Einstein, the hunter

Einstein is perhaps the epitome of the quirky lone genius. He is also typical of hunter type people. Much has been written about him, so it is hard to add a novel aspect to his personality. My own addition is that Einstein was an evolutionary hunter type; the others being gathered, farmers and herders.

One of the most popular facts about him is that he started to talk late. What is less known is that his name was given to a syndrome that characterizes late-talking children. Here is how Thomas Sowell characterizes gifted children with Einstein Syndrome (who apart from Einstein himself, include great scientists like Richard Feynman and Edward Teller as well as famous musicians Clara Schumann and Arthur Rubinstein):

  • outstanding and precocious analytical or musical abilities (pattern recognition)
  • outstanding memories (common in ASD, in particular for special interests)
  • strong-willed behaviour (tantrums)
  • very selective interests (special interest)
  • extreme concentration on whatever task is occupying their time (hyperfocus)
  • delayed potty training (a sign of retardation????; common in ASD)
  • specific ability to read or use numbers or a computer (hyperlexia)

It’s not hard to see that the behaviour is very similar to the behaviour found in children with ASD, minus the pathological terminology: strong-willed vs tantrums, selective interests vs “special interests’’. All these traits can be found in Einstein’s biography.

I have argued before that most of these children are actually “hunter-gatherer” type children. Their strong will and tantrums are related to having egalitarian hunter-gatherer minds and that they are typical “orchid children” with vastly diverging life outcomes. These children are not “calibrated” for a “farmer world”, and are often hypo- or hyper; very early vs very late speakers, in this case, but the phenomenon is much wider, e.g. hypo-/hypersocial, hypo-hyperlexic and hypo- or hypersensitive (e.g. to pain).

An important difference between my son and children with Einstein Syndrome is that he is verbally gifted whereas ES children are visually-mathematically gifted. This has got to do with what Simon-Baron calls a “male” (hunter) vs “female” (gather) brain. Of course, that doesn’t mean that all hunter-type children start to speak late, it’s just much more likely that they will be found among the late talkers, whereas the gatherer type children will more frequently found among the early talkers and therefore also be more likely to be identified as “gifted” rather than diagnosed with ASD.

Children with Einstein Syndrome also have high levels of allergies, myopia and left-handedness (often associated with creativity).

Whatever causes the different life-outcomes in hunter-gatherer type children, the early years seem to be much more critical for them than for farmer-herder type children. IMHO it’s important that clinicians, parents and teachers are aware of the possible outcomes and do their best for the child until further research will uncover the causes of the pathologies involved. However, we should be aware that a lot of what we tend to think of as pathologies are normal developmental trajectories for hunter-gatherer type children. Misdiagnosing or trying to “break” these children may make matters much worse and be at the root of problems like oppositional defiant disorder.

Returning to Einstein’s life, we may assume that he was most certainly on the spectrum, even so very high functioning. He also almost certainly had ODD in childhood, judging by his frequent bouts of anger and temper tantrums. These may have been misinterpreted as signs of a violent character, however, as an adult Einstein was usually very kind and a lifelong pacifist. He also maintained a lot of child-like traits: “The pursuit of truth and beauty,” he once said, “is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives.” Another typical hunter-gatherer trait (see Peter-Pan Syndrome above).

Again when it comes to school, his poor performance has often been greatly exaggerated, but Einstein did struggle both with rote learning and authoritarian teachers. These are typical signs of ADHD children. Also, his notorious absentmindedness is a strong indication of ADHD. However, like with ODD, the rebelliousness that comes with ADHD may be merely a reflection of an “egalitarian evolutionary programming”. And Einstein was certainly egalitarian to the highest degree: “I speak to everyone in the same way, whether he is the garbage man or the president of the university” he is said to have once remarked.

In addition, Albert Einstein may have even suffered from imposter syndrome towards the end of his life, with a month before his death confiding to a friend saying, “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” I have argued before that imposter syndrome is most likely to occur in hunter-gatherer types. Hunter-gatherers typically get ridiculed when they start to boast as showing off is considered to threaten their egalitarian system. On the contrary, foragers practice what is called “shaming the meat”, thus trivializing the importance of a catch.

So, the diagnoses we may give to Einstein are:

or simply “hunter”. His family history shows that he was part of a hunter-gatherer neurotribe, with his brother and younger son being engineers (ASD runs high in families of engineering students) and his older son suffering from schizophrenia.

If Einstein was a student today he would most certainly be considered twice-exceptional (2e).

2e strength and challenges (from Kenndey et al, 2011)

Ruth Karpinski et al. (2018) have studied members of the high IQ club Mensa and have found a great number of vulnerabilities among them, that do not only include the mental problems discussed so far, but also vulnerabilities to physical adversities, such as inflammations, allergies and autoimmune diseases. They call their model the ‘Hyper Brain — Hyper Body ‘ model. The basic idea is that hyper brains are overexcitable which can easily cause physiological overexcitabilities due to increased secretion of stress hormones (cortisol). This model could explain why so many geniuses in history had been sickly children.

A line of research that is related to all the previous ideas is Thomas Boyce’s (2019) work on orchid and dandelion children. Boyce usually illustrates the idea by comparing his own life-trajectory to that of his younger sister’s. Both were very imaginative and happy children in early childhood. He describes his sister Mary as more sensitive, introverted, and intelligent than himself. After the family moved twice during their teens, troubles began. Mary became increasingly withdrawn, physically ill, suffered from anorexia, and finally got diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was never able to return to a normal life, whereas her brother had a flourishing career as a paediatrician and a happy and stable marriage. Boyce coined the term ‘orchid children ‘ for children like his sister who needed a very special soil to be able to grow, versus children who could thrive anywhere, ‘dandelion children.

Orchid children are not that hard to identify. We have come across them already in this book, they are the difficult babies and children with the shy temperament. Even though hunter-gatherer children or those orchid children with shy temperament might not always be exactly the same, there is most likely considerable convergence between them. As paediatrician Boyce found out that the orchid children were the ones with high-stress reactivity and were sick more often. He found that in classrooms the shy and the sickly children were often the same.

So far it may appear that Boyce’s research has not added much to our hunter-gatherer hypothesis. There is, however, an interesting twist. Orchids were not only more often among the sickly, they were also more often among the healthiest kids. When orchids grew up in the right conditions, they did not just thrive, they were flying high. The same can be said in other domains, like careers, as well. Orchids might end up never being able to hold on to a job, or they might become eminent scientists, journalists, or published authors.

bifurcating orchid life-trajectories

We have come across this bifurcation of orchid life trajectories before when hunter-gatherer types can either suffer from mental diseases or shine as gifted people. Of course, the most interesting question to us now would be: what exactly is this fertile soil that orchids need to be able to grow and not wither away?

Boyce identified several factors that contributed to the making or breaking of orchid children:

Children as young as three or four years old start establishing dominance hierarchies in kindergarten. Orchids often end up at the bottom of the hierarchy. Our hypothesis is that hunter-gatherer types are not programmed to establish alliances to achieve higher positions in the hierarchy and that is why they tend to arrive at the bottom. Lower status creates a lot of stress for egalitarian HG minds. This is certainly one of the main causes that turned Einstein into a loner in childhood.

Bullying can be extremely stressful in particular for HG minds. For hunter-gatherers, this would equate to ostracism, which is the worst life outcome in a hunter-gatherer society. It’s not only the bully’s words or deeds that hurt but even more not being defended by the community (or by-standers), that makes bullying feel like social ostracism. Children and teenagers who were bullied have a significantly higher risk of committing suicide, including later in life, long after the bullying took place. I haven’t been able to find much about Einstein being bullied at school. But as being bullied is very common for both gifted and ASD children and given his many quotes regarding bullying, we can assume that there was some.

Whether orchid children do well at school depends mostly on the teacher’s style of teaching. When the teacher is authoritarian, orchid children tend to do worse than dandelions, when the teacher has an egalitarian style, they tend to do better than dandelions. Einstein certainly had his share of authoritarian teachers and he repeatedly expressed his disgust at the German school system.

All three of these conditions for fertile/infertile soil have to do with egalitarianism. One characteristic of gifted children is they have a highly developed sense of justice and are extremely egalitarian (we will explore this aspect later on in more detail). One trait that comes with egalitarianism is distrust of authority. This is probably the root cause of ODD in gifted children, children with ADHD and ASD, as a distrust of authority is a common characteristic of all three neurodiverse groups.

If Einstein had experienced slightly different conditions (e.g. a normal IQ or a home with no interest in science) he may well have become a hobo rather than the most famous scientist who ever lived. He was certainly a unique outstanding brilliant mind, but his traits were not so atypical of other hunter type people.

Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on June 5, 2021.