Friday, January 01, 2016

What’s the Secret? – Part IV

About six weeks ago, December 1st of last year, a unique event occurred; a much-anticipated human gene editing summit took place in Washington, D.C. At the opening, Nobel Laureate and California Institute of Technology virologist David Baltimore said, “Today we sense we are close to be being able to alter human heredity.” Gene editing, or tweaking the human genome with additions, subtractions or alterations, is becoming increasingly realistic with modern technologies. “When will we be prepared to say we are justified to use gene editing for human enhancement purposes?” Baltimore asked. At the end of the summit, observers commented that other research scientists grappled with, and debated the future of genetic enhancement.

It is serendipitous that this summit took place in time to be included in this article since the summit’s basic assumption related to the human genome seems to validate the proposition posed in last month’s article that human enhancements, such as for intelligence, can be induced by gene editing. The difference is that last month’s hypothesis maintained that the “editing,” resulting in genetic enhancement in Ashkenazi Jews was implemented spontaneously by nature over a period of several centuries. That article in Viewpointe asked, “So, is it only genetics and nature that is the basis for high levels of Ashkenazi intelligence, or is nurture—culture and environment, that are the main causes?”

What Is Culture?

If Jewish “culture” is a significant factor, how is it defined? Here is how Wikipedia characterizes it: “Since the formation of the Jewish nation in biblical times the international community of Jewish people has been considered a tribe or an ethnoreligious group rather than solely a religion. Judaism guides its adherents in both practice and belief, so that it has been called not only a religion, but an orthopraxy.”

Orthopraxy? That’s a word new to me, but Wikipedia’s definition is really edifying. “In the study of religion, orthopraxy is correct conduct, both ethical and liturgical, as opposed to faith or grace etc. This contrasts with orthodoxy, which emphasizes correct belief, and ritualism, the use of rituals. The word is a neoclassical compound— orthopraxia, meaning 'correct practice'.” It then elaborates, “While orthodoxies make use of codified beliefs, in the form of creeds, and ritualism more narrowly centers on the strict adherence to prescribed rites or rituals, orthopraxy is focused on issues of family, cultural integrity, the transmission of tradition, sacrificial offerings, concerns of purity, ethical systems, and the enforcement thereof.”

The Chosen Few

These characteristics certainly seem to be representative of traditional Jewish dogma. However, there is an additional component, an attribute critical to Jewish culture. In 2012, two professors, Maristella Botticini (Boston University) and Zvi Eckstein (Tel Aviv University) published the book “The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492.” The book was the winner of the 2012 National Jewish Book Award in Scholarship.

The authors, both of them economists, approach Jewish history from a standpoint different from most historians. The book is structured from the perspective of their profession –– Economic theory –– using data derived from a multitude of historical and religious sources. The most critical aspect of the authors’ entire proposition is that at a particular time the Jewish people resolved to inculcate the concept of literacy as the fundamentally essential cultural component of their religious practices. This was a profoundly radical concept that resulted from the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the Sadducees and their Temple priests represented an aristocratic elite, whereas Pharisees rabbis represented mainstream Judaism.” What follows is a compilation of reviews of The Chosen Few.

Within the context of Jewish history, Botticicn and Eckstein document that Jews were not more educated before 1st century A.D. and most probably before 7th century A.D. Rather, as Solo Baron’s classic A Social and Religious History of the Jews also argues, the change in Jewish educational practices and institutions came out of an internal conflict about the control of Jewish society between two groups, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

History of Jewish Education

Before the destruction of the Second Temple, the sect of Sadducees controlled Jewish society, largely through their dominance of religious and social roles therein. The Sadducees were the high priests, were responsible for the Temple, and in charge of religious learning. They justified their dominance by accepting only the Written Torah and the Hellenistic culture, and restricting access to educational institutions to a very small segment of the Jewish society. Their role was challenged by the Pharisees, who countered the Sadducees’ approach by advocating the study of both the Written and Oral Torah by all Jews, thus in some sense democratizing education and undercutting Sadducee domination. They effectively pitted the common people against the more aristocratic Sadducees.

The balance of power in Jewish society shifted with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. by the Romans in response to the Jewish revolt, led by the Sadducees. The Pharisees did not participate in the revolt, and used this window of opportunity to wrest power from the Sadducees, who seem to disappear from the record thereafter. The Pharisees started the process of fundamental educational reform along the lines they had advocated before. It is possible that this was also a move to permanently shift power to themselves, as democratizing educational institutions would undercut the foundation of the power of the Sadducees.

Traditions such as reading and teaching the Torah to one’s sons and supporting primary schools for Jewish communities and synagogues as learning institutions developed after this period, and spread more widely in the 6th and 7th centuries. Notably, this happened in part while Jewish society was still mostly agricultural. Approximately in the first century, Judaism was in transition from a religion centered on the Temple in Jerusalem to a synagogue-based religion that could be observed anywhere that Jews lived.

Part of this transition required that every Jewish male learn to read from the Torah, making basic literacy a part of religious training that began at the age of 5 or 6 and encouraging further study for those so inclined. This meant that even ordinary Jewish men (and sometimes women) could read, and perhaps write, at a time when literacy was rare among the common people.

From Farmers To Merchants

Continuing their pursuit of Jewish history through the eyes of economists divulges the following story: “The second part of their period, approximately from 750 to 1150, uses the same model to explain why Jews (most of whom still lived in Persia and Mesopotamia) shifted from rural to urban occupations, from a community of farmers to one of craftsmen and merchants. Under the Muslim Caliphates cities grew, trade thrived, and the demand for occupations benefitting from literacy grew accordingly. Literacy skills Jews acquired as part of their religious education transferred readily to these urban occupations and were rewarded with high earnings, generating an income effect that supported a Golden Age of Jewish culture. Those Jews who remained as farmers were self-selected for persons who invested little in religious education and eventually assimilated into the general (Muslim) population.”

“The Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century destroyed the cities of the Middle East, devastated its commerce, and dramatically reduced demand for urban occupations throughout the region. Jewish religious education no longer yielded secular benefits in the impoverished Muslim economy, and the number of Jews declined as they assimilated into the surrounding population to avoid costly investments in religious human capital.”

However, “The Golden Age of Jewish culture in the Muslim world created a spiritual and intellectual legacy on which European Jewry could build. In particular, the Talmud and Responsa literature (correspondence ruling on religious observance in everyday business and family matters) discussed the application of ancient (biblical) rules to contemporary activities. This literature took Jewish religious studies well beyond basic literacy to develop literary sophistication and hone decision-making skills. After the Mongol invasions destroyed the Muslim commercial economy, Europe became the new center of Jewish learning that nurtured these skills. During the fourteenth century Spain had the most sophisticated economy in Europe and Spanish Jewry flourished in both religious culture and secular occupations.”

The Source of Jewish Culture

In his second book, The Debate over Jewish Achievement, the author, Steven Pease (a non-Jew) provides the following comments about Jewish culture:

The huge premium Jews have placed on literacy and education for more than 2,000 years. Jews graduate from college at more than twice the national average. They attend the best schools, get better grades and go on to pursue productive careers.

Most Jews believe in progress. They are not passive, nor resigned. They think they have a duty to help improve things. They believe in free will and intend to exercise their minds and body to advance the ball in the directions they feel important.

Jews have long maintained very strong family values. They divorce less. They are mostly members of two-parent families. The mother is loving, strong, demanding, and supportive. The father is equally engaged. Most religious holiday events, even for secular Jews, are major family events, as is Shabbat (Friday night dinner). Loyalty to family and kin is highly valued.

Jewish lifestyle is generally healthy in terms of diet, and the approach to drugs and alcohol is moderate. Kosher conformance has served many purposes, but historically, one of them has been to mandate healthy eating habits.

Jews typically demonstrate high levels of self-discipline (deferred gratification). We see it in their diet, their commitment to formal education, their careers, and their drive to achieve.

They encourage and develop their verbal skills and the inclination to speak up, make an argument, debate, and disagree if they feel strongly. Generally, reticence has not been esteemed. The Talmud is a religious tract, but it is also essentially an ongoing academic debate over the evolution of Jewish Law in light of changing circumstances.

Jews stand up for what they believe in. They have “grit.” They champion causes important to them. Wallflowers they are not!

The Torah and Talmud have inculcated ethical behavior in Jews. God demands it.

Rationality is also embodied in the Talmud and in the lives of most Jews. One must deal with the facts on the ground and adapt. The Diaspora made anything less than this approach unfeasible. For most of 2,000 years, Jews had to exist as a small minority among other cultures, coexisting with countless other peoples, tribes, and cultures with substantially different beliefs and native languages. Staying alive demanded rationality and adaptability.

Jews almost never adopt the mentality of victims deserving of an entitlement. God knows they have more right than most to have taken on that view, but they do not. They do not believe they are entitled. If anything, they help others who are downtrodden.

In the same vein, Jews feel a strong sense of duty to each other and to those less fortunate. Jews are among the most charitable and philanthropic of people.

There is nothing unique about any of these cultural attributes. In fact, most of them are consistent with the cultures of other high performing groups of people around the globe. Yet the combination and intensity makes for a uniquely Jewish experience, one that has undeniably produced more “good” far beyond expected norms.

It also demonstrates how more of us can achieve and contribute. We need not have Jewish genes to appreciate and learn from the Jews' stunning performance.

Mr. Pease then states unequivocally, “Culture is the most important driving influence behind Jewish achievement.”

Is CULTURE then the secret ingredient that has produced the long string of Jewish achievement? Like most things Jewish, there are strong pro and con arguments that have been raised about the source, be it nature (intelligence predicated by high IQ scores), or nurture (based on Mr. Pease’s statement just above). Like the old axiom, “Where there are two Jews there are three opinions,” in the case of Nature vs. Nurture, unique to Jewish tradition, a third opinion has arisen.

Matt Ridley, a former science editor for the Economist magazine, perhaps best expresses this possibility. Ridley is best known for his writings on science, the environment, and economics. His latest book, published just three months ago is, The Evolution of Everything: HowNew Ideas Emerge. Matt Ridley’s Nature via Nurture for example has this description from Publisher’s Weekly:

“Nature versus nurture” sums up in a nutshell one of the most contentious debates in science: Are people’s qualities determined by their genes (nature) or by their environment (nurture)? The debate has only grown louder since the human genome has been found to comprise only 30,000 genes. Some scientists claim that we don’t have enough genes to account for all the existing human variations. Ridley, author of the bestseller Genome, says that not only are nature and nurture not mutually exclusive, but that “genes are designed to take their cue from nurture.”

The implication is clearly that, unlike Jewish tradition for long-range continuous arguments, the reality here requires compromise. Essentially, Ridley maintains Jewish achievement is the result of a combination of nature and nurture. I prefer to believe that is the most logical answer to the “secret” of Ashkenazi achievement.