Of Human Accomplishment

By Dutton, Denis | New Criterion, February 2004 | Go to article overview

Of Human Accomplishment


Dutton, Denis, New Criterion


Readers familiar with Charles Murray's work (Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life) know that he is not a man to shy away from controversy or bold opinions. In Human Accomplishment, (1) Murray's aim is nothing less than to determine the geographic and chronological distribution of creative genius in science and the arts across the whole of the world during twenty-eight centuries, from 800 BC through 1950. It's a tall order. Murray assembles histories, surveys, and encyclopedias of the arts and sciences, 163 of them, and records their treatment of significant figures. Using an initial cut-off that leaves only individuals who are mentioned in at least 50 percent of his sources, he comes up with a list of 4002 writers, philosophers, mathematicians, musicians, poets, astronomers, painters, physicists, biologists, and innovators in technology These are then rated in a system devised and refined in order to provide an objective assessment of high achievement across cultures and over the ages.

The leading names are predictable: Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Darwin in the sciences, Beethoven and Bach in music, Shakespeare and Schiller in literature, Michelangelo in painting, Euler in mathematics, and so forth. Murray is at pains to eliminate Eurocentrism in his analysis: there is separate coverage of Chinese and of Indian philosophy to match Western philosophy, Chinese painting, Japanese art, Japanese literature, Arabic literature, and Chinese literature. These include, at a level he views as comparable to Aristotle and Mozart, such names as Gu Kaizhi, Basho, al-Mutanabbi, and Kalidasa. Murray's goal is not, however, merely to make a list of 4002 all-time greats. He wants to build up a general view of the historical conditions that allow for the flourishing of artistic and scientific innovation and discovery.

One of Murray's favorite ideas is contained in a quip he credits to his late colleague Richard J. Herrnstein: "It is easy to lie with statistics, but it's a lot easier to lie without them." It's a notion worth remembering in light of the sour reactions to his book from critics who don't like the idea of quantifying greatness. In The New York Post, Sam Munson wrote that "there is something disturbingly petty about creating indexes, tables, and rates of human accomplishment." Murray's "page-counting," Judith Shulevitz sniffed in The New York Times, seems the kind of thing that normally "would interest only those who find that sort of thing interesting," were it not for the fact that his conclusions seem as "fantastical" as something out of Borges. Along with other critics, Shulevitz tends to find the book typical of old-time social science: when it's right, it's bleeding obvious; when it's not obvious, it's wrong.

Granted that in some respects Murray's statistics drive him to conclusions not all that different from those of purely qualitative historians of genius and culture, such as Jacques Barzun mad Harold Bloom. And when he does resort to humanistic sermons extolling great men and their masterworks, they come accompanied by tables and statistics lessons that many readers will find too tedious and wearying to study. This is a shame, for they will miss the heart of an impressively well-argued account of magnificent achievements of human history. For all his statistics, Murray does not promise or deliver certainty on the conditions for human accomplishment. Rather, he supplies data on which informed opinions, by him or by his critics, might be based.

Murray's method for identifying eminence by reputation follows a form set by Francis Galton's 1869 Hereditary Genius, which also used biographical literature quantitatively, as a platform for research. But the spirit of Murray's endeavor stretches back farther, to David Hume. In his essay "Of the Standard of Taste" (1757), Hume formulated the problem of evaluating artistic achievement.

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