Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment

Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment

10 Mins
August 4, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Charles Murray, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003). 720 pp., $29.95.

During the fourth century B.C.—we don't know exactly when—a man, a resident of Athens, a student and teacher of philosophy, changed the world uniquely and forever. He is known to us as Aristotle. He was a polymath who contributed hugely to fields from biology to art criticism, but his greatest feat was the creation of formal logic. Aristotle's logic clarified and augmented the traditions of objective thinking he had learned from his philosophic predecessors, and it gave to the West a model of rigorous thought that would, with the addition of later insights, inform and inspire the scientific method and the creation of modern civilization.

Charles Murray wants us to appreciate the exceptionality of this act:

It is easy to assume that someone like Aristotle was not so much brilliant as fortunate....But is that really true?….Thinkers in the non-Western world had another two millennia after Aristotle to discover formal logic....What we know for certain is that the invention of logic occurred in only one time and one place, that it was done by a handful of individuals, and that it changed the history of the world. Saying that a few ancient Greeks merely got there first isn't adequate acknowledgment of their leap of imagination and intellect. (p. 54)


Murray's new book, Human Accomplishment, is a study of the known history of such remarkable leaps. It covers the 2,750 years from 800 B.C. to 1950, employing both anecdote and argument to awaken "a sense of wonder" at the greatest feats of human accomplishment in art and science (p. 53). The book is an appreciation of the fact that exceptional human creativity is at root the product of individuals and the values they embrace. It is also an investigation that seeks to quantify the relative magnitude of individual achievements and the relative eminence of historical figures. Murray uses these data to observe patterns in human achievement and test hypotheses about its causes.

Charles Murray is famous for taking on big, controversial issues in books like Losing Ground and The Bell Curve. Here he takes on his broadest and most philosophical of controversies, defending the propositions that great achievements really happen and that they have not happened in equal quantity in all times and places. This was once commonsense—banal, even—but in recent decades it has been eroded by the flood of cultural relativism, egalitarianism, and skepticism associated with multiculturalism and postmodernism.

A culture that no longer recognizes achievement or thinks in terms of greatness is on course to spiral down into stagnation and senescence.

Like Ayn Rand , Murray is convinced that civilization stands on the shoulders of giants—giants like Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Confucius, Edison, and Galileo. Also like Rand, Murray sees Western culture as uniquely fertile because of its debt to Aristotle: "Aristotle's understandings of virtue, the nature of a civilized polity, happiness, and human nature have not only survived but have become so integral a part of Western culture that to be a European or American and hold mainstream values on these issues is to be an Aristotelian" (p. 144). Murray sees, as Rand did, that a defense of great achievements must be both philosophical and factual, because today's worst intellectuals attack objective standards of scholarship as much as—or perhaps even more than—they criticize factual claims. And Murray realizes, as did Rand, that these issues are vital to more than the scholarly world: A culture that no longer recognizes achievement or thinks in terms of greatness is on course to spiral down into stagnation and senescence.


Murray devotes several sub-sections and asides to fending off philosophical criticisms with varied degrees of success (more on this anon). But Human Accomplishment's core is a statistical report. Although it is garlanded with interesting speculations and spiced with engaging accounts of important lives, times, and events, the statistics matter most. This book is much more than an ordinary cultural critique because of the impressive new database Murray brings to bear on the issues.

Murray's basic project is to identify people who have done remarkable deeds in the arts, in philosophy, and in science and technology. (For a variety of reasons, he ignores commerce, governance, and social science.) Applying a theory of David Hume's, Murray proposes that greatness in both the arts and the sciences can be objectively identified by consulting the consensus judgments of expert analysts. To do this, he gathers "inventories" of sources that cover the history of delimited topic categories such as Western literature, Chinese painting, Western philosophy, and particular sciences. The sources include comprehensive histories and biographical dictionaries, as well as chronologies of historical events. The basic premise is: The more eminent a figure or important an achievement, the more space on the page the experts will give to him.

Within each "inventory" topic area, Murray statistically identifies "significant figures" and "significant events," which are, respectively, those mentioned in at least 50 percent of the biographical sources or the chronologies and timetables in an inventory. "Setting the cutoff at 50 percent includes almost everyone who is famous and large numbers of the obscure," Murray remarks (p. 117).

Where he can, making cunning adjustments to compensate for the fact that his sources do not usually cover the exact time frame that interests him, Murray computes "index scores" of the relative amount of attention given to each significant figure. Each index score is a number between 0 and 100 that reflects the amount of pages that treat a given figure, normalized relative to the length of the work in which the pages appear and relative to the largest number of pages devoted to any one figure in that field. As Murray notes: "To be mentioned in 5 pages of a 400-page history has a different meaning from being mentioned in 5 pages in a multi-volume history totaling 3,000 pages" (p. 482). The index scores allow Murray to identify big names based on their relative prominence within their own field, as judged by expert synthesizers of the history of that field. Only the most lionized figures in a field can reach an index score of 100. By comparison, someone with a score of 50 in that field would have received half the number of pages of attention.


Is this an objective method? In the introduction, Murray asserts that "judgment is separable from opinion in matters of artistic and scientific excellence.…A realm of objective knowledge about excellence exists" (p. xvi, italics in original). This claim to objectivity is crucial, because Murray's data can only convince opponents who accept the basic validity of logical, empirical argumentation; today's postmodernists do not.

Against these philosophical opponents Murray offers a "workaday" defense of scientific objectivity, but one from which the term "reality" has been banished: "Truth as I am using the term…refers to knowledge that meets standard scientific criteria" (p. 60). This sounds circular and weak in comparison to the thesis he staked out at the beginning of the book: "The dimensions and content of human accomplishment can be apprehended as facts" (p. xv).

How Murray needs Objectivism here! He says there is truth but no facts, but then he wishes that there were facts—but then his definitions trip him up. There is no need for this muddle—truth is the conceptual identification of facts of reality. The key here is that objectivity is a relation between a conceptual mind and the facts it identifies or grasps. Truth is "objective" because it exists only in virtue of the connection between such a mind and its objects, the facts. Scientific criteria deserve their name only when they lead us to truth; they don't define what truth is.

So, to rephrase the question, does Murray's method identify facts? Is his standard of truth objective, that is, based in reality? Or is a consensus of (scientific) opinion the standard?

Plainly, Murray's data are first and foremost reports of reputation—they synthesize the judgments of experts. But fortunately Murray is less confused in his practice of truth-seeking than in his theory. He uses expert judgments as means of getting simple answers to the complex question of what facts about a person's life and achievements are exceptional and important. As he regularly explains, underneath the pages of biographical copy that he counts lie the deeds of remarkable lives. He gives us reasons to think his sources participate in the "realm of objective knowledge," not only by testing their mutual consistency, but also by digging into the biographical facts of certain cases and holding up as the most basic standard of accomplishment what a person has done. And that is objective.


Attentive to what facts his data capture—and what facts they do not—Murray rightly warns us that "index scores are not comparable across inventories…[They] measure the frog relative to the size of the pond, and the sizes of the ponds vary substantially" (p. 120, italics in original). Having provided more caveats not to take the exact numbers too seriously, he goes on a mathematical frolic, listing out rankings of the "giants" with the top 20 index scores in each field; inverse listings of the bottom 5 in each field; chronologies of 369 "central events" (those listed in all his chronological sources); and tables reporting the distribution of significant figures and events among locations, time periods, and social groups. In doing so, he drives home his main point: The top positions are held by household names, whose contributions to human civilization have been enormous. Correspondingly, the figures who barely make the grade as "significant" are mostly unknown outside their specialties.

And through his graphs, chronologies, and lists of names we see the patterns. We see the Dark Ages in the West and the explosive cultural Renaissance that followed. We see the hot spots of a "European core" area stretching from northern Italy through Austria and Germany to Britain, where modern industry, art, and science were created. We see how U.S. accomplishment spread from a core in the Northeast, the South having very little to show. We see the medieval flourishing of the Islamic world—sadly brief—and the scientific stagnation of the great civilizations of Asia in the early modern period.

We see that excellence is truly rare. The giants of art and science do not come in undifferentiated clumps of hundreds. A very few—three, seven, perhaps no more than ten—shine brightest in virtually every field. Take Western literature, for example. Judged by index scores, experts give Shakespeare significantly more attention than they do any other authors. Indeed, out of the 835 significant figures in Western literature, only Goethe, Dante, Virgil, and Homer receive more than half the attention that Shakespeare does. The result is a hyperbolic distribution of eminence—only one or a handful reach the greatest heights, while even among the elite in every field the vast majority lag in relative obscurity.

One of the charms of this book is the care Murray shows to identify potential objections and test for them. He tests, for example, the validity of Hume's theory that there is a consensus among experts by showing that his basic results stand up against changes in the specific sources employed. He tries out different measures of importance. And he constructs his inventories to avoid problems he can foresee. For example, he cuts off the analysis at 1950 to allow time for a person's work to be put into perspective (most of his sources post-date 1970). And, to avoid linguistic favoritism, he only gathers data on literary figures from sources not composed in the writer's own language. Thus, Shakespeare is number one according to non-English-speakers, not as a result of an Anglophone cultural dogma.

Murray also tests to see whether the hyperbolic distribution of eminence is an artifact of the objective pattern of exceptional achievement or, instead, the product of historians highlighting a few stars. His test consists in showing that in a variety of competitions, such as academic publication and sports events, only a few consistently reach the highest marks, though many do so once or twice in life. For example, among professional golfers only the elite are good enough to win even one major tournament, but just one was good enough to win eighteen. "Are we looking at fame or excellence?" Murray asks rhetorically, then answers: "No keepers of the golf canon awarded Jack Nicklaus his 71 PGA tour victories or his 18 professional Majors. The champions sit where they sit because they were the best at what they did" (p. 100). The greatest achievers, competing at art and science, not in sport, are similar. They are those in whom talent, circumstance, and will combine to produce results superior to the levels even exceptional people can consistently reach. Many physicists labored on the same problems around 1900, but there was only one Einstein.

Murray finds that the West outshines all other areas in accomplishment. For example, he writes: "Whether measured in people or events, 97 percent of accomplishment in the scientific inventories occurred in Europe and North America" (p. 252). Further, he attributes the bulk of European accomplishment to figures born and raised in the "European core" area. And by his figures, 98 percent of significant figures were male.

He defends these findings as objective and rebuts charges of bias with a charming lack of apology. "Is a book on human accomplishment inherently elitist?" he asks. "With regard to social background, education, IQ, wealth, or influence: No. With regard to excellence: Yes" (p. 86). An Objectivist can only say, "Amen."

Murray's purpose is not to vindicate the West or "dead white males" as such. His purpose is to recognize and study achievement, wherever it may occur. Hence, he devotes as much space to the disproportionately high rates of exceptional achievement among modern Jews as he does to the disproportionately low rates among women and non-Westerners, rates that appear to persist even into the present.

Today, anyone who presents conclusions such as these is subject to charges of sexism and Eurocentrism, charges Murray is properly at some pains to rebut. He discusses and laments the legal and cultural barriers that until very recently discouraged women from pursuing careers in art and science. And Murray's discussions of great moments in history give due attention to the non-Western world.

We tour China's Song dynasty capital of Hangzhou, for instance, which Murray compares favorably in most respects to ancient Rome and London circa 1750. And he notes the Indian inventions of meditation and so-called Arabic numerals among a shortlist of crucial "meta-inventions" (ideas that gave humanity new mental tools for thinking and acting). In the arts and philosophy, Murray defines separate inventory categories for non-Western traditions—he computes distinct Arabic, Indian, Chinese, and Japanese literature inventories, for example, arguing that by doing so he has in effect inflated the number of significant figures from these traditions. In science, he shows through several examples that using sources which purport to counter sexism and Euro-centrism fails to alter his results. Regardless of the spin of these works, the historical facts of who actually accomplished what are not much in dispute.


But some questions on these scores remain. For someone at pains to avoid the appearance of bias, Murray appears to have done little to access non-Western sources. For example, the sources for the Western literature inventory include three U.S. sources, one Italian, one Brazilian, one Spanish, and three German. Where are Russian or Polish scholars, the Japanese—or the French, for that matter? There should be thorough surveys of Western literature available from at least some of these countries. Murray's sources in effect appear to heavily reflect U.S. and German views, and he isn't in a position to test thoroughly for consistency given the limits of this pool of sources. It is crucial for his method that his experts reach their conclusions independently, without unduly influencing one another. There could not be a better way to ensure this than drawing from a wider and more varied pool of sources.

The situation with regard to non-Western achievements is worse. Murray relies almost entirely on materials in Roman-alphabet languages, leaving translations as his only means—with a few exceptions—of using non-Western histories and compendia. The exceptions are in Japanese, where, with the help of a Japanese graduate student, Murray was able to include some arts sources. But bizarrely, Murray claims (p. 603, n. 10) that he was not able to find original sources on the history of science written in Japanese. He takes this to be symptomatic of the state of affairs in Russian, Arabic, Hindi, and Chinese as well. Strange: A scholar of Japanese was able to find what appear to be several such sources in an Internet search, including one housed at the very institution Murray's graduate student was attending!

It also happens that there is in English a well-regarded compendium of Chinese science and technology. However, Murray claims that this work could not be included among his sources without admitting compendia focused on individual European countries such as Germany (doing this would inflate the German numbers at least as much as the Chinese). Poppycock! China is a civilization-size polity comparable to the West as embodied in the European Union or NATO—and the same might be said of the Arab world and the Indian sub-continent, too. And if, in fact, Murray disputes this claim, what justification has he for putting data on those civilizations' art, philosophy, and literature on a par with that of the West as a whole, rather than France or Germany? Murray is right to insist on uniform standards of measurement across sources. But the lack of attention to non-Western sources is a serious shortcoming for a book that makes universal claims about human history.

Similar doubts remain with regard to work that was largely anonymous, such as architecture and much non-Western, pre-Renaissance, and religious art. Murray offers some general arguments to the effect that these omissions leave out as many Western figures as non-Western ones. Western architecture is an example, as is medieval art. But then Mesoamerican architecture is an example, too, as is Buddhist art. Murray would have done this point more honor had he been able to muster scientific data to address it, rather than relying on anecdotes and his general sense of history. But we only think to demand so much because Murray's basic analysis has led us to expect a higher standard of cultural analysis. Whatever this book's shortcomings, there is no doubt that at the very least Murray has opened up a wealth of future research projects with his database and his findings.


In the last parts of the book, Murray turns to explaining the causes of accomplishment. He offers a variety of interesting statistical findings, such as that wars have not tended to impede accomplishment; that wealthy and urban societies tend to have more accomplishment; and that political freedom fosters "streams of accomplishment" (p.361). But he goes beyond his data in looking to the ultimate sources of accomplishment.

People strive for great achievements, he thinks, most basically because of "the Aristotelian principle" that striving for excellence is inherent to our nature as living, rational beings. This is not too far off from Objectivism , which holds that life—with its endless striving for greater well-being and the ends that sustain it—is the objective moral standard for any person who refuses to embrace death.

Yet achievement does not happen automatically. It requires exceptional talent, great skill, fertile ideas, and obsessive drive. Murray argues that cultures that highly value autonomous thought and purposefulness tend to produce people with the drive to try great deeds. In addition, he thinks motivated achievers have been more likely to actually accomplish something novel and valuable when they come from cultures with a "rich organizing structure" of theories and models to be applied, developments to be explored, and problems to be solved. Lastly, and equally vital in Murray's view, the personal outlook of great achievers tends to feature a strong belief in the reality of the "transcendental goods" of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, albeit variously conceived.

Ancient Athens, Renaissance Venice and Florence, early modern Holland, and Enlightenment Britain all show these traits. Artists and scientists alike were deeply motivated by their convictions about Truth—that reason could unveil it and thereby improve our means of working in the world; by convictions about Beauty—that it existed both in elegant scientific theory and in the human figure; and by convictions about Goodness—that achievement was worth the struggle and that one's moral condition was of vital and overriding import in all things. Truth: We think perhaps of Francis Bacon and his faith that it was to be found in nature. Beauty: We think perhaps of Johannes Kepler insisting that planets' motions must exhibit it through pure and simple orbits. Goodness: We think of Jane Austen, always attending to propriety with her sharp, ironical pen. These findings are highly congruent with Objectivism .  We see this in the key role of purposefulness and independent thinking in the Objectivist theory of virtue and in the Objectivist advocacy of strong commitments to objectivity (Truth), ideals (Beauty), and life (Goodness).

But next Murray makes a claim to which Objectivists might take umbrage. He admits that secular outlooks can be strong in the values that achievement requires—viz. Athens, ancient China, or modern America. Yet Murray gives pride of place to post-Renaissance Christianity in this respect. He thinks that in the Renaissance it was the melding of a resurgent Aristotelianism with the individualist exaltation of Christianity that inspired centuries full of searching quests for philosophical, scientific, and artistic truth in the Western core. And he sees the rising secularism of the modern era as leading to nihilism and irrationalism, undermining the future prospects for achievement in the West.

Murray celebrates the individualism and humanism of Christianity after Aquinas. In doing so, he recognizes a historical change that Ayn Rand recognized, too. But where Rand saw there the first glimmers of a future founded on a more consistent and more individualistic form of Aristotelianism, Murray's focus is backward-looking and faintly nostalgic. In yearning for a return to the heyday of the early modern cultural mélange, he wishes for a time that cannot come again. It cannot come, because supernaturalism and humanism are in natural tension with each other. Humanism shines a light of reason on the world, and what it finds there is anything but supernatural and never need be taken on faith.

But this does not mean we must abandon idealism and individualism. Indeed, this is where  Ayn Rand's trumpet call to the West remains profoundly relevant.

The alternative to religion need not be nihilism. One need not vest belief in the supernatural to make a commitment to an ideal. It may be that a belief in a God-planned world contributed to the quest of thinkers like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton to seek to read the divine mind in nature. But the key idea even there was that the world was knowable and open to rational understanding. There is nothing in a religious outlook that necessitates such a view, and history is strewn with desiccated cultures in which religion led thinkers away from reality and against reason. Evidence par excellence is the Middle East, where the seminal thought of Aristotle died about 800 years ago in the bitter soil of Islamic irrationalism and dogmatism. Or consider, as does Murray, the infertile Dark Ages of the West, when the learning of the Greeks was partly lost and widely ignored. Dare we hope, then, that a repeat of this study in a hundred years' time will note Ayn Rand as one of the giants that led the way to progress and cultural improvement?