Science Jews

Haim Watzman

It’s not the headline that’s remarkable, it’s the picture. The website of the great science journal that I occasionally do news pieces for, Nature, has a headline today that is already somewhat ho-hum. Jews Worldwide Share Genetic Ties!

We’ve seen this before, in reports of studies of mitochondrial DNA (which is inherited only through the female line) and the Y chromosome (the male line). We’ve seen DNA studies showing that today’s Jewish priestly class share a common ancestor. What’s different in this study is that the statistical analysis was done by comparing markers on the entire nuclear genome, using a sample of Jews from a large variety of Jewish ethnic sub-communities.

So my editor there (bless him, may he not vent his wrath on me for this post) needed an illustration. Since the publication is gorged with pictures of DNA, chromosomes, double helixes, and the like, he decided against the scientific approach and went for the sociological. He looked for a picture of a Jew.

So look at the one he chose. Now, hey, I’ve got nothing against Jews with black hats and beards lighting Hanukah menorahs, but is this the archetypical Jew in the eyes of the most important science journal in the world (excuse me, Science, but if you want kudos from me you’ll have to pay up like Nature does). Why didn’t the editor choose a photo of a modern Jew with a scientific bent? I’ve got some good ones of me on my computer. And since my kids, with their Ashkenazi father and Iraqi mother, are messing up the gene pool for future scientists, I could easily be portrayed as an endangered species. What could be more scientific?

5 thoughts on “Science Jews”

  1. Interesting but also problematic, as you point out. There are also additional problems of historical literalism in interpretive explanation, the exploration of other alternatives, and the question of genuine control groups. Most of all I fear the possibility of re-racialization– not only in pictures– but in the identification of Jews as “genetically isolated.” Um– is that just another name for for a race?

  2. I always cringe when I see phrases like “picture of a Jew” (or member of whichever ethnic group). Apart from religious or cultural attire (which is always partly locally shaped), what makes an individual Jew/German/Brazilian/Russian etc an archetypical representative of his/her group, and exactly which physical features are relevant for this?

    A picture of a horse can pass as an example of “horses” because we’re biologically far enough removed from them to notice the main unifying features of the species as such. An expert will already notice the features that distinguish the particular race.
    A human being OTOH is of the same species as all of us, so we notice first and foremost the features that distinguish him/her as an individual, a distinction that is useless for casting him as a member of a group. It’s not obvious whether the man on the photo above belongs to the same ethnic group as a Mizrahi with dark complexion, an Ethiopian Jew, and a blond, blue-eyed Ashkenazi.

  3. I think “Science Jews” would really have been the superior headline.

    Or maybe with an exclamation point. “Science Jews!”

    “Science Jews are GO!”

    Ten bucks says I can get some producer to greenlight this.

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