The Magazine

Genius Is Not Enough

Charles Murray measures human accomplishment.

Dec 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 16 • By JONAH GOLDBERG
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Human Accomplishment

The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences from 800 B.C. to 1950

by Charles Murray

HarperCollins, 668 pp., $29.95

"IF I HAVE SEEN FURTHER, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants," Isaac Newton wrote Robert Hooke in 1675. Although the aphorism is generally taken as a noble example of Newton's humility and generosity, the truth is that he might not have meant it in a nice way. Hooke was a short man with a twisted spine who believed Newton stole his color theory of light and beseeched his rival in letter after letter to admit it. In short, Newton's "standing on the shoulders of giants" may have been a nasty joke. In fact, Newton wasn't even the first to use the line. Some scholars attribute the original to Bernard of Chartres in 1130, while others trace it even further back.

One moral of this story might be that credit often goes to the wrong person. Another might be that while one may be a metaphorical giant, we are all merely human. And for humans, glory--scientific, artistic, literary, religious, whatever--is a precious commodity, particularly for those who seek it above all else. The giants of history may be standing on the shoulders of other giants, but they'll be damned if they're going to admit it if they don't have to.

One might keep these and related morals in mind when reading Charles Murray's "Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences from 800 B.C. to 1950." More than a book, "Human Accomplishment" is a multi-part statement of conclusions to an audacious, even arrogant, attempt to catalogue "humanity's résumé." Murray writes in his introduction: "What, I ask, can homo sapiens brag about--not as individuals, but as a species?" And the metaphor of a résumé allows Murray to ignore much of the fluff that people use to praise themselves. Just as you wouldn't put "good father" or "kind to animals" on your résumé, Murray ignores--for reasons editorial as well as technical--issues beyond the scope of a conventional résumé including commerce and governance. "Defeated Hitler" may be a great accomplishment, but it's too much like "beat my drug habit" for a résumé of homo sapiens.

Murray catalogs 4,002 significant individuals over the course of 2,750 years who comprise humanity's all-star team, itself broken down into subcategories of chemistry, biology, astronomy, etc. He came up with the list by taking 167 respected encyclopedias, biographical dictionaries, and other reference works, tallying up the size, frequency, and content of the entries on specific individuals and their accomplishments--and then crunching the numbers with the sort of élan and sophistication we've come to expect from the author of "Losing Ground" and coauthor of "The Bell Curve."

Murray insists, and goes to painstaking efforts to demonstrate, that he's compensated for the various obvious biases--national, racial, even temporal--that would come from relying on mostly recent sources, many of which are Western and many of the remainder of which may reflect certain Western prejudices such as logocentrism. In fact, Murray often overcompensates in favor of non-Western individuals as a means of demonstrating that his general conclusion holds true.

AND WHAT'S THAT GENERAL CONCLUSION? Well, in a nutshell: Western Civilization is the best. No matter how you slice it, no matter how heavily you mash your thumb down on the scale in favor of "the rest," the West--specifically Western Europe over a few centuries--is the best. The obvious corollary to this general rule is that dead, Christian white men are the biggest glory hounds (with dead, Jewish white men a respectable, although recent, second). Of course, if you include as criteria such results-skewing categories as "artists who've painted Vishnu" or "the greatest lesbian-animist biologists" you will get results more appealing to the chairman of your local Post-Colonial Studies department. But if the qualifications are universal, fair, and in the slightest bit reasonable, there's no way to tease the data enough even to trim significantly the lead of the dead white men.