Jewish Origins

The population history of Jews has been studied more than that of most other groups and has yielded one surprise after another. The population's first remarkable feature, from which all the others follow, is that Jews have to a significant extent married among themselves over the centuries. Jewish communities, in other words, have been largely endogamous, at least until recent times, which means the population's gene pool has had time to develop its own private history, and this genetic history has shed light on many historical events. An important consequence of endogamy is that the gene pool is not diluted through intermarriage and so the selective pressures that may act on a population are able, over time, to favor specific genetic variations. A striking possibility, plausible though not yet confirmed, is that one particular Jewish community, the Ashkenazim of northern and central Europe, lived for a long time under a harsh selective pressure that raised certain variant genes to high frequency. These variant genes are well known to physicians because of their serious side effects—when inherited from both parents they cause a variety of serious diseases. But the variant genes can hardly have become so common through their role in promoting disease. They must confer some special benefit, and that, the hypothesis goes, is increased intelligence.

The selective pressure, according to this idea, was the restriction of Ashkenazim by their European host populations to a small number of occupations that happened to require higher than usual mental agility. The pressure lasted from about AD 800 to 1700. If true, the hypothesis, described further below, has several interesting implications, including that it would represent a very recent and dynamic example of human evolutionary change.

Judaism is a religion, open to others to convert to, and it has long seemed that religion and culture, not necessarily genetics, were the common elements of and between the world's various Jewish communities. But in 2000 a team of geneticists led by Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona reported that men from many far flung Jewish communities have the same set of variations on their Y chromosomes. The variations are not exclusive to Jews but are common

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