Cover image for Human accomplishment : the pursuit of excellence in the arts and sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950
Human accomplishment : the pursuit of excellence in the arts and sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950
Murray, Charles A.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperCollins, [2003]

Physical Description:
xx, 668 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library BF416.A1 M87 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



A sweeping cultural survey reminiscent of Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence.

"At irregular times and in scattered settings, human beings have achieved great things. Human Accomplishment is about those great things, falling in the domains known as the arts and sciences, and the people who did them.'

So begins Charles Murray's unique account of human excellence, from the age of Homer to our own time. Employing techniques that historians have developed over the last century but that have rarely been applied to books written for the general public, Murray compiles inventories of the people who have been essential to the stories of literature, music, art, philosophy, and the sciences--a total of 4,002 men and women from around the world, ranked according to their eminence.

The heart of Human Accomplishment is a series of enthralling descriptive chapters: on the giants in the arts and what sets them apart from the merely great; on the differences between great achievement in the arts and in the sciences; on the meta-inventions, 14 crucial leaps in human capacity to create great art and science; and on the patterns and trajectories of accomplishment across time and geography.

Straightforwardly and undogmatically, Charles Murray takes on some controversial questions. Why has accomplishment been so concentrated in Europe? Among men? Since 1400? He presents evidence that the rate of great accomplishment has been declining in the last century, asks what it means, and offers a rich framework for thinking about the conditions under which the human spirit has expressed itself most gloriously. Eye-opening and humbling, Human Accomplishment is a fascinating work that describes what humans at their best can achieve, provides tools for exploring its wellsprings, and celebrates the continuing common quest of humans everywhere to discover truths, create beauty, and apprehend the good.

Author Notes

Charles Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar in Culture and Freedom at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Achievements that require mental and spiritual effort are the highest forms of human endeavor, Murray says. He has scanned the most reputable biographical dictionaries and histories of the arts, philosophy, and sciences to find who and what, during 800 B.C.-1950, are mentioned in them. He came up with 4,139 persons and a list of events and ponders 20 persons in each of nine scientific, three philosophic, and nine artistic fields who were most extensively covered in the resources. More than 80 percent are dead white males, and Murray carefully examines why. The greatest achievements of India, China, Japan, and Islam occurred well before the West took off during the Renaissance, and each of those cultures valued duty, family, and consensus, whereas the West prefers individualism, the sine qua non of scientific debate and discovery. Further, the scientific method was a set of Western meta-inventions (Murray's term) that arose, fortunately, simultaneously with the ratification of Thomism, with its dual emphasis on faith and reason, by the most important cultural force in the West, the Roman Catholic Church. Of overarching importance to great achievements in any culture, Murray argues, are the sense that life has purpose and belief in ideals of beauty, truth, and goodness. This book probably won't get Murray in as much hot water as The Bell Curve (1994) did. Then again, with its speculations that the rate of great achievements has slowed since 1800 and that the arts are in a very bad way, maybe it will. --Ray Olson Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

Co-author with the late Richard Herrnstein of the neo-racialist book The Bell Curve, Murray returns with a mammoth solo investigation that is less likely to spur controversy than provoke a simple "so what?" The book attempts to demonstrate, through the use of basic statistical methods such as regression analysis, that Europeans have overwhelmingly dominated accomplishment in the arts and sciences since about 1400. To this end, he has assembled a laundry list of people and events from various reference texts, and generated numerous graphs and rankings of genius figures: is Beethoven "more important" than Bach? Leonardo Da Vinci than Michelangelo? A major problem with this approach-beyond equating "importance" with the number of times an artist or work is referenced in texts-is that the reference texts used as data sources do not themselves seem free of cultural bias or chauvinism: without asking "important to whom," the Western-centric data are a self-fulfilling prophecy. Another problem is that other, less affluent cultures may have had many plundered or lost works, or may not have a tradition of naming writers and other luminaries-or keeping track of and promoting their works through secondary material. Further, plenty of attention is lavished on forms such as painting but comparatively little to architecture or to non-Western forms of music. The book's cursory treatment of Africa (outside of Egypt) also leaves more to be desired. Murray claims to have corrected for these factors, and finds that Western culture still dominates "accomplishment" either way. The chapters describing achievement at the book's beginning are, at many points, well-written and informative, but they end up clouded with the latter part of the book's numerical hubris and grand pronouncements. (Oct. 21) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The coauthor of The Bell Curve considers individuals in history (4,139, to be exact) who have made a difference in art and science. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Human Accomplishment The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 Chapter One A Sense of Time Before human accomplishment could begin, we had first of all to become human. It took a long time. Bipedality came first, somewhere in the vicinity of five million years ago. After bipedality, about two and a half million years passed before the animal that walked on two legs learned to make crude tools. The taming of fire required another one and a half million years. Even then, after these unimaginably long spans of time, the creature was still Homo erectus , of formidable talents compared to every other animal but not yet recognizably human. With his beetled visage and lumbering gait, Homo erectus did not look human. More to the point, he did not think like a human. Homo erectus had a cranial capacity averaging only two-thirds of ours, and his mind was inhumanly slow. The animal that the paleo-anthropologists call Homo sapiens and that we identify as human appeared about 200,000 years ago. It is sometime after that point that human accomplishment begins. But when? Shall we mark the beginning at the moment when a human first spoke a word? Drew an image? Sang a song? Choosing a precise moment is, of course, as subjective as trying to specify exactly when human beings stopped being Homo erectus and started being Homo sapiens . But if one were forced to mark the dawn of human accomplishment, the year -8000 has much to recommend it. As It Was In the Beginning In its topography and climate, the world in -8000 was much the world we know today. The last major glaciation of the Pleistocene had been receding for centuries, and Europe was no snowier than it would be in modern times. The Rhine, Seine, and Danube already rolled past countryside that we would recognize today, and the Alps, though 10,000 years newer and a few meters less eroded, would have looked the same to our eyes. In the Americas, the southern tip of the remaining great glacier was already north of Lake Superior, and the geology of what would become the United States had been determined. Rockies and Appalachians, Mohave Desert and Mississippi valley and Manhattan Island -- all would have looked familiar. A few landmarks were different then. The Sahara was verdant, and the white cliffs of Dover overlooked a river valley linking England with the European mainland. But a time traveler from 21C would have had to fly over the surface of the Earth for many days to discover these occasional surprises. Nor would a visitor from the future have been surprised by the flora and fauna. The forest on Manhattan was oak and elm and chestnut, inhabited by chipmunks and robins and crows. The world still contained a few lonely mastodons and saber-tooth tigers, but almost all of the animals you would have found were familiar, even if some were found in unaccustomed placesbison in Ohio, wolves in Germany, lions in Greece. The most striking difference to a modern observer visiting -8000 would have been the scarcity of humans. People lived just about everywhere, from the farthest southern reaches of today's Chile to the Norse tundra, but they would have been hard to find, living in small and isolated bands. They had to be scattered, because the human animal is a carnivore by preference, and large carnivores surviving off the land require a large range -- about 5,000 acres per person, in the case of carnivore Homo sapiens. Depending on local conditions, a band of just 25 hunter-gatherers could require more than a thousand square miles. The world of -8000 probably supported fewer than 4 million human beings, roughly the population of contemporary Kentucky. What kind of people were they? In the important ways, just like us. That doesn't mean that people of -8000 perceived the world as we do, but the differences were caused by cultural and educational gulfs, not smaller brain size. All of us had our counterparts in the world of -8000 -- people as clever, handsome, aesthetically alert, and industrious as any of us, with senses of humor as witty or ribald. Humans of -8000 were so like us that one of their infants raised in 21C would be indistinguishable from his playmates. The humans of -8000 had already accomplished much. Fire had been not just tamed, but manipulated, adapted for uses ranging from lamps to the oxidation of pigments. Stone tools were sophisticated, including finely crafted hammers and axes, and spears and arrows with razor edges. The technology for acquiring and working the materials for such objects had evolved remarkably by -8000. There is evidence of underground mining of chert, a quartz used for spearheads and arrowheads, as early as -35,000. By -8000, humans already had fully developed languages, the most advanced of which expressed ideas and emotions with precision. A few of them apparently had begun to work fibers into textiles. They knew how to grind seeds to make flour. The first tentative efforts to work copper had already occurred. And the human spirit was manifesting itself. Burial of the dead, drawings, sculptures, the conscious use of color, concepts of gods and cosmic mysteries were all part of human cultures scattered around the earth in -8000. These were large accomplishments, and already set Homo sapiens apart from other living creatures. And yet most of the world's population in -8000 lived a daily life that in its physical dimensions was only marginally different from that of the animals they hunted. Humans had learned to find shelter from the cold and wet, but nothing we would find much more comfortable than the dens used by other animals. They had tools for hunting and gathering, but food nonetheless had to be obtained continually, by tracking and killing game or by finding wild vegetables and fruits. It was not always an exhausting life. When food was plentiful, Paleolithic man actually had a considerable amount of leisure time. But the tiny surpluses humans accumulated by smoking or salting their meat were stopgaps for emergencies ... Human Accomplishment The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 . Copyright © by Charles Murray. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold. Excerpted from Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B. C. to 1950 by Charles Murray All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
A Note on Presentationp. xiii
Introductionp. xv
Part 1 A Sense of Accomplishmentp. 1
1. A Sense of Timep. 3
2. A Sense of Mysteryp. 13
3. A Sense of Placep. 25
4. A Sense of Wonderp. 53
Part 2 Identifying the People and Events That Matterp. 57
5. Excellence and Its Identificationp. 59
6. The Lotka Curvep. 87
7. The People Who Matter I: Significant Figuresp. 107
8. The People Who Matter II: The Giantsp. 119
9. The Events That Matter I: Significant Eventsp. 155
10. The Events That Matter II: Meta-Inventionsp. 209
Part 3 Patterns and Trajectoriesp. 245
11. Coming to Terms with the Role of Modern Europep. 247
12. ... and of Dead White Malesp. 265
13. Concentrations of European and American Accomplishmentp. 295
14. Taking Population into Account: The Accomplishment Ratep. 309
15. Explanations I: Peace and Prosperityp. 331
16. Explanations II: Models, Elite Cities, and Freedom of Actionp. 353
17. What's Left to Explain?p. 379
Part 4 On the Origins and Decline of Accomplishmentp. 383
18. The Aristotelian Principlep. 385
19. Sources of Energy: Purpose and Autonomyp. 391
20. Sources of Content: The Organizing Structure and Transcendental Goodsp. 409
21. Is Accomplishment Declining?p. 427
22. Summationp. 449
Appendicesp. 459
1. Statistics for People Who Are Sure They Can't Learn Statisticsp. 461
2. Construction of the Inventories and the Eminence Indexp. 475
3. Inventory Sourcesp. 491
4. Geographic and Population Datap. 505
5. The Roster of the Significant Figuresp. 513
Notesp. 589
Bibliographyp. 625
Indexp. 639

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