Ashkenazi Intelligence

Jewish Nobel

The intelligence of the Ashkenazi [ahsh-kuh-nah-zee] Jews has been the subject of studies which report higher a average intelligence quotient than among the general population. They are greatly overrepresented in occupations and fields with the high cognitive demands. During the 20th century, Ashkenazi Jews made up about 3% of the US population but won 27% of the US science Nobel Prizes, and half of the world’s chess champions were among their ranks.

One highly publicized proposal by Gregory Cochran, Jason Hardy and Henry Harpending, suggests that the Ashkenazi had jobs in which increased IQ strongly favored economic success, in contrast with other populations, who were mostly peasant farmers. However, critics of the paper counter that both ‘Ashkenazi Jews’ and ‘intelligence’ are socially rather than genetically defined and have no biological basis.

Cochran et al. hypothesized that the eugenic pressure was strong enough that mutations creating higher intelligence when inherited from one parent but creating disease when inherited from both parents would still be selected for, which could explain the unusual pattern of genetic diseases found in the Ashkenazi population, such as Tay-Sachs, Gaucher’s disease, and other lipid storage disorders and sphingolipid diseases.

As how they might affect intelligence, the authors argue that sphingolipid disorders might promote the growth and interconnection of brain cells and that mutations in the DNA repair genes, another cluster of Ashkenazic diseases, may stimulate the growth of neurons. Some of these diseases (especially torsion dystonia) have been associated with high intelligence. The paper argues that the Parsi in India may be a similar case. It is an endogamous group with a high current economic achievement, a history of trading, business and management, and has a disease pattern that is different from that of their neighbors.

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