Thursday, September 01, 2005

Mixed Blessings...

"Your child can be smart, or he can be healthy."
Which would you choose? At first blush, this calls to mind the "straw man argument" we've discussed before, but it may not be.
A recent study on the relationship between the (legendary?) intelligence of Ashkenazic Jews and their risk of a dreaded genetic disease (Tay-Sachs) has sparked an intense debate.
First, though, it's probably helpful to explain "Ashkenazic Jew." There are two populations of Jews in the world, although they share a mutual heritage and homeland. One, the Ashkenazi, hail primarily from eastern Europe. The other, Sephardi, come from the Mediteranean area. Because Jews prefer to marry other Jews, there is a limited gene pool, which tends to exacerbate genetic problems.
Tay-Sachs is a genetic disorder that almost exclusively afflicts Jews of Ashkenazic descent (similar to sickle cell anemia to those of African descent). This is a bad thing.
Ashkenazic Jews tend to score much higher than the mean on standardized intelligence tests; this is a good thing.
Hence the dilemna.
The problem is that, in some ways, the inadvertent experiment that has led to these results -- that is, the fact that Ashkenazic Jews tend to marry other Ashkenazic Jews, and produce Ashkenazic offspring -- looks a lot like a systematic program of eugenics, such as was undertaken by the Nazi's.
As one can imagine, such an image doesn't sit well with either scientists, or the Ashkenazim themselves. Thus the fierce debate.
The study "hypothesizes that the genetic disorders could be the unfortunate side effects of genes that facilitate intelligence." In fact, the authors of the study had some difficulty even getting it published in the first place. There is a very real concern that some in the lunatic fringe would find great joy in using the results of the study for their own nefarious goals.
When Drs Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray first published their controversial book (The Bell Curve) almost a decade ago, they ran into a buzzsaw of politically correct criticism. Perhaps this explains why this new study is still under the radar: it has the potential to brew up the same kind of reaction.
And yet, the study of this unusual relationship may help further our knowledge of how genetics works, and could conceivably lead to medical breakthroughs.
So, why are we talking about this on an insurance blog? Part 2 is here.
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