Sunday, November 23, 2003

Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment
reviewed by William S. Kowinski

A longer version of the review which appears here, in the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Book Review, November 23, 2003.

Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950
By Charles Murray

A TV commercial some years ago began with a perky young woman chirping, "Want to see the best movies? Look for the longest lines!" There's something to be said for ranking achievement based on quantity of expert comment over time, which more or less is what Charles Murray did to statistically evaluate achievers in the arts and sciences for the 2800 years preceding 1950 for this book. After some 700 pages of text and appendices, for me that something turns out to be: so what?

Or perhaps the pertinent question is: who cares? Some people evidently do. Murray is the co-author of "The Bell Curve," and judging from Internet buzz this book is a long awaited cultural counterpart, especially for its conclusions: white European males achieved more of importance in this period than anyone else, but in both art and science great achievements have declined significantly since at least the early 20th century, when the western tradition weakened.

No doubt this book will be praised for proving what the appraisers already believe, but it seems to me that the conclusions are foregone, determined by Murray's assumptions, choices and sources.

Though his announced goal is to produce a resume of the best of the human species by looking at worldwide achievement, the actual territory he covers is more limited. In literature he considers China, India, Japan, the West and the Arab world; in philosophy, China, India and the West; China, Japan and the West in visual art (painting and sometimes sculpture but not architecture); music only in the West. For some of these choices he gives reasons, for others he doesn't.

There are caveats within categories as well--for instance, literature in Arabic qualifies, but not Persian (so no Rumi.) Murray neutralizes national chauvinism in literature by not considering sources written in the same language as the writer being evaluated, which also increases the likelihood that most of this literature is judged only in translation.

Murray's rankings of the significant achievers in the arts and philosophy are derived from the amount of ink each gets in a selection of reference books on the subject. For the sciences, he uses his encyclopedic sources to determine significant "firsts" (discoveries, inventions, theories) in astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth sciences, physics, mathematics, medicine and technology, wherever they occurred.

The accompanying blizzard of charts, graphs and curves may blind the reader to what's missing. Murray only counts names, so the nameless achievers of the distant past, or the unknowns overlooked by industrialized world experts, as well as the anonymous achievements integral to the customs and worldview of particular cultures, aren't included.

While Murray acknowledges that many people didn't get the chance to achieve because they were the wrong gender, race or class, he quite logically points out that he can't count what doesn't exist, and anyway "those barriers are not the subject of this book."

Murray's sources also turn out to be quite limited, both in number and type. He uses as many as nine sources (western art, western literature) and as few as four (for technology.) (He used 17 sources for music, but mostly to see if he could break the tie at the top between Beethoven and Mozart.) Japan's literature is ranked from seven sources, three by the same author. Giants in medicine are discerned from five sources, two by the same author. Except for medicine and math, he uses 21 general sources for the hard sciences, many with "timetable," "milestones," "encyclopedia' and "dictionary" in the title.

As a whole his sources appear to be the kind of broad surveys it's safe to use for your high school term paper. He explicitly excludes sources on the arts he deems "alternative." So it's a nearly tautological piece of cake to conclude that relatively advantaged white males were the predominant achievers when and where such achievements were not possible for others, and that in selected categories that reflect a European way of dividing knowledge, Europeans predominate. Similarly, it's pretty easy to support your belief in a "heroic view of mankind" if you exclude achievements you can't attribute to a named hero. This has the added benefit of skewing your statistics towards the cultures you and your sources know best. It's hardly surprising then that most of the names here come from 19th century Europe.

What Murray doesn't deal with, and the sources he uses, pretty much guarantee his conclusions. If he didn't come up with these, he'd probably have to reexamine his data to see what went wrong. He often finds more meaning in the obvious than is warranted. He notes that achievement increases when places are wealthy, but that peace is not a precondition--though he quickly illustrates with one of his more devastating lists, that there never was much peace for very long in European history, so we don't know if peace would have fostered more and better achievements. He has already acknowledged that relative wealth and access to education meant that many people who weren't born the right gender, race or class never got a chance to achieve. But since you can't name potential great achievements that weren't achieved, these people literally don't count in his appraisal.

Still, people love lists, and so Murray's unsurprising pantheons are destined for the crawl under the cable news, and they'll have their fifteen seconds of intellectual sports discussion (What-Euripides but no Sophocles? No way!) But vaguely worthless is not necessarily harmless. Murray's major books ("The Bell Curve," " Losing Ground") were widely condemned on moral, political and technical grounds, and yet arguably influenced subsequent policy in such areas as welfare and affirmative action. The practical effect of this book might be in education, if gun-shy academics absorb Murray's lists as the definitive canon. In a larger sense, it turns human achievement into a political spitting contest, and these conclusions can be used to justify imposing the will of the higher achieving nations on the inferior.

Murray is battling what he sees as dominant trends: "intellectual rejection of the idea of progress" and modern technology, and above all, the Multiculturalism that "urges us to accept all cultures as equally praiseworthy...Embedded in this mindset is hostility to the idea that discriminating judgments are appropriate in assessing art and literature, or that hierarchies of values exist---hostility as well to the idea that objective truth exists."

As California's newly reigning political philosopher put it, where there's smoke, there's fire. The excesses of weightless postmodernists, indecipherable semioticists and the leaden commissars of over-politicized culture studies who insult the real achievements and the humanity of white male Europeans (among others) or scorn any notions of beauty, feeling, virtue and the good, have pretty much invited strong reaction; they're the cultural equivalents of Gray Davis. But on many counts for many readers, Murray is either tilting at windmills or distorting people and positions to project straw men he can profitably oppose, or both.

Another cultural conservative (but political liberal), critic Roger Shattuck suggests a middle way: "I would argue there are books everyone should read. And we should never stop discussing which ones those are." Shattuck mentions Mary Shelley and Frederick Douglass as authors who have recently moved onto this list. Neither is on Murray's.

My "so what" reaction is partly based on a bias: as a Euro-American white male as well as an earthling I'm proud of our achievements and chastened by our failures in this historical time, and I would be happy to learn more about achievements and cultures that establishment surveys have ignored. But what I find more intellectually intriguing as well as more pertinent to the future is synthesis of the worldview and achievements of pre-agricultural era humanity and indigenous cultures with the insights of unifying sciences since 1950. This little chunk of human time and place Murray deals with has been done to death and needs to be put into a more significant context. There's little here that modifies the standard view of the world from somewhat less inclusive 1950s textbooks.

This book has virtues--readability, good organization, some interesting vignettes and discussion--but paying good money for it is a gamble. For some readers, half a loaf will be more fun than none. But for others, the appropriate statistical formula might be that half-truths can be twice as pernicious as 100% lies.

Saturday, November 22, 2003

November 22, 1914

I suppose once you become aware of an historical date, you may be likely to notice other events that occur on that date. Nevertheless, it so happened that today, on the day I posted my 40th anniversary remembrance of JFK and his assassination (on my Blue Voice blog, eventually to be archived under November 22, 2003), I happened to read a book in which the central event happens on another November 22.

Even though it was in Berlin during World War I, what happened on this November 22 is quite different in many ways. It was an intensely private event, involving only one person. Its significance was not completely understood for a long time, even by that person. But the author of the book in question, Brian Swimme, considers it to be one of the most important dates in the twentieth century, perhaps in human history.

Swimme is writing not about geopolitics or culture, but cosmology, in The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos, first published in 1996. For Swimme, "cosmology is the story of the birth, development, and destiny of the universe, told with the aim of assisting humans in their task of identifying their roles within the great drama....Science is not the same as cosmology, even when a cosmology is deeply informed by science" which Swimme's is. Which is why that date is important. For what happened on November 22, 1914 happened in the study of Albert Einstein.

According to Swimme, this was the night that Einstein made the calculations that would result in his General Theory of Relativity, which changed how science viewed the universe at least as profoundly as Copernicus, Galileo or Newton. But, Swimme says, those calculations implied a picture of the universe Einstein himself did not accept, and so he essentially fudged part of his theory by adding what he called the cosmological constant. With it, the universe was essentially unchanging. But without it, his figures showed that the universe is expanding.

Eventually of course that became the standard view, though Swimme makes a convincing case that its meaning is still poorly understood. Swimme is a maverick among scientists, but he is a remarkable clear writer with a gift for visualizations and narrative. So this short book is a mind-opening journey that makes a particular case for Einstein's insight as leading to revelations of an "omnicentric universe" (where everywhere is the center and origin of the universe), in which creation and destruction happen everywhere at every moment, in the universe as "all-nourishing abyss."

Swimme helps you swim up this tough stream of consciousness with remarkable images, like imagining the universe as a loaf of bread baking in the oven, and you on a raisin in the bread, which is also the planet earth. I didn't understand all of this on first reading, but I got a lot. For instance, I felt a more profound sense of what an expanding universe really means (for it's not just that stars are rushing outward, but so is time and space itself.)

He actually starts off with riffs on consumerism and the overwhelming brainwashing effects of advertising (teens spend more time watching commercials than in their total time in high school) but with an intriguing and appropriate point: corporate advertising creates our common cosmology. It prejudices our minds in certain ways: what explanations we value and accept or can even understand. He contrasts this with the experiences of young people in traditional indigenous cultures and their initiation into a different kind of cosmology.

The connection is in reducing the universe to matter, which limits our ability to appreciate what Einstein and other physicists and scientists in other fields, as well as indigenous cultures, are telling us about our universe, and our place in it. We're stuck not just in a Newtonian mind-set, but a fig Newtonian one. A cosmology based on a picture of the universe based on new science, Swimme writes, would mean that "young people educated in the new cosmology will experience the Moon not as a frozen lump but as an event that trembles into existence each moment."

He brings it all back to Einstein: "this chunk of the Milky Way jotted down the dynamics of the Milky Way." (Where neither is a candy bar.) What links Einstein to the Arapaho is the understanding that everything in the universe is alive, including the universe itself, and we are all inextricably part of it, and of each other.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Notes on a couple of recent books I enjoyed...

The Pueblo Imagination: Landscape and Memory in the Photography of Lee Marmon
Beacon Press. 157 pages, $35.

Lee Marmon is a Laguna Pueblo Indian who has been taking photographs of Laguna with professional cameras since 1946. If you've seen the poster of the elderly Indian man wearing Converse All Stars (“White Man’s Moccasins”,the image on this book's cover), you've seen Marmon's work.

This collection of his work since 1946 would be worthwhile if it simply documented the ceremonies, buildings, landscapes, faces and figures-what had changed and what did not---over more than a half century. But this volume is so much more. These are dazzling, beautiful photographs, mostly in black and white. The stark magic of the Southwestern landscape was captured in the abstract paintings of artists like Georgia O'Keefe and Max Ernst. But black and white photos are inherently abstract, since they turn the world of color into shades and grains. Put a master photographer who knows his subject so intimately together with this landscape and you get one astonishing image after another.

Every page is a different experience. There are wonderful faces, dramatic landscapes, close-ups that let you feel the grain of old wood. There's a different feeling in every photo,and the feelings can be surprising, like the strange joy in "Girls at a clothesline," with white clothes flying against a wisp of cloud, yet in the foreground is a harsh and radiant edge of stone. Or the strange sinister appearance of black clad priests against the whitened adobe geometry.

There are a smaller number of color photos, just as accomplished and evocative. There's some prose by Marmon's daughter, writer Leslie Marmon Silko, as well as by writers Joy Harjo and Simon Ortiz. But it's the photographs that are important here. They draw you in, and your eyes and heart expand. If you know someone who loves the mystery and arid majesty of the Southwest, or relishes authentic and beautiful images of American Indian life, this book makes an elegant gift for Christmas or any other occasion. If that person is you, do yourself a favor. You won't have any trouble entering these images, and you can stay in them for a long time. The secrets are there.

Writing on Air
by David Rothenberg (Editor), Wandee J. Pryor (Editor)
MIT Press

I love looking at clouds. But I don't often get the chance to read about them. "The sun, too, is a burning cloud..." writes John P. O'Grady in his essay in this collection. The theme of air includes atmospheres of various kinds, breathing (and not being able to), flying through the air (and what flight has and hasn't meant versus human dreams about it), wind, song and sound carried by air...all kinds of neat stuff.

There are a few fairly well known bloomers in this florilegium but most of the writers are probably unfamiliar. There's verse by Lori Anderson, but no Laurie Anderson (though her "From the Air" riff would be perfect for this volume.) But mostly that only adds to the feeling of discovery. Unlike some anthologies, the selections don't seem like parts of something else; each is intriguing and usually satisfying. Just the right length to read easily one at a time and let them fill your sense of wonder with oxygen. It's playfully serious, thoughtful fun. This is a book that opens your mind and lets some fresh air in.

...and one I sort of enjoyed but didn't like...

Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid
edited by Robert J. Sternberg
Yale University Press 272 pages, $18

When you think about it, the topic of why smart people can be so stupid---or at least how they can---is a central motif in a whole lot of storytelling, from Greek tragedy through grand opera to slapstick comedy: from Oedipus to "The Blue Angel" and the Marx Brothers running a college. It is also a central problem addressed by various forms of psychology applied to people who are not mentally ill---neurotics, say, rather than schizophrenics. You might even say it's a major moral concern of many religions.

Literature's answers include hubris, obsession, weakness, social arrogance and people who love too much. Psychology talks variously about complexes (including one that takes its name from Oedipus), inflation, projection, displacement, even group and self-hypnosis. Religion posits sin, including the seven deadlies.

So what's remarkable about this new anthology is that virtually none of these things are even mentioned. It's emotionless in more than one sense of the word. For a book put together by a psychologist, it seems striking to me that Freud is referenced once, for a study on childhood development (though "Forrest Gump" gets four citations for an analysis extending through some 13 pages) and Jung not at all. But then, the kind of contemporary psychology that is used in some of these essays is not to my taste. It's mainly the reductive, mechanistic, classify this, apply that drug school.

Instead, the useful parts apply logical analysis in the old ordinary language philosophy way to the terms (although I'm sure the authors would prefer to call it deconstruction. Ordinary language philosophy no longer gets tenure). What do we mean by "smart people"? What do we mean by "stupid?" Do we mean smart people who do unintelligent things, or smart people who act foolishly? (Sometimes one, sometimes the other.)

There are some wonderful examples of smart people being stupid and/or foolish, especially applied to scientific howlers, like Jean Joseph Leverrier, a mid-19th century mathematician who dazzled the world by applying strict Newtonian physics to perturbations in the orbit of Uranus to correctly predict the existence of Neptune, and its precise location (although he got a little lucky with that.) Suffused with the fame he accrued, he then went on to apply the same kind of calculations to the wobbly orbit of Mercury to predict the existence and location closer to the sun of the planet Vulcan. Despite failing to find it for some 17 years, Leverrier never conceded error.

It took Einstein to explain Mercury's orbit with a new non-Newtonian theory of relativity. And of course, it took Gene Roddenberry to eventually discover the planet Vulcan in a completely different part of the universe, and impishly populated it with a race that stuck to logic and suppressed any idea that emotion---like pride, or a taste for the warm sun of fame--could influence them: a whole planet of smart beings who could be so stupid.

One answer to the title question that emerges is that smart people are often "domain-dependent," that is, mostly smart about one thing, and mostly stupid about others. This, along with the other explanations offered, don't explain very much. Even domain dependence is given a more sophisticated explanation by Jung's theories of types, and how the inferior functions work. The unconscious, the shadow, even the seven deadly sins, offer richer grounds for explanations or at least discussion than the mechanistic mumblings in this volume. By my lights then, a whole bunch of sometimes entertaining smart people have collaborated on an essentially stupid book.