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article imageAre Ashkenazi Jews Smarter Than The Rest Of Us?

By KJ Mullins     Apr 19, 2009 in Science
Why are some European Jews prone to so many deadly genetic diseases? That question always puzzled Gregory Cochran. It wasn't logical, thought the self-taught genetics scholar. But the answer could be intelligence.
That question sent Cochran on a search through scientific journals.
Cochran believes he has discovered the answer: the faulty genes increase intelligence. He quickly sent an email to collaborator Henry Harpending, professor of anthropology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and a member of the National Academy of Sciences reports the LA Times.
"I've figured it out, I think," Cochran typed. "Pardon my crazed excitement."
The "faulty" genes, Cochran concluded, make Jews smarter.
The two worked together on an age old debate on the link between IQ and DNA. Early this year their book "The 10,000 Year Explosion" were published.
Some scientists dismiss the idea that one race is smarter than another because of the racist implications that it would conjure, says the LA Times.
"What are their theories about those on the opposite end of the spectrum?" asked Neil Risch, director of the Institute for Human Genetics at UC San Francisco, who finds the matter so offensive he can barely discuss it without raising his voice. "Do they have genetic theories about why Latinos and African Americans perform worse academically?"
Neither Cochran nor Harpending are Jewish. The say that on average Ashkenazi Jews have a higher IQ. The average IQ is 100 while the Ashkenazi Jews average falls between 107.5 to 115.
It makes sense. Jews make up less than 3 per cent of the US population yet they have won more than a quarter of the Nobel Prizes awarded to American scientists since 1950.
The prevalence of certain diseases that kill more Ashkenazi Jews than any other group like Tay-Sachs, Niemann-Pick disease and Caravan disease all affect the brain and cause a very early death. They also involve problems with processing sphingolipids, the fat molecules that transmit nerve signals.
Only 108 of the 20,000 human genes are known to be involved in sphingolipid metabolism. The odds that Ashkenazi Jews would have four sphingolipid storage disorders by random chance are less than 1 in 100,000, he calculated.
Other scientists have thought that IQ could have something to do with the DNA but Cochran and Harpending are the first to make a broad case linking multiple Jewish genetic diseases to intelligence. The pair's theories came from research on history, statistics, neurobiology and population genetics.
T. J. Kelleher reviewed the book in SEED, bringing out several interesting points:
Cochran and Harpending also find value in such work [as the Genographic Project], but they argue for a fuller appreciation of the geographic distributions of genes, and in doing so, they herald a new era not only in biological anthropology, but also for history. They do not stop with what information about human history can be found in the genes, precisely because many gene variants are not neutral. Where the usual geographical analysis treats the distribution of genes as an effect of history, in Cochran and Harpending's view, the genes themselves are a cause: Two variants in the same gene do not necessarily have the same effect, and the relative selective advantages and disadvantages of them will — not surprisingly, to anyone versed in evolutionary biology — influence the movements of genes through populations over both space and time.
The academic community though has yet to embrace the theory but some are saying that it does need to be researched further.
The LA Times reports:
Dr. Melvin Konner, a biological anthropologist at Emory University in Atlanta, said he's impressed by the theory's ability to explain why all the Ashkenazi diseases are clustered "on about five pages of a biochemistry textbook." But, he added, Cochran and Harpending still have to show that the genes play a direct role in brain development.
"There's evidence that some of them do," he said. "It's not a crazy idea. It's just not nearly a proven idea."
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