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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The trick is to look at Murray's daunting decimal points pointilistically. Take a step back and what one really sees is a broad, sophisticated model about the essential trends of human history. When Samuel Huntington was accused of generalizing too much in his "Clash of Civilizations" thesis, he responded, "When people think seriously, they think abstractly; they conjure up simplified pictures of reality called concepts, theories, models, paradigms. Without such intellectual constructs, there is, William James said, only 'a bloomin' buzzin' confusion.'"

Murray's mission is to cut through the confusion about how humanity was pulled from the muck by a tiny handful of individuals. After demonstrating that European men did the vast majority of heavy-lifting, he asks, "Why?" Why men? Why Europe? Why not China? Why did Jews explode on the scene about two centuries ago, but not women? The audacity of Murray's effort is that he sees all of the questions as answerable, and he joyfully and enthusiastically tackles them one by one. Along the way, he launches little fireworks of surprises in the forms of asides, anticipating questions about everything from homosexuality to the nature of excellence itself.

His broad conclusion is that Western Christian culture comes out on top of the scale because it essentially sees scientific and artistic creativity as a revelation of God's glory rather than an insult to it. Of course, that isn't constantly true across the whole of Christendom--else we would not see history's pattern of pockets of excellence sprouting only in particular cities at particular moments. Moreover, the individual giants of human history weren't necessarily pious or honorable men themselves (although a great many were). Nonetheless, because they lived in specific milieus where individual excellence was allowed to flower, they were able to achieve great things. Murray surmises that we produce fewer giants today in part because the West is becoming increasingly hostile to the notion that we should pursue excellence as if we were striving to please the eye of God.

AS ONE MIGHT SUSPECT, "Human Excellence" is not a normal book. Any review must leave out far more than it includes. Murray has thought long and hard on questions most of us would consider exciting grist for a conversation with a group of polymaths but too difficult to extend any further than the available supply of scotch and the imponderability of the issues involved allow. For example, Murray makes the obvious observation--in retrospect--that art is in fact more difficult than science because, while scientific experimentation often involves blind luck or rote repetition (stumble on the right ingredients, and Eureka!), art requires sustained creativity and judgment from beginning to end. No coasting allowed.

Still, if I may make one observation that will probably not be made anywhere else: This is an astoundingly neoconservative book. Back in the days before the left transmuted the word "neoconservative" to mean war-mongering Jew, a prevailing understanding of the term was that it referred to a certain group of intellectuals who imported the sociological method to conservatism. What made, say, the Public Interest a neoconservative magazine was that it attacked issues of public policy with social science--then the lingua franca of the serious left--in order to reach conservative conclusions. Hence, one of the main criticisms of neoconservatism from the right was that it did not work enough from first principles. It had to prove everything that earlier generations thought self-evident. Neocons were too concerned with immanentizing and not concerned enough with the eschaton, to mangle a phrase from Eric Voegelin. Indeed, even the benefits of religion could not be taken on faith. The neocons had to prove that believing in God tended to keep societies more orderly, families more intact, and children more successful.

Well, here we have "Human Accomplishment," a book written by an avowed libertarian that, quite literally, puts all of humanity through the algorithmic wringer. What comes out the other end? Unsurprisingly, the rediscovery of what conservatives had said all along: The combination of the West's indebtedness to Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome set the foundations for an exceptional civilization that, in turn, created the Enlightenment and, eventually, the United States of America. The postmodernists and critical theorists, who shriek that the edifice created by these many giants should be dismantled, are taking sledgehammers to the very platforms from which they shriek.

Murray picks a truly novel and brilliant way to restate the conservative case. "Human Accomplishment" is a glistening example of excellence, and we should all be grateful to stand on Murray's shoulders.

Jonah Goldberg is editor at large of National Review Online.