Einstein’s stupid fish metaphor: a tirade

There’s a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that I’ve been seeing online a lot lately, and… Well, this tirade has been building in the back of my mind for quite a while.

“Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is a failure.”

Now, if you want to take this as meaning, “Being unable to work quadratic equations in your head or being uninterested in playing chess doesn’t mean you’re stupid, because different people have different interests and different intellectual strengths,” I’m fine with that. I agree with it. However, far too many people take it to mean, literally, that every single person on this planet is a genius. After all, Einstein said so; it has to be true.


First of all, it is a statistical impossibility for all of anything, humans or rutabagas or small furry creatures from alpha Centauri, to be in the top two percent of whatever for that thing. (What’s with this “two percent” thing? you may ask.  Genius is generally defined as having an IQ that places one in the top two percent of the population. Right now, that means a 132 IQ or higher.) You wouldn’t say that every person is in top two percent for height, or for curliness of hair, or for how long they can hold their breath underwater, would you? So why say that everyone is in the top two percent for intelligence? It’s completely nonsensical.

Second, if “everyone is a genius,” why do we give a rat’s ass what this Albert Einstein guy says? He’s no smarter than anyone else, if everyone is a genius, so why does his opinion count for more than that of someone who says it isn’t true? And what would you say if someone with the same IQ as Einstein’s — or even a bit higher, as impossible as that may seem to you — were to say that he was wrong? If you buy the “everyone is a genius” line, you’d probably say that the other guy’s opinion doesn’t matter because IQ is irrelevant… in which case, there is no working definition of “genius,” so the whole everyone-is-one argument falls apart anyway.


About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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