Maybe the fish is actually stupid?

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Here is a very well known quote, usually attributed to Albert Einstein, although that doesn’t seem to be proven.

Everyone 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 stupid.

The idea is pretty simple. Everyone has their strengths and their weaknesses, and if we judge everyone on one or very few arbitrary traits, then lots of people will be labeled as dumb or useless even if they aren’t.


To be honest, I half-agree with that. It’s true that, especially in school, competent teachers are the ones who understand that not everyone is good at everything, and you can’t force someone to become great at some things. You have to accept that, and try your best to help everyone and not label them as dumb if they have trouble with certain things.

On the other hand, that’s a huge slippery slope to the “everyone is the winner” situation, where there is little incentive to actually do well because we congratulate everyone else too no matter how badly they did. At some point, you have to make sure they actually do some work. I think we should be constantly trying, as a society, to improve the arbitrary goals that we use to judge people, so that they are as fair and logical as possible, but I don’t think we should get rid of them at all.

But that wasn’t the point of today’s post. I mostly wanted to complain about how bad the analogy is.

Let’s use this variation.

Every specie is intelligent, but if you judge a human by its ability to fly, it will spend its whole life thinking it is stupid.

Now, it is true that, for thousands of years, if the only intelligence metric had been the ability to fly, we would have been one of the dumbest species. We can’t fly, and we can barely even jump. We would barely be better than snails, even though we were writing books, building cities, etc.

But later, it changed. Nowadays, if you want to spend a long time in the air, we have hot air balloons. If we want to survive a fall from pretty much any height, we have parachutes. If we want to travel great distances by going over every obstacle, we have planes. If we want to go straight up or down quickly, we have helicopters. If we want to actually leave the planet, we have rockets.

All of this might be crazy expensive for an individual, but as a specie we would win any and all possible “flying-type” competitions easily today.

The point being, No matter what your metric is, it might take a crazy long time, but the actual smarter contestant will win in the end. Because as long as they all know what they are being judged on, the smartest will find a way to beat the others at it, even if they are at a huge disadvantage at first, like we are when it comes to flying.

Keep in mind that “in the long run” is an extremely vague timeline, and that we haven’t reached the end of that yet. Who knows if 100 000 years from now we won’t get beaten at flying, or anything that we currently dominate, by another specie.

So yes, by all means, if you are some sort of superior judge, and you are really sure that your metric is a good one, then judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree. If the fish is really great, it should figure out a way to do so efficiently at some point. When we are the judge (teacher for kids, for example), we have to work on making the metric as perfect as possible. But when we are the judged (god or other sentient powerful being for animal species as a whole, for example), then only the truly smartest will win in the long run. We can’t just complain about the competition, we have to do our best to win.