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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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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. 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...
Published on Feb. 19 2004


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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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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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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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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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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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1.0 out of 5 stars Flawed attempted to measure accomplishment, Jan. 24 2004
By 
"cjkhum" (Carlotta, CA 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)
Charles Murray's book Human Accomplishment was a disappointment. I saw Charles Murray speak on c-span promoting this book and was interested. After reading the book I feel that it fell short. The book had several major flaws that I felt made the book unable to fulfill its purpose. The main purpose of the book is to show human accomplishment of humans throughout time. Charles Murray tries to measure accomplishment in both the arts and sciences. The sciences are measurable to a point but I thought there were major flaws in measuring achievement in the arts. The book is also somewhat technical and the appendix explaining statistics could have been written much better.
One of the main problems in the book is the way in which Charles Murray goes about measuring accomplishment. He goes to histories of arts and sciences and looks at how many people where mentioned in each of the histories and looks at how much space was given to each person or accomplishment. Each history is given equal weight but giving equal weight to each of the histories would skew the results since the Lotka curve (Murray explains the Lotka curve in the book) shows that a few of the histories should be much better then the rest and therefore be given much more weight in the evaluation process.
Another problem with the book is the assumption that experts can objectively evaluate which art is better then others. Which art is considered better than others is a subjective choice especially when looking at art of different eras. What the experts consider good or bad has to do with their training and personal preference not on some objective standard that doesn't exist.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Doctoral Dissertation That Needs Revision, Jan. 17 2004
By 
Steve Booth-Butterfield (Morgantown, WV 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)
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 this quality. If, however, you've read or thought about individual human achievement in the arts and sciences, you would be better served reading books that are more focused (for example, Harold Bloom's 1994 book, The Western Canon, for literature) in specific areas.
Charles Murray attempts to move the discussion on excellence beyond mere listification (who is number one) to an understanding of how these geniuses and their works arise. He creates a strong quantitative scheme for generating the people and their achievements. Most interesting, he observes irregular bursts of great talent across time and geography, a pattern that invites closer examination, but then falls apart trying to understand why these varying bursts occur. If you can get past the red herring of multicultural oversensitivity and dead white European males, it is intriguing to realize that great human accomplish does vary over time and place. Why? This book fails badly at answering this question, offering essentially a nice quotation of "carving for the eye of God" as explanation after stumbling through inferior regression analysis (perhaps something like structural equation modeling will occur to someone).
Mr. Murray has a fabulous data set that begs for better analysis. I hope he makes it available to other scholars. As for understanding human genius and what gives rise to it, the scholarly works of Dean Simonton are a better source although perhaps not as accessible to the common reader.
What causes great human achievement? This is not simply an interesting intellectual question, but rather one of great practical importance.
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1.0 out of 5 stars Poppycock!, Jan. 11 2004
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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)
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. As with his previous book, "The Bell Curve", he has taken an everyday observation, called it an apparent fact, and then expounded a full blown thesis out of it.

The problem is he is not altogether incorrect, though how he states it is totally bogus. For instance, it is true to say that the political, economic, social and cultural ideas of the "West" dominate the world ... and where they don't, they are sought after and/ or emulated. But there is more to this than the simple observable facts.

It is important to start with a clear definition of culture, and to keep focused on it, because much has been written (especially in these "politically correct" days) of "multi-culturalism" ... a particularly onerous term that attempts to force us to accept what doesn't exist. One's culture is the product of the environment (customs, ideas, values, etc.) that one is raised to be a part of.

But a culture has to be dynamic, and in a continual state of change, if it is to survive -- but this dynamism is an evolving force and cannot be coerced to progress. But some of us believe that "multi-culturalism" is a way of forcing us to accept (nay, "embrace") the apparently unacceptable before society (as a whole) is ready to embrace it. The multi-culturalists also fail to accept that there are some things we will never embrace -- female circumcision, for example. There's nothing I "need to understand" about such barbarities and even thinking about them beyond condemnation is an intellectual cul de sac.

But Charles Murray has entered the fray by trying to prove "scientifically" what cannot be scientifically measured -- and nor should it, for today's world "cultures" owe their contemporary climax more to the whims of chaos than a preordained progression.

That the cultural development of Western Europe evolved out of Christianity is indisputable -- but if "Christianity" alone was the catalyst, then Egyptian Copts would be the bedrock of Civilization. But this is clearly not the case ... no, the influence of the likes of Martin Luther was the true catalyst, with unpredictable and staggering results: he dared to challenge established (and corrupt) authority, thus opening the door to the Period of Enlightenment. One could argue that without Martin Luther, Western Europe might still be in the Dark Ages, though that would miss the point.

But Protestantism, given birth to by Martin Luther, itself led to culturally restricting extremes ... the Puritans (and here I speak of the English version, replete with Cromwell and his draconian Parliament) tried to retard progress. Then the whole process was reversed with the very Catholic James II, which culminated in the "Glorious Revolution" (1688 - which crushed the Catholic backlash to Protestantism once and for all). None of this was predictable and far from inevitable -- yet the results were profound.

Once the power of the state had been crushed, and the Dutch influence (William & Mary succeeded James II) established, trade and commerce became the primary driver -- it is in this age where we see insurance (Lloyds - 1696) start to develop. It was this factor (insurance) which reduced the highly risky business of international trade to an acceptable level ... and this led to the wealth and dominance of Western Europe.

All this led to the economic infrastructure that created the possibility of personal wealth, the principles of "property" ownership, capitalism in its crudest form, legal contracts, and the political and social order to promote them -- which were (and remain) the bulwarks by which western civilization (policed and enforced by the legal system) is centered.

African, Asian and South American cultures stopped growing because they emphasized the collective nature of society, pouring scorn on individual effort. As a result, their cultures failed their people -- advancements were only permitted if all could benefit and/ or they did not threaten the power base of the few.

Western culture, as an observable fact, encourages and rewards individual effort. It is inconceivable that a James Watt would have come out of an African culture; or that a Henry Bessemer would come out of a South American culture. The fact that the Chinese invented (or, more likely, stumbled upon) gunpowder is immaterial ... they used it for fireworks and crude weapons, not blasting ore out of the ground.

"Turnip" Townsend or a Jethro Tull revolutionized western agriculture by providing winter food for livestock (Townsend) and the principles of crop rotation (Tull) in the early 18th century. By such revolutionary changes, the people could be fed with cheap food. But it was personal gain that drove them to implement their ideas ... and doubtless hundreds of others who tried and failed, leaving history to remember only Townsend and Tull.

So although Charles Murray has a point, he is not blind to the point that his "facts" can be distorted to become a political agenda, which was doubtless his intent. As such, it's bogus science.

The triumph of Western Civilization is that it is becoming a World Culture ... slowly, but surely.
The arts, of course, are only a reflection of the current cultural and social state of things ... they are not material as a "driver". It is therefore not surprising that Charles Murray's examination of this aspect of our culture was abandoned.

In conclusion, to attribute our eminent and evident success to "genes" ("Bell Curve") or because we're just "better" ("Human Accomplishment"), is spectacularly crude and repelling. Our success is due to the intellectual discovery that there was more to be gained by encouraging the radical idea than suppressing it -- and that discovery became self perpetuating. That simple premise, established long ago, brought us here ... and we stumbled into it by trial and error, not by design.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Documenting the Obvious, Jan. 7 2004
By 
Donald B. Siano (Westfield, NJ 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)
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?
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1.0 out of 5 stars A Prize Horse's Ass Tries to Quantify the Unquantafiable., Dec 22 2003
By 
Bradley G. Heck "Brad Heck" (Ceredo, West Virginia 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)
Rating human achievement by the amount of of space it takes up in reference books is a *sublimely* asinine endevor and one *hell* of a shuck-and-jive job on whoever funded this farago (Melon-Sciaffes? Olin? He had to have taken more than the Free Enterprise Institute to the cleaners on this one; maybe a General MacArthur grant?). It's probably nice work if you can get it (or have poor schlubs of graduate assistants or junior fellows or whatever gauge "text density" that you can plug into a carefully skewed mathematical model).
As a historian, I'm generally damned suspicious of the purported "social sciences" as such, *especially* since they lend themselves so easily to advancing the political prejudices of their "researchers." I am also profoundly unimpressed by the fetishization of quantification. This bollocks is like flinging a pile of exams down a staircase and grading them according to how high they landed, or grading term papers by weighing them.
There is no here here. Don't bother. The publishers are going to lose a mint from the printing and remaindering, however, and that makes me smile.
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