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Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 [Hardcover]

Charles Murray
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 9 2003

A panoramic survey of human excellence.

"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 rarely have 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, humbling, and fascinating, Human Accomplishment is a brilliant 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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From Publishers Weekly

Co-author with the late Richard Herrnstein of the neo-racialist book The Bell Curve, Murray returns with a mammoth solo investigation that is less likely to spur controversy than provoke a simple "so what?" The book attempts to demonstrate, through the use of basic statistical methods such as regression analysis, that Europeans have overwhelmingly dominated accomplishment in the arts and sciences since about 1400. To this end, he has assembled a laundry list of people and events from various reference texts, and generated numerous graphs and rankings of genius figures: is Beethoven "more important" than Bach? Leonardo Da Vinci than Michelangelo? A major problem with this approach-beyond equating "importance" with the number of times an artist or work is referenced in texts-is that the reference texts used as data sources do not themselves seem free of cultural bias or chauvinism: without asking "important to whom," the Western-centric data are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Another problem is that other, less affluent cultures may have had many plundered or lost works, or may not have a tradition of naming writers and other luminaries-or keeping track of and promoting their works through secondary material. Further, plenty of attention is lavished on forms such as painting but comparatively little to architecture or to non-Western forms of music. The book's cursory treatment of Africa (outside of Egypt) also leaves more to be desired. Murray claims to have corrected for these factors, and finds that Western culture still dominates "accomplishment" either way. The chapters describing achievement at the book's beginning are, at many points, well-written and informative, but they end up clouded with the latter part of the book's numerical hubris and grand pronouncements.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

Achievements that require mental and spiritual effort are the highest forms of human endeavor, Murray says. He has scanned the most reputable biographical dictionaries and histories of the arts, philosophy, and sciences to find who and what, during 800 B.C.-1950, are mentioned in them. He came up with 4,139 persons and a list of events and ponders 20 persons in each of nine scientific, three philosophic, and nine artistic fields who were most extensively covered in the resources. More than 80 percent are "dead white males," and Murray carefully examines why. The greatest achievements of India, China, Japan, and Islam occurred well before the West took off during the Renaissance, and each of those cultures valued duty, family, and consensus, whereas the West prefers individualism, the sine qua non of scientific debate and discovery. Further, the scientific method was a set of Western "meta-inventions" (Murray's term) that arose, fortunately, simultaneously with the ratification of Thomism, with its dual emphasis on faith and reason, by the most important cultural force in the West, the Roman Catholic Church. Of overarching importance to great achievements in any culture, Murray argues, are the sense that life has purpose and belief in ideals of beauty, truth, and goodness. This book probably won't get Murray in as much hot water as The Bell Curve (1994) did. Then again, with its speculations that the rate of great achievements has slowed since 1800 and that the arts are in a very bad way, maybe it will. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Outstanding Thesis Feb. 7 2004
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
Read it and weep, social "scientists." This is another terrific text by Murray that thoughtfully and systematically supports one undeniable fact: Virtually every significant advance in civilization and technology is the product of those awful, mostly dead, European white guys. Along with "The Bell Curve," these texts beautifully refute those who continue to promote failed policies such as "affirmative action" and "diversity." Thanks to Murray and others, we have a record of what actually happened, regardless of the revisionists, the likes of Jesse Jackson, and university leftists.
Read it. Study it. Pass it along to your kids.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Charles Murray's Super Human Accomplishment Oct. 21 2003
Format:Hardcover
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Take a breath Dec 16 2003
Format:Hardcover
The other day Charles Murray said "Good morning." His Pavlovian critics typed for a month.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow. Oct. 23 2003
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
What an excellent book. Charles Murray is a wonderfully clear and gripping writer, regardless of whether he is giving a brief overview of human advancement from 800 B.C. to the modern age or explaining the more tedious aspects of his method for sifting through the histories to find the essential artistic and scientific elite.
While the overwhelming majority of these are men, he takes feminist concerns seriously and goes to great lengths to present both social and biological explanations for the underrepresentation of women. He also discusses the acheivements of other cultures with fair-mindedness, pointing out where, when and in what way other civlizations surpassed our own while unflinchingly exploring the reasons behind the overwhelming dominance of Westerners in the arts and sciences from 1400 on. To accuse him, as some will, of chauvinism and ethnocentricism is grossly unfair, as any open-minded person who reads this book must concede.
Truly, this is an excellent and important work which lives up to its incredible ambition. Buy it now.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
Murray (American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C.) offers a detailed survey of human excellence, from the time of Homer to the mid-20th century. He examines who these contributors were; which are most significant and why; how human accomplishment has been distributed and has shifted across the centuries, around the world, within Europe and the U.S.; what characterizes the great accomplishments; the roles of basic economic, political, and demographic factors; to what extent streams of accomplishment are self-reinforcing; what initiatives such streams; and prospects for future human accomplishments.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Failure Jan. 28 2004
Format:Hardcover
This is an interesting attempt to document the historical trajectory of human creativity/accomplishment. Murray's reasonable approach is to use existing reference works to catalogue significant creative persons and accomplishments in the arts and sciences. In several fields, Murray selected a set of hopefully comprehensive sources and then identifies individuals mentioned in a majority of these works. Murray then derives measures of creative accomplishments, their rates over time, and their association with specific historical periods or cultures.
The success of Murray's attempt can be judged on three grounds; methodological, validity of conclusions, and novelty of valid conclusions. The first two criteria are obvious but it is the novelty of predictions that is the most important. The production of novel, unexpected and counterintuitive valid claims is the best measure of a new theory or approach.
If there is something wrong with Murray's datasets/lists, then the whole enterprise is suspect. Murray finds a high level of correlation among his sources. This is reassuring but doesn't exclude shared, systemic biases among his sources. Inspecting several lists discloses problems. In the biology list and the medicine list, there is substantial under-reporting of significant figures. The Biology list is biased also towards genetics, physiology, biochemistry, and early cell biology. While some evolutionary biologists are mentioned, there is little attention to many traditional areas of biology and newer areas such as Ecology. I suspect the same problem occurs with the lists for math and technology. Murray's list for Western philosophy includes several theologians but none after 1850, a significant omission.
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Most recent customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars quick ? for "Neglects Cambodians!"
This made me very curious to learn more about that Cambodian survey of human accomplishment from 1100AD. Read more
Published on June 5 2004 by REinDC
5.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly unsurprising
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... Read more
Published on March 17 2004 by Charles Miller
1.0 out of 5 stars Neglects Cambodians!
Around 1100 AD, a Cambodian nobleman sat down in his study at Angkor Wat and decided to write a survey of human accomplishment. Read more
Published on March 16 2004 by Marion Bradley
5.0 out of 5 stars It's a joy to see what humans can accomplish
This is a great book to poke around in. Of the Indians Murray cites, I'd only read Kautilya.
Why do musicians rank Wagner's dull crap so high? Read more
Published on March 1 2004 by bruce purcell
3.0 out of 5 stars hate of religion caused our progress
the writings of nietzsche attribute human achievement to the breaking-away from societal constraints BY "uebermensch" - supermen. Read more
Published on Feb. 19 2004
2.0 out of 5 stars Strange book!
Charles Murray wrote a brilliant book called "Losing Ground," and co-authored a highly controversial book, "The Bell Curve. Read more
Published on Feb. 12 2004 by Geoff Puterbaugh
4.0 out of 5 stars Valid Attempt
Charles Murray is a controversy writer, ever since his "Bell Curve" it has been obvious that he poses convictions (or maybe prejudices) that moves him. Read more
Published on Jan. 27 2004 by Sergio A. Salazar Lozano
1.0 out of 5 stars Flawed attempted to measure accomplishment
Charles Murray's book Human Accomplishment was a disappointment. I saw Charles Murray speak on c-span promoting this book and was interested. Read more
Published on Jan. 24 2004 by "cjkhum"
3.0 out of 5 stars Doctoral Dissertation That Needs Revision
If you have done little reading or thinking about human excellence in arts and sciences, this would be a good introductory book to get a sense of the outlines and a perspective on... Read more
Published on Jan. 17 2004 by Steve Booth-Butterfield
1.0 out of 5 stars Poppycock!
It's easy to dismiss this kind of book as another racist attack; and coming from Charles Murray, such a charge might be considered appropriate. Read more
Published on Jan. 11 2004 by Mark M. Newdick
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