All Commentary
Monday, November 1, 1999

Einstein’s Brain and the Egalitarian Mind

An Elite of Talent and Ability Always Soars Ahead

Steven Yates is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong with Affirmative Action (ICS Press, 1994) and numerous articles and reviews.

Late last spring a team of neuroscientists based at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, released the first detailed study of Albert Einstein’s brain, which had been preserved since his death in 1955. Einstein was sympathetic to the idea of having his brain studied by scientists after his death.

The team, led by Dr. Sandra F. Witelson, concluded that Einstein’s superior mathematical and scientific abilities resulted from certain features of his brain not shared by people of average intelligence. Their results were published in the June 19, 1999, issue of the British medical journal The Lancet under the title “The Exceptional Brain of Albert Einstein.”

The area of the human brain thought to be the seat of mathematical, visual, and spatial reasoning is known as the inferior parietal region. It is found at ear height in the part of the brain known as the cerebrum. What Witelson and her team found was that Einstein’s inferior parietal lobes were 15 percent wider than those of a control group of 91 “normal” brains. In Einstein’s brain, a cleft known as the Sylvian fissure diverted from its usual structure. Apparently, the change occurred when Einstein was in his infancy. It did not permit Einstein’s brain to develop what is called a sulcus, a groove that normally runs through this part of the brain. The neuroscientists theorized that the absence of this groove may have allowed far more neurons—brain cells that facilitate thinking and communicating—to develop and exchange information. As a result, they reasoned, Einstein developed into the mathematical genius who revolutionized modern physics beginning in 1905 with his paper on special relativity.

Unique Structure

Not all scientists are ready to endorse these findings. Many are cautious because of the superficial similarity between the Witelson study and old studies that tried to correlate brain size or weight with intelligence. Einstein’s brain, however, was not exceptional in size or weight. Einstein’s intelligence may have resulted from the unique structural property of his parietal lobes. Witelson and her colleagues, it is worth noting, do not consider their results conclusive. They welcome further investigation, recommending electronic imaging of the active brains of today’s brilliant physicists and mathematicians to learn if theirs, too, have structural features similar to Einstein’s.

It seems possible, though, that a remark Ayn Rand once made will turn out to be right and some people simply do have better brains than others—better in that because of unique structural properties their owners have superior mental capabilities. (See “An Untitled Letter” in Rand’s Philosophy: Who Needs It.) According to the egalitarian mind, all human beings ought to be social and economic equals, and it is fundamentally unjust for a select few to soar ahead of the pack. The idea of superior intellect, egalitarians have often averred, is just a cover for the exploitation of the many by the few. They tend to sympathize with the idea that intelligence is either a “social construction” or exclusively a product of environment and upbringing. Either one can be changed by the right governmental-educational tinkering.

The rapidly advancing neurosciences may provide decisive refutations of all this. If the Witelson discoveries are right, then one’s intellectual capacity is rooted in the structure of one’s brain. People’s brains are not all the same, and this is a fruit of nature, not a social, political, or educational arrangement.

The point is, left to themselves, a select few—an elite of talent and ability—always soars ahead. This has been true in science, art, political thinking, literature, philosophy, and every other human endeavor of note. There are leaders, and there are followers. If the leaders have structurally better brains, then no kind of government tinkering will change this. All the latter can do is suppress a person’s natural inclinations, which is what political systems implemented along egalitarian lines have always done. To see what an egalitarian America would look like, watch the movie Harrison Bergeron, based on a Kurt Vonnegut short story. It portrays a society led by “Handicapper Generals” who “equalize” those born with superior brains.

Of course, no one can know in advance who will soar ahead. We aren’t in a position to scan children’s brains and find out. Not only would such a procedure be vulnerable to abuse, we do not know if it would do any good. We simply don’t know enough about the brain to know what to look for. Even if Einstein’s unusual parietal lobes explain his superior scientific mind, we do not know what explains excellence in other endeavors. And assuming brain structure to be a factor in superior intelligence, Witelson’s team does not claim it to be the only factor. Obviously, an immediate environment (including especially a strong family unit) that both permits and encourages the exercise of one’s mind and independent thought is important too. The plain truth is, beyond these commonsensical judgments, there is a lot we just don’t know. The human brain is the most complicated object we have ever studied, and we are not even close to understanding how it generates intelligence.

Our ignorance is why no educational system ought to force students into a single mold, as though they were products on an assembly line. The best educational systems have always been those that allow students maximum freedom to develop at their own pace, having created environments conducive to learning. A free society will encourage education along these lines, and then leave it alone. There is no telling what educational forms might develop, and no way to predict what advances in learning might result.

In the meantime, it might be useful to remember Murray Rothbard’s characterization of egalitarianism as a “revolt against nature.”

  • Steven Yates, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy, is a writer and consultant living in Columbia, S.C. He is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (ICS Press, 1994).