Lynn On The Jews: Yes, It’s Intelligence—But There’s Something Else Too

My favorite Sesame Street character is Count von Count, an amiable vampire who always refers to himself in the third person in his thick Transylvanian accent—"The Count loves counting!"—as he enumerates everything in sight.

I love counting, too, which is why I find Richard Lynn's books, such as 2002's IQ and the Wealth of Nations, irresistible: Lynn is another countaholic.

Lynn's latest, The Chosen People: A Study of Jewish Intelligence and Achievement, tabulates the consistently impressive performance of Northern European Jews—known as “Ashkenazi” Jews, as opposed to the Sephardic Jews from Spanish or Portuguese backgrounds, such as Benjamin Disraeli—across many fields in 17 different countries. Lynn, a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Ulster, calculates "Achievement Quotients" of how heavily Jews are represented in a broad range of desirable categories, from the professions to bridge champions.

To summarize Lynn's findings: Ashkenazi Jews do well in every country they inhabit, and in most every field in which they compete.

Jewish organizations devote much energy to counting the number of high-achieving Jews, as the many Jewish websites devoted to listing famous Jews attest. (For example, here is the Google search page for "Jewish baseball players").

So this information is available to anyone with an internet connection. But it is presently considered Just Not Done for gentiles like Lynn to take a scientific interest in such matters—no matter how appreciative their attitude.

In contrast, the federal government spends huge sums counting blacks, Hispanics, and whites for the purpose of rectifying white "overrepresentation" through quotas and lawsuits.

Lynn, however, blithely plunges ahead with his task. And he is quite right to do so. The impact of Jewish intelligence in the modern world could hardly be more important—or less studied.

For example, the Jewish record in winning Nobel Prizes is extraordinary. Lynn cites Nobel laureate data compiled by the Israel Science and Technology Homepage, a website run by biochemist Israel Hanukoglu, who was the chief science advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term as prime minister. Updating Lynn's Nobel numbers to include the recently announced 2011 prizes, we find:

  • Medicine or Physiology: Jews have comprised 51 of the 199 laureates, or 26 percent
  • Physics: 47 of 191, or 25 percent
  • Chemistry 30 out of 160, or 19 percent
  • Literature: 12 out of 108, or 11 percent
  • Peace: 9 out of 101, or 9 percent
  • Economics: 24 out of 69, or 35 percent

Of course, the latter three prizes are all dubious. The Literature Prize depends upon vagaries of taste and translation (there are likely more famous authors who didn't win the Nobel than ones who did). The Peace Prize is inherently political. And Economics is more ideological than scientific. While there are Republican and Democratic economists, nobody talks about Republican and Democratic chemists.

This is not to say there are no controversies about the hard science Nobels. For example, the only Nobel laureate I've had dinner with is among the most frequently cited as undeserving. When I was a student at Rice University in 1978, the new physics laureate Robert Wilson, a Rice alumnus, came to his alma mater to give a speech. A modest man, he pointed out that it was ironic that he and Arno Penzias had won the Nobel Prize for proving the Big Bang Theory, even though they had to have the cosmic importance of their discovery of microwave background radiation explained to them by astrophysical theorists at Princeton. And the Princetonians, as many other Princetonians have complained, didn't win the Nobel.

But when I mentioned this anecdote about Wilson to an astronomy professor last year, however, he replied: "Do you think it was a coincidence that they gave the Nobel to the best experimental astronomer of his generation, the guy whose technique was so good that he found what nobody else could find?"  So even this notoriously controversial hard science Nobel turns out to be quite legit.

And winning a science Nobel should not be thought of as solely an individual achievement. To earn the chemistry prize, for instance, you need a good laboratory. Thus, it took the U.S. a long time to get started at winning Nobels. From 1901 through 1929, a period in which 30 people born in Germany won Nobels, only one native-born American was a laureate. There was plenty of talent born in America in the 19th Century. But America back then trailed Europe at the highest levels of technical sophistication.

Still, if you keep all that in mind, the Nobels are a good data source for Lynn to mine.

Jews have won 23 percent of the Medicine, Physics, and Chemistry Nobels. This is tremendously impressive because Jews have always comprised a small fraction of the world's population. Before the Holocaust, Jews might have made up about 2.5 percent of the population of Europe, North America, and Australasia. Today, they make up roughly 0.2 percent of the world's population.

It has long been predicted that Jewish achievement in science will slow down, as affluent younger Jews turn to more lucrative or fun careers, such as Wall Street and Hollywood. But we don't see that in the Nobel Prize data. In the 21st century so far, Jews have won 24 of the 91 science Nobels, or 26 percent, which is even higher than their 20th Century rate.

Of course, that doesn't tell us what is actually happening in the last decade. The awarding of hard science Nobels typically lag their discovery by at least a decade, as the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences has grown cautious about either rewarding work that might not bear the test of time or overlooking the greats of the past before they die. The 2011 winners were recognized for work first published between 1973 and 1998.

Inevitably, all this data raises the inevitable question: Who is a Jew? This is both a fascinating question and the kind of quibble frequently used to intellectually intimidate curious gentiles with the message: Move along, nothing to notice here.

Netanyahu's friend Hanukoglu offers one definition:

"This list includes only Nobel laureates who are Jewish by the strict definition of Halacha (interpretation of the laws of the Hebrew Scriptures) that requires being born to a Jewish mother or formal conversion to Judaism. Definition of being Jewish is similar to nationality and is independent of personal beliefs."

On the other hand, the website, building upon the 1997 Encyclopedia Judaica, uses a more inclusive definition, counting anybody who is at least half Jewish, whether upon his mother's or father's side. JInfo writes: "Approximately 15% of those [laureates] listed (and about 10% of the Americans listed) are, or were, of half-Jewish descent."

Including everybody who is at least half-Jewish bumps up the percentage of laureates by one to six points: medicine goes up from 26 percent Jewish to 27 percent, physics from 24 percent to 25 percent, chemistry from 19 percent to 20 percent, while economics jumps from 35 percent to 41 percent.

Lynn would prefer to take a more precise approach than either website does because he's interested in the genetics of Jewish intelligence. Consider the Bohr family. The great Danish physicist Niels Bohr won the 1922 Nobel in physics. His mother Ellen Adler Bohr was Jewish, while his father Christian Bohr was Christian.

In turn, Niels's son Aage Bohr won the Nobel in physics in 1975. By both Hanukoglu's rabbinical standards and JInfo's ethnic ones, that makes Niels Bohr Jewish but Aage Bohr gentile. Lynn, however, feels it would make the most sense to count Niels as half Jewish and Aage as one quarter Jewish.

And there are always the ambiguous nature-nurture cases. For example, how many Jewish baseball players are in the Hall of Fame? Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax are famous as Hall of Famers who are Jewish. But what about Lou Boudreau, the Cleveland Indians shortstop who became a player-manager at 25? Apparently, he had a Jewish biological mother, but was adopted by Catholics.

Statistically speaking, however, these sort of quibbles probably don't make much difference. If laureates who are half Jewish are evenly divided between those with Jewish mothers and those with Jewish fathers, either the rabbinic method or the genetic will produce the same overall percentage results.

By any means of counting, there are quite a number of countries where Jews make up a remarkable percentage of native-born Nobel laureates. For example, among American natives, Lynn counts 200 prizewinners through 2009 (leaving aside the peace prize as non-intellectual). Jews made up 62, or 31 percent. Since Jews comprised about 3 percent of the adult population in the U.S. in the middle of the last century, this gives American Jews an Achievement Quotient for Nobel laureates of just over ten.

And the American AQ is fairly low by international standards. In places with very few Jews, AQs can be stratospheric, such as Switzerland (3 Jewish laureates out of 17 total laureates for an AQ of 60), Latin America (2 out of 8 for an AQ of 220) and Italy (4 out of 17 for a 320).

After awhile, The Chosen People becomes slightly repetitious as evidence for consistently high levels of Jewish accomplishment pile up. For variety's sake, I started looking for exceptions to prove the rule.

I found a few. British gentiles are pretty good at winning Nobels. They've won 76 while British-born Jews have won only three, for an Achievement Quota of six. This low AQ not appear to stem from British Jews being untalented or terribly discriminated against, but instead because British gentiles are unusually good at doing Nobel-worthy work.

Similarly, as Lynn documents, Jews do very well in Australia, but gentiles have won all ten Nobels awarded to natives  of Australia.

Lynn's data suggests that Jews have their very highest Achievement Quotas in the more abstract fields such as philosophy and mathematics. Lynn notes that IQ tests suggest Jews tend to be strongest at logic involving words and numbers and weakest at visuo-spatial reasoning. In the professions, Jews might be least distinguished as engineers. Yet Jewish engineers still have AQs well above 1.0 in most countries.

One creative career where Jews appear to be less heavily represented than you'd expect: cinematography (although the best-known Mexican cameraman, Emmanuel Lubezki, who works on Terence Malick's movies like The Tree of Life, is Jewish). Why? My guess is that Jews in Hollywood who have outstanding visual talent will tend to become directors rather than just be cinematographers.

Perhaps the artistic field where Jewish influence is least powerful is golf course architecture. I've devoted absurd amounts of time over the last 40 years to studying the history of golf course design, but I'm not familiar with any major golf course architect who was Jewish. This is not for lack of opportunity. There are scores of historically-Jewish country clubs in America (their names can be found in this discussion at Golf Club Atlas). But they tend to have better clubhouses and cuisine than golf courses.

There are social reasons for this. Golf is a Scottish game, and the classic courses tend to belong to private clubs dominated by Protestants. Therefore, those who move in old-money circles get more chances to see great golf design. And there are likely also cognitive reasons: the ability to imagine three-dimensionally is crucial to success in golf architecture.

In summary: the sheer comprehensiveness of Lynn's data collection, stretching across many fields and many countries, allows him to consider judiciously the various ad hoc theories that have been proposed to explain specific instances of high Jewish achievement.

His conclusion: we don't need all of the theories, but we do need at least two factors to account for this hugely important pattern.

One reason seems overwhelmingly obvious to Lynn, although apparently not to most of those who have advanced theories (at least in print) for Jewish achievement: higher average IQ.

Lynn digs up 32 IQ studies of American Jews and seven of British Jews. He concludes that Ashkenazi Jews (ones with Yiddish-speaking ancestors) average about ten points higher than non-Hispanic white gentiles, or 110 on a scale where white Americans and Brits average 100. That would put the median Ashkenazi Jew at about the 75th percentile among whites. 

IQ testing in Israel suggests that the other Jewish communities trail the Ashkenazi. Lynn estimates that Sephardim score about two points less than white gentiles, or 98. The Mizrahim (Jews from the Arab world) average around 91. 

That ten-point gap between Ashkenazi and gentile whites is substantial, but not enormous. The proportion of individuals with IQs of 115 or above is about twice as great among Jews as among white gentiles. But the absolute number of gentiles is much larger.

Jews are, per capita, twice as common relative to American gentile whites over the 115 IQ level that Lynn sees as the bottom threshold for the professions, but are about 5 times more common per capita among doctors and lawyers. And in many other developed countries, these ratios are even higher.

Lynn significant (and subtle) conclusion: superior Jewish IQ isn't everything. He writes:

"This suggests that the success of the Ashkenazim is attributable to more than just their high IQs and that they also possess strong motivational and work-ethic qualities."

This profound subject has only just begun to be explored.


[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website features his daily blog. His book, AMERICA’S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA’S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]