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.