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.
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.
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.