Charles Murray has an admirable penchant for tackling very ambitious topics, and, in the process, raising challenging questions. Those qualities are evident even in a book as comprehensively wrong-headed as Human Accomplishment:. The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 b.c. to 1950.
book has several major goals. First, Murray seeks to identify the key innovations and accomplishments in human history, ranging widely over the arts, literature, and the sciences. In addition to specific discoveries and cultural breakthroughs, he also notes fourteen key “meta inventions,” a curious grab bag that includes artistic realism, polyphony, the novel, Arabic numerals, and the scientific method. He then identifies the key individuals associated with these giant accomplishments. Based on this master list of some four thousand people—overwhelmingly men—he tries to account for the patterns and distributions he finds. His book is thus an exercise in historiometry, a word with a good Victorian pedigree, and a concept that he suggests is ripe for revival.
Murray’s overall thesis strongly favors a socially and politically conservative interpretation, implying that the traditional West has led the “human pursuit of excellence,” and that Christianity has played a critical role in that process. Christianity, especially in its Protestant form, stimulates notions such as vocation and duty, encourages purposeful activity, and fosters a belief in autonomous efficacy. A striking table compares different societies by these criteria, with Reformation Protestantism and Renaissance Catholicism leading the pack, with “East Asia, India, and the Arab world” lagging far behind, and “post-Freud secularism” not making a much better showing. In short, “Christianity is an important variable, one of the most important in the story of modern accomplishment. I am not arguing that it explains everything—just as, for that matter, purpose and autonomy do not explain everything. But they do explain a lot.”
Conversely, a world that scorns Western and Christian values loses cultural and scientific momentum, and Murray warns that the rate of achievement and accomplishment has been declining in recent years, especially in literature and the arts. The book has obvious relevance to current debates over the “clash of civilizations,” not least in its suggestion that some civilizations are simply much more productive and creative than others. Equally powerful are the implications for education, in reasserting the centrality of Western Civilization and its religious core. It is almost a manifesto for a Great Books curriculum.
Any or all of these arguments may be correct, and intuitively one might agree with most of Murray’s positions. Those notorious Dead White European Males (80 percent of Murray’s sample) usually deserved the awe they inspired, while no reasonable observer can dispute the total intellectual hegemony of the Judeo-Christian West over the past few centuries. The problem comes when Murray tries to ground his views in a social-scientific approach, and indeed, one that is presented so confidently that unwitting readers might be tempted to accept it as authoritative. No matter how de-tailed the scientific methods, the regression analyses, and Lotka curves, a study can only be as good as the data on which it relies, and most historians and sociologists will (or should) have serious qualms about Murray’s basic approach.
The book’s greatest weakness is the selection of the historical accomplishers, the millennial movers and shakers. Murray finds these names through an impressive array of standard works of reference, drawn from several nations and languages, and from a broad span of time. Names are further measured by a basket of “measures of eminence,” including the length of discussion they receive in the relevant literature. According to Murray, these methods give a firm quantitative basis to assertions that Shakespeare, Darwin, and Einstein are not just eminent figures, but excellent ones, leaders of human accomplishment. Such quantification gives the impression that a social-scientific process is under way, as it may well be, though just what is being measured is open to serious debate. Murray believes that his tables measure the historical significance of individuals, their excellence; but a fundamental doctrine in social science is that a theory can scarcely be regarded as credible if one can find a completely different explanation that accounts at least as well for the observed data. Doing science is about testing and eliminating rival hypotheses.
Let me now offer such a rival explanation for the numbers that are offered in the pages of Human Accomplishment. I will suggest that what Murray has found is largely a function of modern research and publishing. At least since the Enlightenment, Europe and the Europeanized world have massively dominated the global production of knowledge, and also the manufacture and sale of books. Encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries have been produced in vast numbers, and overwhelmingly these works reflect the social and political assumptions of their authors, editors, and consumers, and the state of Western historical knowledge. That, in turn, reflects the state of the society’s academic institutions, and the historical profession that operates from those schools and colleges. Since the West leads dramatically in all those fields, its readers, writers, and researchers shape the past as it is constructed in contemporary works of reference.
Even when checked by good faith efforts to maintain a global perspective, lists drawn from these works will inevitably have a Western bias. If the academic profession of, say, China is less well developed than that of Europe or North America, obviously we will know less about Chinese innovators through the centuries—and that is doubly true if Chinese society is less impressed by the notion of individual genius. Western dictionaries and encyclopedias associate great movements with specific individuals rather than broader trends and demonstrate a Romantic fascination with the inventor or artist as Promethean genius. In more mundane terms, readers like to associate ideas with names and, ideally, faces.
If these statements are true, then we would expect any survey based on contemporary reference books to find that certain individuals receive massive attention as the key figures in the arts and sciences, and that this select band of culture heroes will be heavily dominated by Westerners. Badly neglected would be the innovators of China, India, and Dar al-Islam, not to mention those of civilizations that for one reason or another were snuffed out—for example, the pre-Columbian Americas. In other words, we would find exactly the same results that Murray presents, but arising from reasons utterly different from those he suggests. This would be a roster not of the great accomplishers but of those who are currently thought of as enjoying that exalted status, and that is a very different matter.
From this alternative perspective, what Murray has written is not a survey of “human accomplishments,” but rather a reputational study of those individuals who currently enjoy the highest prestige in the contemporary West. That is in some ways a valuable endeavor, but it cannot possibly serve as the basis for the conclusions he seeks to draw. It is a sociology of knowledge as presented in reference books. The book is thus about fame, not accomplishment; and this despite Murray’s remark that, “if fame were at the core of what I really meant, the exercise would not be worth my time to conduct nor yours to read.”
The difference between achievement and reputation can be neatly illustrated from Murray’s earliest examples, the pre-Socratic thinkers Thales, Democritus, and Pythagoras. Inclusion of these familiar figures seems to give Murray’s survey a respectably ancient and comfortably Western starting point. But the true starting point may be rather more ancient and may lie rather further east. When modern reference books describe the intellectual innovations of the pre-Socratics, they are following a tradition of venerable antiquity, but not one that is necessarily accurate. Perhaps these thinkers were indeed prophets of modern science and philosophy; or perhaps, as some modern historians believe, they only popularized in the West insights that originated in ancient Mesopotamia and were then disseminated through the Assyrian oikoumene of the ninth and eighth centuries b.c., until they reached the distant shores of the Aegean. When composing a modern reference book, though, it is massively easier to explain that a given idea originated with Thales or Anaximander than to provide this unattractively complex intellectual genealogy.
I have suggested that Murray’s list of great innovators is too flawed to be usable; but for the sake of argument, let us suppose that it is accurate and worthwhile. Assuming that he is in fact presenting the trajectory of human progress, which is above all a Western phenomenon, how accurate are his explanations of the process? As we have seen, he stresses Christianity as “an important variable” in human progress and creativity, and he even relates the abundance of Jewish innovation from the nineteenth century onwards to contact with the Christian world. To his credit, Murray also explores a number of alternative hypotheses, including population, war and peace, stability and prosperity, and political freedom. In short, he tries to apply the critical scientific test of excluding alternative hypotheses, but he is surely missing some of the key elements, especially in explaining scientific and technological change.
Take, for instance, the enormous concentration of such innovators in the European world, and especially within the Anglo-American tradition. Or consider how innovation was then applied to general use through the activity of entrepreneurs and business corporations, and in turn served as a platform for later development and accomplishment. Many historians would attribute this success to three closely related factors—namely, security of property, inheritance customs (mainly primogeniture), and the rule of law. All were essential for commercial and economic growth. To varying degrees, European societies discovered and applied this mixture in a way that their non-European counterparts did not, and often still have not done. Innovation could be cultivated because it was profitable. Profit could then be accumulated and passed on to descendants, who could build the capital necessary for the production of more knowledge—or, where appropriate, for the patronage of great works of painting and sculpture, or the building of colleges. And profits were defended by courts, so they were not (generally) subject to the larcenous whims of the local sheikh or rajah. Taken together, these factors go a long way towards explaining global Western supremacy. Henry Bracton and Sir William Blackstone contributed at least as much to the “Triumph of the West” as did religious thinkers such as Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin.
One of the greatest challenges in comparative historical writing is accounting for the preeminence of the West, and Murray’s book makes a valiant contribution to addressing this issue. But he proves less than he claims.
Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University and the author most recently of The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice (Oxford University Press).