Human Accomplishment
Charles Murray
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*Buy *Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950* online

Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950
Charles Murray
688 pages
October 2003
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Click here to read reviewer Camden Alexander's take on Human Accomplishment.

Charles Murray, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, is the surviving member of the twosome who, in 1994, gave us The Bell Curve. Where the old book ranked racial groups by median intelligence, his new one ranks geniuses and their acts by agreed-upon “excellence". Human Accomplishment may well cause as much heartburn as did The Bell Curve. Murray “proves” the cultural primacy of the usual Dead White Males.

Of course, everyone has his own ranking of composers — Johann Sebastian Bach was the greatest, correct? And James Maxwell, the definer of electromagnetism, surely is right up there in the physicist ranks after Newton and Einstein. Rembrandt must be number one in painting and Shakespeare in literature, while the Greeks who invented drama must be high in the latter category.

No. As composers, Murray has Beethoven and Mozart tied for number one (100 in scoring), while Bach is third with only 87. Maxwell is number nine in Physics. Rembrandt holds the seventh position in Art — Picasso, of all people, is second, after Michelangelo. Murray gives Shakespeare first place in western literature all right, but puts Euripides way after Rousseau — who many people may have difficulty in recalling.

How does Murray come up with these assertions?

Ostensibly, at least, not by imposing his personal taste. An example of the more common practice is the latest literary survey known to this reviewer (covered on this website in November of 2002). In Genius, Harold Bloom reported his “appreciation” of “One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds.” While Bloom occasionally made comparisons, he built no intellectual edifice in support of his preferences. He included marginal figures like Wallace Stevens, Emerson, and Kierkegaard and omitted Aristophanes, Sophocles, Euripedes, and Aeschylus.

But Murray is different and draws the analytical reader.

He pries votes from the cognoscenti, the experts in the arts and sciences, from their histories, chronologies of events, anthologies, encyclopedias, and biographical dictionaries, and subjects the resulting order to statistical tests of reliability. Thus, he claims scientific status over your and my simple taste.

Murray systematically “assembled inventories that contain the people and events most important to the story of human accomplishment in the arts and sciences from –800 to 1950.” (Page xvi) These inventories include figures from nine sciences; western, Chinese, and Japanese philosophy; western, Chinese, and Japanese arts; Arab, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and western literature; and western music. He addressed between twelve and thirty sources for each inventory and measured an individual’s importance by counting the number of pages or inches of columns that refer to him or her or the number of important contributions reported in each source. Thus Murray determined a different score for an individual in each source and then derived a common score, which he used for ranking in that category. After boiling down candidates to those who had at least a mention in at least ninety percent of his sources in a category, he ended up with 4002 major people ranked in hierarchies.

In addition to listing the major figures in each of the scientific fields, Murray lists the scientific events that drive their selection. Thus, to this reviewer at least, the scientific listing contains rational buttressing. Galileo’s break with the superstitious science of the Dark Ages, rather than the content of his discoveries, was more important than Maxwell’s brilliant mathematical construction and thus the former deserves a higher rank.

He does not do the same for art, music, and literature. “…In the arts, eminence arises from the genius manifested in a body of work, whereas eminence in the sciences arises from the importance of the discovery, which may or may not be the result of genius.” (Page 205) Still, the painting experts who put Picasso ahead of Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt and the rest must give value to the former’s invention of cubism and contributions to other modern approaches to art. They must believe that new experiments deviating from old forms have merit beyond the relative beauty and truth of work.

And, in western music, Murray gives George Gershwin only a rating of 6, one more than Johan Strauss, Jr. Both are members of the 524 significant figures Murray culled from a 2508 total number of musical entries, but reside near the bottom. The last of the twenty “Giants,” or “majors” in music whom he identifies, is Gluck (26), who follows Weber (27). Would any reader rate these latter composers so far above Strauss and Gershwin?

There must be an underlying skeleton of technical and conceptual achievement that underlies the artistic ratings, just as the impact of scientific achievement on history reinforces an individual’s merit in science. Unfortunately, while Murray credits individual geniuses with the invention of perspective and oil in painting, the use of internal monologue in literature, and other artistic breakthroughs, he gives us no systematic listing. What were the Gluck innovations that outranked the Strauss waltz and Gershwin jazz?

Do the dead white males whose votes Murray total only reflect prejudiced premises? Do cultural elites pass along impoverished assessments to their descendents? Would psychologists rate figures in the arts by measures of induced enjoyment that produced radically different rankings from those by critics?

But the reviewer is carping. Murray’s five years of work have resulted in the raising of penetrating questions and, in most cases, the proffering of stimulating answers. Some of the larger questions he treats are: Why has creativity been so concentrated in the West? Why among men and not women? Why science and philosophy in Jews, but not the arts? Finally, why is creativity declining? In many ways his discussion that takes off from the rankings is the most valuable part of the book. This reviewer highly recommends Murray’s Human Accomplishment. Like its predecessor, if not completely defendable, it is stimulating.

© 2003 by Dean Warren for Curled Up With a Good Book

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