This is a followup to a previous post by Rex about an article which claimed that Ashkenazi Jews are genetically smarter. The folks at Gene Expression have had a few posts on the subject, mostly focusing on the ways in which the paper overlooks the historical importance of Sephardic Jews, and the general importance of “cultural” factors. They also reproduced an interesting paper by Howard Metzenberg. He argues that “above average Jewish intelligence can be traced to the origins of rabbinical Judaism itself around the time of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.” I would re-write that to say “the above-average engagement in academic pursuits” so as to avoid the tricky “intelligence” word, which Rex so rightly picks on in his post. (And which Metzenberg tactfully avoids discussing.)
Nonetheless, the article is full of interesting insights. For instance, I never thought of Judaism as an proselytizing religion, but that’s what it was in the first and second centuries:
In the ancient world of Greece and Rome, Judaism was a proselytizing religion and took in many converts. It has been estimated that in the 1st and 2nd centuries, about 10% of the population of the Roman Empire was Jewish, and as many as 25% in the Greek speaking cities of the Eastern Mediterranean. It was for this largely Greek speaking population that the Septuagint (a Greek translation of Hebrew scriptures) was produced. And it was amongst this Greek speaking Jewish population that Paul of Tarsus traveled, proselytizing Christianity.
He also argues that it is impossible to distinguish Ashkenazis as a distinct genetic group within the Jewish population:
One of the reasons that the authors could find no evidence of a population bottleneck in the Ashkenazi Jewish population is that the Ashkenazi population has never been as distinct or isolated as they imagine. The original Ashkenazi population probably descends from Italian Jews who migrated north in the early Middle Ages. Genetic testing of Y-Chromosome phenotypes supports the theory that Ashkenzi Jewish males are closely related to the remnant community of Romaniote Jews, who by tradition are the descendants of Judeans brought to Italy and Greece as captives after the many religious wars and rebellions in the Middle East. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews of Europe were engaged in trade with the Middle East, and it was through those trade routes that Jewish scholarship from the Middle East entered Europe. Later on, there was considerable gene flow from Sephardic populations escaping the Inquisition into the Ashkenazi community, and this is reflected in language and surnames.
Personally I still prefer the theory that Ashkenazis are primarily Central Asian in origin…