Here’s a handy-dandy little fact to throw out there: 20% of Nobel Prizes have been awarded to Jews. This despite the fact that Jews are only 0.2% of the world’s population. In other words Jews are represented at a rate 100 times higher than strict proportion to population would suggest. Contra Nesrine Malik, the Jews are one “arbitrary” group of people to have won far more Nobel Prizes (in every category, by the way) than Trinity College, Cambridge graduates have.
Now, what are we to make of that fact?
At first glance, it would seem that if the “it’s all culture” folks mean what they say, the implication would be that we should all become Jews. After all, if the Islamic world’s poor showing proves that Islam “holds back intellectual development,” then presumably this extraordinary Jewish performance proves that Judaism massively promotes intellectual development. Does Isaac Chotiner agree? Can I expect Andrew Sullivan and Richard Dawkins to sign up for conversion classes?
No, because my conscience calls me to Jesus and Dawkins’ to giant future hamsters. But to remove the context and history of Jewish intellectual culture, one of the great shining monuments of Western civilization, would be equally bizarre. Ditto the extremely high IQs of Ashkenazi Jews, compared with almost any other sub-group population. And how can anyone not be struck by the wildly divergent achievements of the resource-poor Israelis and the oil-rich Arab states of the Middle East without resorting to some kind of cultural analysis?
There may be other factors involved – a response to centuries of repression and ghettoization, or the Jewish cultural focus on education, or the Talmudic tradition which provides for some space between divine truth and scholarly interpretation. And the reasons for Islam’s long slide into backwardness may also be complex. But it demands an explanation more satisfying than mere randomness. Noah goes on:
From a political perspective, the right response, it seems to me, to the extraordinary disproportion of Jewish Nobel prizes is neither “wow, Jews are totally awesome; we should all be like them – and if we can’t, it must be our fault” nor “wow, this game must totally be rigged by the Jews [um, Swedish Jews?]” but “wow, levels of achievement at the very top can be really wildly disproportionate to population. And the modern economy seems to be more winner-take-all than it used to be. Maybe the selection process for Nobel Prizes isn’t a good template for how all of society should work? Maybe there’s a moral case for countervailing social and economic forces?”
Sure. But when intellectual and technological advantage confers enormous socio-economic benefits, and when that advantage is far greater in the West and Asian cultures than almost anywhere in the Muslim world, you can argue for a different metric, if you like. But in practice, it means marginalization and relative poverty. Which is what the Muslim world is now trapped in. I don’t think you can fully escape that trap without also escaping a fundamentalist culture and polity.
Update from a reader:
Andrew, please issue an immediate correction and apology to Professor Dawkins; his conscience calls him to giant future sea otters.