays social factors.

The Chosen People: A Study of Jewish Intelligence and Achievement

By Richard Lynn

Washington Summit Publishers

408pp, $27.99

ISBN 9781593680367

Published 5 September 2011

One source of continued fascination with Jewish people has been their high intellectual prowess and remarkable achievements. I was intrigued to read Richard Lynn's systematic documentation and analysis of the intelligence and intellectual achievements, worldwide and over time, of the Jewish people.

The bulk of this book represents a commendable feat in summing up a plethora of historical and cultural accounts, and presenting detailed statistical data and myriad indices documenting the concentration of members of the Jewish fold at the top of the human intellectual, occupational and financial pyramid, throughout the globe and most of modern history. These notable successes include: high ability and cognitive test performance; over-representation in high-status occupations; an inordinately high number of chess and bridge champions; and many recipients of coveted international honours including the Fields, Turing and Nobel prizes. The formula offered for the high success of the Jewish people is encapsulated in the terms IQ x Motivation x Opportunities. The thesis proffered is that the success of the Jewish people, primarily the Ashkenazi (European descent) subgroup, is based mainly on high genetically determined IQ, with motivation and opportunity as enabling factors. This is coupled with "eugenic" marital practices related to intelligence (based on scholarly achievements in men and financial resources in women).

But Lynn's argument draws mostly from a small slice of history and of place. The fact that exceptional Jewish intelligence and intellectual achievement is limited to Western Europe and North America from 1850, say, through to the present, is hardly supportive of a genetic model. In addition, the role of so-called "eugenic practices", purportedly accounting for the selection of high IQ genes in Ashkenazi Jews, is presently unclear in terms of its prevalence and duration over the years.

Whereas the role of genetically based IQ in determining Jews' success is showcased, the role of social, cultural and broad environmental factors in shaping the Jewish intellectual mystique is underplayed. These factors include socialisation practices, inculcating the value of literacy, and education emphasising verbal knowledge, abstract ideas and concept formation - the very skills tapped by verbal ability tests. Furthermore, Mizrahi Jews, stemming from the Near East, Middle East and North Africa, are claimed to be less intelligent, on average, than Ashkenazi Jews, representing a differentiated gene pool (presumably due to genetic drift and geographic separation over time). But this analysis minimises modern genetic evidence showing that these subgroups are basically part of the same gene pool, and downplays the powerful role of historical events and socialisation practices. Mizrahi Jews have long resided in Islamic cultures under chronic conditions of low levels of formal education, fewer intellectual resources at home and authoritarian child-rearing practices, all of which are arguably causal factors in ethnic group differences in ability.

Furthermore, while touting the adaptive advantages of high group IQ, Lynn glosses over the liabilities and costs that may adhere to superior intellect. While high IQ may have served as a weapon of survival for Jews in hostile environments, such prowess may also have been a lightning rod for envy and scapegoating by rabid forces of anti-Semitism. In fact, Francis Galton and Karl Pearson, two pioneers of modern intelligence research, conceded that Jews were of high intelligence, but at the same time believed that Jews used their superior intelligence to prey on Gentiles.

Lynn makes a number of curious assertions. …

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