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June 14, 2003

Jewish blood & soil

Nice to see this kind of thinking percolating into the mainstream:


The second effect of the literacy obligation was to drive a lot of Jews away from their religion. [stupid Jews become Christians or Muslims -Razib] Botticini and Eckstein admit that they have little direct evidence for this conclusion, but there's a lot of indirect evidence. First, it makes sense: People do tend to run away from expensive obligations. Second, we can look at population trends: While the world population increased from 50 million in the sixth century to 285 million in the 18th, the population of Jews remained almost fixed at just a little over a million. Why were the Jews not expanding when everyone else was? We don't know for sure, but a reasonable guess is that a lot of Jews were becoming Christians and Muslims.

So—which Jews stuck with Judaism? Presumably those with a particularly strong attachment to their religion and/or a particularly strong attachment to education for education's sake. [the smart Jews remain -Razib] (The burden of acquiring an education is, after all, less of a burden for those who enjoy being educated.) The result: Over time, you're left with a population of people who enjoy education, are required by their religion to be educated, and are particularly attached to their religion. Naturally, these people tend to become educated. And once they're educated, they leave the farms.


Read the whole thing over at Slate. And before godless chimes in, the same kind of article could be applied to priestly elites the world over, Brahmins, families that form the ulema and Protestant clergy. Is it any coincidence that these groups tend to become the intelligensia once they become secularized?

Update from Jason M: The Slate article summarizes the work of Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein. For a fuller treatment of the theory you can read their entire original paper (PDF) From Farmers to Merchants: A Human Capital Interpretation of Jewish Economic History.

Update from Razib: Also, check out the thread over @ Yglesias' blog on this topic.

Further information from Razib: Readers might be interested in the National Jewish Survey data (PDF). Look at the traits for "Jews of other religions," and note the contrast in educational level and income with "Jews by religion" and "Jewish with no religion." This might not apply historically, but it is interesting in the American context.

Posted by razib at 02:53 PM




1. Jews were forbidden to have certain occupations.
2. Christians were forbidden to have other occupations.
3. Jews were foreigners, and foreigners tend to do something different than what the settled populations do [i.e., farming]
4. I don't see how literacy in Hebrew would be an advantage, or qualification in medieval society, except perhaps as a mental exercise.
5. History abounds with [non-stupid] Jews that became Christian
6. The need for communal religious worship meant that Jews had to be clustered together. The best way to achieve this is to live in a city [gathering so-to-speak around the synagogue].

Posted by: Dienekes at June 14, 2003 06:03 PM


read the full article, it addresses your points....

Posted by: razib at June 14, 2003 06:08 PM


I did read the article, and the alternative explanation is more compelling, and grounded in historical reality as well.

Posted by: Dienekes at June 14, 2003 06:26 PM




This article is useful: in my current manuscript I said this: . "The key cultural precondition, in our view, was a pattern of social organization that required literacy, strongly discouraged intermarriage, and that could propagate itself over long periods of time with little change. Literacy (which does not itself require high intelligence) was probably important in the shift from a nation to an urban occupational caste, acting as an entree to many urban professions. "

Anyhow, think it through: education was economically irrational for Jewish farmers, so it was arguably the the _smart_ ones that converted.
But there were lots of other economic reasons to convert: under Islam, the dhimmi-tax. A rational farmer would raise pigs too.

If conversion acted as the main selective force boosting IQ, the Sephardic Jews would have high IQ scores. They don't. Scratch conversion.

There are fundamental demographic facts that need to be kept in mind. The first, and most confusing, is that as far as we know, just about every city in premodern times was a population sink. People had to keep moving in from the farms all the time just to keep population level. So one question is why the Jews didn't dwindle away: the answer is that although true on average, this was not true of every population subgroup. Another fundanmental fact of medieval demography is that people who made more money had more_kids, than average, unlike today. If enough urban Jews made enough money, their population could grow or be stable (perhaps niche-limited). Within that group, there was strong selection for the traits that on average made you make more money - i.e. success in various urban occupations. This was not true of non-Jewish groups with similar occupati0ons, since theyexperience lots of farmer's daughter gene flow, diluting any selection. . The Jews, endogamous as they come, did not.

The exact mix of urban occupations in a given population is crucial. If most are tanners, as in Byzantium, I see no strong selection for IQ. If ~85% are moneylenders or tax-farmers or toll-farmers or estate managers, as in the early days of the Ashkenazi in Poland (and back in Germany, most had been moneylenders) - now we're talking.

The estimated ages of the Ashkenazi neurological mutations are almost all 1200 yeare or less. This is a hint.



Posted by: gcochran at June 14, 2003 10:21 PM


Why didn't the Jews expand while everyone else did?

I don't know, but assuming the factual claim about population growth is correct, how about:

(a) pogroms
(b) Crusades, which usually started with 'hey, let's kill some Jews!'
(c) forced conversions (e.g. Spain)
(d) expulsions, e.g. from Medieval England
(e) various discriminatory laws and restrictions on employment.

Posted by: David B at June 15, 2003 08:59 AM


I would guess that in Jew/Gentile marriages, higher IQ 1/2 Jews would be likelier on average to identify w/ Judaism. Of the several 1/2 Jews I know, the ones that are the most intellectual in interest and personality type consider themselves Jewish more often than the ones that are clever enough, but not knowledge-junkies.

Posted by: duende at June 15, 2003 01:58 PM


those ylgesias readers are not very open minded chaps. Landsburg tackled the 'kibbutz farming' issue yet they are nitpicking his theory on the basis that he ignores that. why anyone would get upset over not being a farmer escapes me

Posted by: Jason Soon at June 15, 2003 07:08 PM


Alright, i just read through the 40 pg. paper, and it was actually pretty good. It may well have hb-d implications and it may not (see gcochran's comment). The paper indicates that the families who would form the Ashkenazis were a highly selected batch. Anyway, I won't be dogmatic about anything but I can at least communicate the authors' arguments for the sake of discussion.

Dienekes said: "I did read the article, and the alternative explanation is more compelling, and grounded in historical reality as well."

I guess the problem, Dienekes, is that all you did was repeat the older theory of Jewish urbanization, which doesn't tell us anything about what you think of the newer theory presented in the article or where you think its failures might be. Did you miss the responses to your 6 points or did you just think the counter-arguments presented in the article were not worthy of response?

To summarize the paper - the question is why Jews have been so overwhelmingly represented in merchant and urban occupation professions and extremely underrepresented in agricultural/rural occupations. To address Dienekes, some popular arguments for this - following Abrahams (1896) and Roth (1938)- have been the "restrictionist" model where Jews, being excluded from guilds and land-ownership, were forced to find other occupational niches, as well as Kuznet (1960), who argued that ethnic minorities such as Jews were forced to migrate to urban areas to maintain group cohesion.

1. Jews were forbidden to have certain occupations.
2. Christians were forbidden to have other occupations.
3. Jews were foreigners, and foreigners tend to do something different than what the settled populations do [i.e., farming]

While this is true, it doesn't mean this is the _reason_ for Jewish urbanization. What the authors show, and what is problematic for these points, is that the Jewish transition from agriculture to urban professions happened before migration to Europe and the time of any prohibition. The transition occurred primarily in the 8th century, and mostly in the Muslim empire. At that time the Jews owned plenty of land and were under no sort of restriction. By the ninth century Jews were almost entirely urban.
So medieval restrictions were not the _cause_. Furthermore, prohibitions on land ownership don't necessarily keeps groups out of agriculture. For instance, they give the example of Samaritans who were under similar prohibitions but still highly represented in rural occupation (share-cropping, tenants, wage-workers, etc.).

4. I don't see how literacy in Hebrew would be an advantage, or qualification in medieval society, except perhaps as a mental exercise.

Literacy promoted human capital in a couple of ways. For one the academic institutions where literacy was acquired often provided other educational discipline such as mathematics. Second, it was especially useful for merchant professions where it allowed for well-connected trade, finance, and shipping networks.

5. History abounds with [non-stupid] Jews that became Christian

It is the authors' main thesis that the transformation from Judaism as a rural based religion into an urban based one was caused primarily by a change within Judaism itself, where learning became the religion. My favorite quote from the paper:

"Under the influence of Paul's doctrine, faith replaced obedience to the Law as the core of Christianity whereas Judaism moved into the direction of a club based on literacy." (pg 13)

When study of the Torah became a religious obligation, and since the literacy to study the Torah is presented as an expensive obligation, the pressure to convert was especially high for rural families (who needed the labor as well as the money.). Also, being rural meant being illiterate and being illiterate meant *already* being an outcast from the Jewish community (as expressed by the many statements against the ammei ha-aretz [illiterate] in the Torah). Smart Jews might have converted for many reasons at different times in history, but the authors are only interested in what happened in the Jewish transition period from rural to urban.

6. The need for communal religious worship meant that Jews had to be clustered together. The best way to achieve this is to live in a city [gathering so-to-speak around the synagogue].

#6 is the Kuznet argument. At many times in history Jews have been the minority (such as 4th century Palestine and later in the Byzantine empire) and did not need to become urban to retain group cohesion. Nothing about being rural has prevented many types of people from maintaining their cultural identity (As an example - the Amish).

Posted by: Jason Malloy at June 15, 2003 08:11 PM


>> While this is true, it doesn't mean this is the _reason_ for Jewish urbanization. What the authors show, and what is problematic for these points, is that the Jewish transition from agriculture to urban professions happened before migration to Europe and the time of any prohibition.

Points #1,2 are certainly contributing factors. Point #3 is not addressed. There are tons of historical parallels of migrant peoples who used to be farmers and became urban after migration. In fact that is almost always the case, unless the land-to-be-settled is not occupied.

>> For one the academic institutions where literacy was acquired often provided other educational discipline such as mathematics. Second, it was especially useful for merchant professions where it allowed for well-connected trade, finance, and shipping networks.

Is there any empirical evidence for all of this? Is there any evidence that trade, finance, and shipping required a knowledge of Hebrew, as opposed e.g., to a knowledge of Latin?

>> Nothing about being rural has prevented many types of people from maintaining their cultural identity (As an example - the Amish).

The urban setting allows a tighter concentration. It's true that people can be concentrated in a village, as well as in a town setting. But, a village requires quite a bit of land to be functional. It's doubtful that Jews could move into already-settled territory e.g., in Europe and get a big chunk of land to found a village in. It's much more convenient to go to a town, and gather around the synagogue.

And, of course there are historical parallels that show how the religious meeting place turns rural to urban people. We only need to consider the history of Italian/Greek immigration in the US. In contrast, people with more individualistic religions tended to be the ones that became very scattered and widely distributed over the whole US.

Incidentally, this takes care of the Samaritan argument too. The Samaritans are a small settled people. They didn't become urban, because they were already gathered together in land which they exploited. In contrast, the European Jews were migrants.

PS1: The only interesting Jews from the cognitive perspective are the European ones, since they are the only ones who are exceptional in that respect.

Posted by: Dienekes at June 16, 2003 12:14 AM


Points #1,2 are certainly contributing factors. Point #3 is not addressed. There are tons of historical parallels of migrant peoples who used to be farmers and became urban after migration. In fact that is almost always the case, unless the land-to-be-settled is not occupied.

I did address point #3, Jews could have also share-cropped etc. but they had the human capital for better paying professions. But that doesn't matter anyway, the main point is that the non-rural Jews we know today weren't somehow "formed" in medieval Europe, which is what you're really arguing. Points #1-2 only tell us that Jews were banned from particular occupations at a particular place at a particular time. But just b/c you are banned from doing something doesn't mean it's the reason you don't do it. I could be banned from male prostitution tommorow but that wouldn't be why I wouldn't do it. Jews didn't farm when they could before medieval Europe and they didn't farm after medieval Europe when they could as well. That is the point, they didn't farm before migration. They were already urban when they left for Europe. They went to Europe because there were urban niches to fill.

Is there any empirical evidence for all of this?

The authors indicate that reciepts, orders, inventories etc. were written down which might be a form of physical evidence. I would have to read some of the source material to know the quality of their historical opinions. Literacy helps if you're running a business, esp. if the network you are dealing with is largely made of other literate co-ethnics (also see Salter's Risky Transactions: Trust, Kinship, and Ethnicity).

Is there any evidence that trade, finance, and shipping required a knowledge of Hebrew, as opposed e.g., to a knowledge of Latin?

I don't get it. It's the literacy itself that's helpful not the specific language. Also it's the fact that the entire ethnic business network had a common language for communication across national language barriers.

PS1: The only interesting Jews from the cognitive perspective are the European ones, since they are the only ones who are exceptional in that respect.

Gcochran already got his props for this point. Rather than selecting for smarter Jews, I got the impression the more religiously devoted stayed aboard- but seeing as how modern Jews are less religious on average, it probably didn't do much*. I did get the impression that Ashkenazis might be comprised of an initially high IQ batch of self-selected migrants though - so perhaps that says something.

*I think KmacD has argued this phenomenon selected for ethnocentrism, but I think unbelievably high rates of modern jewish outmarriage is a severe challange to that claim.

Posted by: Jason Malloy at June 16, 2003 01:48 AM


>> But just b/c you are banned from doing something doesn't mean it's the reason you don't do it.

Usually prohibitions occur when there is something to prohibit. Presumably there are no "Don't smoke" signs in countries where there are no smokers.

>> I don't get it. It's the literacy itself that's helpful not the specific language.

Not necessarily. Literacy in Hebrew is pretty much useless in the world to do business. Was being able to read the Torah an important asset in business? It doesn't take exceptional literacy to be able to run a business, just a small knowledge of how to keep accounts. People used scraps of vulgar Latin to keep accounts, they didn't need to learn how to read the Aeneid to do so.


Posted by: Dienekes at June 16, 2003 02:18 AM


>> I got the impression the more religiously devoted stayed aboard- but seeing as how modern Jews are less religious on average, it probably didn't do much

If you substitute "religiously devoted" with ethnocentric or less individualistic, then it makes sense. Certainly the Jews that were most loyal to their group stayed in their group, since the Jews lived in a world where they were a minority. The Jews of today certainly possess this tendency, even if they are less religious.

Posted by: Dienekes at June 16, 2003 02:23 AM


Usually prohibitions occur when there is something to prohibit. Presumably there are no "Don't smoke" signs in countries where there are no smokers.

Jews were prohibited from owning land, not from any sort of agricultural work, which could have still been done in the form of wage-labor, becoming tenants etc, as a large % of landless Christians did. They were too well-educated for this type of work. So even if they were allowed to have land (as in later times), they still wouldn't/didn't farm.

It doesn't take exceptional literacy to be able to run a business, just a small knowledge of how to keep accounts.

i can't take the author's arguments any further than to say 1) literacy education expanded into other useful academic disciplines 2) that literacy is/was especially useful for urban/merchant occupation.

The authors' point is that basic Jewish religious attitudes towards education allowed them to operate in the most cognitive demanding (and thus highest return) fields of the day - which happened to be urban professions. Perhaps this formula sounds so utterly plausible that I am being misled and over-estimating the importance of literacy in the middle-ages. Either way it remains very interesting to me that the transition form rural to urban Judaism happened completely before the time that would be predicted by the "restrictionists", which lends some credibility, in my mind, to the authors' theory of Judaism.

The Jews of today certainly possess this tendency, even if they are less religious.

I'm not sure that that is so certain. How did you determine that? Jews in the U.S. I would say are less "ethnocentric", in that they have very high outmarriage rates - much higher than the general population. Perhaps there is data that i am unaware of.

Posted by: Jason Malloy at June 16, 2003 06:37 AM


Seemingly any religion that required literacy and the memorization of texts and complex systems of arbitrary rules led to high intelligence and good educational performance -- Jews, Chinese and (hypothetically) Brahmins. (Do Brahmins actually perform well in westernized educational systems?)

An odd case is the Mormons. Mormons as such have made major contributions to genealogy, linguistics, and hydrology (?--irrigation science). But I've read that Mormons and ex-Mormons (as individuals) are making a considerable impact on many fields of study.

To me the arbitrariness of religious beliefs might be a plus, since many fields of science demand a large amount of arbitrary memorization of complex systems before any real scientific thinking can be done.

Posted by: zizka at June 16, 2003 03:56 PM


>> I'm not sure that that is so certain. How did you determine that? Jews in the U.S. I would say are less "ethnocentric", in that they have very high outmarriage rates - much higher than the general population.

1. How is outmarriage in the "general population" measured? Outmarriage can be defined if you define a group (says Jews), its complement (Americans-Jews) and you measure what fraction of the group (Jews) marry from the complement (Americans-Jews).

2. I wouldn't draw conclusions about a people's ethnocentrism from the US situation. The US is a singular case in world history in that its society has a high tolerance for voluntary ethnic mixture. Ethnocentrism becomes diluted in a multi-ethnic society. The tendency for ethnocentrism, if there exists such a thing, will be strongly expressed if (i) one lives among their co-ethnics, (ii) one lives in some sort of counter-point to other-ethnics.

Posted by: Dienekes at June 16, 2003 05:37 PM


Just in case anybody is looking, Dienekes has posted a response on this outmarriage issue on his blog.

I'll look into it DP, but I imagine no matter what we control for, the Jewish-American outmarriage rate will be relatively high. I think historically Jews might have been pretty endogamous, but I see modern Jews, at least the American kind, being not very ethnocentric (high rates of outmarriage and apostasy, quickly assimilating, involvement in Civil Rights, etc, etc.) and very individualistic (As seen by their overrepresentation in the arts and sciences - grand bastions of the individual). So the artificial selection for this personality trait doesn't seem likely to me in Ashkenazis- though I don't view this sort of personality selection for populations as theoretically flawed.

Posted by: Jason Malloy at June 17, 2003 01:25 PM


Outmarriage rates of Jews vary radically according to the marriage pool. I just read that the outmarriage rate of Jews in NYC is 13%. That sounds like 1952. But the current outmarriage rates of Jews in places like Denver is over 50%, perhaps higher. So, it depends on attitude and availability. Point being that Jewish attitudes on marriage depend on what is going on outside the group, as much as Jewish dogma.

Posted by: Diana at June 18, 2003 10:58 AM