Fact check: No, Albert Einstein did not say famous quote about fish climbing trees
The claim: Famous quote is credited to Albert Einstein
Famous and inspirational quotes are often attributed to Albert Einstein.
An April 12 Facebook post features a cartoon drawing of several animals, including an elephant, a monkey and a penguin, standing before a teacher. The teachers says, “For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree.”
Underneath is the subhead, “Our education system,” and below is a quote attributed to Einstein: “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 post has been shared more than 100,000 times. Similar posts have been shared on Pinterest and Twitter.
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It’s an interesting point. But Einstein isn’t the one who made it.
Quote is misattributed to Einstein
In a book by Garson O’Toole, “Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations,” the author notes the quote in question has often been misattributed to Einstein.
According to History.com, O’Toole looks into quotations attributed to well-known historic figures, such as Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and Marilyn Monroe. He also runs the Quote Investigator website.
The exact origin of this quote is unclear. But O’Toole noted on his website an array of similar allegories on animals in school dating to the 1800s in various journals and newspapers.
“The long history of fables about animals in schools almost certainly influenced the construction of this quotation,” O’Toole wrote on Quote Investigator. “There is no substantive evidence connecting Einstein to the quotation.”
In the book, O’Toole analyzes six quotes supposedly uttered by Einstein:
- “Not everything that counts can be counted.”
- “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
- “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.”
- “Two things inspire me to awe – the starry heavens above and the moral universe within.”
- “Education is that which remains, if one has forgotten everything he learned in school.”
- “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”
The one in the Facebook post illustrates the mistaken belief of judging someone by a skill or ability they don’t possess, but Einstein never said it.
In his book “Ideas and Opinions,” Einstein wrote, “There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste within a century. What has been preserved of their work belongs among the most precious possessions of mankind.”
That casts doubt on the idea he would say everybody is a genius.
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The quote also does not appear in “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press.
Our rating: False
The claim that Albert Einstein said, “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,” is FALSE, based on our research. The quote is misattributed to Einstein.
Our fact-checking sources:
- Facebook post, April 12
- History.com, April 7, 2017, “Here are 6 Things Albert Einstein Never Said”
- Albert Einstein, 1952, “Ideas and Opinions”
- Princeton University Press, “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein,” accessed on April 26
- Quote Investigator, April 6, 2013, “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 Stupid”
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