My head is so big I have to wear TWO wigs
– Oprah Winfrey, 1996
I’ve been told that when one talks about intelligence, there are so many different parts to it. It’s pattern recognition, memorization, verbal ability, spatial ability, numerical ability, social comprehension, musical talents, self-awareness, lateral thinking, logic, intuition, and so much, much more. But if one wants a single umbrella to cover ALL of intelligence, then some say it’s the ability to adapt; to take whatever situation you’re in, and turn it around to your advantage. The adaptative value of intelligence is demonstrated by the fact that brain size nearly tripled in just the last 4 million years, from 500 cm3 in Australopithecenes to 800 cm3 in Homo habilis to 1000 cm3 in Homo erectus to about 1350 cm3 in modern Homo sapiens (higher in the developed world where nutrition is good).
So the reason humans are considered the most intelligent animal is that despite having so many disadvantages (we lack fur, strength, speed, claws, sharp teeth, wings) we were able to adapt the world to our advantage. We didn’t have fur, so we created fur coats. We didn’t have claws, so we created knives. We couldn’t run fast, so we created cars. We didn’t have wings, so we invented airplanes etc. We were able to use plants to our advantage (agriculture) and animals to our advantage (domestication) and subdue and capture animals like gorillas who are many times our size and strength. So despite being such a weak disadvantaged animal, our freakishly large brains allowed us to become the most powerful and prosperous animal on the planet.
Analogously, Oprah had almost every disadvantage. She was born a poor dark skinned black female in Jim Crow rural Mississippi (the lynching capital of the world). She was illegitimate, sexually abused, became overweight, and was not considered pretty. Yet she was able to adapt all these disadvantages to her advantage. She used her weight problems to bond with millions of Americans. She shared her sexual abuse to help lead millions of abuse victims to recovery. She very skillfully used her race to become America’s black best friend. She used her poor upbringing to gain sympathy. Pretty soon, Forbes magazine was ranking her as the richest self-made woman in America, and some years, arguably the world.
But Oprah didn’t just achieve wealth (economic capital), she also achieved status (social capital). Time magazine ranks her as the most influential woman on the planet. When millions of Americans voted in 2005 to elect the Greatest American in history, Oprah was the only female to make the top 10, making her at that moment, the most worshiped woman ever within the world’s sole superpower, and perhaps as a corollary, the most powerful woman in the world. A woman so powerful that when she was disrespected by a clerk in Switzerland, the country officially apologized. Books she recommended would become colossal bestsellers, and some economists credit her with almost single-handedly putting a black man in the white house.
New York Times columnist columnist Maureen Dowd stated:
She is the top alpha female in this country. She has more credibility than the president. Other successful women, such as Hillary Clinton and Martha Stewart, had to be publicly slapped down before they could move forward. Even Condi has had to play the protegé with Bush. None of this happened to Oprah – she is a straight ahead success story.
And Bill O’Reilly said:
this is a woman that came from nothing to rise up to be the most powerful woman, I think, in the world. I think Oprah Winfrey is the most powerful woman in the world, not just in America. That’s – anybody who goes on her program immediately benefits through the roof. I mean, she has a loyal following; she has credibility; she has talent; and she’s done it on her own to become fabulously wealthy and fabulously powerful.
So just as humans overcame adversity to become the world’s most prosperous and powerful animal, Oprah overcame adversity, to become the world’s most powerful and prosperous woman. Just as humans were able to outdistance all other animals because we’re the world’s biggest brained animal (relative to body size), arguably Oprah was able to outdistance all other women, because she’s arguably the world’s biggest brained woman.
The world’s biggest brained woman?
I have heard Oprah state on her show that she has to have her hats custom made because her head measures 25.25 inches around, a cranium so large that two wigs had to be sewn together to fit her for her Oscar nominated performance in The Color Purple. This equates to 641.4 mm. According to the U.S. Army Anthropometric Survey Database, by Claire C. Gordon (Final Report, October 1996), in 1995, a sample of 3,482 active duty females in the U.S. army had their heads measured. The mean circumference was 546.6 mm and the standard deviation (SD) was 15.1. Assuming this sample is roughly representative of adult female U.S. crania, Oprah’s head perimeter is 6.3 SD above the mean of American women. Assuming a Gaussian distribution, fewer than one in five billion women in America should have cranium that large. There are of course, not five billion women in America or even the world, let alone the developed world where nutrition is optimum for brain growth; thus Oprah has arguably the world’s largest female cranium (excluding female hydrocephalics, where head enlargement reflects cerebrospinal fluid not brain mass, and autistic females, where enlargement reflects a brain that was super-sized in childhood, before shrinking in adolescence).
Of course head circumference is just a crude proxy for brain size. Some formulas very crudely attempt to make the conversion. For example the late Professor J. Phillipe Rushton argued that a simple conversion would be to use the formula for calculating the volume of a hemisphere (V = circumfence3/118.4). Plugging Oprah’s 64.14 cm head circumference into this equation gives a cranial capacity of 2,229 cm3, a truly unimaginable figure. However Rushton only validated this formula in young Asian children; he never approved it for adults or all races. One reason why it might give exaggerated results in adults is that it does not subtract the fat and skin around the skull which is thicker in adults than in children and probably adds 200 cm3. Subtracting those 200 cm3 brings Oprah down to 2,029 cm3.
The biggest brained member of both her race AND her gender?
If it weren’t astonishing enough that Oprah is arguably the world’s biggest brained woman (or at least arguabley was in her youth when her brain size was maximized and the world population was lesser), she is/was also arguably the world’s biggest brained black. Professor Rushton found that a sample of 2,676 African-American Army personnel measured in 1988, had a mean cranial capacity of 1,362 cm3 (SD = 95). Assuming this sample is representative of black people reared in the developed world, Oprah’s estimated cranial capacity of 2,029 cm3 would be 7 SD above their mean, implying a normalized rarity of less than one in 190 billion! Of course this is not a perfectly apples to apples comparison since the brain sizes of the black Army personnel were estimated from head length, head breadth and head height, while I have estimated Oprah’s brain size from circumference, and differences in head shape can give different estimates of cranial capacity. But it’s also worth noting that if adjustments for fat-free body weight were made, Oprah’s cranium would be even more impressive, because in mixed-sex comparisons that are not adjusted for body size, women are penalized because head size correlates moderately with fat-free mass of which women have much less.
The World’s only black billionaire?
If it weren’t astonishing enough that Oprah is arguably the world’s most powerful and prosperous woman (or at least was at the peak of her and America’s power), she is/was also arguably the world’s most successful black. She is almost always the only African American on Forbes annual list of the 400 richest Americans and her estimated net worth of $2.9 billion makes her the richest African American of all time.
From 2004-2006, she was one of only three blacks on Forbes annual list of all the billionaires in the world (not just America). However the other two black billionaires may not have been of predominantly black ancestry. One was Saudi Arabian Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Ali Al Amoudi, whose father is from Yemen (a population that is typically Middle Eastern, not black). While his mother is from the black nation of Ethiopia, geneticist Cavalli-Sforza estimated that nearly half of that country’s genes originated in West Asia rather than black Africa. Given both parents, it’s very possible that Al Amoudi is of predominantly Caucasoid ancestry.
The other black billionaire was Canada’s Michael Lee-Chin, who has two Jamaican grandparents, and two East Asian grandparents. Seeing as Jamaicans are not of purely black origin (there is non-trivial white admixture) and two of his grandparents are from cold East Asia (the opposite of sub-Saharan Africa), it’s likely that Lee-Chin is also less than 50% black at the genetic level. Perhaps because of the racial ambiguity of the two men, Oprah was for several years regarded as the only black billionaire in the world, not just in America, though in recent years, a few other unambiguously black billionaires have emerged in Africa.
Child of the Corn
At least in America, self-made billionaires tend to be brilliant. Ultra-big brained people tend also to be brilliant. Since Oprah is both a very self-made billionaire and likely an ultra-big brained person, statistically she is likely to be especially brilliant. Though Oprah has made billions off her populist image as an average woman, and seems brutally honest about her cognitive shortcomings, evidence of exceptional intelligence can be found in her childhood. During her formative years, she was raised by her grandmother, Miss Hattie Maie (a maid) in rural Mississippi, where Oprah was reading and reciting Bible verses by age three. Oprah fondly recalls how the women at the all black church where Oprah would give recitations would turn to her grandmother and say: Miss Hattie Maie, that child sure can talk. That child’s gifted. That child’s gonna talk her way out of Mississippi.
Jealous of her talents and resentful of her messiah complex, the other kids would later derisively nickname her “the preacher”, a la Stephen King’s Children of the Corn and attempt to beat her up, but the adaptable young Oprah would always talk her way out of it.
At age six, she recalls writing her Kindergarten teacher a note that said:
Dear Miss Newe,
I do not belong here because I can read and I know a lot of big words: Elephant, hippopotamus.
She was quickly moved to first grade, and would go on to skip the second grade too.
[Addendum, July 8, 2014: this post is a revision of an article I published many years ago]