An exegesis of Robert Pollack?

By Razib Khan | August 12, 2012 2:17 pm

I was going to review North African Jewish and non-Jewish populations form distinctive, orthogonal clusters at some point soon, but I’m going to have to move that up. Someone on Twitter pointed me to this really weird article, Being Jewish Is More Mind Than Matter: It’s Not Just Genes That Makes Us a People or Nation, by one Robert Pollack. Let me be frank: I have a hard time even commenting on material which I can’t really understand. For example:

Ancestors are a very large population: Each of us can be sure we had more than 1,000 ancestors in only the last 10 generations, or a few centuries. And genetically speaking, a lot can happen over the generations. After all, each of us inherits only one of the two versions of DNA that each parent had previously inherited from his or her parents. A particular version of DNA information may be discarded and lost at any point in time; new DNA may be introduced; or an ancient line of genetic information may be conserved — carried and passed on from generation to generation even as it accumulates different genetic changes that are also passed down.

This stuff is just hard to decrypt. Really it sounds like a high school science paper in portions, but since the author is a professor at Columbia you have to give him more credit than that, and assume he has a deeper meaning, right? Or maybe not.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Genomics
MORE ABOUT: Jewish Genetics
  • gcochran

    Groucho’s razor: He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    I think part of his point there was made more succinctly by Richard Dawkins, who noted that statistically speaking, not a single gene from William the Conqueror is likely to be present in the current British royal family.

    Looking at the article as a whole, it seems as if it’s setting up a strawman – assuming that someone will tell those who are not “Jewish by blood” that they aren’t “real Jews.” Basically the same sort of paranoia that Native Americans in the United States have.

    In addition, the whole premise of his article is false because he seems to be basing his arguments on the results of mtDNA and Y-DNA studies, not autosomal DNA, in which Jews are fairly identical in terms of their admixture (at least across particular groups).

  • Steven Colson

    Pollack saying “”the Jews of today, in the Diaspora or in Israel, cannot have and do not need “Jewish DNA.” They —and I am happy to be among them —still have and will continue to have the same Jewish obligation to teach their children from these texts and to say the Sh’ma to remind themselves of this obligation, even as often as twice every day”” seems trite. I am more disturbed over his assertion that “the Jews of today…cannot have….Jewish DNA.” I’m of mixed heritage with plenty of “Jewish” DNA, some of which looks North African, some Arab, some Anatolian, and some Slavic. It’s a complicated hybrid of DNA and I don’t need to practice Judaism to embrace the idea that my mother was Jewish and that I’m half Jewish. There’s nothing more to ponder.

  • Moshe Rudner

    ” Each of us can be sure we had more than 1,000 ancestors in only the last 10 generations”

    How true. I descend wholly and fully from men who took wives from as-yet-undiscovered islands. Then again, they were particular to wed women born to at least nine successive generations of sibling parentage. So numerically – and phenotypically – we’re kind of a mixed bag.

  • DK

    His web page gives a lot of hints: “Center for the Study of Science and Religion … Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research … Professor for Science and Religion at Columbia University … and at New York Theological Seminary”. Maybe being busy with all this makes one unable to write clearly about very basic things.

  • jd

    What is so hard to understand? Over a few centuries, with sufficient outcrossing, it is possible to lose all trace of the dna from the original jewish pair, yet the jewish culture may be passed down intact. By original jewish pair, I mean any given jewish pair traced through the centuries, not “the” original jew of course. This is undeniably true. His point is simply that a jew is more appropriately defined by culture, not dna.

  • Razib Khan

    #6, the piece was full of genetic gibberish. the final point is respectable. the ‘support’ was totally incomprehensible. also, it’s not true that ‘jewish dna’ has NOT been passed down. jews the world over except for a few exceptional groups (e.g., ethiopian jews) share a surprising amount of genetic affinity.

  • Kevin S.

    “I think part of his point there was made more succinctly by Richard Dawkins, who noted that statistically speaking, not a single gene from William the Conqueror is likely to be present in the current British royal family. ”

    I understand the point this paragraph is trying to make, but it’s a bad example. After all, the current British royal family is not William the Conquerer’s family. The Normans were Scandanavians who settled in Northern France before invading England, while the current royal family is actually German. They changed their name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor during World War I so the British king’s family name wouldn’t make him sound like one of the enemy.

  • jd

    I think you may be getting too caught up in the specific genetics and missing the point. His article is not a scientific article trying to figure out jewish genetics, it is an opinion piece in which he is trying to say people are getting too caught up in trying to define jews by their dna. one isn’t a jew because all jews share a particular sequence of dna. they are jews because they are born into a common culture that has been passed down. many of them do indeed share common dna sequences, but that is not what defines them.

  • Razib Khan

    #9, yes, it isn’t a scientific article. but he’s a scientist, who works at the intersection of science and non-science. his commentary on non-science has weight because he is a scientist. in this case he totally garbles the science, making his authority deceptive. i actually have run into him elsewhere, and i don’t get a sense that he has a deep grasp of population/evolutionary genetics. that’s fine, but he shouldn’t comment on it as if he has specialist knowledge (he does not).

  • Leor

    What’s really driving this article is all the Jewish baggage surrounding the genetics issue. We love having claims of antiquity proven, etc., but are completely freaked out by race because of the Nazis. Would anyone ever claim that being Hungarian is more about mind than matter?

  • Razib Khan

    Would anyone ever claim that being Hungarian is more about mind than matter?

    actually…it is more about mind than magyar :-)

  • Moshe Rudner

    actually…it is more about mind than magyar

    …and more about Ipad than Arpad…

  • Karl Zimmerman

    8 –

    Although the history of British royalty isn’t my forte, there is (assuming no extramarital dalliances) a clear lineage from William The Bastard to Prince William – just not a straight line of male patrimony, as the male line has died out multiple times in British history.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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