Sunday, November 30, 2008

Charles Murray: Human Accomplishment

Human Accomplishment is Charles Murray's attempt to catalog and explain the highest achievements in the arts and sciences that people have produced. He says his yardstick is the things that humanity would be able to brag about if we were putting together a resume, but he includes scientific discoveries which any advanced species would have made along with the heights of poetry, composition, and painting.

The book quantifies and compares the contributions of individuals, fields of endeavor, countries, and regions, and points out some consistent features of the data like the prominence of men and the paucity of identifiable contributions from Asia. At the end of the book he makes some generalizations about what kinds of environments led to increases and decreases in the amount of great work that was done.

While the book is nearly 700 pages, more than 200 pages of it is contributed by the appendices, notes, index, and front-matter. At least another 75 pages are made up by tables and itemized listings of major contributions by field. In addition, the prose is scattered with frequent tables, graphs and asides (in white text on dark blue so you can't miss the fact that you are welcome to skip them.) So it's not as long a read as it appears, but it's still substantial.

Murray's methodology in identifying the accomplishments that stand out was to survey many encyclopedic works. For the most part, he found in nearly all fields which were covered by a substantial number of such books that there was a lot of overlap and consistency among them. This allowed him to declare that he would only include in his survey achievements that were recognized widely, that he would exclude compendiums that didn't overlap substantially with other works purporting to be in the same field, and that fields that weren't covered by at least a handful of broad overlapping surveys would be omitted from the results.

He ends up with substantial reviews of 8 fields in science and technology; separate inventories for philosophy from China, India, and the West; for the visual arts from China, Japan, and the West, and for Literature from the Arab world in addition to the four regions mentioned previously. The arts are divided regionally because otherwise the contributions from the Arabs or the East would be swamped by those of the West. In each of the regional breakdowns, the West contributed substantially more (4x-10x) than any other region. Murray spends some time showing that this probably isn't due to his lack of familiarity with these regions or the languages in which the histories are written. (Part of the justification is that the disparity holds similarly in the scientific inventory for which there are firmer criteria for inclusion and a general agreement about which accomplishments count, even among those who want to claim minorities are under-represented in the listings.) Murray also spends some time speculating about why there's such a disparity in contributions.

There were few surprises for me in the actual lists. There were only a couple of cases where I didn't recognize one of the top few contributors in a scientific field, even though there were many cases where I wouldn't have been able to name their contribution. There have been a couple of occasions to cross-reference names I've come across in recent reading. For instance, Lope de Vega was a prominent character in Harry Turtledove's Rule Brittania, which I reviewed recently. I didn't realize until I was reading Murray's 1-page summary of the heights of Western literature that de Vega was based on a real author from that period (though not quite significant enough to make the list of Significant Figures in Western literature in Appendix 5.) I also referred to the lists of Chinese notables while reading The Early Chinese Empires.

The most important conclusion to draw from the book is that accomplishment is unevenly spread. Most people who have given even cursory thought to the subject have noticed that there's an exponential distribution of achievements across fields and across time. Practically no matter what criteria you come up with to measure achievement, you'll find there's a high peak and a consistent, rapid drop-off in people's abilities. The best athletes are as much above their competitors as the best scientists and the best writers.

Murray's book gives us the opportunity to savor the best and the brightest.

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