Jewish genius cant be traced to genes, scientist says

Are there genes that make Jews smarter than other people? Prof. Robert Pollack, a smart Jew and a renowned geneticist, doesn't think so.

Pollack shared the podium with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz at last month's General Assembly of UJA Federations of North America, for a session devoted to the charged subject of Jewish traits and their possible genetic origin.

Steinsaltz, one of the most distinguished contemporary rabbinic figures, argued that 100 generations of "natural selection," as he was bold enough to put it, had inbred traits into the Jewish people necessary for survival in a hostile world.

These traits, he suggested, ranged from intelligence to pushiness.

"If Jews weren't pushy, they couldn't have survived. But they also had to be intelligent and have a great ability to keep the faith."

Pollack countered that while certain traits may be widespread among Jewish people, they are not derived from parental sperm and egg, but from cultural traditions handed down through the generations.

"The best of our lives can be transmitted only by teaching, not by DNA," he said. Pollack, who teaches at Columbia University, where he was formerly dean, worked for years with James Watson, a co-discoverer of DNA's double-helix structure.

The dismissal of specific "Jewish genes" as a formative factor has far-reaching implications, since it leaves the fate of the Jewish people hostage entirely to external factors rather than linking it as well to some inner, programmed destiny.

The danger lies in the fact that the Jewish people, rushing in the past two generations into the embrace of a newly accepting world, have been disengaging from their cultural traditions, Pollack noted in a subsequent interview. Those traditions, inspired by now-waning religious dictates as well as adversity, drove the Jews to heights of achievement.

The astonishing flowering of Jewish genius and accomplishment in the present century, Pollack believes, may prove to be an autumnal exuberance of color that will be followed by a long, pallid winter in which Jews, 50 years hence, will be no more accomplished than anyone else.

In Pollack's view, the Jews are presently coasting on a momentum built up by past generations that internalized cultural norms — particularly the emphasis on learning. "There is a persistence of habits that lasted 1,800 years, but I believe it's running out of steam."

Pollack's own father was a dedicated American communist who spurned religion, but nevertheless passed on to his son the passion for study he had inherited from his own religious parents. Pollack found his way to religion only in recent years, and is now an active member of the Conservative congregation of B'nai Yeshurun on New York's Upper West Side, one of the largest and most vital congregations in the country.

"I'm lucky that I'm immersed in a Jewish world that has caught me in time, that has responded to my instinctive need to study, which I am convinced is a Jewish thing," he said.

The momentum leading to study is giving way, Pollack fears, as Jews join the social elite, becoming less and less driven by religious commandments.

"Negative pressures are down," he said. "What youths receive now is an entitlement, rather than something to be fought for and won."

The argument for a Jewish gene is not absurd on the face of it, since "ethnic" genes have indeed been identified that make Ashkenazi Jews highly prone to specific diseases like Tay-Sachs, which are the result of inbreeding among a small group living in Russia's Pale of Settlement, an area from which the bulk of Ashkenazi Jewry today stems.

Pollack said the diseases are linked to single genes, which make them readily traceable.

"But all characteristics of a person that we perceive to be interesting — like intelligence, kindness, musical ability, obnoxiousness — to the extent that these have a genetic component, will be contained in thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of genes," he said. "We have no capacity at present to measure that." Humans have around 80,000 genes.

"We don't have evidence that, by being born of Jewish parents, we inherit sets of genes that raise our intelligence capacity to a level above other people," Pollack said. "I'm not saying it's not so. I'm just saying we don't know how to measure it."

Standard intelligence tests, he said, are not fair measures, since they have a middle-class bias.

If the extraordinary professional prominence that Jews have achieved around the world is not to be credited to genes, Pollack said it can be attributed to something far more commendable: a conscious attempt by Jewish society over the ages to encourage brain stretch.

"It's a triumph of the Jewish family and Jewish values. We used to be socially stigmatized. At the same time we were taught to reward verbal articulateness, the capacity to think logically, to memorize texts, to talk back, and encouraged to have opinions."

However, the transition of Jews from outsiders to insiders has reduced their need to excel, he said. Nowhere are the Jews more "inside" than in Israel — which Pollack said proves his point. "Generations of kibbutz life have produced soldiers second to none, but not someone likely to become a Nobel laureate. The same is true in the yeshivas."