Books About DNA: Abraham’s Children by Jon Entine

Books About DNA: Abraham’s Children by Jon Entine

by Dr. Hsien-Hsien Lei
Posted October 15, 2007 in DNA in General

abrahams children jon entineAuthor Jon Entine contacted me last week about his new book and I’ve invited him to pen a guest post today. As you’ll see, he seems to have a penchant for controversial topics.

Hsien has invited me to introduce myself and my upcoming book. Abraham’s Children: Race, Identity and the DNA of The Chosen People is my second book on “genes and identity.” The prior book, Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It, created a bit of a stir because it so candidly discussed the folk notion of race, but it received the most sympathetic treatment from hard scientists (postmodernists and some cultural anthropologists didn’t like it very much). Its thesis — that there are meaningful population-based physical/physiological and behavior differences, as well as disease proclivities — has emerged as the scientific convention in the years since it was published in 2000.

“Abraham’s Children” results from a confluence of three otherwise disparate currents in my life. I’ve always been curious about my own family history lost in the fog of the Jewish shtetl’s of Eastern Europe. DNA provided a way to unravel my personal history, but also my ethnic roots to Biblical times and beyond, as Judaism is a surviving tribal religion, based in part on blood ancestry. I’ve also long harbored a professional interest in finding a new “language” to productively discuss the genetic revolution, which in part spurred me to produce a documentary almost 20 years ago, with Tom Brokaw at NBC News, titled “Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction.” It evolved into “Taboo.”

The catalyzing event was when my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer a number of years ago. We learned it was caused by a genetic mutation found almost exclusively in Jews that more than likely was responsible for the cancer deaths of my mother, aunt and grandmother years before. I tested positive for the BRCA2 mutation as well; my young daughter, who is half Jewish, has a 50/50 chance of carrying it, though we won’t know until she’s a teenager and old enough to be tested. In essence, we have genetic markers that label us as having Jewish ancestry. That discovery touched off some provocative rethinking of my identity, and combined with my ongoing interests, led to my writing “Abraham’s Children.”

The book includes a chapter explaining the possible link between so-called Jewish diseases — certain neurological and LSD disorders, as well as DNA repair problems — and the high measured IQ of Ashkenazi (Eastern European origin) Jewry. Although this theory (most recently advanced by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending—two non-Jews—is best classified as informed speculation (as I acknowledge in the book) at the moment, it argues persuasively, I believe, that Ashkenazi Jews are a rather distinct population group in which positive selection pressures, balanced against the killer consequences of neurological disease mutations, have led to higher IQs. The “it’s environment and culture” argument are far less persuasive. This is only one chapter in the book–most of AC is a look at our shared Israelite ancestry and history–but it is the most provocative chapter. Wonder where others come down on this issue? Intererestingly, “liberal” Jews (of which I’m one) are the one’s most uncomfortable about discussing or (even if they believe it) acknowledging this point.

For more about Jon Entine and Abraham’s Children, see Razib’s 10-question interview at Gene Expression .

Update: Dr. Larry Moran at Sandwalk shares his perspective on the book as well as the Ashkenazi Jewish population in general.

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Comment by Uli Steinklasser

Uli, Would you mind being more specific?

Comment by omni Subscribed to comments via email

The Nazies where right then. hah? To bad they didn’t go into DNA research instead of measuring skulls. Appearantly they had the right approach but only lacked the proper scientific tools.
Stupid statements regarding things such as “higher IQs” are completley unscientific and can always be reversed to haunt you.
This sort of book actually puts jews back in the ghettos, even if they are just pseudo-intellectual ones.

Comment by Jon Entine Subscribed to comments via email

Sorry I was away for the debate for so long. I’ve been on the road, talking about Abraham’s Children.

I’m actually flabbergasted that anyone would suggest that the hundreds of studies that show, definitively, the huge genetic component of IQ, are unscientific or racist. What planet do you live on? Studies of identical twins reared apart show without question that nature plays the smallest role in shaping IQ. The link between IQ and performance–not just in school/universities but in life, is incredibly strong. The US military has long used IQ tests as a essential basis for accepting or rejecting recruits–and assigning people to different career paths. They’ve found huge correlations between IQ tests and performance.

Let me state this clearly: You would be hard pressed to find a top flight psychometrician who rejects the clear link between genetics and IQ.

As for the issue of Ashkenazi Jewish IQ, that too is unquestioned. Ashkenazi Jews score higher on IQ tests…as much as a standard deviation higher than average–an astounding figure. This is a fact.

Are there cultural reasons for it? Well, there are no quality empirical studies that I’ve been able to find that persuasively show that culture/environment alone can significantly raise IQ scores, despite the dissimulation that usually accompanies discussions of this issue.

Culture does play a huge role in shaping gene evolution however. The spread of the lactose tolerance mutation has occurred in cultures in which people drink milk and consume cheeses. There are African tribal communities, side by side, one that’s lactose tolerant and one that’s lactose intolerant. The difference? The lactose tolerant ones, such as the Masai, have long had a tradition of goat herding and consuming dairy products. That contributed to better health and allowed the mutation to become fixed in that community.

The genes that impact any other behavior or characteristic, including what we call “intelligence,” would be subject to similar evolutionary pressures. Ashkenazi Jews have had a consistent culture linked to book learning since at least the end of the first millennium (Sephardic Jewry had it, but that tradition collapsed during the extended period of the persecution of Jews in Iberia after the “Ornament of History” period in early medieval Spain). Sons and daughters of rabbis and money lenders were married to the ‘best and the brightest’ and had more children than the less successful Jews. That’s how the genes spread.

There may very well be another genetic component as well: Three American scientists — none of whom is Jewish — has proposed a testable theory that certain genetic diseases arose in Ashkenazi Jews because the same genes are responsible at least in part for intelligence. The study says that as many as 19 disorders, divided into two categories—spingolipid disorders such as Tay-Sachs and Gaucher, and DNA repair disorders such as breast cancer and Bloom syndrome –provide the benefit of increased intelligence, despite their negative effects. They promote the growth and interconnection of brain cells. These disease mutations were not passed out of the human genome because their negative effects were counterbalanced by “positive selection.”

Is this theory correct? We don’t know for certain. But it is parsimonious based on the known facts–far more so than the ‘it’s all culture’ explanation, which is farcical. It’s a testable thesis, though it’s not on the front burner considering the far more important issues that could be tested.

I will tell you this: in researching “Abraham’s Children,” I could NOT FIND ONE geneticist who dismissed this theory out right–not in candid conversation. Almost none would put their name to that, however (though a few have done so and are quoted in my book).

However you think about this thesis — and it’s not mine, but a team led by Henry Harpending, a University of Utah geneticist — it’s a serious one and worthy of scientific scrutiny.

Facts like these may pose a problem for many people whose desire it is to believe that equal capacities and abilities are a universal heritage of humanity. That may well be so…but simply wanting that to be the case is not enough. That is not science.

Jon Entine


[...] up on one of the most popular posts at Eye on DNA, Jon Entine’s write-up of his book Abraham’s Children, William Saletan explores Jewgenics further in [...]

Comment by Yale Richmond Subscribed to comments via email


I heard your talk at AEI and am reading your book, but frankly you make too much of the Kazars and their supposed “mass conversion.” People rarely converted en masse. It was usually the rulers who converted and the rest of the people remained largely immune to the new religion. Even in Russia, long after the rulers converted to Christianity, the bulk of the people practiced various forms of paganism.

More latter as I read on.

Yale Richmond

Comment by Jon Entine Subscribed to comments via email

Hi Yale,

I’m thrilled that you’re reading the book but perplexed by your post. As I write on page 213, after discussing the Khazarian thesis: “There is absolutely no credible evidence supporting the popular belief that Khazarians converted en masse to Judaism.” I couldn’t be more direct than that.

What I do say is that there is credible evidence for a conversion of a segment of Khazar’s, probably the nobility. It shows up in the Levite lineage. One possible explanation is that the nobility bought their way into Levite status during a conversion. That’s what Karl Skorecki tends to believe. I happen to be R1a, a Levite Khazarian line.

Jon Entine


[...] Podcasts and Videos, DNA and Genealogy One of the most popular posts here at Eye on DNA has been the one written by Jon Entine, author of Abraham’s Children. Here he is in part 1 (out of 7) of his talk at the 2007 [...]


[...] Genealogist has covered the controversy in depth. And today, I’ve invited author Jon Entine back to Eye on DNA to share his thoughts on genetic genealogy. As you can see, it is possible to recognize the power [...]

Comment by online doctor

The book was slightly dry in some spots for my taste but overall a recommended reading for someone who is interested in the topic.


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