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Are Jews Smarter?

| 13/07/2015
History
Israeli History
Jewish Life & Thought
Religion & Science
Thought and Philosophy

The following article, written by Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox, is a synopsis of a lecture he delivered in June, one of a six-part series on Judaism and Evolution – Can the Two Co-exist?, sponsored by the Schechter Institute in cooperation with the Edelstein Center For the History and Philosophy of Science, Technology and Medicine at the Hebrew University. As Director of the Center for the Study of Bio-social Perspectives in Judaism at the Schechter Institute, Shrell-Fox and his team of researchers, through the generous support of the Binah Yitzrit Foundation, are bringing questions of evolution and Jewish religious practice to the forefront of Israeli public discourse.


Debate abounds about its beginning, but all agree that the Anthropocene epoch is in full swing.  The newly coined geological era is characterized by humans’ global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems and even on evolution itself.  Did the period begin with the agricultural revolution more than 10,000 years ago?  Did it begin with the industrial revolution?  Did it begin when we started to mine and burn fossil fuels?  No matter. We are in the era and confronting the many ethical dilemmas we as humans are creating with our own hands.

How can we see humanity’s impact on evolution?  Is it even possible to suppose that humans can impact upon the evolutionary process in a meaningful way?   If so, what are some of the examples of our impact on evolution in general and specifically, can we suppose that the Jewish people has interceded in its own evolutionary process? Is there a possibility that Jews may be smarter than their non-Jewish partners in the world?

What are the historic, genetic or environmental variables that could account for Jews being smarter? I posit that this process dates back to when men (primarily men not women) began to domesticate other organic organisms – dogs, cows, sheep, horses and wheat.  Our forbears saw certain qualities that they preferred. They then observed for instance, that if they bred the best hunting dogs with the best hunting dogs, these characteristics would be passed on.  So this process evolved and was refined with other living beings they raised –all to serve their own human purposes.  It was the intuition allowed by our oversized (for the time) frontal lobe that led humans to select, breed and provide evolutionary advantages to the pigeons or wheat they preferred, insuring the reproductive success that nature would not have provided without human intervention.

So when the Jews of the 15th-19th centuries decided that they wanted to raise generations of talmidei hahamim, (Talmud scholars) they realized that they could lend evolution a hand by selecting for the most successful students and then mating them through marriage with the daughters of other successful students or teachers.  If not their daughters, then their sisters.  And in the event that there were not enough “good student genes” around, they could at least ensure that the best students would be paired with the wealthiest families.  This way, if genetic progeny wasn’t assurable, mimetic evolution, the evolution of culture rather than of  characteristics, would pick up the slack.

Indeed, they needed only to learn the Rambam who makes the case very clear in his compilation of mitzvoth.  The sixth positive commandment taught the Jewish community to cleave to the Torah scholars of the time, marry their daughters to these scholars, invite them to dine at their tables and otherwise support them—all of this  ensuring important evolutionary advantages not easily come by in a primarily subsistence culture.

So the yeshivot in Eastern Europe, Morocco and, to some degree, Yemen were true breeding grounds for what we call “book smarts” today.

Enter the age of measurement in the world of cognitive psychology – popularly called IQ – at the turn of the previous century.  Wechsler, Binet, Galton.  They assembled methods of triage, sorting and selection, convincing the western world that they had a veritable monopoly on measuring innate psychometric ability.  As luck would have it, the initial theories of intelligence and IQ drew heavily on the same skills that Jewish Yeshiva students had honed for generations.

So are Jews smarter? To the degree that your model of intelligence is based primarily if not solely on reading ability, textual analysis and verbal abstract reasoning, then it is safe to assume that Jews from the stock of those who spent years in yeshivot had an advantage on the most popular IQ tests of the previous century.  This is how we can understand the statistical truth that Jews scored about 15 points higher, on average, than their non-Jewish counterparts.  Are we REALLY smarter? I’ll leave that to the reader to decide.  But first choose your model and your test.

Of course a century or so later, the ability for intelligent design has taken on new meaning.  As Yuval Noah Harari (Hebrew University, best-selling author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind ) points out, I.D. is not in the hands of a creating deity.  Rather, humans have taken this role upon themselves.  It began with birds, dogs and cows, but has now moved into the manipulation of human biology, albeit primarily through biology itself.  But, as Harari points out, we are taking some of the biology by its virtual horns and replacing human drives with hard drives, slowly combining the two.  So we are doing the creating and we are creating at a pace that evolution could never equal.  Evolution could never implant genes from one species into another to create an unnatural hybrid.  Evolution would never have created a cyborg; it couldn’t have.

So just as in the past some may have questioned the ethics or morality of creating eunuchs, or the less educationally privileged may have felt left out, the culture at the time had to create the moral categories that allowed for them.  And now, with evolution evolving at lightening pace, the challenge to our current generation is to assess the morality of our choices.  Evolution, as all sciences, even in the hands of humanity, is a-moral.

Things happen according to predictable patterns.  New ideas and organisms are created.  Their relative worth is immaterial to biological forces.  But we humans don’t have that luxury.  We must decide, and act on our decisions, and pay the consequences.  If we domesticate a resistant strain of corn, and that leads to crop failure due to the evolution of a strain of worms resistant to old relatively benign pesticides, what happens to the corn farmers whose livelihood is based upon the corn? If we create a true cyborg, what rights will that creation, at whatever degree of sentience, have?

Darwin’s theory, the survival of the fittest (not the strongest) didn’t need to take morals into account.  He desribed a natural phenomenon. But once we interfere with nature, the moral questions abound. And I wonder if we are up to the challenge!


Rabbi Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox directs the Center for the Study of Bio-social Perspectives in Judaism at the Schechter Institute.  A lecturer in Family and Community Studies and Academic Advisor for the Family and Community Studies and Women and Jewish Studies M.A. tracks at the Schechter Institute, Shrell-Fox is a graduate of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary and a practicing psychologist in Jerusalem.

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