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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Outstanding Thesis
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...
Published on Feb. 7 2004

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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Failure
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...
Published on Jan. 28 2004 by R. Albin


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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Outstanding Thesis, Feb. 7 2004
By A Customer
This review is from: Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (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
This review is from: Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (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. 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.
Aristotle.
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.
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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
By 
J. Stallings - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (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
This review is from: Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (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
5.0 out of 5 stars Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts, April 15 2004
By 
B. Viberg "Alex Rodriguez" (New York, NY United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (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
By 
R. Albin (Ann Arbor, Michigan United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (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. Murray attempts cross-cultural comparisons with separate lists for Western, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese literature. The number of significant figures in Chinese literature is 1/10 of those on the Western literature list (about 600 to 60). An obvious feature of the comprehensive Western list is the large number of minor figures included. I find it hard to believe that 2000 years of Chinese culture haven't produced a substantial number of poets and other writers equivalent to these minor figures. Murray has been somewhat unfair to non-Western cultures in other ways. He has a list for Western music but not non-Western music. Murray has no list for Islamic philosophy, arguing that essentially all Islamic philosophy is derivative commentaries on Greek philosophers. Perhaps correct, but the Western philosophy list includes a number of theologians. To be fair, Islamic theologians should have a list. These problems with his basic datasets undermine confidence in his results.
Many of Murray's conclusions are valid but obvious. Concluding that most accomplishments are relatively recent is one example. Another is the dominance of recent Western civilization in producing human accomplishments. Some of Murray's conclusions regarding the genesis of accomplishments fall into this category of valid but obvious. He concludes that cosmopolitan cities and freer societies foster creativity. You don't need to count column inches in encyclopedias to know this. A theory or method that labors to produce obvious results is not likely to be powerful.
What about novel claims? Murray makes one interesting and unexpected claim; that the rate of significant accomplishments has been declining since about 1850. This is surprising in view of the huge advances in science and technology in the past century and a half. This claim is based on adjusting achievements, measured primarily as significant figures, for population size. When Murray makes this adjustment, which he correctly restricts to Western societies, he notes a decline in the rate of accomplishment. This is a dubious claim. As described above, the science and technology lists underestimate significant figures and most of these uncounted figures occur after 1850. Murray's lists fail completely to capture the diversification of creative activities that occurs after 1850. For example, the important effort to recover and understand the human past is largely a phenomenon of the past 150 years. Important scientific fields such as cosmology, climatology, ecology, population genetics, epidemiology, and materials science are largely 20th century products. Economics as a scientific discipline, most of the social sciences, and psychology begin in the second half of the 19th century.
Another problem is that rate is a ratio and changes in any ratio can reflect changes in the numerator, the denominator, or a combination of both. Before 1850, we are dealing with preindustrial societies, after 1850, industrialization accelerates all over Western Europe and North America. Is it correct to compare relatively simple preindustrial societies with the much more differentiated world that results from industrialization? A simpler measure like cumulative achievements is probably more robust. Murray makes an unsuccessful effort to deal with the changing nature of society. He introduces a correction for 'de facto' population, an estimate of individuals who could have contributed in a significant way. His 'de facto' measure, however, doesn't take into account the accumulation of knowledge in the sciences and the increasing need for education in order to make substantial contributions. The 'de facto' measure leads to a marked over-estimation of the actual population that can make significant contributions to science and technology.
Murray has no analysis of the past 50 years; he simply assumes that trends from 1850 to 1950 continue over the last 50 years. This is methodologically dubious and very likely to be wrong. The past 50 years has been a hyper-Golden Age for science and technology development. This remarkable recent efflorescence of science and technology has occurred in the context of modest total population increases in the Western world. It is associated with significant increases in the availability of higher education but the increase in scientific and technological accomplishment greatly outstrips the increase in total population, the increase in literate population, and the increase in university educated population by huge factors. This is not the picture of decline, it is the picture of a tremendously high recent rate of achievement.
Murray's analysis is largely sterile. His valid conclusions are largely conventional and uninteresting, and his interesting conclusions are invalid. The greatest effect of this book may be to stimulate scholars to do a better job on this interesting topic.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly unsurprising, March 17 2004
By 
Charles Miller (San Jose, CA USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (Hardcover)
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.
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5.0 out of 5 stars It's a joy to see what humans can accomplish, March 1 2004
By 
bruce purcell (peoria, il United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (Hardcover)
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?
Was the Catholic 'organum' method of singing prayers a joke on Aristotle's book on logic, or (massive anachronism, but Greeks sang too) the other way around?

Poke, poke.
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3.0 out of 5 stars hate of religion caused our progress, Feb. 19 2004
By A Customer
This review is from: Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (Hardcover)
the writings of nietzsche attribute human achievement to the breaking-away from societal constraints BY "uebermensch" - supermen. in nietzsche's view, achievement is due to those who can defy and innovate on what society expects. compare galileo to st augustine, for example. if galileo was not skeptical of the church's doctrines, we'd probably still not have spacecraft. i believe the basic claim he is making, viz., that the west has achieved the most, culturally, is NOT because it has protestant christianity (think of michelangelo and leonardo da vinci and plato!) - rather, i believe it is because christianity was so repulsive to intelligent persons that they strove to __defeat__ it by examining nature. now that christianity is defeated, in other words, now that secularism, capitalism, and free speech, are the moral norms, naturally, the scientists no longer have a serious real enemy, so they have slackened off.
furthermore, i believe that there are too many scientists now; in the nineteenth century, only an elite of rich "gentlemen" could afford to study science. now everyone does. so there are more monkeys looking at the same data and writing the same stuff.
hence less progress and more nitpicking about details of standard
ideas. if one reads thomas kuhn's work - the structure of scientific revolutions - one sees that science progresses in bursts where a genius steps forward to make a change. but what, actually, is left for science to do? cure aids? cure cancer? get to mars? get close-to-lightspeed space travel? and what else? not much. i conclude that science is slowing down because it's done its job.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Valid Attempt, Jan. 27 2004
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Sergio A. Salazar Lozano (Tampico, Tamaulipas Mexico) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 (Hardcover)
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. Although I approach this book with skepticism, and may not be in total agreement with his conclusions, I have to admit he has done a valid attempt to measure Human Accomplishments (not an easy task, and certainly an elusive one). It's logical that some relativity has to be involved in such a measure, anyone trying to do so will inevitably have to define a method, which in turn will definitely have to use subjective or indirect indicators. So, even if I'm not 100% convinced by his methods or in agreement with all his conclusions, I have to admit he has done a tremendous effort and a great job, Charles Murray deserves credit for this, and for making an otherwise coffe table book an excellent read.
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