Joel Eidsath writes "Imagine that you found yourself in a position to write a resume for the whole human species. It is a metaphor that Charles Murray uses several times in his book, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950." Murray not only collects such examples in this book, but attempts to explain why and how they emerge. Murray obviously courts controversy with this book; expect reactions similar to the ones drawn by The Bell Curve, which he co-authored. (Do 97% of the world's significant scientists come from the West? Can personal eminence be objectively measured? Is "accomplishment" really amenable to description by charts and graphs?) Read on for Eidsath's review.
For our species' resume, you probably would not list to put "Defeated Hitler" as one of humanity's accomplishments, because it sounds too much like 'Beat my Heroin Addiction.' You would want to include things like 'Painted the Roof of the Sistine Chapel' or 'Discovered General Relativity.' In other words, you would want to include examples of human excellence throughout the ages.
Not only has Murray set out to compile this resume, but he sought to do it for a reason that is at the same time both interesting and audacious: once you have compiled a list of the several thousand most important creators and discoverers of all time, you can stick it into a database. The idea is that with this database a person can spot trends in accomplishment; he can identify regions and cities where excellence has clustered; he can evaluate qualities of political systems that spur innovation and those that stifle it. Murray's book is a stunning profusion of graphs and plots that do much more to teach us about accomplishment that most narrative histories.
For this to work, however, Murray first had to tackle the problem of differing opinions on who exactly deserves a place in the database. Everybody's list would differ -- yours, mine, and Charles Murray's. There would be substantial similarities between our lists, to be sure; nobody is going to leave out Newton, Darwin, Goethe, Shakespeare, Confucius, or al-Mutanabbi. But when it comes to lesser achievements, the arguments would be endless. Does Hooke make it into the list of the top 20 physicists of all time, or does Pascal make it into the list of the top 10 mathematicians?
So what Murray has done is to split up accomplishment into a number of fields and tried to take a neutral measure of each person's respective 'eminence' in the field. He measures 'eminence' by taking a number of comprehensive sources on each field and counting the references to each person and how many paragraphs they get. The sources are from as many different languages as possible and Murray does a good job of avoiding the distorting effects of ethnocentrism. He uses sharp cutoff dates at 800 B.C. and 1950 A.D. to limit the data.
What Murray winds up with is a procedurally neutral measure of human accomplishment that is stable when new sources are added or taken away, and also has good face validity. In Medicine, for example, Pasteur is first with an index score of 100, Koch is third with 90 and Freud (for clinical descriptions of mental illnesses) is 18th with a score of 34.
The Lotka CurveMurray's other major work made a certain kind of statistical curve a household word, and Human Accomplishment prepares a second candidate for improving public statistical awareness: the Lotka Curve. In the mid-1920s, Alfred Lotka noticed an interesting pattern in scientific journals. About 60% of people publish only one article for a journal. The number of people publishing more that this falls off very fast with the number of articles. This makes up a Lotka curve and is almost L shaped.
It turns out that in just about every field of human accomplishment significant figures fall along a Lotka curve. In Western literature, Shakespeare is far out along the horizontal part of the curve, Goethe a bit less so, and a whole host of lesser figures make up the nearly vertical part of the data set.
Dead White Males
Despite using several data collection techniques that wind up exaggerating the influence of non-Western cultures, Murray's data shows a strong majority of Westerners among the significant figures of world history.
Fully 97% of significant figures in the sciences come from the West. The same figure is arrived at from looking only at significant events. Even America is dwarfed by European accomplishment in the sciences, hosting less than 20% of significant figures before 1950 compared to Europe's nearly 80%. Europe's dominance over America is even greater in the arts. And though Murray makes sure to calculate what is an upper limit for artistic accomplishment in non-Western parts of the world, the graph is substantially the same as that for the sciences.
One of the astonishing parts of Murray's data is how it demonstrates the significant effects of legal equality. Jewish achievement after 1850 skyrocketed due to their newfound position before the law. Between 1910 and 1950, Jewish achievement tripled despite even the Third Reich and the Holocaust.
The graph of the achievement of woman displays a different pattern, despite their having gained substantial legal equality in the past century. Though there are slight increases in the numbers, women only represent a few percent of Murray's significant figures after 1900. Nor does the data available for the years beyond 1950 bear out any substantial increase in women's achievement during the second half of the twentieth century. Murray provides several possible explanations. Despite legal equality, women did not gain the same degree of immediate social equality that other groups did. Moreover, the substantially greater demands of parenthood upon women make achievement harder.
The last section of Human Accomplishment is somewhat surprising. When adjusted for population, Murray's numbers show a decline in accomplishment after 1800. When numbers are used that take not only total population in account, but also urban population and educated population, the decline has brought us down to nearly pre-Renaissance levels. For example, we have 65 playwrights alive today for every one in Elizabethan England. Yet do we have dozens of Shakespeares? The picture is even more stark when the 12,000 members of the screen Writers Guild are taken into account.
As a percentage, the number of significant figures in the sciences compared to the total population has dropped a great deal; this is despite a far greater percentage of working scientists and far more science and technical journals being published.
Murray goes through the data and shows why he believes that the decline is real and is not explicable by any procedural artifacts brought about by his methods. It is a somewhat disturbing conclusion to a great work.
You can purchase Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.