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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Murray attributes this to something called the Lotka Curve, named after a Hungarian-born American demographer who noticed that most contributors to scientific journals write only one article while a tiny few--the giants--write dozens. When drawn in graph form, this distribution of excellence apparently holds relatively constant for all fields of human endeavor. Consider golf. More than half of all professional golfers have never won a tournament, and of those who have won a tournament, a majority have won only one. But Jack Nicklaus won eighteen major professional tournaments. As Murray notes, you can come up with as many postmodern theories about the "social construction of reality" as you like: It won't change the fact that Jack Nicklaus was a much better golfer than most great golfers. This pattern tends to hold true for science, art, literature, philosophy and every other realm of the human pursuit of excellence. Shakespeare (Murray's top Western writer) racked up a staggering number of accomplishments while the vast majority of even "successful" writers have one good work in them.

Controversial as Murray's conclusions may seem in a world of political correctness, the means by which he arrives at them are even more controversial. Murray believes that a great many things are measurable in ways that may irk even his fans. Murray claims to make two assertions of fact. The first is that his numbers reflect the definitive consensus among those who know what they're talking about. The second claim is that this consensus of opinion reflects objective fact. The first claim is probably indisputable. The second claim is obviously more contentious, but I suspect that only a tiny number of individuals at the high end of the Lotka Curve of statisticians could come up with serious objections to Murray's methods.

One of the great understatements of all time is that this reviewer is not one of them. Nevertheless, I will say that I am fairly suspicious of all these numbers, and I suspect that Murray does a bit too much looking for car keys where the light is good in "Human Accomplishment." It may be the consensus of a divergent group of experts that Michelangelo was the greatest Western artist, but if one were to apply Murray's techniques to the social sciences--which he convincingly argues is impossible right now--one would surely find Karl Marx ranking very high indeed. In other words, just because the experts agree doesn't always mean they are right.

NEVERTHELESS, any objections I could raise have been anticipated by Murray--whose intellectual honesty and general excitement with the subject matter is beyond admirable. Indeed, Murray repeatedly asks readers to prove him wrong. But ultimately, I don't care whether Murray is exactly right or merely very close to right. One of the fundamental assumptions of this book is that "excellence" in art, in science, in philosophy exists and therefore can be measured. If Murray were writing about economic growth, few would dispute the contention that economic growth exists even if economists have yet to master a means of measuring it with exactitude. In other words, one may disagree with Murray about how precise such measurements can be, but Murray is irrefutable when he makes the case--contra the postmodernists--that it can actually be measured at all.

To put it another way, the late William Henry III wrote in "In Defense of Elitism" that "It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose." Now, all reasonable people should agree that this statement is true, even if reasonable people may disagree on the question of how much greater an accomplishment it is to put a man on the moon than it is to put a bone through your nose. Murray attempts to put numbers on the bone-to-moon ratio. Romantic that I am, I have trouble buying that this is all so cut and dried. I have no idea who these people are, but I bet there's more room to argue that Dong Qichang (number three on Murray's Chinese-painter list) was actually a better painter than Gu Kaizhi (number one), than the author allows. And, I still hold out hope that one day poor Robert "Shorty" Hooke will stand a little taller than Newton allowed.

REGARDLESS, thanks to Murray's labors, it's very hard to imagine an intellectually honest way of coming up with a final list of giants that differs significantly from the one Murray has come up with (try, for example, to come up with an honest system for delineating great golfers that leaves off Jack Nicklaus). And even to try would, of necessity, concede the fundamental thesis of the first part of this book: that measurable excellence does exist--since to declare that Murray measures excellence "wrong" is to admit that it can be measured right.