There I was, watching my old VHS copy of The Boys from Brazil, idly reading the lab reports on the swabs I took from my gentile neighbor’s kids when he wasn’t looking, and revising the bassoon part of a concerto I’ve been working on, when I saw something alarming trending on Twitter. Not ‘eugenics’, but ‘Bret Stephens’.
‘What’s he done now?’ I asked in six languages, two of them not from the Indo-European language family.
In today’s New York Times, Bret Stephens discusses Norman Lebrecht’s excellent new history of the Jews in modern times. Lebrecht describes the unparalleled contributions of notorious underachievers like Marx, Freud, Heine, Disraeli, Herzl, Trotsky, Kafka, Wittgenstein and Einstein but, inexplicably, he fails to mention the contributions of members of the Green family — a lacuna that I, with my inherited Ashkenazi acumen, can already see him correcting in the paperback edition.
Lebrecht specifically does not attribute Jewish success to ‘Jewish DNA’. He attributes it to environmental factors: the Jewish tradition of Talmudic study, which produced near-universal adult literacy among Jewish males when most Europeans couldn’t even write ‘well-poisoner’ in blood; to the cultural imprint of intellectual labor even among secular Jews; to the Jewish emphasis on hard work, family and education; and to the perennial threat of violence, as nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of your neighbors burning you and your children alive in your home.
There is solid evidence for all these environmental factors, and plenty of evidence that similar factors apply to many other minorities. There is less solid evidence for genetic factors in Jewish achievement, and especially epigenetic factors (changes in gene expression in living organisms, presumably due to environmental factors). Bret Stephens summarizes all this by saying, ‘Jews are, or tend to be smart’.
This is not terribly smart. Perhaps it reflects the errors of compression that go into editing. The evidence that we have — and it would be interesting to have more — is that Jews aren’t much smarter than any other group. The difference is that they produce high-achieving intellectual outliers at a slightly higher rate. As in athletics, so in the life of the mind: the higher you get, the more marginal the advantages become.
Stephens also refers to a genetic study from 2005. This is an interesting study — you see, we read all the time. In particular, it challenges the ‘bottleneck theory’ (Ashkenazi genes were ‘bottlenecked’ in the early Middle Ages) and instead focuses on how ‘intelligence in heterozygotes’ are increased by the ‘well-known clusters of Ashkenazi genetic diseases, the sphingolipid cluster and the DNA repair cluster’. I want you to know that I understood that first time round, while making a pastrami sandwich.
The mention of athletics shows how fast the topic of heredity slides into the unsayable. Is there a genetic component to the excelling of Kenyans and Ethiopians at long-distance running? Why are Afro-Caribbeans, who were subjected to a horrific ‘bottlenecking’ under slavery, better at sprinting than whites from the same geographical zone? Why, returning to safer ground, have Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews not produced the army of Nobel prize winners that the Ashkenazim have?
These are difficult questions, in part because they suggest that what applies to cattle might apply in marginal degree to humans. Nietzsche may have been right when, plagiarizing Kelly Clarkson, he said that ‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’ But to pretend that difficult questions cannot be asked because some people will draw dumb or malicious conclusions is to surrender truth and the advancement of knowledge to the arbitrary moods of the mob and its digital commissars.
These dimwits were out on Twitter within hours on Saturday. In the Guardian, the New York Times’s twin these days in thick virtue-signaling, Edward Helmore wrote that that Stephens had ‘sparked furious controversy online for a column praising Ashkenazi Jews for their scientific accomplishments, which critics say amounts to embracing eugenics’. In other words, praising a group for actual accomplishments is racist.
There is nothing obnoxious at all in what Stephens has said. There are obviously obnoxious things in the history of eugenics, and also it appears that one of the authors of that 2005 paper has said some obnoxious things. All of which may be true and regrettable, and none of which discredits social facts and scientific findings.
If you wish to avail yourself of the secrets of Jewish genius, there are two simple courses of action. One is to enlist your children at an early age in the study of the Talmud, and teach them the values of ethics, work and family, which are also the near-universal immigrant virtues. This will be demanding for both them and you: helping them with math homework will be a cinch by comparison.
The other option is to hire Jewish people who show marginal aptitude in their fields of specialization. This is the much less demanding course to take, and it is much more likely to lead to success in the long run. But it does mean refraining from chasing them out of the universities, the professions and the Democratic party. So, be smart like us.
Dominic Green is Life & Arts editor of Spectator USA.