A sweeping cultural survey reminiscent of Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence.
"At irregular times and in scattered settings, human beings have achieved great things. Human Accomplishment is about those great things, falling in the domains known as the arts and sciences, and the people who did them.'
So begins Charles Murray's unique account of human excellence, from the age of Homer to our own time. Employing techniques that historians have developed over the last century but that have rarely been applied to books written for the general public, Murray compiles inventories of the people who have been essential to the stories of literature, music, art, philosophy, and the sciences—a total of 4,002 men and women from around the world, ranked according to their eminence.
The heart of Human Accomplishment is a series of enthralling descriptive chapters: on the giants in the arts and what sets them apart from the merely great; on the differences between great achievement in the arts and in the sciences; on the meta-inventions, 14 crucial leaps in human capacity to create great art and science; and on the patterns and trajectories of accomplishment across time and geography.
Straightforwardly and undogmatically, Charles Murray takes on some controversial questions. Why has accomplishment been so concentrated in Europe? Among men? Since 1400? He presents evidence that the rate of great accomplishment has been declining in the last century, asks what it means, and offers a rich framework for thinking about the conditions under which the human spirit has expressed itself most gloriously. Eye-opening and humbling, Human Accomplishment is a fascinating work that describes what humans at their best can achieve, provides tools for exploring its wellsprings, and celebrates the continuing common quest of humans everywhere to discover truths, create beauty, and apprehend the good.
In 1984, it was his devastating assessment of welfare programs, "Losing Ground," which helped inspire the famous 1996 welfare reform act.
In 1994, Murray coauthored with the late Richard J. Herrnstein the enormous bestseller "The Bell Curve." It ignited controversy by arguing that IQ scores are one of the most overlooked tools for understanding how American society is structured.
Now, after a half-decade of work, Murray, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, is back with another massive book, 688 pages full of graphs and tables. "Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950" (HarperCollins, $29.95) is a fascinating attempt to rank the 4,000 most important artists and scientists in human history.
Murray meticulously measured how much attention the leading scholars in their fields pay to the top creators and discoverers. Reading "Human Accomplishment" is a little like browsing through the statistics-laden "Baseball Encyclopedia," except that instead of being about Ruth, Di Maggio, and Bonds, Murray's book is about Picasso, Darwin, and Edison.
Murray took some time to discuss "Human Accomplishment" with me.
Q. Who came out on top of big categories like Western Literature, Western Art, Western Philosophy, and Combined Sciences?
A. Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aristotle, and Newton -- the people you'd expect.
In Western music, Mozart and Beethoven were in a dead heat, with Bach third. A rather vocal minority is upset about Bach not being on top. I'm not. I love Bach, but it's awfully hard to listen to Beethoven's later symphonies and string quartets and figure out how anybody could possibly be ranked above him.
However, let me stress: I'm not the one who made those decisions. And occasionally I had to grin and bear it when things didn't come out according to my druthers. Rousseau and Byron are way too high in Western literature for my taste, for example.
Q. Can you truly quantify objectively which artists and scientists were the most eminent?
A. Sure. It's one of the most well-developed quantitative measures in the social sciences. (The measurement of intelligence is one of its few competitors, incidentally.)
My indices have a statistical reliability that is phenomenal for the social sciences. There's also a very high "face validity" -- in other words, the rankings broadly correspond to common-sense expectations.
Q. Who was the most accomplished person who ever lived?
A. Now we're talking personal opinion, because the methods I used don't work across domains, but I have an emphatic opinion.
He more or less invented logic, which was of pivotal importance in human history (and no other civilization ever came up with it independently). He wrote the essay on ethics ("Nicomachean Ethics") that to my mind contains the bedrock truths about the nature of living a satisfying human life. He made huge contributions to aesthetics, political theory, methods of classification and scientific observation. Who else even comes close?
Q. Which woman scored the highest?
A. Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote the novel "The Tale of Genji" a thousand years ago, has by far the highest index score -- 86 on a scale of 1 to 100. But, that is in competition just with other Japanese authors, not all of the world's authors.
The highest-scoring woman in any of the sciences -- no surprise -- is Marie Curie in Physics, with a score in the 40s (on a scale where Newton and Einstein are tied at 100). The highest in Western Literature is Virginia Woolf. None of the highest-scoring women in the other categories are major figures.
Q. You pay a surprising amount of attention to Asian culture. Does that stem from the six years you lived in Asia beginning as a Peace Corps volunteer?
A. Put it this way: There are aspects of Asian culture as it is lived that I still prefer to Western culture, 30 years after I last lived in Thailand. Two of my children are half-Asian. Apart from those personal aspects, I have always thought that the Chinese and Japanese civilizations had elements that represented the apex of human accomplishment in certain domains.
When I began the book, I actually hoped to give Asian accomplishment a still larger place than it wound up getting.
Q. You argue that one big reason that most of humanity's highest achievers came from what used to be called Christendom was ... Christianity. Did you expect to reach that conclusion?
A. Michael Novak foretold I would come to that conclusion, but I didn't agree at the time. I didn't think you needed anything except the Greek heritage and some secular social and economic trends to explain the Renaissance.
On this score, I have plenty of witnesses in the form of my colleagues who were getting nervous as the years went by. They kept asking me what the thesis of the book was, and I kept saying, "Beats the hell out of me."
The last chapters of the book were all written in the last nine months of work, and at the beginning of those nine months, I still didn't know what was going to be in them.
Q. You found that per capita levels of accomplishment tended to decline from 1850 to 1950. Would you care to speculate on post-1950 trends?
A. I think that the number of novels, songs, and paintings done since 1950 that anyone will still care about 200 years from now is somewhere in the vicinity of zero. Not exactly zero, but close. I find a good way to make this point is to ask anyone who disagrees with me to name a work that will survive -- and then ask, "Seriously?" Very few works indeed can defend themselves against the "Seriously?" question.
The answer to the first question is certainly "yes". Murray uses the extent of coverage of scientists and artists in standard reference works on each field that he investigates. Basically he counts the number of times figures are mentioned and the amount of space their work is given. He makes a heroic effort to ensure that the results are not skewed by reliance on single works or works in a single language. His inventories include: astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth sciences, physics, mathematics, medicine, technology, Chinese philosophy, Indian philosophy, western philosophy, western music, Chinese painting, Japanese art, western art, Arabic literature, Chinese literature, Indian literature, Japanese literature, and western literature.
While many may deride this methodology as bunk, the surprising thing is that the listings "look right". Who will argue that Galileo and Kepler do not belong at the top of the astronomy list, that Newton and Einstein do not belong at the top in physics, or that Shakespeare and Goethe should be lower on the western literature list? We may quibble about minor differences in rankings, but few would assert that obviously significant figures have been completely misplaced. Some readers with extensive statistics backgrounds may attack the techniques used, especially those used later in the book in determining rates of accomplishment, but with my limited background (one year of undergraduate statistics courses at MIT, and a semester of statistics for research in grad school) Murray's methodology looks bulletproof.
To this point, even multiculturalists should be happy, since no attempt is made to compare the accomplishments of western and non-western civilizations. Now, however, he lobs the baseball into the hornets' nest. He concludes that dead European white guys have done the best work in the sciences, that Jews are dramatically overrepresented as a percentage of total population, that women have not contributed at the expected rates even after sexist barriers were removed, and that significant contributions in non-western arts have not been made at the same rates as in the west. While Murray's observations on the sciences seem indisputable, his coverage of non-western art is probably the weakest part of the book.
Murray next tries to extract some explanations from the data. His first conclusions are fairly obvious and noncontroversial to anyone with some knowledge of the history of sicence and the arts: war does not disrupt accomplishment, but economic health is required. Next, he points out that models of accomplishment provide behavior reinforcement for aspiring achievers. He also concludes that accomplishment requires freedom of action. Regimes ruled by Saddam Hussein's or Ayatollah Khomeini's are unlikely to produce much in the way of achievement. Further, Confucian duty to family and hierarchy can also stifle creativity.
In the final section of the book, Murray turns back to the nature of accomplishment and the factors that contribute to it, and asks if accomplishment is in decline. Since this is the most interesting part of book, I will not telegraph all of the conclusions in this review. Suffice it to say that his conclusions are anathema to multiculturists and practititioners of literary theory. In sum, this is an excellent, thought-provoking work that will reward any open-minded reader.
Murray has an important message, which crystallizes toward the end of the book. An important part of the human spirit, after the basic needs of survival and procreation are met, is its natural attraction to truth, beauty and good. (This is the best elaboration I have seen of what is meant by the "pursuit of Happiness" in our Declaration of Independence) Given the right cultural climate, the emergence of excellence in the pursuit of truth, beauty and good, will thrive. I do not know if Murray had that message in mind and used the data to support it, or that he analyzed the data to conclude on that message. Either way, the message is powerful.
Murray also made the point the religion (not organized religion, but a mature contemplation of truth, beauty and good) and its contagiousness is what is behind the waves of achievements and discoveries in history, entailing superhuman efforts and sacrifices that produced the greatest art and the articulation of the most insightful truths.
There is in this book a detail list of "inventories" of great and significant figures and an elaboration of how they are selected, with special consideration -- allowing quotas, if you will -- for non-Western achievements. The inventories will undoubtedly generate a lot of debate from the PC crowd. Murray anticipated that and did quite a bit of that debate within the book. If you are a serious reader of the book, you will find that the inventories, despite the amount of space devoted to them, are mere launching pad for the thesis of what is the meaning of excellence.
Like "The Bell Curve", this book is not for everybody. But for those who are drawn to the pursuit and appreciation of greatness and deference to truth, this book resonates powerfully with the mind.