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Culture’s Bell Curve

Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, Charles Murray, HarperCollins, 688 pages

Few figures in American intellectual life more admirably combine ambition and modesty than data maestro Charles Murray. Every decade or so, Murray delivers a big book full of graphs and tables that audaciously but judiciously illuminates a vital topic.

In 1984, Murray’s Losing Ground demonstrated the malign effect of Great-Society-era programs on the poor, laying the basis for the successful welfare-reform act of 1996.

His huge 1994 best-seller, The Bell Curve, co-written with the late Richard J. Herrnstein, had the opposite effect. It made such a definitive case for the broad impact of differences in intelligence that the dread letters “IQ” had to be driven out of polite society. For example, the new book No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning by conservative scholars Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom obsessively avoids even mentioning The Bell Curve until the fine print notes at the back. This post-Bell-Curve taboo on IQ made possible the recent No Child Left Behind Act mandating that every public-school student in America be academically “proficient” by 2014. Even the Thernstroms recognize that this attempt to legislate America into Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average, is absurd.

In 1997, Murray quietly began a huge project to rank objectively history’s most important discoverers and creators so that he could examine the causes and correlates of greatness. The result is his gracefully written and enthralling Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950.

For example, to determine the most significant Western visual artists, Murray assembled 14 leading comprehensive works by art historians such as Gombrich and Janson. For each name in each book’s index, he typed into his computer basic measures of importance such as the number of pages mentioning the artist. (No surprise: Michelangelo came out on top.)

This sounds simple, perhaps even simple-minded, but these kinds of metrics of eminence have been repeatedly validated during decades of use by social scientists ranging from Charles Darwin’s smarter cousin Francis Galton to Murray’s mentor, U.C. Davis psychologist Dean Keith Simonton. Still, the process raised many technical problems that could have biased the results, such as which works to rely upon and how many to use. Murray meticulously dealt with each issue using his mastery of statistics.

Once assembled, his “inventory” of 4,002 significant figures in 21 categories allowed him quantitatively to test some Big Questions. For instance, did the pursuit of excellence flourish more in liberal democracies than in non-despotic monarchies? Answer: no.

Having spent 17 years in the marketing-data business, I love pointing out better ways to crunch numbers. I can identify several weaknesses in Murray’s methods. For example, since we don’t know the names of most of the countless artists who worked on the great medieval cathedrals, Murray can’t include them in his tables of great individuals and thus he underrates the artistic accomplishments of the Middle Ages. Yet, to my surprise, I can’t think of a single way to do it better than he did.

His methods and lists should become the standards for future research. There is little need to reinvent his wheels. If you want to rate other types of famous people, such as soldiers, violinists, or chefs, you can just follow his methodology. Conversely, if you want to explore questions Murray skips over, such as the role of social class, educational level, or left-handedness among the accomplished, you can just use his tables of names as your starting points.

Because Murray measures the consensus of the experts, his rankings aren’t too surprising. Galileo is at the top in astronomy; Darwin in biology; Newton and Einstein in physics; Pasteur in medicine; Beethoven and Mozart in Western music; and, of course, Shakespeare in Western literature. Still, anybody who likes baseball statistics will find Human Accomplishment great fun.

For example, Thomas Edison is the only American to lead a category (technology, where he shares the top spot with steam-engine developer James Watt). In general, Americans didn’t do terribly well in any other category, although we can hope that we improved after 1950, when Murray stops in order to prevent ephemeral recent fads from warping the data.

Ben Franklin drubs Thomas Jefferson in the race to be our nation’s foremost Renaissance man. Franklin scores as a major figure in both physics and technology, and a significant one in literature. Others who qualified in three categories include Galileo, Leibniz, Huygens, Archimedes, and Rousseau, who was not just a philosopher and novelist but also a successful comic-opera composer. The top polymaths, showing up as significant in four categories, were Descartes and, predictably, Leonardo Da Vinci.

All the rankings will inspire arguments, of course, but that’s one of the book’s pleasures.

French postmodernists will sneer at the very concept of objectively measuring greatness, but their brittle amour propre will be secretly salved by hearing that the most important city in Murray’s lists, by far, is Paris. It was the workplace for 12 percent of the 4,002 significant scientists and artists. Of course, you can’t construct interesting new knowledge like this if you actually believe the boring old deconstructionist dogmas.

France is tied with Britain and Germany as the leading nation, with Italy fourth. Interestingly, 80 percent of the significant Europeans grew up in a rather narrow axis running from Naples up the Rhine to Edinburgh.

Can we trust these data? The scholars upon whom Murray relies have their personal and professional biases, but, ultimately, their need to create coherent narratives explaining who influenced whom means that their books aren’t primarily based on their own opinions but rather on those of their subjects. For example, the best single confirmation of Beethoven’s greatness might be Brahms’s explanation of why he spent decades fussing before finally unveiling his First Symphony: “You have no idea how it feels for someone like me to hear behind him the tramp of a giant like Beethoven.”

In Paul Johnson’s just-published and immensely readable book Art: A New History, you can see how even this most opinionated of historians must adapt himself to the judgments of artists. Much of the book’s entertainment value stems from Johnson’s heresies, such as his grumpy comment on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: “No one ever wished the ceiling larger.” Still, Johnson can’t really break free from conventional art history because he can’t avoid writing about those whom subsequent artists emulated.

For example, Johnson finds Cézanne (who ranks 10th in Murray’s table of 479 significant artists) painfully incompetent at the basics of his craft. Yet, Johnson has to grit his teeth and write about Cézanne at length because he “was in some ways the most influential painter of the late nineteenth century because of his powerful (and to many mysterious) appeal to other painters …” In contrast to Johnson, Murray keeps his artistic opinions upbeat or muted because his goals are scientific.

Human Accomplishment sheds fascinating light on identity-politics issues. Women, for instance, account for merely 2 percent of the 4,002 personages. They are strongest in Japanese literature, with 8 percent of the significant names, including the third-ranked Japanese writer, Lady Murasaki Shikibu, author of the thousand-year-old proto-novel The Tale of Genji. Women are particularly insignificant in composing classical music (0.2 percent) and inventing technology (0.0 percent). Is this changing much? Murray unofficially glanced at who “flourished” after 1950 (depressingly to me, he assumes careers peak at age 40) and found female accomplishment to be up sharply only in literature. In fact, the percentage of Nobel Prizes won by women fell from 4 percent in the first half of the 20th century to 3 percent in the second.

Still, Murray’s rankings may be slightly unfair to female artists because they are less likely to have brilliant followers. My wife, for example, was incensed that Jane Austen finished behind the lumbering Theodore Dreiser and the flashy Ezra Pound. Yet, these men probably did have more influence on other major writers. That’s because subsequent famous authors were mostly male and thus less interested than the female half of the human race in Austen’s topics, such as finding a husband.

Dead white European males dominate his inventories, despite Murray reserving eight of his 21 categories (including Arabic literature, Indian philosophy, and Chinese visual art) for non-Western arts. Murray, who was a Peace Corp volunteer in Thailand and has half-Asian children, began this project wanting to devote even more attention to Asian accomplishments but found he couldn’t justify his predisposition.

In the sciences, 97 percent of the significant figures and events turned out to be Western. Is this merely Eurocentric bias? Of the 36 science reference books he drew upon, 28 were published after 1980, by which time historians were desperately searching for non-Westerners to praise. Only in this decade has the most advanced non-Western country, Japan, begun to win science Nobels regularly.

Why is the West best? After five years of work, Murray still didn’t know. Then, he had an unexpected epiphany: the single biggest reason most of history’s highest achievers came from Christendom was … Christianity.

He writes,

It was a theology that empowered the individual acting as an individual as no other philosophy or religion had ever done before. The potentially revolutionary message was realized more completely in one part of Christendom, the Catholic West, than in the Orthodox East. The crucial difference was that Roman Catholicism developed a philosophical and artistic humanism typified, and to a great degree engendered, by Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274). Aquinas made the case, eventually adopted by the Church, that human intelligence is a gift from God, and that to apply human intelligence to understanding the world is not an affront to God but is pleasing to him.

From 1850 to 1950, per capita accomplishment tended to decline, which is especially striking considering the huge spread of education. Diminishing returns in the sciences seem inevitable because the low-hanging fruit was picked first. In the arts, though, Murray believes that loss of faith in both the purpose of life and the efficacy of the individual retarded greatness, especially in the post-Freudian age.

Murray expects that almost no art from the second half of the 20th century will be remembered in 200 years. Indeed, Europe, homeland of geniuses, has collapsed into a comfortable cultural stasis reminiscent of Rome in the 2nd century A.D. In addition to Murray’s philosophical explanations, I’d also point to causes such as the genocide of Europe’s highest-achieving ethnic group (Jews were about six times more likely than gentiles to become significant figures from 1870 onward); the rise of anti-elitist ideologies; and the decline of nationalism. From Vergil to Verdi, great men engendered great works to celebrate their nations. Nobody, however, seems likely to create an epic glorifying the European Union.


Steve Sailer is TAC’s film critic and a reporter for UPI.



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