The Best and the Brightest

The Best and the Brightest

The Best and the Brightest

The latest chatter in cyberspace.
June 6 2005 6:41 PM

The Best and the Brightest

Bloggers discuss a study that suggests natural selection has made Ashkenazi Jews both smarter and more susceptible to genetic diseases. They also debate today's Supreme Court ruling on medical marijuana, and last night's Tony Awards.

The best and the brightest:A team of scientists says the preponderance of certain genetic diseases among the Ashkenazi Jews of Northern Europe "is the result of natural selection for enhanced intellectual ability," the New York Times reported Friday. (One of the scientists, the Economist reports, has a controversial record, having previously proposed that homosexuality is caused by an infectious disease.) Forced by prejudice into "managerial occupations," the study suggests, European Jews relied more heavily on mental agility than their gentile counterparts—a set of evolutionary conditions that, during the course of 900 years, made Ashkenazim more intelligent, and, as a side effect, more susceptible to diseases thought to be linked genetically to intelligence.

Newbie literary blogger Lee Cohen points to Harvard scientist Steven Pinker, who told the Times, "It would be hard to overstate how politically incorrect this paper is." Cohen agrees. "This is going [to] get bad," he warns. Others voice more substantive doubts about the conclusions. Science Nerd, a Ph.D. student in molecular biology, questions how the researchers might demonstrate a link more substantial than correlation between the genetic disorders and intelligence—and, moreover, how they might measure such a nebulous characteristic as intelligence. "I'm not a neurobiologist," he writes, "but simple overgrowth of neurons in the brain can't simply mean a smarter person."

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The study has sparked lively debate at the National Review Online's conservative roundtable The Corner. "I would never purport to be an expert in genetics or evolution, but it seems to me 'Jewish intelligence' is much more due to culture than genetics," argues Warren Bell. "This is a people that defines themselves by a book, and then proceeds to devote a large portion of their intellectual energy arguing about what that books means."

Others find the study compelling not because it sides with genetics over culture, but precisely because it purports to show the fairly rapid effects of culture on genetics. For some, the reported effects look too rapid to accept. As National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg puts it, "the percentage of Jews in medieval moneylending alone has to be a very small number out of the total demographic pie. I mean most medieval Jews were in agriculture (or at least I'm pretty sure they were). … It seems farfetched to me to imagine that this small stratum of financiers could be responsible for the widespread genetic effects described in the article." At The Cardinal Collective, a blog by a pair of former Stanford students, Kenneth Easwaran is intrigued by the hypothesis but thinks "they really should test it before plastering it all over the newspapers."

Read more blog posts about the study.

Pot smokers bummed out: A federal ban on marijuana trumps state laws that allow medicinal use of the drug, the Supreme Court ruled today. Though the decision disappointed many supporters of medical marijuana, many bloggers see the case as a conflict over states' rights.

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"The five-member majority of the Court simply does not take federalism seriously," writes David Bernstein at The Volokh Conspiracy, a leading legal group blog. "It seems we do to some extent live under a system where the personal preferences of the Justices, having nothing to do with the history, text, or logic of the Constitution, dictate when the Supreme Court will or will not intervene to overturn particular regulations."

Conservative contrarian Andrew Sullivan agrees. "Regardless of how you feel about medical marijuana - I'm strongly for it - the Supreme Court case was really about the right to the federal government to tell states what to do. If the feds can forbid someone who grows pot in his own garden, sells none of it, uses it for his own medical use and is allowed to by his own state, it's still covered by the Interstate commerce exemption," he summarizes. "Yeah, right." At Legal Theory, law prof Lawrence Solum performs a close reading of the majority opinion, the concurrent opinion, and both dissenting opinions.

Read more about the decision and the fight over medical marijuana.

And the Tony goes to…: Monty Python's Spamalot was a big winner at last night's Tony Awards, winning for best musical and best director. Doubt, a Parable, about child abuse and the Catholic Church, won the award for best play.

"Last night's Tony Awards ceremony was the best I have ever seen," says actor Hot Toddy, somewhat cheekily. Most bloggers see in the Tonys the diminishing relevance of the New York stage. The show "was likely viewed by a few thousand people in New York, and four people in Tennessee who thought they were watching Van Helsing," reports Gotham gossip site Gawker. "Honestly: The Tonys just haven't had the same oomph since Cats closed."

Read more blog posts about the Tony Awards.

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