Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950

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So begins Charles Murray's unique account of human excellence, from the age of Homer to our own time. Employing techniques that historians have developed over the last century but that rarely have been applied to books written for the general public, Murray compiles inventories of the people who have been essential to the stories of literature, music, art, philosophy, and the sciences -- a total of 4,002 men and women from around the world, ranked according to their eminence. The heart of Human Accomplishment is ...
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So begins Charles Murray's unique account of human excellence, from the age of Homer to our own time. Employing techniques that historians have developed over the last century but that rarely have been applied to books written for the general public, Murray compiles inventories of the people who have been essential to the stories of literature, music, art, philosophy, and the sciences -- a total of 4,002 men and women from around the world, ranked according to their eminence. The heart of Human Accomplishment is a series of enthralling descriptive chapters: on the giants in the arts and what sets them apart from the merely great; on the differences between great achievement in the arts and in the sciences; on the meta-inventions, 14 crucial leaps in human capacity to create great art and science; and on the patterns and trajectories of accomplishment across time and geography.

Straightforwardly and undogmatically, Charles Murray takes on some controversial questions: Why has accomplishment been so concentrated in Europe? Among men? Since 1400? He presents evidence that the rate of great accomplishment has been declining in the last century, asks what it means, and offers a rich framework for thinking about the conditions under which the human spirit has expressed itself most gloriously. Eye-opening and humbling, Human Accomplishment is a fascinating work that describes what humans at their best can achieve, provides tools for exploring its wellsprings, and celebrates the continuing common quest of humans everywhere to discover truths, create beauty, and apprehend the good.

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
In his latest book, Human Accomplishment, Murray steps back up to the plate after Losing Ground and The Bell Curve with a thesis sure to irritate most of America's thinking class. Yet the book is, more often than not, brilliant. In lucid prose, Murray methodically addresses and refutes most of the predictable counterarguments to his thesis. — John McWhorter
Publishers Weekly
Co-author with the late Richard Herrnstein of the neo-racialist book The Bell Curve, Murray returns with a mammoth solo investigation that is less likely to spur controversy than provoke a simple "so what?" The book attempts to demonstrate, through the use of basic statistical methods such as regression analysis, that Europeans have overwhelmingly dominated accomplishment in the arts and sciences since about 1400. To this end, he has assembled a laundry list of people and events from various reference texts, and generated numerous graphs and rankings of genius figures: is Beethoven "more important" than Bach? Leonardo Da Vinci than Michelangelo? A major problem with this approach-beyond equating "importance" with the number of times an artist or work is referenced in texts-is that the reference texts used as data sources do not themselves seem free of cultural bias or chauvinism: without asking "important to whom," the Western-centric data are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Another problem is that other, less affluent cultures may have had many plundered or lost works, or may not have a tradition of naming writers and other luminaries-or keeping track of and promoting their works through secondary material. Further, plenty of attention is lavished on forms such as painting but comparatively little to architecture or to non-Western forms of music. The book's cursory treatment of Africa (outside of Egypt) also leaves more to be desired. Murray claims to have corrected for these factors, and finds that Western culture still dominates "accomplishment" either way. The chapters describing achievement at the book's beginning are, at many points, well-written and informative, but they end up clouded with the latter part of the book's numerical hubris and grand pronouncements. (Oct. 21) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Polemicists generally favor brevity, hitting their targets with surgically precise (or broad, near- slandering) bon mots. The prolific Murray (coauthor, The Bell Curve), consistently libertarian champion of all that is Western and elite, here opts to overwhelm with data and extended example in this history of the best ideas and the humans who made them. In the tradition of Daniel Boorstin and Paul Johnson, he has produced a very long narrative most likely to engage those readers conditioned to a priori agreement. This need to produce such an ultimately orthodox reaffirmation of the status quo assessment of human accomplishment running up to 1950 is a bit puzzling. Yet even more surprising is how interesting and worthwhile a book has resulted. To be sure, Murray's logic is at times transparently circular, with the significant intellectuals he ranks drawn in some cases from millennia of received wisdom. But if his case for overall intellectual decline since at least the 19th century is ultimately unpersuasive, his demonstration of how greatness, once established, limits room for innovation is just as persuasive. The statistics will dazzle or bore, and Murray's justification for disregarding the social sciences may be unconvincing, but nonetheless this is a book every library collection needs, perhaps especially those with a minority of readers who will warm to its author's biases. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/03.]-Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll., PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Yes, human societies really do evolve for the better-thanks to the technologies, ideas, and other contributions of scads of mostly dead white European males. Never let it be said that Murray (What It Means to Be a Libertarian, 1997, etc.), co-author of the hotly debated Bell Curve (not reviewed), shies from controversy. His overarching thesis will attract gainsayers from the outset, especially among the cultural relativists whom he takes great pains to twit throughout his long-but eminently readable, and often entertaining-discussion. ("Assessing the comparative contributions of the Greeks and Aztecs to human progress," he observes by way of an opening shot, "is not a choice between equally valid constructions of reality.") Cultural and intellectual historians of a certain bent may find more troubling Murray's rationale for identifying those who have really made a difference in shaping the ways in which the civilized world thinks, works, and lives: his method resembles that of a search engine in ranking artists, musicians, writers, scientists, and other assorted thinkers and makers by the number of "hits" they earn in standard surveys of the literature. Michelangelo is thus the world's premier artist because he figures most heavily in the indexes of art surveys-but, Murray rejoins, "Shakespeare gets more attention that everyone else because Shakespeare wrote better than everyone else." Setting aside the question of whether intellectuals, like Hollywood types, can be famous merely for being famous-one manifestation of the Google effect-Murray's overview of the progress of art and science is engaging, user-friendly, and even self-effacing. (He allows that while he doesn't enjoy the laterworks of Henry James, his wife does, "and over the years I have had to accept that I don't know what I'm talking about.") Murray wrestles with Big Questions: What kinds of social conditions favor the arts? Why did London emerge as a world center, while Hangzhou did not? Why are Western philosophers more important than, say, their Asian counterparts, pound for pound? Why have women been so poorly represented for so long in the inventories of culturally important figures? Murray's answers are bound to set the walls of the academy and the halls of the learned journals ringing with rebuttals. But readers who took pleasure in Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence are sure to enjoy his arguments and elegant presentation.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781615589715
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/9/2004
  • Pages: 688
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar in Culture and Freedom at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of seven other books, including Losing Ground and The Bell Curve, with Richard J. Herrnstein.

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Table of Contents

A Note on Presentation
Pt. 1 A Sense of Accomplishment 1
1 A Sense of Time 3
2 A Sense of Mystery 13
3 A Sense of Place 25
4 A Sense of Wonder 53
Pt. 2 Identifying the People and Events That Matter 57
5 Excellence and Its Identification 59
6 The Lotka Curve 87
7 The People Who Matter I: Significant Figures 107
8 The People Who Matter II: The Giants 119
9 The Events That Matter I: Significant Events 155
10 The Events That Matter II: Meta-Inventions 209
Pt. 3 Patterns and Trajectories 245
11 Coming to Terms with the Role of Modern Europe 247
12 ...and of Dead White Males 265
13 Concentrations of European and American Accomplishment 295
14 Taking Population into Account: The Accomplishment Rate 309
15 Explanations I: Peace and Prosperity 331
16 Explanations II: Models, Elite Cities, and Freedom of Action 353
17 What's Left to Explain? 379
Pt. 4 On the Origins and Decline of Accomplishment 383
18 The Aristotelian Principle 385
19 Sources of Energy: Purpose and Autonomy 391
20 Sources of Content: The Organizing Structure and Transcendental Goods 409
21 Is Accomplishment Declining? 427
22 Summation 449
App. 1 Statistics for People Who Are Sure They Can't Learn Statistics 461
App. 2 Construction of the Inventories and the Eminence Index 475
App. 3 Inventory Sources 491
App. 4 Geographic and Population Data 505
App. 5 The Roster of the Significant Figures 513
Notes 589
Bibliography 625
Index 639
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First Chapter

Human Accomplishment
The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950

Chapter One

A Sense of Time

Before human accomplishment could begin, we had first of all to become human. It took a long time. Bipedality came first, somewhere in the vicinity of five million years ago. After bipedality, about two and a half million years passed before the animal that walked on two legs learned to make crude tools. The taming of fire required another one and a half million years.

Even then, after these unimaginably long spans of time, the creature was still Homo erectus, of formidable talents compared to every other animal but not yet recognizably human. With his beetled visage and lumbering gait, Homo erectus did not look human. More to the point, he did not think like a human. Homo erectus had a cranial capacity averaging only two-thirds of ours, and his mind was inhumanly slow.

The animal that the paleo-anthropologists call Homo sapiens and that we identify as human appeared about 200,000 years ago. It is sometime after that point that human accomplishment begins. But when? Shall we mark the beginning at the moment when a human first spoke a word? Drew an image? Sang a song? Choosing a precise moment is, of course, as subjective as trying to specify exactly when human beings stopped being Homo erectus and started being Homo sapiens. But if one were forced to mark the dawn of human accomplishment, the year -8000 has much to recommend it.

As It Was In the Beginning

In its topography and climate, the world in -8000 was much the world we know today. The last major glaciation of the Pleistocene had been receding for centuries, and Europe was no snowier than it would be in modern times. The Rhine, Seine, and Danube already rolled past countryside that we would recognize today, and the Alps, though 10,000 years newer and a few meters less eroded, would have looked the same to our eyes. In the Americas, the southern tip of the remaining great glacier was already north of Lake Superior, and the geology of what would become the United States had been determined. Rockies and Appalachians, Mohave Desert and Mississippi valley and Manhattan Island -- all would have looked familiar. A few landmarks were different then. The Sahara was verdant, and the white cliffs of Dover overlooked a river valley linking England with the European mainland. But a time traveler from 21C would have had to fly over the surface of the Earth for many days to discover these occasional surprises.

Nor would a visitor from the future have been surprised by the flora and fauna. The forest on Manhattan was oak and elm and chestnut, inhabited by chipmunks and robins and crows. The world still contained a few lonely mastodons and saber-tooth tigers, but almost all of the animals you would have found were familiar, even if some were found in unaccustomed placesbison in Ohio, wolves in Germany, lions in Greece.

The most striking difference to a modern observer visiting -8000 would have been the scarcity of humans. People lived just about everywhere, from the farthest southern reaches of today's Chile to the Norse tundra, but they would have been hard to find, living in small and isolated bands. They had to be scattered, because the human animal is a carnivore by preference, and large carnivores surviving off the land require a large range -- about 5,000 acres per person, in the case of carnivore Homo sapiens. Depending on local conditions, a band of just 25 hunter-gatherers could require more than a thousand square miles. The world of -8000 probably supported fewer than 4 million human beings, roughly the population of contemporary Kentucky.

What kind of people were they? In the important ways, just like us. That doesn't mean that people of -8000 perceived the world as we do, but the differences were caused by cultural and educational gulfs, not smaller brain size. All of us had our counterparts in the world of -8000 -- people as clever, handsome, aesthetically alert, and industrious as any of us, with senses of humor as witty or ribald. Humans of -8000 were so like us that one of their infants raised in 21C would be indistinguishable from his playmates.

The humans of -8000 had already accomplished much. Fire had been not just tamed, but manipulated, adapted for uses ranging from lamps to the oxidation of pigments. Stone tools were sophisticated, including finely crafted hammers and axes, and spears and arrows with razor edges. The technology for acquiring and working the materials for such objects had evolved remarkably by -8000. There is evidence of underground mining of chert, a quartz used for spearheads and arrowheads, as early as -35,000.

By -8000, humans already had fully developed languages, the most advanced of which expressed ideas and emotions with precision. A few of them apparently had begun to work fibers into textiles. They knew how to grind seeds to make flour. The first tentative efforts to work copper had already occurred. And the human spirit was manifesting itself. Burial of the dead, drawings, sculptures, the conscious use of color, concepts of gods and cosmic mysteries were all part of human cultures scattered around the earth in -8000.

These were large accomplishments, and already set Homo sapiens apart from other living creatures. And yet most of the world's population in -8000 lived a daily life that in its physical dimensions was only marginally different from that of the animals they hunted. Humans had learned to find shelter from the cold and wet, but nothing we would find much more comfortable than the dens used by other animals. They had tools for hunting and gathering, but food nonetheless had to be obtained continually, by tracking and killing game or by finding wild vegetables and fruits. It was not always an exhausting life. When food was plentiful, Paleolithic man actually had a considerable amount of leisure time. But the tiny surpluses humans accumulated by smoking or salting their meat were stopgaps for emergencies ...

Human Accomplishment
The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950
. Copyright © by Charles Murray. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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  • Posted August 1, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A Wake Up Call

    This is a good book and makes for very interesting reading.

    With that said, it is a book that champions the White Male. Pure and simple. Murray goes to great depths in his analysis in order to make the point. Okay, we get it. To read all the other editorials and the reviews on the Amazon site claiming this bias or that bias is near laughable. Some even challenge the statistical method employed. Okay, fine.

    The minor point of this book is the wonderful trek through centuries of discovery and invention in a plethora of arenas. That a majority of these were made by white males is a no-brainer. We should eschew the silly arguments and enjoy the ride.

    The major point is the decline in the rate of great accomplishments in the past century. I wrote of this concern in my latest book but certainly not in the detail presented by Murray. No matter our race, religion or culture, as the entity we call humankind, we should be shocked and appalled at this void of creativity we now find ourselves.

    Let's answer the wake up call and avoid all the silly stuff.

    I also enjoyed Economic Facts and Fallacies, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression and What It Means to Be a Libertarian

    I hope you find this review (opinion) helpful.

    Michael L. Gooch, SPHR

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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