In this paper we propose an empirically grounded theory of the relatively high level of intellectual attainment of Jews. Two main theories of Jewish intellectual attainment already exist, one genetic, the other cultural. Unfortunately, both theories posit causal mechanisms that change little and/or too slowly to account for variation in Jewish intellectual attainment over relatively short time periods, including the apparent decline that is now occurring in Western societies. In contrast, our alternative explanation highlights the causal importance of sociological circumstances. We contend that a population’s intellectual attainment is proportional to the degree to which its members (1) belong to a first generation to enjoy relatively abundant opportunities for the intellectual attainment of their children and (2) possess sufficient resources to enable their children to effectively compete for these opportunities. Where these conditions weaken, so too does the observed level of intellectual attainment. We render our theory plausible by examining a century of change in the ethnic composition of graduates from the University of Toronto Medical School, one of the world’s premier institutions for the training of physicians. While a rigorous test of our theory is beyond the scope of this work, we present evidence that is consistent with our theory and inconsistent with the genetic and cultural theories.
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Yiddish saying: “As it Christians, so it Jews”.
We identified Jews using online biographies that are cited mainly in Wikipedia. Nobel prizes include the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences but exclude the Nobel Peace Prize.
Despite widespread discourse on the topic, no consensus definition of “intellectual attainment” exists. Some analysts of high Jewish intellectual attainment focus on correlates of high IQ, such as receipt of prestigious awards and incumbency in academic, engineering, accounting, medical and legal occupations (Cochran et al. 2006). Others emphasize that attributes of Jewish intellectual exceptionalism may be related more to creativity than IQ (Arieti 1976).
The decline is not yet evident among recipients of prestigious awards like Nobel prizes because recipients of these honors are usually older individuals, often recognized for attainments in their youth (Efron 2013).
For convenience, we subsequently refer to Jews in general despite the fact that researchers analyzing Jewish intellectual exceptionalism typically refer only to Ashkenazim. Our impression is that rise and decline in Jewish intellectual attainment has also occurred among Sephardim, with the so-called Golden Age in Muslim Spain and the subsequent decline following the Christian reconquista perhaps being the outstanding example.
While advocates of the genetic theory note that (1) Jews have a relatively high average IQ and (2) IQ is largely genetically determined (as demonstrated by identical twin studies), this does not logically imply that the relatively high average Jewish IQ is due to genetics. When the US Army administered intelligence tests to 1.75 million potential recruits during World War I, Jews, many of whom were immigrants, scored below average (Gould 1996: 255). Yet in the course of the twentieth century, average Jewish IQ scores in the US rose with linguistic assimilation and upward educational mobility. Other ethnic groups have experienced similar improvements in average IQ scores over relatively short time periods as their mean educational attainment increases. This observation suggests that social circumstances play a larger role than do genetic factors in determining average IQ scores (Fischer et al. 1996; Gould 1996; Schiff and Lewontin 1986; Roivainen 2012; Steinberg 2001; Unz 2012b, c).
Forty years later in Toronto, Jews were 10.2 times as likely as non-Jews to be in medical and health occupations, 7.9 times as likely to be lawyers and notaries, 6.0 times as likely to be physicians and surgeons and 3.5 times as likely to be university professors (Reitz 1990: 166).
The remaining immigrants were in the family reunification class (28.8%), consisting largely of the parents of immigrants, and the refugee class (15.6%) (Government of Canada 2018).
The term “visible minority” has been in official use in Canada since the early 1980s. As Boyd (2017: 66) notes, “the term is socially constructed in that its origins lie in discussions of, and legislation on, employment equity and related program requirements…. Visible minorities are defined in the census as people who self-identify as Chinese, South Asian (e.g., East Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, etc.), Black, Filipino, Latin American, Southeast Asian (e.g., Vietnamese, Cambodian, Malaysian, Laotian, etc.), Arab, West Asian (e.g., Iranian, Afghan, etc.), Korean, Japanese, and Other (as specified by the respondent)”.
It is not necessarily the case that only the most educated Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe (Perlmann 2000). Intellectual attainment among the children of relatively uneducated immigrants may be related to pressure to excel in the face of discrimination and/or cultural alienation. Such an explanation could be viewed as a generalization of the “immigrant effect” that is also applicable to the case of non-immigrant Jews of Central and Western Europe who exhibited intellectual “exceptionalism” following emancipation (Hollinger 2002).
Statistics Canada does not consider Jews to be members of a visible minority group, but since Jews represent only 1.4% of the non-Jewish, non-Asian population, they have a negligible effect on the percentage of non-Jewish, non-Asian immigrants.
Chiswick (2009) speculates that the decline in American Jewish Ph.D. recipients since the 1970s may be due to Jews turning to alternative intellectual pursuits such as medicine. The decline in the representation of Jewish medical school graduates identified in the current study suggests a more general decline in Jewish attainment across disciplines requiring relatively high intelligence.
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The authors thank Patricia Coty from the University of Toronto Medical Alumni Association for providing a list of University of Toronto Medical School graduates and Daniel Staetsky of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London for critical comments on a draft.
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Appendix: Coding Ethnicity among UTMS Graduates
Appendix: Coding Ethnicity among UTMS Graduates
Names and photos of graduates of the UTMS were retrieved from graduating class photos displayed at the University of Toronto’s Medical Science Building. For 1918–1958, names and photos were additionally retrieved from the University of Toronto Student Yearbook Torontonensis. For 1968–2018, names of graduates were additionally provided by the University of Toronto Medical Alumni Association. For 2008–2018, names are further listed in the Ontario Medical Review.
A graduate was coded as Jewish if any of the following conditions were met:
The graduate was found to speak Hebrew or Yiddish (as long as there were no indicators that these languages were unrelated to their ethnic origin). This information was largely retrieved from profiles of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario;
The graduate was listed as the deceased or relative of the decreased in a Jewish obituary. The majority of obituaries were retrieved from Benjamin’s Park Memorial Chapel, Steeles Memorial Chapel, and legacy.com;
The graduate was listed in Canadian Jewish Review or Canadian Jewish News;
The graduate was listed in a yearbook or on a website indicating their affiliation with a Jewish organization or institution such as a synagogue or Jewish school or fraternity;
The graduate was listed as being of Jewish heritage on a web page or a public family tree;
In rare cases when the ethnicity of the individual could not be otherwise identified, the graduate’s given name was of strictly Hebrew or Yiddish origin and the surname was distinctly Jewish (for example, the mock individual Ilan Silverberg would be labeled as Jewish even if no corroborating information is available);
The graduate was known to be of Jewish heritage through the authors’ personal contact with the graduate or the graduate’s family.
While we believe our method is highly reliable, and certainly more effective than estimating Jewish ethnicity based on surnames alone, limitations remain. The most likely limitation involves incorrectly identifying a Jew as non-Jewish White due to a lack of public information confirming the individual’s Jewish heritage. It is also possible that a graduate who is not of Jewish heritage was mischaracterized as Jewish if both Jewish and non-Jewish graduates with the same first and last name lived in the same locality at the same time (e.g., if there is a non-Jewish medical student named Steve Miller and another Jewish Steve Miller living in Toronto at the same time, the medical student may be erroneously labeled as Jewish).
Coding of visible minorities is considered highly reliable because coding was cross-validated by assessing physical characteristics in graduating photos. In conjunction with photos, East Asian and South Asian individuals were primarily identified by surname (Shah et al., 2010).
Other conditions for coding a graduate as East Asian were as follows:
The graduate was found to speak, or had a name derived from, Cantonese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin or Vietnamese (as long as there were no indicators that these languages were unrelated to their ethnic origin);
The graduate was listed as East Asian on a web page or public family tree, or found to come from China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand or Vietnam (as long as there were no indicators that these places were unrelated to the graduate’s ethnic origin);
The graduate was known to be of East Asian heritage through the authors’ personal contact with the graduate or the graduate’s family.
Other conditions for coding an individual as South Asian were as follows:
The individual was found to speak, or had a name derived from, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tamil or Urdu (as long as there were no indicators that these languages were unrelated to their ethnic origin);
The individual was listed as South Asian on a web page or public family tree, or found to come from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka (as long as there were no indicators that these places were unrelated to the graduate’s ethnic origin);
The graduate was known to be of South Asian heritage through the authors’ personal contact with the graduate or the graduate’s family.
Other conditions for coding an individual as non-Jewish Middle Eastern were as follows:
The graduate was found to speak, or had a name derived from, Arabic or Farsi (as long as there were no additional indicators that these languages were unrelated to their ethnic origin);
The graduate was listed as being Middle Eastern on a web page or public family tree of non-Jewish Middle Eastern heritage, or was found to come from Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates or Yemen (as long as there were no other indicators that these places were not related to their ethnic origin—for example, several graduates from the United Arab Emirates met criteria to require coding them as South Asian);
The graduate was known to be of non-Jewish Middle Eastern heritage through the authors’ personal contact with the graduate or the graduate’s family.
Language information was largely retrieved from profiles of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario.
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Chad, J.A., Brym, R. Jewish Intellectual Exceptionalism? Ethnic Representation at the University of Toronto Medical School. Cont Jewry 40, 387–402 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12397-020-09344-0
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