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June 16, 2005

The history of the Jews...a very special people...sort of

I finally read Howard Metzenberg's paper in the totality. I really don't know what to say, he seems to think that his thesis somehow is a direct challenge to Greg and Henry's thesis, but re-reading the abstract and conclusion of Greg and Henry's paper there is no mention of Sephardic (or Mizrahi) Jews. Rather, the historical hypothesis is an important, but secondary (in my mind) to the genetic and physiological hypotheses they are putting forward, and the historical/sociological contentions are important in finding other groups that might have "Overclocking" genes (Parsis, Brahmins, some Chinese groups?). Ultimately the distinctions between the Jewish communities are less important than the mutations that Greg and Henry have fingered, mutations that are associated with groups that are putatively "Ashkenazi." Ultimately the people or the community are simply hosts for the alleles, who are the real leads in this show.

In any case, with all this talk about various types of Jews I have my copy of Raphael Patai's The Jewish Mind on hand now, and I will excise some passages with statistics....

Page 125:
...This gives for the entire 150-year period from 1150 to 1300 a total of eighty-five scientists, for whom thirty-five were Jewish, thirty Muslim, and twenty Christian, or about 41 percent Jewish, as against 35.3 percent Muslima nd 23.5 percent Christian....

...Using this higher estimate, which we modify only to the extent of including in it the Muslim-led Granadan corner of the peninsula, we find that Jews constituted 2.7 percent of the total population of Spain....

In other words, Jews were overrepresented in the sciences 25 times over what they were in the general population. This is very impressive. But, a few comments:

  1. As we have noted before, there is a distinction between the "non-Ashkenazi Jews" that many non-Israelis conflate with Sephardic Jews, and the Sephardic + Mizrahi Jews + Others (Ethiopians).

  2. After the expulsion from Spain from my reading it seems that in North Africa the Sephardic Jews assimilated the local pre-expulsion (that is, the 1492 expulsion from Castile and Aragon, and later Portugal) Jewish population. These "indigenous" Jews are Sephardic broadly speaking, but they assimilated to that ethnic identification later on than the period when Al-Andalus flowered.

  3. In the Ottoman state, which welcomed Sephardic Jews, there was still some separation between the newcomers and the resident Jewish communities, though also likely a great deal of admixture (likely with the higher status Sephardic identity being dominant). In Salonika in Greece, prior to their decimination due to the Nazis, the Sephardic and pre-Sephardic Hellenic Jews still maintained their separate identities.

Back to the relationship between Sephardic Jews and Henry and Greg's hypothesis. I think we have to be careful and not assume that all phenomena can be explained by one given hypothesis. In other words, "overclocking genes" might be a sufficient condition for the rise of a cogntive elite. But cultural biases and conditions might also be a sufficient condition. Neither might be necessary. Additionally, the two also have a dynamic feedback relationship to each other (with the cultural conditions likely being the initial variable).

One extra thing I would like to add from Patai's book. On page 93 he says:
...a few words at least must be said about those areas of Greek civilization from which the Hellenized Jews were conspicuously absent. There were two such areas: that of the sciences and that of language studies....

I simply point this out to assert that I tend to lean toward Greg and Henry's contention that classical Jews were not culturally exceptional in their production of non-religious thinkers, in sharp contrast to the Sephardic Jews of Al-Andalus or the Ashkenazi after the Haskala, the Jewish Englightenment. I had never thought greatly on this topic but it struck me as plausible in light of my reading of classical history (there was a separation in foci between Latin speaking intellectuals who excelled in rhetoric and law and Greek speakers who were known for more abstract or scientific interests. Of course, "Latin" and "Greek" are not necessarily ethnic identifiers in the same fashion as they are today, or were before the Roman Empire expanded).

Ultimately I see in Jews a small but prominent ethnic group that can elucidate some important historical and scientific questions. Though it is possible that Talmudic learning has played a role in there genetic and cultural predispositions I do not find in the Talmud or Hebrew Bible great intellectual profundities, at least in comparison to Sankara.

Actually, that was bullshit. I don't know if Sankara is more profound than Rashi, or Hsu Tzu a more rigorous thinker than Augustine. I can have opinions, but they are probably skewed by my biases, and here is where ethno-autism kicks in. Jews often think they are the Chosen People. Even non-religious Jews tend to have a bit of a attitude which I think comes from this religious idea. Indian Brahmins often seem to think they are "better" than other South Asians. The Chinese assume that everything was invented in China, at some point. Europeans wax on about the special nature of their people. Blacks think that all things come from Africa. And so on. I personally find these attitudes tiresome, but ubiquitous. Usually they emerge not from conscious chauvinism, but lack of knowledge of other peoples. I have had the repeated experience of both Jews and Hindus proudly declaring to me that their religion is the only religion where they do not attempt to convert others. I assume that Jews and Hindus are aware of each other, but when listing the bullet points of their own group's specialness they tend to forget about the constellation of religions and fix on those who are near and dear (and different and same), whether that be Muslims and Christians for Jews or Muslims for Hindus. Both groups also neglect East Asian religious traditions like Shinto that tend to keep to themselves.

My point is going down this road is that I have noticed that one common response to Greg and Henry's thesis is disbelief that such banal processes could drive Jews to being special as they are. Rather, the particular character of Jewish religious traditions, of utmost importance to Muslims and Christians as well, are what undergirds Jewish speciality. But from and Eastern perspective there is likely nothing particular amazing about the Hebraic religious tradition (aside from the fact that half of the world's population believes in it). Religious Jews of a certain sort will continue to believe that Jews as the Chosen People, so be it. Religious Christians and Muslims will give Jews special importance in the constellation of peoples because of the character of their religions. So be it. But for many (most?) on this weblog such assertions carry as much weight as appealing to the self-evident beauty of the Vedas, or the deep richness of the Upanishads, as "evidence" that South Asians can not have a median IQ of 80, or the spareness of the The Analects as a reason why the Chinese can not have IQs above 100. Such data points are not intelligible outside of a rich context of data and implicit models and natural biases that people bring to the table.

Posted by razib at 01:57 PM