A sweeping cultural survey reminiscent of Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence.
"At irregular times and in scattered settings, human beings have achieved great things. Human Accomplishment is about those great things, falling in the domains known as the arts and sciences, and the people who did them.'
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 have rarely 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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About 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.
Read an Excerpt
The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950
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.
Table of Contents
|A Note on Presentation||xiii|
|Part 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|
|Part 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|
|Part 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|
|Part 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|
|1.||Statistics for People Who Are Sure They Can't Learn Statistics||461|
|2.||Construction of the Inventories and the Eminence Index||475|
|4.||Geographic and Population Data||505|
|5.||The Roster of the Significant Figures||513|
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Charles Murray¿s Human Accomplishment is an unusual, provocative and wholly worthwhile read. Murray tackles ¿ and admirably executes ¿ a daunting task: combing through dozens and hundreds of histories and encyclopedias of famous figures and events in the historical development of the sciences, medicine, technology, fine arts, literature and philosophy in search of answers to foundational questions such as `What is human accomplishment?¿ `Who has accomplished the most, and why?¿ and `What enables/drives such accomplishment?¿Given Murray¿s notoriety, some might attempt brush off this study with a few puerile criticisms of Murray¿s methods or results, but if you actually read the book you will see that Murray has anticipated and parried just about every possible objection. He is thorough, dispassionate, and clear.The most interesting part of the book, I think, comes towards the end, as Murray concludes that it¿s Christianity¿s fostering of individualism, plus a sense of transcendence and purpose, that has undergirded the very heights of human accomplishment.Highly recommended.
Charles Murray surveys a very large topic and provides both direction and structure for it. The immensity of his work is difficult to appreciate for he ranks the leading 4,000 innovators in several fields of human accomplishment from 800 BC to 1950. The categories of human accomplishment where significant figures are ranked in the book are as follows: Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, Physics, Mathematics, Medicine, Technology, Combined Sciences, Chinese Philosophy, Indian Philosophy, Western Philosophy, Western Music, Chinese Painting, Japanese Art, Western Art, Arabic Literature, Chinese Literature, Indian Literature, Japanese Literature, and Western Literature. In reviewing the accomplishments in these categories he argued, based on Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, that innovation is increased by beliefs that life has a purpose and that the function of life is to fulfill that purpose; by beliefs about transcendental goods and a sense of goodness, truth and beauty; and by beliefs that individuals can act efficaciously as individuals, and a culture that enables them to do so. I found that he answered my questions as they arose during my reading and he dealt effectively with issues like the prominence of the West, the predominance of men, and others. The most satisfying sections for me were his discussion of the importance of Aristotle and his summation. The result of Murray's efforts is a worthy assay of human excellence throughout history.
The author tries to establish a statistical basis for 'excellence' based upon a skewed distribution. Apparently the argument is: because the same skewed distribution (the Lotka curve) applies both to excellent golfers, where excellence is readily determined, and to commonly celebrated musicians or scientists, it follows that commonly celebrated musicians or scientists also are excellent. [From the statistical basis argued here, I suspect the liklihood of extremely rare weather patterns also follows the Lotka curve].The author admits to logical uncertainty in this probability argument, but proceeds anyway. He shores it up with the notion that anybody who remains noted over an extended time deserves it, and with the 'face validity' test, which amounts to 'if I recognise a famous name, that person is famous for good reason'. The value of the book is in asking a lot of very hard questions, and showing that evaluating human accomplishment is no easy task. However, the value of the book is not in its answers to these hard questions.