Are Jews Smarter? (Jennifer Senior, New York magazine, October 16, 2005 -- but somehow I just came across it.) You may be familiar with the idea that Jews are smarter than the general population because they have been subject to different selection pressures; namely, the fact that they have historically been forced out of the place where they're living leads the ones who are smart enough to be able to perform some intellectual work -- which is portable -- are the ones who reproduce more. I'm a bit suspicious of this argument, but it's food for thought. Also, apparently there's an interesting analogy: certain diseases that Ashkenazi Jews are prone to, for example Tay-Sachs disease, perhaps bear the same relationship to intelligence as sickle-cell anemia (which people of African descent are prone to) bear to resistance to malaria. That is, people who carry one copy of a certain allele are likely to be smarter, or to be resistant to malaria; people who carry two copies have Tay-Sachs or a related disease, or are anemic.
It's basically impossible to deny that Jewish people are more common in certain intellectual fields than in the population as a whole. Mathematics is one of those fields. But is this due to genetics, or to environment? The other common explanation for the prevalence of Jewish people in academia is that the Jewish culture has historically valued the study of the Torah and this has carried over to secular scholarship. (See, for example, some of the comments to Stanley Fish's The Uses of the Humanities, Part Two, from Stanley Fish's blog at the New York Times.) It wouldn't surprise me to learn that both of these effects play a significant role.
Fish is talking about what the humanities are good for, but it's never really clear what the humanities are in opposition to. (I think things like engineering or business, where the things college students learn are very clearly linked to the jobs they expect to have after college.) But which side of that line is mathematics on? Sure, mathematical ability is useful for its own sake -- but one often hears that employers want to hire people with mathematical training not to do mathematics, but because they know how to think rigorously and abstractly. And I can hear echoes of this in Fish's claims about what the humanities are good for.