Researchers Say Intelligence and Diseases May Be Linked in Ashkenazic Genes
A team of scientists at the University of Utah has proposed that the unusual pattern of genetic diseases seen among Jews of central or northern European origin, or Ashkenazim, is the result of natural selection for enhanced intellectual ability.
The selective force was the restriction of Ashkenazim in medieval Europe to occupations that required more than usual mental agility, the researchers say in a paper that has been accepted by the Journal of Biosocial Science, published by Cambridge University Press in England.
Yes, the Times is well aware that this is a bit awkward:
"It would be hard to overstate how politically incorrect this paper is," said Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard, noting that it argues for an inherited difference in intelligence between groups. Still, he said, "it's certainly a thorough and well-argued paper, not one that can easily be dismissed outright."
And they give lots of play to the skeptics, as well they might:
The Utah researchers describe their proposal as a hypothesis. Unlike many speculations, it makes a testable prediction: that people who carry one of the sphingolipid or other Ashkenazic disease mutations should do better than average on I.Q. tests.
The researchers have identified two reasonably well accepted issues, the puzzling pattern of diseases inherited by the Ashkenazi population and the population's general intellectual achievement. But in trying to draw a link between them they have crossed some fiercely disputed academic territories, including whether I.Q. scores are a true measure of intelligence and the extent to which intelligence can be inherited.
The authors "make pretty much all of the classic mistakes in interpreting heritability," said Dr. Andrew Clark, a population geneticist at Cornell University, and the argument that the sphingolipid gene variants are associated with intelligence, he said, is "far-fetched."
The assortative mating described in this new study took place over several centuries. This is interesting because the notion that well-educated (and, one might expect, more intelligent on average) people marrying each other has been on the upswing in this country; I have read somewhere that the notion of sending smart women off to college where they can meet smart men is one of the great genetic experiments of the age.
And no, I didn't read it just last week in the David Brooks column - this notion has been part of the income inequality discussion for years.
MORE CAVEATS AND DISCLAIMERS: I am not saying that the intersection of "smart" with "college educated" is 100%.
Nor, with respect to income inequality, am I saying that intelligence must be hereditary - it may be, or other factors contributing to success (high energy, good health, great looks) might be, and I apologize for my lapse into autobiography (Or fantasy). Or, financially successful parents may, on average, provide a better environment for their younglings - better nutrition, health care, schooling, study and work habits, role modeling, and so on.
I just find it intriguing that these researchers think the European breeding situation could produce results so quickly.
PUZZLING "GEE WHIZ" FACTOID:
In describing what they see as the result of the Ashkenazic mutations, the researchers cite the fact that Ashkenazi Jews make up 3 percent of the American population but won 27 percent of its Nobel prizes...
Well, surely that was influenced by the patterns of immigration to America - Irish laborers fleeing the famine, Jewish University professors fleeing Hitler, waddya expect?
And the paper is here.