14 March 2008

Jewish Identity's DNA: Pittsburgh, March 16; Philadelphia, March 17

Jon Entine, author of Abraham's Children, deals with the DNA of Jewish identity, and has been described as playing with scientific dynamite. He is a fascinating speaker who will be in Pittsburgh (March 16) and in Philadelphia (March 17).

On Sunday, he will appear as the Rabbi Alvin K. Berkun Scholar-in-Residence at Tree of Life Congregation at 9.30am. On Monday, at 7.30pm, he will speak at the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia's meeting at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel (Elkins Park).

Entine addresses ancestry and population genetics, genetic disorders which impact Ashkenazi Jews, DNA mutations and more:

Jews are considered one of the premier genetic goldmines. Since the founding of Ashkenazi Jewry, until recent decades, despite being scattered to winds of the world, the rate of non-Jewish lineages that have slipped into the Jewish gene pool, per generation, is estimated at 0.5 percent.

Two recent stories about and by Entine have appeared in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle,"Genetic research can show richness of Jewish culture," and in Philadelphia's Jewish Exponent feature, "Wading Deep Into the Genetic-Pool Controversy."

Both are good reads and elaborate on controversial topics in Entine's book.

In the Jewish Exponent, Entine writes:

More recently, an understandably controversial debate has arisen over brain architecture. Three prominent scientists, all Christians, were intrigued by the remarkable success of Jews and their startlingly high scores on I.Q. tests, which scientists universally believe are heavily influenced by genetics.

Ashkenazi Jewish I.Q. averages between 107 and 117, while the world average is 100. Is it good genes or good mothers?

It could be both, if Henry Harpending and Jason Hardy of the University of Utah and independent scientist Gregory Cochran are to be believed. In a theory discussed in my newest book, Abraham's Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of the Chosen People, they suggest that high Jewish I.Q. might be linked to the high incidence of Jewish neurological diseases.

The scientists identified 19 so-called "Jewish diseases," including Tay-Sachs, Gaucher and breast cancer, that influence the enzyme pathways that guide neurological development. Single variations of a disease mutation may juice the brain, while two may cause crippling health problems.

And like a feedback loop, Jewish nurture may have reinforced Jewish nature. For centuries, high literacy was more heavily prized among Jews than in many other cultures.

The smartest, most literate male Jews set up arranged marriages to mate sons with the wealthiest and wisest daughters, ensuring the spread of "smart genes" - even if matches resulted in terrible diseases.

I reviewed this theory with dozens of geneticists. Not one dismissed it, but only a handful would discuss it on the record.

Finding links between Judaism and DNA, even flattering hints, is especially unnerving to Jews considering the lessons of Jewish history. But we can't escape the fact that Judaism is a different kind of religion from Christianity or Islam. It's not purely faith-based.

Judaism remains a rich tapestry with threads of faith, land and blood ancestry -- a genetic as well as a cultural inheritance. The great paradox of biodiversity research is that the only way to understand how similar humans may be is to accept how profoundly we differ.

Do read both complete articles by clicking on the links above. For more information on the Philadelphia meeting, click here. For information on the Pittsburgh event, call 412-521-6788.

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