From the New York Times opinion page:
The Secrets of Jewish Genius
It’s not about having higher I.Q.s.
By Bret Stephens
Opinion Columnist, Dec. 27, 2019
… how is it that a people who never amounted even to one-third of 1 percent of the world’s population contributed so seminally to so many of its most pathbreaking ideas and innovations?
The common answer is that Jews are, or tend to be, smart. When it comes to Ashkenazi Jews, it’s true. “Ashkenazi Jews have the highest average I.Q. of any ethnic group for which there are reliable data,” noted one 2005 paper.
“During the 20th century, they made up about 3 percent of the U.S. population but won 27 percent of the U.S. Nobel science prizes and 25 percent of the ACM Turing awards. They account for more than half of world chess champions.”
But the “Jews are smart” explanation obscures more than it illuminates. Aside from the perennial nature-or-nurture question of why so many Ashkenazi Jews have higher I.Q.s, there is the more difficult question of why that intelligence was so often matched by such bracing originality and high-minded purpose. One can apply a prodigious intellect in the service of prosaic things — formulating a war plan, for instance, or constructing a ship. One can also apply brilliance in the service of a mistake or a crime, like managing a planned economy or robbing a bank.
But as the story of the Lithuanian rabbi suggests, Jewish genius operates differently. It is prone to question the premise and rethink the concept; to ask why (or why not?) as often as how; to see the absurd in the mundane and the sublime in the absurd. Ashkenazi Jews might have a marginal advantage over their gentile peers when it comes to thinking better.
It’s not really marginal anymore out at, say, the von Neumann level of IQ, due to how the normal probability distributions work out at the right tail of the bell curve.
Where their advantage more often lies is in thinking different.
I’d agree that Ashkenazis over the last 200 years have had extremely impressive levels of intellectual creativity, although it’s worth noting that Europeans in general have been pretty creative.
Keep in mind, however, that Ashkenazi Jews didn’t contribute much to European culture before the Jewish Enlightenment, which lagged about 75 years behind The Enlightenment. There were a small number of Jewish geniuses before, say, David Ricardo, such as Spinoza in the 17th Century and the part-Jewish Montaigne (who was first published in English translation in 1603 and influenced Shakespeare’s Tempest, and Shakespeare likely met his translator, John Florio, in the 1590s).
But Jews did not become major contributors to European advancement until well into the 19th Century. For example, it’s hard to explain the embarrassing Freud Cult without grasping that Europe and America in the first third of the 20th Century was full of brilliant young Jews who were rather lacking in Jewish intellectual heroes. So those who weren’t willing to throw in with Marx often elevated the bourgeois Freud to an absurd level of deference. Eventually, Jews got plenty of genuine intellectual heroes like Einstein, so we don’t hear much about Freud anymore.
One interesting question that will be answered over the course of the 21st Century is whether Jewish creativity will remain as high as in the 20th Century.
Of course, most of the comments are aghast that Stephens (the former editor of the Jerusalem Times) would spill the beans on Jewish IQ.
In reality, as you and I know, but NYT readers don’t seem to know, Jews in general and Ashkenazi Jews (German and Eastern European) in particular, are, per capita, the world’s smartest, richest, and most influential ethnicity. In their 1995 book Jews and the New American Scene, the prominent social scientist Seymour Martin Lipset, a Senior Scholar of the Wilstein Institute for Jewish Policy Studies, and Earl Raab, Director of the Perlmutter Institute for Jewish Advocacy at Brandeis University, pointed out:
During the last three decades, Jews have made up 50% of the top two hundred intellectuals, 40 percent of American Nobel Prize Winners in science and economics, 20 percent of professors at the leading universities, 21 percent of high level civil servants, 40 percent of partners in the leading law firms in New York and Washington, 26% of the reporters, editors, and executives of the major print and broadcast media, 59 percent of the directors, writers, and producers of the fifty top-grossing motion pictures from 1965 to 1982, and 58 percent of directors, writers, and producers in two or more primetime television series. [pp. 26-27]
You can’t really understand how the world works without being cognizant of these data.