- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2003

All artists and scientists stand on the shoulders of giants, goes the familiar axiom. Leave it to the controversy-prone social scientist Charles Murray to convert that axiom into hard data.

Mr. Murray, who co-authored 1994’s academic succes de scandale, “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life,” has now measured, using an obscure form of regression analysis geared to scholarship, just how tall those giants are.

His latest book, “Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950,” ranks the significance of artists and thinkers from Bach to Aristotle to Pasteur — 4,002 in all — by means of a dusted-over, 19th-century methodology called “historiometry.”

In a recent talk at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative Washington-based think tank where he’s a fellow, Mr. Murray explained that historiometry, pioneered by the English scientist Francis Galton, uses reputation, or “eminence,” as the measure of human accomplishment.

He scores artists and scientists on a scale of 100, based on how many mentions they amass in dozens of biographical dictionaries and reference books in 34 different languages.

The sciences are broken out into eight fields — astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth sciences, physics, mathematics, medicine and technology. There’s a general list, too, for scientists across disciplines.

Four additional domains are devoted to the humanities — literature, music, visual arts and philosophy. The indexes here are divided by culture, since, Mr. Murray writes, his source materials in these fields were compromised by national prejudice.

The book, published Oct. 21, is bound to spark another round of intellectual sparring in opinion journals, academia and, possibly, given Mr. Murray’s notoriety, the mainstream press.

William Shakespeare, unsurprisingly, scores a perfect 100 on Mr. Murray’s index of Western literature.

On the index for “combined sciences,” the gravity-discovering Sir Isaac Newton also merits a top score, but the paradigm-shattering Einstein registers only a 48, and Darwin a 37. (Einstein and Darwin do, however, score 100 in their specific disciplines, physics and biology, respectively.)

On a chart for Western music, Beethoven and Mozart both merit top scores of 100; Bach received an 87; Wagner, an 80. Christopher Gluck brings up the rear with a 26.

Critical grumbling will come from several fronts. To begin with two basic gripes: Can aesthetic judgments be quantified? Should they be?

“Murray is not quantifying aesthetic judgments; he’s quantifying impact,” says David Frum, former White House speechwriter and colleague of Mr. Murray’s at AEI.

“I’m surprised by social scientists who say it cannot be done,” Mr. Frum continues, noting that academic careers themselves are measured quantitatively. The influence of scholarly articles and papers, he explains, is gauged by how many times they’re cited in other works.

This, Mr. Frum says, is what social scientists, from economists to pollsters, have always tried to do: “quantify something that hasn’t been quantified before.”

Aside from Mr. Murray’s conclusions, expect widespread objections to the methodology itself: Isn’t it slightly odd for a scholar as famously independent-minded as Mr. Murray to grant such authority to the accumulation of received opinion collected in biographical dictionaries and reference books?

Put another way: Isn’t intellectual history replete with examples of vastly influential errors?

Roger Kimball, managing editor of the New Criterion, a monthly arts journal, says that even those who find the methodology dubious will be impressed by Mr. Murray’s erudition.

“It’s a very impressive, ambitious book,” Mr. Kimball says. “He’s brought a kind of freshness to the seemingly intractable problem of human genius.”

For his part, Mr. Murray insists, with philosopher David Hume, that there’s a difference between “sentiment and judgment.”

The fact that he thinks pop music is inferior to Beethoven is his own feeling, and nothing more. However, the collected opinion of experts, he says, is more definitive and rises above mere sentiment.

Then there’s the question of whether Mr. Murray’s system is itself free of the cultural prejudice he attributes to other sources.

Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist at George Washington University and author of “My Brother’s Keeper: A Memoir and a Message,” insists it’s inherently pointless to compare Western music to, say, Indonesian music.

According to Mr. Etzioni, “Human Accomplishment” is really just a fancy, data-laden dress-up of old biases.

“What he does here again is use the tools of social science to make it seem as if his prejudices are objective findings,” Mr. Etzioni says. “It’s parading as analysis, but it’s actually a venting of social conservative prejudices.”

Europeans, especially of the early modern period beginning in 1400, do, indeed, gobble up a lopsidedly disproportionate chunk of the entries on Mr. Murray’s scorecards.

Yet he’s unapologetic. “Excellence exists, and it’s time to celebrate it,” he declares at the AEI lecture, crowded with mostly conservative commentators and essayists, including columnist Charles Krauthammer and religion writer Michael Novak.

“It doesn’t make any difference how you slice the data,” Mr. Murray says of European artistic and scientific dominance. “The facts in this case are extraordinarily stubborn.”

He makes clear, however, that he is talking about broad statistical patterns that do not exclude individual variation. The West hasn’t dominated the arts and sciences in terms of “best,” he says, but “most.” An Ecuadorian novelist may be better than a French one, he posits; but it’s indisputable that France has produced more great novelists than Ecuador. (Maybe. But has Ecuador ever produced a novelist as bad as Alain Robbe-Grillet?)

And his definition of the “West” is unexpectedly narrow. He means Europe alone, not America. “Let’s get serious,” Mr. Murray says. America, owing to its comparative youth, has made only a “trivial” mark on human artistic and scientific achievement.

More controversial yet, perhaps, is Mr. Murray’s contention, echoing Paul Johnson’s recently published historical survey of the visual arts, that human creative accomplishment has been in steady decline.

Mr. Murray’s reason: rampant secularization.

A self-described “practicing agonistic,” Mr. Murray says religion — defined down, in a sense, as a nondoctrinal, transcendental “conception of the good” — is the reason classical Greece and early modern Florence “allowed the rose to bloom.”

Two other factors are crucial to human excellence, Mr. Murray says: cultural norms that infuse life with meaning and purpose, and individual autonomy.

The Christian Europe of the 1400s is Mr. Murray’s high-water mark for human excellence. Following Thomas Aquinas, who taught that reason was a gift from God, Europe’s great achievers believed in a universe of fixed qualities that could be discovered, classified and manipulated.

A libertarian, Mr. Murray also believes individual autonomy and capitalism led to Europe’s dominance. Thanks to Martin Luther and the Protestant movement, he says, Christian Europe was a field on which ambitious individuals could excel as never before.

Today, Western Europe is aggressively secular, toying with nihilism — the death knell for human accomplishment. Nietzsche’s atheistic militancy “knocked down the temple,” Mr. Murray says, leading inexorably to the absurdism of Sartre.

If life is pointless, then what’s the point of doing great things?

Still, the 60-year-old Mr. Murray is hopeful the decline can be reversed — that the 20th century may have been a period akin to “adolescence.”

Says Mr. Murray: “I am forecasting that the creative elites will be drawn back to the fundamental questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? What does it mean to live a good life?

“Human beings cannot stop acting as if they have free will. What does that tell us?”


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