Jon Entine’s Screed

In 2002, Jon Entine interviewed me at my university office for a book he was doing on Jewish genetics. I remember looking forward to the interview because Entine had a reputation as an iconoclastic journalist, unafraid to puncture reigning taboos about race.  

I also remember that in the end I didn’t feel that the interview went well. Always trust your feelings.

Entine’s recently published Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity, and the DNA of the Chosen People contains a section on me (pp. 323–328) that is really quite appalling. For starters, he begins by quoting me as saying “I’m a scientific racist.” I really can’t imagine that I would express myself this way and really have no idea what such a statement might mean. If it means that I think that it’s reasonable to suppose that there are different races with some genetic distinctiveness and that different racial and ethnic groups have different interests that might conflict, then it’s quite reasonable and I can imagine myself saying something to that effect. Indeed, Entine himself explores the genetic uniqueness of Jews, as he previously examined athletic prowess of Blacks, so he must not dismiss the idea of racial/ethnic distinctiveness. But the word ‘racist’ obviously has very negative connotations, and it’s simply not a word that I use to describe myself, nor do I accept being described this way. So I suspect that he began his treatment by inventing this in order to get his readers upset with me from the beginning.

And one really has to suspect the accuracy of such a quote when there are so many little details that are reported incorrectly. My office has always been on the fourth floor, not the second, and I have never had a “sofa chair” in it. I didn’t receive my Ph. D. at the University of Illinois (that was the post-doc; the Ph. D. was from the U. of Connecticut). Entine says that I went back and finished my undergraduate degree after doing the 1960’s radicalism/jazz musician/Jamaica kumbaya thing for awhile; but the fact is that I got my undergraduate degree and then spent four years as a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin before dropping out and then eventually going back to UConn to get my Masters and Ph. D. And I never attended the University of California-Berkeley; this is probably a misunderstanding of my telling him that I took music lessons at the Berklee College of Music in Boston when I was trying to become a musician.

But there are some deeper things wrong with Entine’s account that warrant scrutiny. Entine writes, “MacDonald and a small but growing group of evolutionary psychologists believe that humans will sometimes sacrifice their own self-interest for the greater good of the group. Some proponents of this theory believe this altruistic behavior is reflected in the gene pool of ethnic and racial groups” (p. 324).

I do make an argument to this effect in Chapter 1 of Separation and Its Discontents and elsewhere. But readers should understand that the basic theory of group evolutionary strategies as laid out in Chapter 1 of A People That Shall Dwell Alone is based on an interplay between genetic tendencies toward ethnocentrism and cultural group selection. I do not argue that group evolutionary strategies resulted from genetic selection for altruistic groups.

The idea is that because of human cognitive ability — what psychologists call explicit processing — we are able to form cohesive groups that monitor group members, enforce group goals, and develop ideologies that rationalize all of this to ingroup members. Animals can’t do this, so their groups tend to break down as selfish defectors prosper at the expense of the altruists. My theory is that group evolutionary strategies are possible among humans because there is a complex interplay between genetic tendencies toward ethnocentrism (including altruistic self-sacrifice on behalf of the group) with social controls and ideologies that support the goals of the group.

Think of a military unit. There are often strong controls against defecting or cheating, and there may well be an ideology of self-sacrifice for the good of the group. Successful military groups are able to enforce group goals. This need not be the result of the genetic traits of individuals, but it certainly helps if the soldiers making up the unit are highly group-oriented to start with. In fact, even the most ethnocentric Jewish groups nevertheless maintain strong external controls on individual behavior — a good example being the Syrian Jews discussed in a previous blog. When intermarriage started to occur, they responded with a strong decree that effectively eliminated intermarriage in subsequent generations. Without such controls, the barriers between groups would gradually erode. Individuals would pursue attractive marriages with outgroup members, and over time the genetic differences between groups would blur and eventually disappear entirely.

Entine also writes as follows:

MacDonald’s account of Jewish ‘exceptionality’ and the hubris that can accompany it is often persuasive, but the thesis reads like a genetically updated version of the Protocols of Zion: Jews have an almost diabolical, biologically programmed plan of dominance… The Jewish promotion of multiculturalism is a charade. Even the anthropologist Franz Boas, who initiated the historic shift in anthropology from biology to culture was supposedly motivated by a desire to end the criticism that Jews were a race so they could more easily pursue their strategy of Jewish racial dominance. That’s just the devious nature of Jews, he said. (p. 325)

Devious nature of Jews?? I’d like to see him produce that quote. My claim about Boas — supported by a great deal of evidence — is that he was motivated by a desire to end racial anti-Semitism (which was quite common at the time) and by a desire to demolish developmental theories of culture that implied that contemporary European culture was the epitome of human accomplishment. This latter thrust of Boasian thinking is a typical result of social identity processes in which the outgroup is negatively valued, especially under conditions of between-group hostility. It is consistent with a theme of much of the writing on Jewish intellectual movements, including mine: These movements are often motivated by an attitude of hostility toward Europeans and their culture because of perceived history of irrational persecution.

Regarding the Boasian push toward multiculturalism, here is what I actually wrote:  

As Frank (1997, 731) points out, “The preponderance of Jewish intellectuals in the early years of Boasian anthropology and the Jewish identities of anthropologists in subsequent generations has been downplayed in standard histories of the discipline.” Jewish identifications and the pursuit of perceived Jewish interests, particularly in advocating an ideology of cultural pluralism as a model for Western societies, has been the “invisible subject” of American anthropology—invisible because the ethnic identifications and ethnic interests of its advocates have been masked by a language of science in which such identifications and interests were publicly illegitimate. (Ch. 2 of The Culture of Critique. The citation is to Gelya Frank’s article “Jews, multiculturalism, and Boasian anthropology,” American Anthropologist 99:731–745, 1997.)

I never wrote anything like “the devious nature of Jews.” Such a statement would be an outrageous overgeneralization. Rather, I simply stated that Jewish identification and interests among the Boasians were unstated in their public writings and that the movement was couched in the language of science and universalism. These comments apply only to Boasian anthropology and the other Jewish intellectual and political movements discussed in The Culture of Critique, not to all Jews.

Entine goes on to claim that in my view, “the Jews who were killed in ancient Rome, the Crusades, the pogroms, etc., were invariably zealots who all but deserved their fate” (p. 326). Not true. I do try to show that historically important outbreaks of anti-Semitism have tended to occur in a context of perceived resource competition and conflicts of interest. But I never argue that the victims were “invariably zealots.” In fact, pogromists probably selected their victims rather indiscriminately. Nor do I argue that they deserved their fate. Trying to develop a social science of between-group hostility is an attempt to understand the phenomenon, not moralize about it. Presumably, Entine realizes this and, perhaps because of his own Jewish identification, he paints me as a moralist in order to discredit me to his readers.

Entine writes, “MacDonald conjures the ghosts of Nazis past by modestly calling his obsession an ‘effort to develop a Wissenschaft des Judentums — a scientific understanding of Judaism,’ echoing the racist spirit that produced the firestorm of National Socialism” (p. 326). But, as I note in the relevant passage (see the preface to the original hardcover edition of A People That Shall Dwell Alone), Wissenschaft des Judentums was a label used by Jewish thinkers working in Germany in the 19th century who were trying to provide a scientific understanding of Judaism. It was not at all a concoction of the National Socialists.

Entine: “He systematically downplays Jewish scientific success, riffing on the Wagner-Hitler thesis of Jewish cleverness-disguised-as-accomplishment” (p. 327). In fact, my estimate of Ashkenazi Jewish IQ is the highest of anyone who has written on the topic in recent years — higher, for example than found in The Bell Curve, and quite a bit higher than suggested by Richard Lynn. Perhaps more than most other writers I have emphasized high Jewish verbal IQ, as opposed to performance IQ, based on several studies dating back to the 1960s and 1970s. (In his book, Entine also emphasizes the gap between verbal and performance IQ among Jews.)

Relatively high verbal IQ makes Ashkenazi Jews more inclined to become lawyers and writers than engineers. But I certainly don’t minimize or trivialize Jewish success in science or their accomplishment in general. My discussion of the different profiles of Jewish entrepreneurs and non-Jewish entrepreneurs is based not on Wagner or Hitler, but on W. E. Mosse’s Jews in the German Economy: The German-Jewish Economic Élite 1820‑1935. (Oxford, UK: The Clarendon Press, 1987.)  And I preface my discussion by noting, “This is a difficult area because a theme of anti‑Semitic writing in Germany was that Jews were not innovators, but only appropriated the inventions of others (Mosse 1987, 166, 404).”

The bottom line is that I do believe that high Jewish IQ is a sine qua non for Jewish success and influence. And I have no doubt that Ashkenazi Jews have a higher than average general intelligence. The entire theory of general intelligence clearly implies that a high g would lead to relatively greater success in all intellectual endeavors involving cognitive complexity.

Entine writes: “When the genetic research on Jewish distinctiveness began coming out in the late 1990s, MacDonald could not have been more pleased. … By his guess, the few converts did not ‘pollute’ the ‘Jewish gene pool’” (p. 327). Again, I have never used phrases like “polluting gene pools,” just as I have never used labels like “scientific racist” and “devious Jews.” Likewise, Entine’s book is about the distinctiveness of the Jewish gene pool, but I rather doubt that he uses a word like ‘pollution’ to describe genetic admixture.

Moreover, research on the distinctiveness of the Jewish gene pool did not originate in the 1990s but in the 1970s. It was already fairly well developed when I reviewed the field in 1994 in Chapter 2 of A People That Shall Dwell Alone. These new developments added to the story, but they didn’t fundamentally change it.

Which brings me to my last point. Entine writes:  

As he even admits, his dark ‘science of Jewry’ rests precariously on his belief in a tidy universe of Jews, genetically almost pure since ancient times, relentlessly pursuing their interests in hand-to-hand psychosocial combat against gentiles … [quoting me:] “If it’s true [that most modern Ashkenazi Jews are descended from non-Jewish women and Jewish men] that sort of rocks my foundations…. I’m really in doubt about it. I would be amazed if it was right.” … He now slumped into silence, keenly aware that if the DNA research holds up, his theory is kaput. (pp. 327–328)

This is flat-out wrong.  My recollection is that Entine asked me if I was surprised by any developments that had occurred since writing my trilogy on Judaism. I replied that the recent research by David Goldstein and his colleagues (Thomas et al., 2002) on founder populations in different Jewish groups did indeed surprise me. These data suggest that small founding groups of Jewish men married non-Jewish women, after which there was very little intermarriage. This was a complete surprise to me. I had realized that this must have happened with the Lemda in southern Africa. But I did not expect that this may have been the story with Ashkenazi or other important historic Jewish populations.

However, I told Entine that these findings, even if true, did not destroy my theory precisely because my theory does not depend on a strict genetic separation of Jews and non-Jews. If borne out by other data, these results would only change sections of Chapter 2 of A People That Shall Dwell Alone because I would have to make room for this possibility in discussing the population genetic data. But it wouldn’t change anything else of importance: 

·         It wouldn’t change the importance of the practices of shunning intermarriage and converts that were so common in historical Jewish societies (Ch. 4) and clearly prescribed in the Old Testament (Ch. 3). As Thomas et al. note, “After the establishment of these communities, inward gene flow from the host populations must have been very limited.”

·         It wouldn’t change the importance of resource competition between genetically distinct groups (Ch. 5). No one, least of all someone writing a book with a subtitle referring to the “DNA of the Chosen People,” would question the idea that genetic distinctiveness remained.

·         It wouldn’t change the material on the regulation of in-group behavior (e.g., in-group charity, regulations governing business dealings with Jews and non-Jews) (Ch. 6).

·         It wouldn’t change the discussion on eugenic selection for intelligence and high-investment parenting (Ch. 7).

·         It would result in a minor change in the discussion on the origins of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy (Ch. 8). That chapter emphasizes three factors as being important in the origins of Judaism: the development of Jewish Diaspora ideology; the role of the self-interest of Jewish priests (Kohenim); and Judaism as reflecting typical Middle Eastern tendencies toward collectivism. (This section emphasized Harry Triandis’s work on individualism/collectivism.) All of this would remain.

Finally, the new population genetic data would not change anything in Separation and Its Discontents or The Culture of Critique. The main theoretical basis of both of these books is social identity theory. Psychological research on social identity processes finds negative attitudes toward outgroups even when the groups are randomly composed. For example, social identity processes underlie the hostility that can develop in crowds of football fans sporting different team colors: “My team is better (and more moral and more intelligent) than your team.” Genetic differences are certainly not required.

As a result, even if historical populations of Jews and non-Jews were genetically identical, social identity theory would predict positive ingroup biases and negative attitudes toward outgroups. In fact, it’s interesting that population genetic data consistently place Jewish populations closest to their Middle Eastern neighbors, the Palestinians. Being genetically close doesn’t mean that in-group/out-group hostility can’t develop.

Nevertheless, the fact that Jews and non-Jews were genetically different doubtless added to the feelings of alienation and estrangement of each side. This is the clear implication of J. Philippe Rushton’s Genetic Similarity Theory (i.e., the theory that people assort on the basis of genetic similarity) and the theory that humans possess a "human kinds module" (that is, a psychological mechanism that categorizes people from different groups in the same way we categorize biological species — as having essences that can’t be voluntarily changed). I emphasize the importance of both these mechanisms in my writing on ethnocentrism and they certainly are critical to a comprehensive analysis of between-group conflict. Obviously, it’s not a simple story.

The theory stands.

I’ve found that my views on cultural group selection and on the psychological mechanisms underlying group conflict are prone to being misunderstood. People have a stereotype that evolutionary theories are basically about some form of genetic determinism. I certainly do believe that genetically influenced ethnocentrism is part of the story. But cultural processes (e.g., social controls within the group) and mechanisms that are insensitive to the genetic distinctiveness of groups (e.g., social identity processes) are also a big part of any good explanation of group conflict. And they are critical for understanding how groups maintain their cohesion and their genetic distinctiveness.

Entine didn’t get it, but I have the feeling that he wasn’t really trying. His comments on my work read more like character assassination than honest reportage.