December 2, 2005

UPDATED: Reports on Steven Pinker's lecture on the evolution of Jewish IQ:

A reader writes:

Saw Pinker's lecture [on the Cochran-Harpending theory of the evolution of Ashkenazi Jewish high intelligence] last night, it was great. I didn't feel like taking frantic notes like I was back in school so I quickly came to terms with the inevitability that I'd forget most of it. But I enjoyed it while it was happening. Though not even Pinker could prevent the most technical aspects from blurring beyond my comprehension, the talk overall was very much in his clear, amusing, engagingly constructed writing style.

Noah Feldman was the moderator and he asked if potentially "dangerous" ideas shouldn't be airtight before they can be published.

Funny how nobody asked that question before whooping up Steven D. Levitt's now-discredited abortion-cut-crime theory for the last six years... "A lie goes halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on."

As I recall, Pinker basically said "Maybe, good question, but no." I didn't quite understand how the theories are going to be sufficiently tested if they aren't allowed into the open until they no longer require testing. Maybe Feldman meant "in popular venues like New York magazine" as opposed to "obscure scientific venues where people are comparatively safe from politics."

Funny how the best overall critique of Levitt's theory appeared in within days of his theory first surfacing in the media. In contrast, professional economists were largely missing in action for years.

But it wasn't clear and Pinker seemed to be saying No either way. (Feldman was asking the question in a fairly nonpartisan manner, by the way; he didn't seem at all to be arguing in favor of the withholding.)

Since it was the segment that I think inspired the most questions, I would say one of the main sources of interest to the audience were the anecdotes Pinker told which went counter the idea that Jews are intellectually accomplished because their culture/parents put so much emphasis on academic achievement (amusingly, Pinker introduced this question as "Jewish Genes or Jewish Mothers?").

Funny how Jennifer Senior in New York denounced attributing Jewish IQ to "Jewish genes" as a "stereotype," when her preferred explanation was "Jewish mothers." Nothing stereotypical about that concept!

One was a quote from Noam Chomsky's mother describing her reaction to her son's decision to study linguistics: "I go up and down the street all the time and I never see a sign that says: 'Help Wanted: Linguist.'"

Pinker seemed to be saying that an emphasis on education to the extent that education helps one succeed in life is not the same as a love of intellectualism for its own sake. So if the latter is a characteristic of Jews it's not the result of parents concerned about financial viability it's the result of raw intelligence desiring a sufficiently stimulating outlet. The audience seemed to be rebelling against this idea somewhat.

I'd sympathize with the audience. Jews definitely have a tradition of unprofitable scholarship. Marx, for instance, was always dunning his capitalist relatives for financial support in angry letters that assumed that they had a duty to support a genius like himself.

It reminded me of John McWhorter responding in the paperback of Losing the Race to the critiques that, contra his argument that blacks don't take enough interest in academics, blacks care very much about education because they realize it's a means of economic success. McWhorter emphasized that he didn't mean that they didn't get the practical value of a degree but rather that intellectualism for its own sake is what makes one do well in school.

My impression is that the intellectual orientation of blacks isn't bad, when you adjust for IQ. I'd guess that African-Americans are significantly more intellectually oriented than Mexican-Americans, who have a higher average IQ. Even adjusting for their high IQs, I'd guess that Ashkenazi Jews were the most intellectually oriented group on Earth, with the French in second place.

But, as Pinker seemed to be saying, that's the reverse of the real cause and effect—being into intellectualism for its own sake is the result of having a highly intelligent mind, and a highly intelligent mind is the most important thing for doing well in school, more so than "Jewish Mothers."


I'm pretty sure he declined to suggest resentment & fear for the No possibilities of the "Is it good for the Jews?" segment, nor did anyone else. I found that very strange, particularly as resentment and envy of middlemen ethnicities' accomplishment was cited as a reason for their persecution—it seems at least a possibility that that would be intensified if the accomplishment were shown to be genetically semi-destined.

That's certainly been the fear among Jews, the most likely reason why people like Stephen Jay Gould and Leon Kamin were so crazy in their demonizaton of IQ research.

Similarly, the issue of how people are going to take this if it gets solidly established and widely known was not very much explored. Noah Feldman's above question was the most I remember.

What was one of the most striking parts of the evening to me was how Pinker concluded he talk. He listed several interesting Final Thoughts and gave each of them at least a couple sentences of attention. But then, rather dramatically, he listed the final one and let it sit on its own without further comment and concluded the speech. It was that intellectual life is not at present prepared to deal with this topic.

At a café on the way home I began a book I just got, The Legacy of Jihad by Andrew Boston, and read the introduction by Ibn Warraq. At the end of the intro, Warraq quotes Albert Schweitzer: "Truth has no special time of its own. Its hour is now, always, and indeed then most truly when it seems most unsuitable to actual circumstances."

He was talking about acknowledging Islam's historic attitude toward kufr and dhimmis (it hasn't been great). But it fit into my mind very comfortably with Noah Feldman's question and Pinker's last Final Thought.

Of course, it's the same topic—diversity.

Lying Eyes was there and has an detailed report here. He summarizes:

I made it over to 16th St. tonight to see Pinker. There wasn't a lot of new material given how much I've read about the paper already, but it sure was a pretty full endorsement of Greg and Henry's arguments. I think the audience was stunned by the sheer weight of the arguments. If they understood it, I can't imagine they weren't convinced. The Q&A was pretty tepid - half-hearted objections.

Another reader writes:

Basically it was Pinker [Harvard professor, author of "The Blank Slate" and "How the Mind Works"] examining the Cochran-Harpending-Hardy paper. He broke it down into seven hypotheses (which I wish I'd been able to write down) and said that a lot of the evidence for the stuff was iffy but that it was falsifiable, and you could check by comparing siblings who were and were not carriers for Tay-Sachs, etc.; if the carriers were smarter, that would prove the hypothesis.

A lot of the questions revolved around the explaining Cochran's hypotheses, which really are pretty complicated if you don't have a genetics background.

As far as I can remember, they were:

1. Intelligence is heritable
2. Jews have higher IQs
3. The Jewish advantage is heritable
4. Jews were concentrated in middleman jobs
5. The pressures of middleman jobs selected for intelligence (the last two were the important ones)
6. The genetic diseases arose specifically as a result of selection for intelligence, which you can see because they all affect a number of common pathways (this one's apparently got a complicated statistical argument behind it)
7. The genetic diseases increase intelligence, People with the genetic diseases have higher IQs

As far as the stuff you're interested in...he said that it was better to know if things like this were actually true because (a) you could disprove any of the old racist stereotypes that WEREN'T true and (b) reality is what doesn't go away when you stop believing it.

He also did raise the possibility of personality traits as well as IQ explaining Ashkenazi success, and said that at least Jews being smart was better for the Jews than Jews being ruthless. (I'm not sure why personality traits predisposing to business success are so bad, especially in a business-focused country like this one. Though maybe in France...)

What I didn't hear was the possibility of anti-Semitism arising from resentment--i.e., your argument that being thought smarter is more dangerous than being thought dumber. But this was basically a New York Jewish audience (older folks mostly), so they probably felt pretty secure.

He also mentioned that middleman minorities, like the Indians in Africa or the overseas Chinese, have also been persecuted because untutored minds have been unable to comprehend the role of the middleman and just see them as parasites. (You can make a pro-capitalist teaching point out of this if you would like.)

Not much a regular reader of iSteve wouldn't get, in other words, but pretty good otherwise.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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