washingtonpost.com
Aptitude Adjustment

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, June 16, 2005

Back before I became the legendary Cohen of Claims for a major insurance company, I was the lowly mail boy. Part of my job was to pick up mail from the corner office of the branch manager, an avuncular chap with a tirelessly inoffensive manner that, in his day, had made him a legendary salesman. One day he told me that he knew I would succeed splendidly in the insurance biz -- not because I was industrious or smart or had a bent for property damage claims but because, as he put it, Jews did well in business. As if in response, I showed him how wrong he was. I got fired two years later.

Now comes an article in the New York Times to suggest that the branch manager was on to something. It said that scientists at the University of Utah had linked certain genetic diseases found only among European Jews with "natural selection for enhanced intellectual ability." In other words, Jews are smarter because over about a thousand years they adapted to discriminatory practices that limited their livelihood to a restricted range of commercial occupations. Those who succeeded tended to have more children and so, over time, European Jews in general improved their intelligence.

Some scientists find the theory credible; some do not. As for myself, I am immeasurably comforted by it. Jews are smart. This does not mean that all Jews are smart and that no Jews are dumb. It only means that, in general, the proposition holds. Among other things, American Jews -- about 2 percent of the population -- make up 27 percent of this country's Nobel laureates. Something's going on here.

I cannot be certain that Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, has read the article. But if he did, I bet he wondered why it is possible to suggest that certain Jews are smarter than other people but not remotely possible to suggest that women might not be as brilliant in science and engineering as men. When Summers did precisely that back in January -- when he wondered out loud about such matters as "intrinsic aptitude" -- he got his head handed to him. He was not, mind you, stating this as a fact -- just throwing it out along with other factors that might account for why men outnumber women on the science, engineering and math faculties of first-rate universities. What he did not do -- and this was his mistake -- was limit the possibilities to the only politically correct one: sexual discrimination of one sort or another.

But if Jews could adapt to their environment in a certain way, why couldn't women or men? After all, to the eye, there is no distinction between a Jew of European origin and a non-Jew of European origin -- or even a Jew of non-European origin. Yet to that same eye, there is plenty to distinguish a man from a woman. They have bodies designed for different things. If, as the Utah scientists propose, Jews adapted to their environment to produce better businessmen (and not better farmers or soldiers), then why couldn't men or women have adapted to their particular environments in a similar way? Maybe -- just maybe -- there's a link between not being able to express your feelings and solving Fermat's Last Theorem? (Notice the question mark.) I understand full well that beliefs in racial or ethnic superiority or inferiority have accounted for tragedies beyond comprehension -- everything from the Holocaust in Europe to slavery in America. But at root, these were ideologies in which facts either did not matter or were concocted to serve a predetermined end. This is what happened with Summers. He was shouted down not because he was wrong, but because he ought to be wrong; not because he might not be right, but because he should not be right. It did not matter to many of his critics that at least since the 1980s, researchers have found boys doing better at math than girls -- not all boy and all girls, mind you, just those at the highest ranges of achievement. Among the very best, boys are the very bestest.

The reason the Utah study of Jews produced no outcry is that it suggested Jews were, like the children of Lake Wobegon, above average. The reason Summers got into trouble is that he wondered if, so to speak, women were below average. But if one is possible, why not the other? The answer escapes me -- and it cannot be, as we all know from the Utah study, because I'm dumb.

cohenr@washpost.com

© 2005 The Washington Post Company