Tuesday, January 3, 2017


The holidays are drawing to a close without much fanfare. However, there was one incident that revived several thoughts that I've brought up before on this blog. On Christmas Eve during dinner at a restaurant I mentioned the article discussed here earlier which raised the question of whether the high relative IQs of Ashkenazi Jews compared to other ethnic groups is the result of natural selection. Within moments the two youngest people present got up and left the table in protest without further discussion. Things cooled down immediately, but neither of them put forth an argument or even bothered to explain what it was that they objected to about my comments. Presumably they thought that they were hearing a racist diatribe and that a proposition such as this does not even merit discussion because it is known to be false. I wouldn't have thought much of this disagreement were it not for the fact that these were two highly-educated people, one a software engineer with a degree from Yale and the other a Ph.D. in mathematics. The two aspects of this that interest me the most are how political correctness distorts rational thought and how even well-educated people may have a poor understanding of the basic logic of evolution.

As for the Ashkenazi Jew hypothesis, I am inclined to think that it is correct, though I admit that it would be difficult to prove. However, the study of this hypothesis is possible, and it could be of some use if it confirmed the connection between Ashkenazim intelligence and some of the illnesses associated with that population. That would present a similarity to the African population that acquired a resistance to malaria at the cost of sickle cell anemia, and would therefore not be an unprecedented example of natural selection acting recently within the world population. For that matter it is also known that Tibetans and Inuits, for example, possess uncommon genes that provided them with selective advantages in the environments inhabited by their ancestors.

My first point is that people who reject outright a hypothesis such as this in such a manner are operating on principles comparable to religious dogma. Although they didn't say so, I presume that they thought that I was following a model like Social Darwinism, and that my goal was to show how one group was inherently superior to another and that it therefore deserved higher status in some form. However, I am only interested in actual differences, ones that can be scientifically measured, and have no political agenda at all. It is true that some capitalists have distorted Darwin's ideas in order to provide justification and elicit praise for their excessive wealth, but that has nothing to do with science or any point that I was making. I find it incredible to see otherwise intelligent people unthinkingly subscribe to flimsy politically correct theories that have no better foundation than those held by creationists.

My second point is that evolution is an ongoing process and is happening around us all of the time. While the current human population seems to have descended from one small group in Africa and all modern humans are very similar to each other, there are still many genetic differences associated with the different habitats that humans have occupied since the migrations out of Africa began. I think that in school evolution is poorly taught, and students tend to think of it as occurring in time spans of millions of years, which is not necessarily the case. Environmental changes may accelerate evolutionary changes, and we are currently entering a period of mass extinctions: this is no time to be thinking that evolution is always gradual.

A third point, which has more to do with human cognition than with evolution per se, is that we tend to think hierarchically even when it isn't appropriate. Thus, in this instance perhaps the suggestion that Ashkenazi Jews are smart was interpreted to mean that they are better than other people. Intelligence, though important, is not necessarily a crucial characteristic, especially from an evolutionary standpoint. We think of it as important because it has become so in recent years, with a college education and advanced intellectual skills becoming more essential to employment than ever before. However, the ability to live in socially cohesive groups has also been extremely important to our survival as a species, and that probably surpasses intelligence in significance on a longer time horizon. If you are a purist about evolution, interpreting it teleologically and assuming that intelligence is its final outcome is presumptuous, because evolution only concerns itself with which species survive, and what a particular species may happen to think is its most important characteristic is irrelevant. Regarding the importance of intelligence, you can conduct experiments on this yourself: if you familiarize yourself with different types of people, it doesn't take long to notice that socially inept people are often at a disadvantage regardless of their level of intelligence.

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