The Triumph of Human Accomplishment

Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment brilliantly catalogues and then tries to explain what a few hundred men (and a minuscule number of women) have bequeathed to civilization over nearly three millennium.

Recounted are contributions to the hard sciences (astronomy, biology, physics, chemistry, earth sciences), mathematics, medicine, technology plus various “lighter” subjects such as philosophy, literature and painting. Its scope is worldwide-included are Chinese and Indian philosophy, Arabic literature and Japanese art (and scientific contributions made outside of Europe and the United States are dutifully mentioned, as well).

Giants of each field (e.g., Newton, Beethoven) and extraordinary events that profoundly influenced mankind’s upward march (e.g., the publication in 300 BCE of Euclid’s Elements) inform this sweeping panorama.

Human Accomplishment is very, very serious scholarship and even committed believers may be tested by repeated digressions into statistical methodology, obtuse philosophical and theological asides plus countless graphs and tables. There are five separate technical appendices together with 35 pages of erudite endnotes. That the patient reader possesses a first-rate liberal arts education, a taste for microscopic detail and some scientific literacy is assumed.

And, as befitting a man who co-authored The Bell Curve, he invites controversy. Murray is not ashamed to announce that dead white European males (DWEMS) have handed down virtually everything extraordinary (beyond such localized endeavors as Indian art). Nor does he waste time “uncovering” hidden masterpieces in Africa or South America. The disproportionate contribution of Jews-but no other once-repressed groups-to modern science is carefully documented.

Murray awards Asians credit where credit is deserved, but he steadfastly resists the temptation to equate technical feats such as paper making with a steady parade of far-reaching conceptual breakthroughs comparable to devising the scientific method. Human Accomplishment is 100% free of cultural relativism and bogus claims of diversity.

If this were insufficient to arouse the ‘PC’ crowd, Murray gives full glory to the ancient Greeks and western Christianity in advancing human progress while noting the dead hand of orthodox Islam. Murray’s reputation as the one scholar least likely to receive university tenure remains absolutely secure.

How does Murray carry out a mission that reasonable people might say is inherently doomed or whose end product is likely to be mere (ethnocentric, myopic, biased) opinion?

His building blocks are the various well-respected specialized compendiums of distinguished people. Surely, Murray argues, if a contribution is truly momentous, its creator will be widely recognized and discussed at length. Some of these expert accounts are fairly general (e.g., Muir’s Larousse Dictionary of Scientists); others narrowly encompass a single discipline such as physics.

After statistically converting these entries into scores, lists are distilled that reflect an overwhelming consensus on the truly illustrious. To be sure, aficionados will quibble over exact ranks, but there can be no question that in music, for example, Beethoven, Mozart and J.S. Bach (however ordered) outrank Fanny Mendelssohn or Clara Schumann. That exceedingly few people receive universal mention suggests that authentic eminence can be accurately discerned across time and place regardless of the compiler’s biases.

The chronology of human progress is similarly catalogued: If a particular event or breakthrough receives multiple reference book mentions, it is added to the timeline. Events recognized everywhere are labeled “central events” and include occurrences such as Galileo’s first telescopic observation of the night sky.

Again, individual items drawn from a universe of many thousands are not indisputable, but it is ludicrous to claim that those making the final cut were trivial or that some cosmic innovation somehow escaped notice.

Distinguished people and imposing events now established, Murray pursues the how and why of progress. Only a scattering of these many insights can be highlighted. Consider the geography of accomplishment. In Europe from 1400 to 1950, three countries-England, France and Germany-dominate in building what Murray calls “the r??©sum??© of our species,” with Italy in fourth place still far outdistancing all others.

But even this characterization is too gross-depending on endeavor and era, accomplishment is far more localized. It is northern Italy, not the south that predominates, as does the south of England across several fields.

Thriving cities usually matter, but not always-Florence saw magnificent art while little was produced in the more populous Naples. And while the centers of accomplishment regularly shift, some European nations (e.g., Spain) witness little over the last four centuries. In some regions (e.g., France) the preeminent city dominates accomplishment; elsewhere (e.g., Germany) advances are scattered almost everywhere. Clearly, the dead white European male legacy is hardly inclusive.

Simplistic explanations regarding war and peace also come up short. Much of what ancient Athens and Renaissance Italy produced occurred during deadly turmoil though total chaos as in the Thirty Year War does momentarily stifle progress.

Nor does wealth necessarily dictate accomplishment-it typically helps, and may be necessary, but 16th Century Spain was fabulously wealthy but all the accumulated treasure may have been debilitating. Nor is freedom of action always decisive-today’s quite recent liberal democracy cannot possibly explain any past achievement, and the bulk of human progress occurred under systems that by today’s standard were authoritarian. What can be said, however, is that totalitarian despotism is a certain kiss of death. All and all, many clues but no simple explanations.

Human Accomplishment is least satisfactory when it asks if achievement is declining despite the outward appearances of immense material bountifulness. Murray’s analysis is far too complicated to recount here, but the overall verdict is generally pessimistic, especially in the arts. My own take is that Murray is wrong, and he himself admits that judgments can depend on how we calibrate “progress” and how paternity is assigned. Imagine trying to identify the responsible genius in a scientific breakthrough when the key journal article has 100-plus authors?

What will become of Human Accomplishment? It is unlikely to spawn imitators-that task is far too overwhelming. This is truly a labor of love that consumed immense resources, and few academics are similarly inclined.

Will it convert cultural relativists, post modernists and others doubting the superiority of Western civilization? Hardly-accusations of ethnocentric, Euro-centric bias are all too easily made in today’s intellectual environment where feelings often outshine hard evidence.

And as Murray himself often admits, unanswered questions abound and many of his findings are forever speculative. At best it will provide ammunition to the already convinced that excellence deeply matters and that a tiny sliver of human civilization concentrated in a few cities and regions have disproportionately contributed to the “human r??©sum??©.”

This largely psychological benefit is hardly trivial but, alas, it only serves as a sad commentary in a world in which “experts” embrace bizarre fantasies such as “Afro-centric knowledge” or “feminist science.” Three cheers for the DWEMS!!!


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