Human Accomplishment

[Amazon Link]

I've been a Charles Murray fan since I read his In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government more than a few years back. But somehow I skipped over this one (from 2003), so I decided to fill in that particular gap.

Murray's goal here is a little audacious: a study of human progress and excellence in the arts and sciences throughout history. He travels up and down the historical timeline, and throughout the entire world. He locates the significant individuals, discoveries, and ideas in a large number of fields, and describes how they were distributed not only in time and space, but also how things broke out in terms of sex, race, and ethnicity. In short, it's a real tour de force.

Murray's results won't cheer dogmatic feminists, cultural relativists, or anti-Semites. Historically, no other area can hold a candle, achievement-wise, to Western Europe. (And not all parts of Western Europe: northern Italy, France, and southeast England dominate.) Similarly, Jews are over-represented, despite experiencing simultaneous appalling bigotry. And (sorry, ladies) the highest levels of excellence are pretty much male-dominated.

For us America lovers: Murray notes that we're not really all that special either. Sorry.

Murray spends almost as much time describing his methodology as explicating his results. He painstakingly describes his efforts to avoid any sort of chauvinism. (Which, by the way, makes the Publisher's Weekly kneejerk review on the Amazon page look deliberately obtuse: la, la, la, I can't hear you!)

Even the little side trips are interesting. Example: Early in the book, Murray spends some time discussing the "Antikythera Mechanism", a sophisticated calculation device dated sometime between 150 and 100 BC; its design demonstrates a previously unsuspected sophistication in both astronomy and mechanical engineering for that era. Murray uses this (and other examples) to point out that there are large unknown areas and mysteries in the history of accomplishment.

Soberingly, Murray finishes up with by investigating whether achievement may be in a long-term historical decline. He answers with a firm "maybe."

Last Modified 2012-09-27 11:55 AM EDT