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on November 16, 2014
You can think of Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment as the winners of the Lifetime Achievement Award for Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, as determined by experts in the various fields in which these great people worked. Some of the winners will be surprising, others not terribly surprising at all. In the combined sciences, the man who experts think had the most important contribution was ... [drum roll] Isaac Newton. In Western philosophy, Aristotle beat Plato by almost 10 percentage points. The giants of Western music are Beethoven and Mozart, who basically tied for first place. And in Western art, the most significant figure is Michelangelo. You can buy the book for the other results.

I'll tell you a little about the author Charles Murray's method to determine who the most significant figures are in the arts and sciences. He did a statistical analysis across English-printed and foreign-printed textbooks in the arts and sciences, calculated who the most frequently cited were, and the amount of pages were devoted to those figures. And these were the figures that emerged. It's a pretty cool concept, and it made for a pretty fun read. I think it's definitely an important book.
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on July 11, 2014
A blurb on the dust jacket suggests that <Human Accomplishment> is a book for the general reader. Not so. Instead it is for the minority who can be defined as a discriminating readership. It is not an easy book. To quote author Charles Murray, his "<Human Accomplishment> describes what we (society) have achieved, provides some tools for thinking about how it has been done, and celebrates our continuing common quest." It might be said that our common quest is to discover truth and beauty.

Murray has chosen the creme de la creme of thinkers and doers who have accomplished results having profound, advancing effect on society in the areas of artistic and scientific excellence -- this between 800 BC to 1950 AD. Murray recognized that such choices as he made can be seen as tainted by his own subjective biases. For this reason he has devoted a significant part of his book to explaining the systems by which he sought to achieve objectivity.

<Human Accomplishment> is not a book to be entered lightly. It contains much to interest the discriminating reader IF THAT READER IS PREPARED TO GIVE IT HIS CLOSE ATTENTION.
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on August 23, 2017
By no means is this a book for everyone. It is a slog to get through it. Seriously. I loved it. Until I retired I was a heavy user of statistics. I am even more deeply an historian. (Can't possibly make a decent living with that.) Plus some other mental decoration. This book was my cup of tea. ASTONISHINGLY he is rational, reasonable, and straightforward. Rare! (Naturally I would say that about one with whom I share much agreement.) As I was reading the book, from time to time I wondered how I could encourage my extended family to include this book as part of the home schooling curriculum. It is that important. (Thinking of the children, as Mr. Murray does, I recommend skipping until later the details of the data development and statistical analysis. Yes, important. No, not a lot of fun and insight.)
Now then, a dose of reality. It is too little too late.. Even if we teach our children the things he develops it will only allow them to see and understand the collapse. Mr. Murray peripherally acknowledges the overriding importance of worldview in the culture(s) that drives accomplishment. I think he may have been a little weak with respect to this but not entirely.
I heartily recommend this book to those who enjoy the patterns and subtleties of long term cultural history. Mr Murray provides many, many insights.
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on October 5, 2007
Charles Murray is a gutsy social scientist. Back in 1994, he co-wrote the excellent Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (A Free Press Paperbacks Book) with Richard Herrnstein. The onslaught of controversy from the politically correct faction exhausted Herrnstein (he died not long after the release of the book). But, Murray kept on trucking and a decade later released another politically incorrect outstanding bombshell with this book.

Being aware of the topic's controversial nature, Murray spends nearly as much time explaining his statistical methodology as he does analyzing results. After reading Murray's disclosure, you're overwhelmed by his data gathering effort. And, you are hard pressed to think off how a researcher could have been more objective in this endeavor.

From his extensive data, he develops a ranking of the top 20 contributors in tens of different fields. The usual suspects dominate the podium. In Western literature it is Shakespeare and Goethe. In Western Art, it is Michelangelo. In Physics, it is Newton and Einstein. In Western music it is the usual trio Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach. And so on and so forth.

Murray makes a great effort in capturing non-Western culture by dedicating several inventories/rankings specifically for them, including numerous disciplines for the Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian cultures. His research methodology renders him as well versed in Japanese Art as Arabic Literature. His related analytical commentaries are fascinating and educative.

Murray preempts politically correct concerns by addressing them head on. How about representation of women? As an abstract of his findings, if you are looking for the greatest composers of all time it is just impossible to come up with an alternative to the Mozart-Beethoven-Bach trio. And, the same is true for the other rankings he developed. He mentioned that in his gathered inventory of significant figures 98.5% are male. Speculating that all the well established sources had been heavily biased against women and had missed 50% of such significant figures; that would mean the percentage of male/female significant figures would be 97%/3% instead of 98.5%/1.5%. Murray does not believe the mentioned sources were biased. But, he adds even if they were it would not have made a material difference as stated above. Murray explicitly states men and women are of equal intelligence. It is just that our societies are patriarchal. Access to activities leading to superlative achievements is limited for women. Biologically, women incur the burden of reproduction and child rearing that is a constraint on the maniacal focus needed to become one of the all-time-greats in anything.

How about representation of foreign cultures? As mentioned, Murray already dedicated numerous inventories/rankings to other cultures to give them more than their fair share of representation.

After ranking individuals, Murray goes on to developing chronologies of major events in all the mentioned disciplines. Then, he moves on to analyzing trends in creativity over time and geographical location. You get that just a few places over short period of times generated an inordinate number of luminaries such as Athens during the Greek antiquity and a few Italian cities during the Renaissance.

Murray is intrigued by this phenomenon. In chapters 15 and 16, he analyzes the factors contributing to generating many luminaries at any one time within a specific country. From his multivariate regression models we learn that the major contributing variables to generating such luminaries per country are: 1) # of political and financial centers; 2) # of cities with an elite university; 3) population of the largest city; 4) # of luminaries in the immediate preceding generation (defined as a 20 year span); and 5) GDP per capita. On page 380, he discloses the results of this model. And, it is surprisingly good. Using this model he estimated within + or - 10 the number of luminaries per country from 1400 to 1950. Less than 5% of the defined per country-period have an error greater than + or - 10 in the estimated number of luminaries.

Next, Murray attempts to explain what the model has not. He extensively looks at the role of government with the expected assessment (totalitarian ones are bad as they don't allow individual creativity). He also advances that the reason why Europeans dominate the rankings is because of religious considerations. Confucianism and Buddhism in Asia valued tradition, family, responsibility to community, and detachment from desire and individual aspiration. Murray feels Christianity allowed more room for individual achievements hence related human accomplishments thrived in Europe more than else where. Murray makes a case that Christianity fostered human accomplishments more than our modern secularism. This is because he feels religion gives a greater sense of life purpose than secularism. He extends his theory by explaining why he feels that the rate and quality of innovation in the arts and sciences has declined in the 20th century. Remember, he is not talking just about technology. He is questioning whether our civilization will ever produce music composers of the quality of a Beethoven, or painters comparable to Michelangelo, playwright matching Shakespeare, or even scientists matching Newton or Einstein (ok this last one is just on the cusp belonging in good part to the first half of the 20th century). Even though many would disagree, Murray makes a very interesting point. Do we really have another Michelangelo or Shakespeare to come?

For a much different view of the interaction between science and religion, I also recommend Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion and Mike Shermer's Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design.
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on June 26, 2014
The superiority of Western Culture and what makes it superior. Man oh man this is the hottest topic since race and intelligence was covered in the Bell Curve. So controversial, so juicy. Something nobody else has the balls to realistically cover. Where's my fork and knife- I'm ready to dig in.

Then I read the book. WTF? Seriously man? In this book Charles Murray is just a shadow of his former self. Is he too scared to be controversial anymore? He spends a lot of time defending himself in absurd detail, which in reality is boring and uninteresting reading. Such justifications should be put into a foot note or in an index at the end, maybe in a final chapter. The first few chapters start out pretty good. In them Murray muses about Western history and the Roman empire, the Greeks etc. Good reading, but not really diving into the juicy stuff. So I'm getting giddy. It's gonna get good any moment. It just got worse. Murray decided to not touch anything other than significant figures in art and science. He spends most of the book justifying his methods and reasoning. Yes you can objectively measure excellence. Here let me devote most of a chapter explaining how. In trying to justify himself to the PC police he really made a book that isn't interesting to his ideological supporters nor to the PC people. He ignores all kinds of really juicy topics, including a lot I probably haven't thought of, but just off the top of my head the world uses Western mathematics (yes it has its origins in the middle east, but was refined by the Greeks). This is obviously a superior system. The world uses it because it is the most effective ways to build buildings and run banks. One could argue the entire world has significantly adapted Western mathematics, philosophy, legal structures, government structures, thought patterns, values etc. because they are effective. Murray doesn't feel any of this is worth exploring. The social sciences are too hard to turn into data tables. Umm ok murray can you just write about them instead of turning them into a statistical bell curve or whatever other curve you found? Apparently not.

Umm ok I guess we are going to skip over a lot of hot topics, but surely you must have some really juicy stuff related to significant figures in science and art. This is when Murray goes on and on about figures that most people never heard of or don't care about. He regurgitates some stuff from the bell curve in regards to, well, bell curves. He never really hits anything interesting, just stating the obvious and then trying to justify his "controversial point". He breaks it down into absurd and boring detail with numerous charts on where significant people were born. I guess kind of interesting, but without anything else substantial- a snooze fest. And what is his point? Most scientists and artists were born in West Europe. Free societies lead to more innovation and monoarchys can even be relatively free regarding tolerance of deviant ideas and innovation. A few nods to Christianity helping Western development but not a lot of deep elaboration. And look I just summarized hundreds of pages and countless charts in less than a paragraph. Seriously, why couldn't the author do that? He has a talent at making things boring which can only be refined by a college professor. He seems almost afraid to really state anything too controversial and feels the need to explain himself repeatedly so we don't mistake him for a quack or racist. Look the white hating left wing zealots are going to call you a racist no matter what so why even bother boring the rest of us with endless paragraphs about the obvious?

Murray the first thing you need to ask yourself as an author is who your audience is going to be? Are you writing this for fans of the Bell Curve or are you trying to justify yourself to the PC police? Murray never really seems to decide, trying to pander to both in a really unremarkable way. Pick one or the other and it would be a better book with a more coherent thesis.

And the thing is Murray is rich. He knows all kinds of well educated and connected people. He has the resources and fame to write this book that most people don't have. And yet he really let us down. Maybe he would do better with a good co-author. I really feel this book needs some heavy editing and a version 2 or v. 3 released or something of that nature. The grammar is precise. The author is sharp and witty. The charts are accurate. But a good book goes beyond that- it must be interesting to read and therein it falls short. The basic topic is great, just the execution was ho hum, leaving most people saying "so what?" I mean whoopdy doo most scientists and artists come from Europe. That's all you have to say? And do we need a thousand charts to hammer in the point, along with endless rants about how this is legitimate science? Listen Murray, when you say that most great historical figures were born in Europe we believe you. You don't need to justify yourself in absurd detail. Now get into some far more insightful and controversial topics on Western culture will you.

The other thing is that he seems excessively focused on art like some kind of rich snob. He sneers at the Romans for not really placing a high value on artists and not being as innovative as the Greeks in art. The fact that the Romans conquered the known world is of little consequence to Murray. He doesn't seem to care about Western culture's ability to put food on the table or to win wars, but rather with the art they produce and of course scientific innovation. He rambles on about things that only he cares about and tries to explain statistics for the "rest of us" as they did in the Bell Curve. But unlike the Bell Curve, most of that information seems irrelevant. We don't need a lot of charts and mathematical models to analyze Western culture. It seems artificial, like a vague attempt to recreate the Bell Curve and somehow bask in its glory once again, without really saying anything as new or interesting.

I like the book, I really do. I thought the first few chapters were great. I feel the topic is top tier. The author perfectly suited for this task. Yet in the end the whole thing just disappoints. I would really hope that at some point Murray could show the humility to pass this book onto some "hungry" younger protégés who can significantly edit it and add some more meaty insights and arguments. And please cut down on the boring and redundant information and justifications and place them in a separate chapter or category so I can actually read the book without falling asleep. I guess we get a free taste of college life here if you want to be bored to death by uninteresting facts. But I'll leave this on a positive note: ok book, good concept, needs to be revisted.
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on October 30, 2013
In this book, Charles Murray charts human history from 8000 BCE to the present in 400 year long increments. It is an interesting way to see history. Most of what we know of history only goes back to 2800 years , which would be mainly the Odyssey and Iliad of Homer and parts of the Old Testament. This book takes in much of Human history and arranges it into an easy to understand manner
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on June 3, 2014
Charles Murray is one of the giants in contemporary social science. His clear headed presentation of data and explorations thereof leads to logical conclusions about the shortcomings of U.S. public policy over the past 50 years. This book should be understood to be part of a large collection of books by him that have challenged conventional wisdom about the limits of public policy.
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on August 21, 2014
More proof that 'multi-culturalism' is a fool's errand. Not all cultures are of equal value. Want proof: "When the vast majorities of peoples of the world are given the freedom to move (or better said: LEAVE), where do they go? They go west - to the western societies, especially the USA, CANADA, and Europe. Why? Because man, at his core, wants to be FREE. It's no accident that the Western societies are the socieites where man has made his greatest mark on mankind! It's too bad the "Idiot Classes" have a hard time grasping this fact, which is evidenced before our own eyes. BTW, much of the "Idiot Classes" reside in our own Ivory Towers, which in many cases charge you more that $65,000/yr. to dumb down your offspring with respect to the facts Charles Murray writes AND documents in this book. One of the most classic 'Idiot Class' observations can be found in an L.A.Times review of Ron Howard's APOLLO 13, to wit: "In this day and age is it really appropriate that we make movies where all the heroes are white males..." For me, that was the day the L.A.Times became irrelevant.
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on December 28, 2013
I find it silly that Murray doesn't use the time frames of B.C. and A.D., as they still are fully functional, but that's a small point in analyzing the wealth of human achievement of the West, and how it clearly intersects our world- even as it is disparaged, today. This book is being purposefully overlooked, because it says what everyone once knew- that Europeans gave the world as we know it, to everyone, due to our inbred, genetic altruism. That is not 'P.C.'- but then, Truth rarely is.

And for that, I am very thankful to have purchased a copy of this book. I need, want, no, DEMAND that others know, that without the residents of Megala Europa; from the Solutreans, to the British Empire, to the American Experiment up until 1963, coming on the scene- from the unique achievements of of the Caucasoid Rulers of Egypt, to Tesla's experiments- you'd all still be living in yurts, looking at scribbles and wondering what they meant, instead of a literate, computer-glutted techne-derived society, that is the pinnacle of what Adam's line has achieved. Not that we needed proof, mind you. But Murray's book is a good one for book clubs of literate readers, use as a history text in private schools, and in Arts in Society classes in Christian colleges- those who still value the Socratic adage of an 'unexamined mind,' and the genius of a Michaelangelo, to start the necessary unlearning of the indoctrination of the last hundred years.
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on July 19, 2014
Charles Murray has accomplished something very impressive with this book: He gives the reader a summary, not of Western Civilization, but of Human Civilization, in a book short enough to read at one sitting. This is, necessarily, a view from the heights, from which much detail that could be seen closer to ground level is omitted. But it also allows the reader to see patterns that only such a distant perspective affords a glimpse of.
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