By Paul S. Appelbaum, Diana Muir Appelbaum

from GeneWatch 27-2 | May-July 2014

Jews play a disproportionate role in A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, an extended argument by Nicholas Wade for the impact on modern life of genetic differences among races. Why are Jews so important to the story? Because, well, says Wade, Jews are such a really smart race. Of course, there's an irony here. The last time genes were used to explain why some whole peoples prosper and others don't - during the Progressive Era's eugenics movement - Jews were held up as a people of innately low physical, moral, and intellectual capacity. Now, Wade and others tell us that Jews are endowed by evolution with superior verbal and mathematical ability (albeit not spatial intelligence; in Wade's view, Jews stopped hunting so long ago that Jewish genes can't find their way out of a paper bag).

Wade, a respected science writer, casts himself as a new Darwin, announcing that "human evolution has been recent, copious and regional." He points out that natural selection for certain genes has enabled human groups in the Himalayas, Andes and the Ethiopian plateau to evolve capacities to thrive at high altitudes. Moreover, other genetically transmitted traits, such as the ability to tolerate the lactose in cow's milk, have spread across geographic regions. So far, so good, but note that this is pretty much as far as the really solid evidence for recent, regional human evolution goes.

Wade is after bigger game. He wants to argue that events like the bifurcation of the world into farmers and hunter-gatherers, which began about 10,000 B.C.E., or the "rabbinical requirement for universal male literacy" may have produced genetic adaptations favoring specific kinds of social and emotional intelligence within particular ethnic or racial groups. And for Wade that includes "a genetic enhancement of Jewish cognitive capacity."[1]

Operating on a global scale, Wade argues that the regional (or if you prefer, racial) evolution of mental capacities can answer such big questions as: Why is European civilization more prosperous than other cultures?  Max Weber fingered the Protestant Ethic as the cause, while Jared Diamond argued for environment in Guns, Germs and Steel.  Wade relies on the thesis of a remarkable 2007 book by economic historian Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, which was reviewed for the New York Times by... Nicholas Wade. Clark suggested that the Industrial Revolution happened when "[t]hrift, prudence, negotiation and hard work were becoming values for communities that previously had been spendthrift, impulsive, violent and leisure loving." Then he startled the academic world by proposing a novel causative mechanism for this shift.  

Clark proposes that most English girls from successful families married men less prosperous than their fathers, and that these children of prosperity out-reproduced the offspring of the poor, giving England bumper crops of penniless youth endowed with the virtues that created the industrial revolution. Clark acknowledges that this was a cultural phenomenon - modestly fixed parents taught their children the virtues that had made grandpapa rich - but he argues that an overlooked key to success lay in upscale genes.

Reviewers asked for evidence, and Clark produces it in a new book, The Son Also Rises, in which a multi-lingual phalanx of research assistants mine a diverse array of data seeking out peculiar surnames. It turns out that everyone from banking moguls to registered paupers can bear surnames shared by a mere handful of people. By tracing rare surnames over time, Clark demonstrates that when a man with an odd surname owned substantial property in England in the 1300s, or was a Swedish intellectual in the 1600s, or passed the Imperial Chinese examinations to become a Mandarin during the Song Dynasty, people with that surname were more successful than average for the next 400 or even 1,000 years.

Clark finds more social mobility in the 1400s than you probably imagine, and less today than you probably wish.  Accomplishment, he thinks, runs in families, and high status "is actually genetically determined."[2] Whether he proves his case is a different matter.

After all, the child of successful parents is likely to be taught real skills, such as good grammar, vocabulary, and a "proper" accent, and he or she may also benefit from ineffable advantages. Given that even in egalitarian Sweden, people from old families with aristocratic names like Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern or Latin ones like Linnaeus do better than Swedes with "peasant" names like Johnsson, it could be that just having an impressive surname contributes to success. Moreover, a growing body of data supports the idea that success is largely dependent on believing that success is possible. Amy Chua and Jeff Rubenfeld tap into something like this in The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, proposing that a sort of superiority complex accounts in part for the success of certain immigrant groups, including Jews and Chinese.

But Nicholas Wade's just-so story about Ashkenazi success relies on a bold 2012 book, The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, by economists Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein. Here he finds evidence that Jews "adapted genetically to a way of life that requires higher than usual cognitive capacity," representing "a striking example of natural selection's ability to change a human population in just a few centuries."[3]

Botticini and Eckstein argue that most ancient Jews were farmers who did not need literacy to earn a living.  When Judaism re-formed around text study following the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., parents were forced to pay school fees if they wanted their children to stay Jewish.  According to Botticini and Eckstein, over the next six centuries the Jewish population plummeted from 5.5 to 1.2 million because only boys from families with an unusual degree of commitment, or those whose sons had the brains and diligence to pore over legal texts, paid to send their children to school. Everyone else converted to Christianity, a dramatic selection event that Wade describes as possibly "the first step toward a genetic enhancement of Jewish cognitive capacity."[4] And so it might be if there were evidence that it happened - and if there actually is a gene for diligence.

It is not clear why we should assume that families with "low-ability sons" converted to Christianity while those with "smart and diligent" sons paid for an expensive Torah education not calculated to lead to a high-earning career.[5] Why not assume that parents of smart and diligent sons would have improved their prospects by converting (see late 19th-century Germany, for example), or by having them taught Greek or Latin?  After all, that is what almost everybody else in the Roman Empire did. The first and second centuries teemed with now-forgotten religions: the cult of Isis, the Dionysian Mysteries and Mithraism were wildly popular and growing fast. The real question is why a million or so Jews remained Jewish in a late Roman world where persecution of non-Christians and the advantages of joining the new imperial church drove other, more popular religions to extinction?

Botticini and Eckstein support their model with "archaeological discoveries that document the timing of the construction of synagogues" in which children could be educated. They explain that "the earliest archaeological evidence of the existence of a synagogue in the Land of Israel" dates to the mid-1st century C.E.[6] This is an enormous misstatement of fact. A number of pre-destruction Palestinian synagogues have been identified, the earliest uncovered so far, in Modi'in, dating to the early 2nd or late 3rd century B.C.E.

Which brings us to the question of whether Botticini and Eckstein's selection event ever occurred.  Some numbers cited by Botticini and Eckstein are just plain wrong.  For example, they summarize the findings of ancient historians Seth Schwartz and Gildas Hamel, and of archaeologist Magen Broshi, as "the Land of Israel hosting no more than 1 million Jews."[7] Schwartz actually wrote: "Palestine reached its maximum sustainable pre-modern population of approximately one million in the middle of the first century. Probably about half of this population was Jewish."  Thus, Botticini and Eckstein miscite Schwartz's "about half of" for a population of one million Jews.  They then guess that there were, in fact, 2.5 million Jews in Israel.

There are no accurate counts of ancient Jewry. Estimates that no more than 1 million people could have lived in the Land of Israel in the first century were derived from arable acreage and crop yields. And there is no evidence suggesting that ancient Israel had the capacity to import the gargantuan volumes of falafel mix that would have been required to feed a population of over a million.  (Rome imported wheat on that scale; Israel didn't.) Botticini and Eckstein choose, without offering a rationale, one contemporary demographer's "cautiously" offered estimate of 4.5 million Jews total in the ancient world. Then they blithely add up to a million more Jews, to reach their 5 - 5.5 million number. But graphing an unsubstantiated number, as they do, does not make the number accurate.

If we accept more conservative estimates of 2 or even 2.5 million Jews worldwide before the year 70, loss of a million or so during and after the brutal Roman-Jewish Wars, when it is assumed that many Greek- and Latin-speaking God-fearers fell away from Judaism, is not surprising.  Judged by the evidence they provide, Botticini and Clark's elegant model in which the choices of ancient Jewish farmers facing high tuition bills produced a dramatic selection event doesn't hold water.

But Wade is a man in search of data to support his theory of recent, regional evolution.  Ashkenazi Jews are among the most intensively studied of ethnic genetic clusters, and he tracks them down the Rhine Valley like a bloodhound. The Ashkenazi Jewish community was founded by a mere handful of Jews living along the Rhine about a thousand years ago, and founder effects can be genetically powerful.  It is not absurd to regard Ashkenazim as a large cousinhood - something like the Darwins and Wedgwoods, two intertwined families that have produced generation after generation of accomplished offspring.  Because the number of founders was so small, and Jews married one another, genetic characteristics could have been amplified within the community.

However, Clark does not flag the founder effect as the cause of Ashkenazi success. He posits a centuries-long selection, beginning as described by Botticini and Eckstein and continuing because only the successful could afford to pay the punitive taxes imposed on Jews by Muslim and Christian governments. "There must have been some selection based on talent."[8]

Perhaps there was.  The actual evidence, however, is spotty, and the sources for the event provided by Botticini and Eckstein are sometimes downright creepy.  Botticini and Eckstein support their hypothesis with the information, repeated by Clark that, "passages by early Christian writers and Church Fathers indicate that most Jewish converts to Christianity were illiterate and poor."[9] This information, however, is cited to outdated work by Adolf von Harnack, turn-of-the-century German theologian whose anti-Judaism prepared the way for Nazi anti-Semitism and who, as President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, created the infamous Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics.

There are good reasons to be suspicious of arguments suggesting powerful selection effects over brief time frames for cognitive abilities. To be sure, intelligence - at least the form most frequently measured by psychologists - has a clear genetic component. But years of research have failed to identify any genes that account for this effect. The dominant explanation is that intelligence, like height, may be determined by the cumulative effect of scores, perhaps hundreds of genes, each of which makes an incremental contribution to cognitive ability. To further complicate things, those genes may interact to amplify or negate their influences on intelligence, and it is certain that environment plays a key role. Indeed, recent evidence indicates that genetic effects on intelligence are stronger in high socioeconomic circumstances, which presumably allow maximization of individual potential, but fade away in poor families.

With scores of genes likely involved, most distributed widely in the population, selection for or against particular genes becomes more difficult and time-consuming. The rapid selection event on which Wade (following Botticini and Eckstein) relies hence strains credulity from a biological perspective. Although some guesses about how the Jews got their disproportionate share of Nobel prizes put forward in these books could be right (after all, it's awfully hard to disprove an untestable theory), there is very little evidence to support them and good reasons to doubt their validity.


Diana Muir Appelbaum is an author and historian.

Paul S. Appelbaum is Dollard Professor of Psychiatry, Medicine & Law at Columbia University, where he directs a center on the ethical, legal and social implications of advances in genetics.



1. A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, by Nicholas Wade, Penguin Press, 2014, p. 212.

2. The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility, by Gregory Clark, Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 281.

3. The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, by Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, Princeton University Press, 2012, p. 199.

4. Wade, p. 211.

5. Botticini and Eckstein, p. 93 and p. 82.

6. Ibid., p. 103-4.

7. Ibid., p. 274.

8. Clark, p. 230.

9. Ibid., p. 231.

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