on October 21, 2003
Once a decade, Charles Murray drops a bombshell book on American intellectual life.
In 1984, it was his devastating assessment of welfare programs, "Losing Ground," which helped inspire the famous 1996 welfare reform act.
In 1994, Murray coauthored with the late Richard J. Herrnstein the enormous bestseller "The Bell Curve." It ignited controversy by arguing that IQ scores are one of the most overlooked tools for understanding how American society is structured.
Now, after a half-decade of work, Murray, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, is back with another massive book, 688 pages full of graphs and tables. "Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950" (HarperCollins, $29.95) is a fascinating attempt to rank the 4,000 most important artists and scientists in human history.
Murray meticulously measured how much attention the leading scholars in their fields pay to the top creators and discoverers. Reading "Human Accomplishment" is a little like browsing through the statistics-laden "Baseball Encyclopedia," except that instead of being about Ruth, Di Maggio, and Bonds, Murray's book is about Picasso, Darwin, and Edison.
Murray took some time to discuss "Human Accomplishment" with me.
Q. Who came out on top of big categories like Western Literature, Western Art, Western Philosophy, and Combined Sciences?
A. Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aristotle, and Newton -- the people you'd expect.
In Western music, Mozart and Beethoven were in a dead heat, with Bach third. A rather vocal minority is upset about Bach not being on top. I'm not. I love Bach, but it's awfully hard to listen to Beethoven's later symphonies and string quartets and figure out how anybody could possibly be ranked above him.
However, let me stress: I'm not the one who made those decisions. And occasionally I had to grin and bear it when things didn't come out according to my druthers. Rousseau and Byron are way too high in Western literature for my taste, for example.
Q. Can you truly quantify objectively which artists and scientists were the most eminent?
A. Sure. It's one of the most well-developed quantitative measures in the social sciences. (The measurement of intelligence is one of its few competitors, incidentally.)
My indices have a statistical reliability that is phenomenal for the social sciences. There's also a very high "face validity" -- in other words, the rankings broadly correspond to common-sense expectations.
Q. Who was the most accomplished person who ever lived?
A. Now we're talking personal opinion, because the methods I used don't work across domains, but I have an emphatic opinion.
He more or less invented logic, which was of pivotal importance in human history (and no other civilization ever came up with it independently). He wrote the essay on ethics ("Nicomachean Ethics") that to my mind contains the bedrock truths about the nature of living a satisfying human life. He made huge contributions to aesthetics, political theory, methods of classification and scientific observation. Who else even comes close?
Q. Which woman scored the highest?
A. Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote the novel "The Tale of Genji" a thousand years ago, has by far the highest index score -- 86 on a scale of 1 to 100. But, that is in competition just with other Japanese authors, not all of the world's authors.
The highest-scoring woman in any of the sciences -- no surprise -- is Marie Curie in Physics, with a score in the 40s (on a scale where Newton and Einstein are tied at 100). The highest in Western Literature is Virginia Woolf. None of the highest-scoring women in the other categories are major figures.
Q. You pay a surprising amount of attention to Asian culture. Does that stem from the six years you lived in Asia beginning as a Peace Corps volunteer?
A. Put it this way: There are aspects of Asian culture as it is lived that I still prefer to Western culture, 30 years after I last lived in Thailand. Two of my children are half-Asian. Apart from those personal aspects, I have always thought that the Chinese and Japanese civilizations had elements that represented the apex of human accomplishment in certain domains.
When I began the book, I actually hoped to give Asian accomplishment a still larger place than it wound up getting.
Q. You argue that one big reason that most of humanity's highest achievers came from what used to be called Christendom was ... Christianity. Did you expect to reach that conclusion?
A. Michael Novak foretold I would come to that conclusion, but I didn't agree at the time. I didn't think you needed anything except the Greek heritage and some secular social and economic trends to explain the Renaissance.
On this score, I have plenty of witnesses in the form of my colleagues who were getting nervous as the years went by. They kept asking me what the thesis of the book was, and I kept saying, "Beats the hell out of me."
The last chapters of the book were all written in the last nine months of work, and at the beginning of those nine months, I still didn't know what was going to be in them.
Q. You found that per capita levels of accomplishment tended to decline from 1850 to 1950. Would you care to speculate on post-1950 trends?
A. I think that the number of novels, songs, and paintings done since 1950 that anyone will still care about 200 years from now is somewhere in the vicinity of zero. Not exactly zero, but close. I find a good way to make this point is to ask anyone who disagrees with me to name a work that will survive -- and then ask, "Seriously?" Very few works indeed can defend themselves against the "Seriously?" question.
on March 17, 2004
Charles Murray presents three questions in this book. First, can historiometric techniques be used to produce a survey of human accomplishment in the arts and sciences over time and across cultures? Second, are there any obvious patterns in the data? And third, why are those patterns present?
The answer to the first question is certainly "yes". Murray uses the extent of coverage of scientists and artists in standard reference works on each field that he investigates. Basically he counts the number of times figures are mentioned and the amount of space their work is given. He makes a heroic effort to ensure that the results are not skewed by reliance on single works or works in a single language. His inventories include: astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth sciences, physics, mathematics, medicine, technology, 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.
While many may deride this methodology as bunk, the surprising thing is that the listings "look right". Who will argue that Galileo and Kepler do not belong at the top of the astronomy list, that Newton and Einstein do not belong at the top in physics, or that Shakespeare and Goethe should be lower on the western literature list? We may quibble about minor differences in rankings, but few would assert that obviously significant figures have been completely misplaced. Some readers with extensive statistics backgrounds may attack the techniques used, especially those used later in the book in determining rates of accomplishment, but with my limited background (one year of undergraduate statistics courses at MIT, and a semester of statistics for research in grad school) Murray's methodology looks bulletproof.
To this point, even multiculturalists should be happy, since no attempt is made to compare the accomplishments of western and non-western civilizations. Now, however, he lobs the baseball into the hornets' nest. He concludes that dead European white guys have done the best work in the sciences, that Jews are dramatically overrepresented as a percentage of total population, that women have not contributed at the expected rates even after sexist barriers were removed, and that significant contributions in non-western arts have not been made at the same rates as in the west. While Murray's observations on the sciences seem indisputable, his coverage of non-western art is probably the weakest part of the book.
Murray next tries to extract some explanations from the data. His first conclusions are fairly obvious and noncontroversial to anyone with some knowledge of the history of sicence and the arts: war does not disrupt accomplishment, but economic health is required. Next, he points out that models of accomplishment provide behavior reinforcement for aspiring achievers. He also concludes that accomplishment requires freedom of action. Regimes ruled by Saddam Hussein's or Ayatollah Khomeini's are unlikely to produce much in the way of achievement. Further, Confucian duty to family and hierarchy can also stifle creativity.
In the final section of the book, Murray turns back to the nature of accomplishment and the factors that contribute to it, and asks if accomplishment is in decline. Since this is the most interesting part of book, I will not telegraph all of the conclusions in this review. Suffice it to say that his conclusions are anathema to multiculturists and practititioners of literary theory. In sum, this is an excellent, thought-provoking work that will reward any open-minded reader.
on December 9, 2003
This book is much more than cataloguing accomplishments of the arts and sciences and adjudicating their relative greatness. More importantly, this is a book about the meaning and the pursuit of excellence.
Murray has an important message, which crystallizes toward the end of the book. An important part of the human spirit, after the basic needs of survival and procreation are met, is its natural attraction to truth, beauty and good. (This is the best elaboration I have seen of what is meant by the "pursuit of Happiness" in our Declaration of Independence) Given the right cultural climate, the emergence of excellence in the pursuit of truth, beauty and good, will thrive. I do not know if Murray had that message in mind and used the data to support it, or that he analyzed the data to conclude on that message. Either way, the message is powerful.
Murray also made the point the religion (not organized religion, but a mature contemplation of truth, beauty and good) and its contagiousness is what is behind the waves of achievements and discoveries in history, entailing superhuman efforts and sacrifices that produced the greatest art and the articulation of the most insightful truths.
There is in this book a detail list of "inventories" of great and significant figures and an elaboration of how they are selected, with special consideration -- allowing quotas, if you will -- for non-Western achievements. The inventories will undoubtedly generate a lot of debate from the PC crowd. Murray anticipated that and did quite a bit of that debate within the book. If you are a serious reader of the book, you will find that the inventories, despite the amount of space devoted to them, are mere launching pad for the thesis of what is the meaning of excellence.
Like "The Bell Curve", this book is not for everybody. But for those who are drawn to the pursuit and appreciation of greatness and deference to truth, this book resonates powerfully with the mind.
on January 7, 2004
This book provides potent ammunition against the central part of the current dogma of multiculturalism, that urges us to accept all cultures as equally praiseworthy. The principle antidote to this pernicious doctrine is to recognize that excellence exists, and to celebrate the undeniable fact of inequality in achievement that have enabled some to enrich us all. While we are perhaps all born equal in some sense, it is really an equality of zeroes; for babies have no political rights--they don't vote or hold office, and their only talent is to find their mother's breast. As individuals grow, the inequalities in them also inexorably grow, and differences become more and more obvious, sometimes even to the professors of sociology, anthropology and education.
Murray's methodology and the data he uses and shows us in all of its glorious detail are refreshingly straightforward to understand, and represents an advance in the application of historiometry that he can be proud of. His finding about the dominance of Western European culture and white males in producing the inventions of the modern world is undeniable. The steam engine, transistor, and the scientific method were not discovered by the Yanomamo, Zulus or Eskimos. Sometimes it is not such a bad thing to state the obvious.
The important endeavor, as Murray emphasizes, is to try to understand the things that make for greatness. What role is played by the accidents of history, the availability of minerals in our territories, the success of our warriors, minorities in our cities, and population genetics? What causes the rise and fall of nations, and what can be done to be sure that our own culture of the West is preserved and protected against the eternal Barbarian at the gate?
on October 29, 2003
This is the first attempt to quantify the accomplishment of individuals and countries worldwide in the fields of arts and sciences by calculating the amount of space allocated to them in reference works. This is quite an achievement, as the writing no doubt requires a lot of reading, analyses, and work.
Although the book is very instructive, I have problems with the methodology used. It is very difficult to compare Shakespeare to another writer like Homer, or Voltaire and Rousseau, as they were from different times and wrote about different topics, some in verses others in prose. It is even more difficult to compare the achievements of Newton to those of Galileo, Faraday, Laplace or Euclid. It would be difficult to make the assertion that Pasteur or Fleming are more or less influential than inventors in other fields.
It is also difficult to compare Chinese achievements to those of the Europeans for two simple reasons: 1) western inventions are well publicized in the English literature while eastern works are rarely translated into English, 2) westerners are more dynamic and outgoing than their Chinese counterparts who in the last two millenia are more interested in moral issues than sciences. It should be noted that for many centuries, the Chinese have made tremendous advances in sciences and arts (gunpowder, ink, wheel, and so on) only to suddenly decide to achieve moral perfection rather than pursuing scientific achievements. The world would have been different had they not changed their minds.
I have learned a lot from the author: his work gives me a visual and global assessment, although somewhat biased, of the achievements of the giants in history. It is also one of the most original and probably controversial books I have ever read. It will certainly cause a lot of ink to flow; therefore, it will have its own place in history.
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.
on September 11, 2004
This was not what I expected. I had anticipated a more leisurely discussion of art history, the story of science, etc on the order of Daniel Boorstin or Fernandez-Armesto. Instead, we're presented with a detailed explanation of the methodology used to determine human achievements and achievers. (The mathematical/statistical discussions should have been placed in an appendix but then they would never have been read.)
Murray maintains that human achievement is based on excellence and that the best measure of achievement is by studying what experts in those fields say. He takes scholarly works and uses statistical analysis based on preponderence of mention to derive a Top XXX List for several categories in the arts and sciences. He offers separate lists for non-Western cultures where we would be comparing apples and oranges (literature, art, philosophy).
Not only does he attempt to identify what human achievement is he is also concerned with answering the why. He spends an inordinate amount of time on the issue of women and minorities. (The vast majority of those listed are European, male and white.) The story of the Ahskenazi Jews and their over-representation vs women and their under representation is a jewel. He even examines documents from works with the stated goal of emphasizing non-Europeans and finds almost exactly the same correlation of "great" events and people.
Especially intriguing were his twelve meta-inventions, tools or observations (artistic realism, polyphony, logic, the scientific method) that changed "everything". There are so many astute observations - artists are expendable and replaceable, scientists are not - the idea of purpose and individuality was a factor - the way individuals saw themselves under Eastern and Western philosophy - the role of war and peace - IQ levels among groups - genetic differences between the sexes - how very limited the area and populations were for achievement.
His thoughts on the sheer, sustained intellectual effort required for achievement should be mandatory reading. People instinctively recognize excellence which explains why "rap", "performance art" and cartoons are not held in the same esteem as a Bach cantata, an Ibsen play or WAR & PEACE. They do not require the skill, study or hours of practice associated with greatness. He ends on a disquieting note with the observation that human achievement is declining. This is a must read for all interested in our species and its possibilities.
This work is an effort to survey the whole of human achievement from 800 B.C. to 1950 A.D. In it 4002 outstanding individuals are selected through surveying the encylopedias, biographical dictionaries and other Literature in the respective fields. Murray attempts to compile a collective resume of those chosen of the chosen, who have made lasting and memorable contributions to the sciences and arts. Behind this is the conception that these are the true heroes of Mankind, the single individuals who as Buckminster Fuller used to say, do more significant work for the masses of mankind than they taken together can do for themselves.
This project involved a prodigious amount of research, and is without question a worthwhjle and even noble undertaking. But it despite the disclaimers skewed in its own way, and lacking in the texture and feeling of the very kind of thing it admires most i.e. very great creative work.
Nonetheless it contains a wealth of information, and perhaps more importantly interesting thought about the whole question of cultural and scientific creativity.
The categories of creativity and accomplishment he chooses in themselves leave something to be desired. They 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, Western Literature.
It is quite easy to accept Murray's exclusion of great General and Warriors as principal creators of Mankind, although there certainly is an argument on the other side. But consider what he is left out. He apologizes for leaving out Commerce and Law. But he also leaves out Politics. I think most of us feel that there are a few political leaders, say Lincoln or Pericles or Churchill who deserve to be cited as among those having made major human accomplishments. Consider another omitted category, one most influential to the great mass of mankind, Religion. There are no prophets of Israel on his list, nor is there Jesus or Buddha . There is another kind of fault. With all due respect it does not seem to me that Chinese philosophy should have the same number of distinguished people as Western philosophy, any more than Japanese or Arabic Literature should have the same number of great creators as Western Literature. The truth (ethnocentric , or not) is that Western Literature has many more creators at the highest levels of complexity and beauty than do these other literatures. It is to me extremely odd that Murray has no place on his list for the single religious and literary work that has had greatest influence on Mankind, the Bible.
Murray also deliberately excludes the creative world from which he himself comes, social sciences, and scholarship. In other words it seems to me that Murray would have been fairer had he been a bit more modest, and made it clear that his survey of human accomplishment is confined to certain areas only, and thus partial and limited.
Despite this Murray has done in the areas he has studied a very credible job. He shows how in almost every area of creation there are two or three figures who stand far above the rest in the opinion of Mankind. In Western music it is Mozart and Beethoven with Bach close beside. In Western Art history Michelangelo looms above all but with Picasso , Raphael beside . Behind them are Leonardo and Titian. In Western Literature it is Shakespeare who Murray taking a page perhaps out of Harold Bloom , sees as the outstanding creator in all categories. Shakespeare in Literature is followed by Goethe and Dante. And here I would say even this small sampling shows that a problem Murray tries very hard to deal with, a problem of taking `quantity'( of references and mentions)for ` quality' is not easily soluble. My own taste tells me that Tolstoy leaves in sheer creative power and complexity Goethe far behind, and that Picasso has no place being in the same list with Michelangelo and Leonardo. Yet I agree with Murray's major point that in the great majority of cases there is a clear human consensus . If Einstein and Newton stand on the top of the Physics list towering above all others this certainly makes sense to us. So too I suppose do Darwin and Aristotle at the top of the Biology list.
Murray takes a yeoman- like job in compiling the lists of great and outstanding creators and analyzing those lists. The book has a tremendous richness in this. It talks about questions such as why there are women are so underrepresented on the lists, why dead white males so overrepresented, why Europeans are too so overrepresented, why Ashkenasi Jews are at a time so over- represented. It talks about the acceleration in creative accomplishment especially in scientific areas as we approach the present. And in his introduction Murray explains why he has stopped at 1950, this partly because it takes time to weed those who will stay out, and partly because of his doubts about the value of the artistic and literary contributions of the latter part of the twentieth century.
But I think that Murray's major point and the heart of his contribution is in again reaffirming the idea that there are great individuals, that they do create in miraculous and what may seem to us, unbelievable ways and that all of us should be in their debt.
In illustrating this point so well, Murray suggests that the human enterprise has a dimension of heroism in creative work that should give us all consolation, inspiration and hope.
I have touched upon only a few of the themes that Murray considers in this tremendously interesting and thought- provoking work.
All concerned with the human creative enterprise should have this volume in their library.
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.
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.