Europe and Human Accomplishment


In the 2003 book Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, the American political scientist Charles Murray attempts to quantify the accomplishments of individuals worldwide in arts and sciences by calculating and ranking the space allocated to them in important reference works.

He reserves a number of categories such as Arabic literature, Indian philosophy and Chinese art for non-Western peoples, with Du Fu’s (AD 712-770) and Li Bai’s (AD 701-762) poetry ranking highest in Chinese literature, Sesshu’s (AD 1420-1506) paintings or the haiku poetry of Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) topping the list in Japan, Kalidasa’s (fifth century AD?) plays and poetry in India and al-Mutanabbi’s (AD 915-965) Arabic poetry at the top of the list in the Arabic ranking.

Murray finds that almost all important scientific and technological advances in the modern world until the mid-twentieth century were made by Europeans or their descendants overseas. The most prominent city figuring in the lists of achievers is Paris. France is tied with Britain and Germany as the leading nations in producing major figures in the arts and sciences, with Italy fourth and other European nations such as Austria, Russia, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Spain or Ireland trailing behind. In Western literature he ranks William Shakespeare ahead of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Dante Alighieri. In Western music, Ludwig van Beethoven is tied with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for first place, ahead of Johann Sebastian Bach and Richard Wagner. Michelangelo tops in Western art. His paintings still fill us with awe, and he was a better sculptor than a painter. A quote by the art historian Ernst Gombrich, normally a man of measured words, regarding Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome is used to illustrate why he ranks first:

“It is very difficult for any ordinary mortal to imagine how it could be possible for one human being to achieve what Michelangelo achieved in four years of lonely work on the scaffolding of the papal chapel…. The wealth of ever-new inventions, the unfailing mastery of execution in every detail, and, above all, the grandeur of the visions which Michelangelo revealed to those who came after him, have given mankind a quite new idea of the power of genius.”

It is possible to take issue with some details of Murray’s rankings. In Western art, Pablo Picasso is ranked second to Michelangelo. I like Picasso, but I'm not convinced he should be listed before Dürer, Rembrandt, Giotto, Velázquez, Donatello, Caravaggio, Rubens and Jan van Eyck, not to mention Raphael, Leonardo and Titian. I disapprove of Rousseau’s high ranking in Western literature, maybe because I personally dislike him, but I honestly don't think he deserves being listed next to Homer and Shakespeare and ahead of Dostoyevsky and Friedrich Schiller. Charles Murray nevertheless explains his statistical methods in great detail and states categorically that the rankings do not reflect his personal tastes, only what the scholarly source material tells him.

Combined sciences is a category created by combining and comparing contributions in such fields as physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, mathematics, Earth sciences and medicine. Those listed here are, starting from the top: Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei, Aristotle, Johannes Kepler, Antoine Lavoisier, René Descartes, Christiaan Huygens, Pierre-Simon Laplace, Albert Einstein, Michael Faraday, Louis Pasteur, Ptolemy, Robert Hooke, Gottfried Leibniz, Ernest Rutherford, Leonhard Euler, Charles Darwin, Jöns Jakob Berzelius, Euclid and James Clerk Maxwell. Few would find it hard to agree with the first two individuals, but many might feel that Einstein, who changed our understanding of the fabric of the universe, should be ranked next to Galileo. Lavoisier made great contributions to the development of chemistry, as did Kepler and Laplace in astronomy, but whether they were more important than Einstein is questionable.

Human Accomplishment contains rankings for Western philosophy as well as for Chinese and Indian philosophy. Among influential personalities in Western philosophy, Aristotle is at the top, ahead of Plato, Immanuel Kant, René Descartes, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, David Hume, Augustine of Hippo, Baruch Spinoza, Gottfried Leibniz, Socrates, Arthur Schopenhauer, George Berkeley, Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Hobbes, Bertrand Russell, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Plotinus and Johann Gottlieb Fichte.


Some of the source material treated political thinkers as secondary figures. This affected negatively on the rankings of individuals such as Cicero and Machiavelli, who ended up just below the top twenty. The most striking omissions from the Western philosophy list are Jesus of Nazareth - Jesus Christ to believers - and Saint Paul, who shaped the young religion of Christianity more than any other person apart from Jesus himself. They are not ranked as they were purely religious figures, whereas Prince Siddhartha Gautama or Gautama Buddha’s teachings in India in the fifth century BC can be seen as either a religion or a philosophy.

I understand this point, but it does look somewhat artificial to include religious Christian thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and Augustine on the list, but exclude the two persons who founded the entire Christian religion. If you believe that Moses was a real person (not everyone does) then maybe he, too, should have been included. Also, regardless of what you think of him (and I’m not one of his fans), Karl Marx has for the past 150 years easily had a greater influence on Western and global thought than has Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Again, his exclusion from the list hinges on the definition of “philosophy.” If Murray had made a list over “thinkers who have influenced Western thought,” which isn’t necessarily the same thing as “Western philosophy,” the conclusions would have been rather different.

The technology list is topped by James Watt, known for greatly improving one very big thing, the steam engine, and Thomas Edison, known for inventing many smaller things. Some of those who developed early steam engines before Watt are included, among them Denis Papin, Thomas Savery and Thomas Newcomen. The same goes for Karl Benz, Gottlieb Daimler, Wilhelm Maybach, Jean Lenoir, Nikolaus Otto and above all Rudolf Diesel for their work with the internal combustion engines and automobiles, which is well deserved. The Montgolfier Brothers of France and the Wright Brothers of the USA receive credit for manned human flight, and the English entrepreneur Richard Arkwright is credited as a pioneer in the development of the modern factory system with power-driven machinery during the early Industrial Revolution.

Nicolas Appert is listed for the conservation of food, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Daguerre and William Fox Talbot for the development of photography, Gottfried Leibniz for his mechanical calculator for multiplication and division, Charles Babbage for the invention of the mechanical computer and John Mauchly, John von Neumann and others for the development of the electronic computer. Robert Goddard gets a high ranking for the first liquid-fueled rocketry.

For every individual who is credit with a particular breakthrough, you could often potentially list a handful or a dozen others who contributed to this breakthrough or who made it independently at almost the same time but didn’t become equally famous. As Murray himself points out, most people have heard of Alexander Graham Bell as the “inventor of the telephone,” yet far fewer know about the American electrical engineer Elisha Gray (1835-1901), who submitted his application for a patent of a telephone two hours later than Bell did. Still, the people who are listed do generally deserve much, if not necessarily all, of the credit for these inventions.

Leonardo da Vinci has received a very high ranking even though few of his devices were actually built and used during his lifetime. In contrast, among those ranked below the top twenty in technology is Johannes Gutenberg, who has received a lower score than the German inventors and electrical engineers Werner von Siemens (1816-1892) and William Siemens (1823-1883). I find this somewhat odd given that his printing press was arguably one of the most important inventions in European history. Many Western historians would want to place him at the very top of the technology index for the revolutionary impact his invention had on European societies.

Murray includes Bi Sheng (990-1051) as the inventor of the first movable type printing technology in China just after the year 1040 as well as the Chinese eunuch and state bureaucrat Cai Lun (ca. AD 50-121) for the standardization of the papermaking process around AD 100, but only as minor figures. Personally, I think they should be ranked higher, particularly Lun. In author Michael H. Hart’s popular book The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History from 1978, Cai Lun was ranked 7 and Gutenberg 8. Just to put things in perspective, the other figures on the top ten list were Muhammad ibn Abdullah, Isaac Newton, Jesus Christ, Gautama Buddha, Confucius, Saint Paul, Christopher Columbus and Albert Einstein. Cai Lun was also listed ahead of figures like Louis Pasteur, Galileo Galilei, Aristotle, Euclid, Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, Moses, Qin Shi Huang (China’s First Emperor), Augustus Caesar, Julius Caesar and the first pro-Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great.

Frankly, I find this a bit excessive. Even if you believe that Lun created paper or standardized its manufacture (many scholars believe that paper was invented earlier in the Han period), it looks strange to rank him above Qin Shi Huang (259-210 BC), the brutal ruler who became the First Emperor of a unified China in 221 BC and now rests in an enormous mausoleum guarded by a huge life-size Terracotta army near Xi’an.  After all, the latter created a vast state that has endured for more than two thousand years. Nevertheless, I don’t think Murray’s lists properly reflect the tremendous historical importance of printed paper books for the progress of science.

Gutenberg was born in or just before the year 1400 and died in 1468. He created the first mechanical printing press in Mainz in present-day Germany around 1440. His most famous and celebrated printed work, though probably not his first one, was the Gutenberg Bible/the Forty-two-Line Bible, completed in 1455 at the latest. Gutenberg himself did not become rich by his invention, but it spread remarkably fast throughout the major urban centers of Europe. One of the unresolved questions is just how much he knew about the printing traditions of China. It is conceivable that some European traders had heard of the concept of printed books in East Asia. What we know with certainty is that the Chinese invention of paper, which was a necessary component in the printing trade, had come to Europe from China via the Middle East.

According to scholars Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin in The Coming of the Book, by the late fifteenth century Europe was becoming covered with paper mills. The traditional parchment was expensive and not well suited for mass production. They estimate that about 20 million books were printed in Europe before the year 1500 and that “between 150-200 million copies were published in the 16th century. This is a conservative estimate and probably well below the actual figure.” There was obviously a change then, and a swift one, compared to the slow, expensive and sometimes inaccurate process of scribes copying each individual book by hand. The much cheaper and more accurate printed copies were of particular importance in the sciences, as university students and others could get mathematical texts where the diagrams and tables in a given book were the same in all copies. As the eminent historian Edward Grant says:

“The advantages of printed books over hand-copied books cannot be overestimated. The printed book transformed learning in Europe not only because it introduced uniform standards, but also because it greatly increased the speed by which learning was disseminated. The invention of printing from movable type may have been the most important contribution to the advance of civilization made in the second millennium. The transition from hand-copied documents to printed documents was far more revolutionary than the transition from the typewriter to the computer.”

Authors David Crowley and Paul Heyer agree and state the following in their work Communication in History: Technology, Culture, and Society:

“Traditionally, the view has been that printing, along with numerous other developments, marked the transition between the end of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the modern era. However, the more we study this remarkable invention, the more we realize that it was not just one factor among many. Although we hesitate to argue for historical ‘prime-movers,’ certainly the printing press comes close to what is meant by this term. It was a technology that influenced other technologies - a prototype for mass production - and one that impacted directly on the world of ideas by making knowledge widely available, thereby creating a space in which new forms of expression could flourish.”

This does not mean that the repercussions of the printing press came about in an inherently deterministic manner. European universities and merchants created a more dynamic book trade than existed in contemporary China. As historian Elizabeth L. Eisenstein puts it in The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, “In a different cultural context, the same technology might have been used for different ends (as was the case in China and Korea) or it might have been unwelcome and not been used at all (as was the case in many regions outside Europe where Western missionary presses were the first to be installed)….Under different circumstances, moreover, it might have been welcomed and put to entirely different uses – monopolized by priests and rulers, for example, and withheld from free-wheeling urban entrepreneurs.”

Woodblock printing in China was probably developed during the Tang Dynasty; the world's oldest printed book currently known, containing the Buddhist text known as the Diamond Sutra, dates to AD 868, but it is likely that printed books had been made a few generations before this. The development and spread of printing in East Asia was initially strongly tied to Buddhist scriptures and monks. Indeed, in Japan, where both Buddhism and printed books were introduced from China and Korea, printing was almost exclusively used for Buddhist religious texts until the late sixteenth century, after Japanese exposure to the Portuguese and other Europeans.

Movable type printing had been invented in China around 1040, but it didn’t gain widespread popularity. The nature of the Chinese language with its nonalphabetic script was an obstacle. To solve this dilemma, in the 1400s the dynamic Korean King Sejong the Great (1397-1450) encouraged book production and ordered his scholars to create an alphabet for the common people as opposed to the complicated Chinese script with its thousands of characters. They produced Hangul in the 1440s, probably inspired by Sanskrit and other alphabetic scripts in use in parts of Asia (the Semitic alphabet had been introduced there by the ancient Persians). Hangul faced stiff opposition from orthodox Confucian scholars who still preferred Chinese characters.

There are no indications of a connection between these developments in Korea and those in Germany. While it is conceivable that the concept of printed paper books had filtered through from Asia to fifteenth century Europe, Gutenberg combined different elements into a practical system that did not exist in East Asia. Among other things, he used a type-metal alloy, a new press and an oil-based printing ink. His movable type methods were used without major changes until the twentieth century. The Chinese had used baked clay for their characters and only started employing metal types after their use in Europe. Gutenberg was a goldsmith and naturally created his letters out of metal. As Irving Fang states in his book A History of Mass Communication:

“What Gutenberg produced that did not exist in Asia was a printing system. Most obvious among its elements were controlled, exact dimensions of alphabet type cast from metal punches made of hardened steel. These were not unlike the dies, stamps, and punches that were well known to European leather workers, metalsmiths, and pewter makers.”

Since I am Norwegian I was obviously curious to see which individuals from my country were included in Murray’s lists. From the Nordic countries, playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) is the highest-ranking person in Western literature, far ahead of Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) and other Norwegian authors. Composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) receives a medium-level ranking in Western music, while painter and printmaker Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is the highest-ranking Norwegian in Western art. His best-known composition The Scream (Skrik) is one of the most easily recognizable paintings in the history of European art.

In the Earth sciences, the Norwegian physicist Vilhelm Bjerknes (1862-1951) founded the Bergen School of Meteorology, named for the scenic, but rainy city of Bergen. He attended Poincaré's lectures on electrodynamics in Paris, worked with Heinrich Hertz in Germany and developed a synthesis of hydrodynamics and thermodynamics applicable to atmospheric physics. He believed that with sufficient information, scientists can use math formulas to predict future weather patterns. Such calculations were successfully undertaken after the creation of electronic computers and weather satellites. He is considered one of the founders of modern weather forecasting. Working with his son Jacob Bjerknes (1897-1975) he developed the polar front theory and in 1921 published a work, now considered a classic, which “offered one of the first modern and extensive accounts of the structure and evolution of cyclones.”

Charles Murray has not included any list of explorers, of which there are a great many Europeans, otherwise a few of them might have been Norwegians. The explorer Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) led the first crossing of Greenland by ski, was a professor of oceanography at the University in Oslo and contributed to the development of neurology. Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) led the first expedition to reach the South Pole and his Norwegian team also made it back alive, in contrast to the rivaling British team led by Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912), who all died from exhaustion and extreme cold. Amundsen later became the first person in the world to reach both the North and South Poles. Leiv Eriksson, who reached the east coast of North America (Vinland) shortly after AD 1000, was technically speaking born on Iceland and brought up on the Norse colony on Greenland which was founded by his Norwegian father.

The small Nordic countries were of secondary importance compared to Britain, Germany or France, and significant figures from this region came more often from Denmark and Sweden than from Norway and Finland. Murray’s names and rankings of persons from my own country are reasonably correct, which shows that he has done a good job. If I have to add someone who is not listed it would be the Norwegian scientist Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917) from Oslo, who was a gifted theorist and an imaginative experimentalist. He was not a giant of modern physics comparable to Niels Bohr, Gustav Kirchhoff, Enrico Fermi or Paul Dirac, but he deserves to be mentioned. His geomagnetic research was generations ahead of its time as he described the interaction between the solar wind, a stream of charged particles ejected from the Sun, and the Earth’s magnetic fields. Journalist Lucy Jago has written a successful biography of him. As Alv Egeland and William J. Burke state in their book Kristian Birkeland: The First Space Scientist:

“He introduced basic concepts that are central to modern space physics. They include calculations of energetic-particle motions in dipolar magnetic fields, his description of geomagnetic substorms, and his postulate that electric currents flow along magnetic field lines into and out of the upper atmosphere, today called the Birkeland currents. These currents link the upper atmosphere to the distant reaches of geospace. He also discovered the global pattern of the electric currents in the polar ionosphere. Based on his own laboratory simulations, Birkeland first suggested how charged particles from the Sun control geomagnetic disturbances and might influence such interplanetary phenomena as Saturn’s rings, comet tails, and zodiacal lights. As space measurements accumulated in the 1970s, attitudes towards Birkeland’s work on electric currents in space changed to admiration and acceptance.”

In mathematics, Murray ranks Niels Henrik Abel (1802-1829) far ahead of the Norwegian-born mathematician Marius Sophus Lie (1842-1899), from whose work Lie groups and Lie algebras are named, as well as the Danish-Norwegian mathematician Caspar Wessel (1745-1818), which is again accurate. The Abel Prize named after Niels Henrik Abel is an international prize presented annually by the King of Norway since 2002. It has been called the “Nobel Prize” of mathematics; the prestigious Fields Medal is only awarded every four years and has an age limit.

The major names in mathematics are heavily dominated by men from the ancient Greek or modern European mathematical traditions. They include, starting from the top down, Leonhard Euler, Isaac Newton, Euclid of Alexandria, Carl Friedrich Gauss, Pierre de Fermat, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, René Descartes, Georg Cantor, Blaise Pascal, Bernhard Riemann, David Hilbert, Jacob Bernoulli, Diophantus of Alexandria, Gerolamo Cardano, François Viète, Adrien-Marie Legendre, John Wallis, Augustin-Louis Cauchy, Leonardo of Pisa (Fibonacci) and Archimedes of Syracuse. Murray himself says that the ordering could easily be shifted according to what you emphasize. Leonhard Euler certainly was a genius, but his top rank owes much to the fact that he was immensely productive. Gauss, while also a genius was more reluctant to publish. If the main criteria were fame, Newton would win. If the emphasis is influence, Euclid’s immensely influential synthesis of Greek geometry in his Elements might come out on top.

The highest-ranking woman by far in any of the sciences is the Polish-French physicist Marie Curie, famous for her pioneering studies of radioactivity. The highest-ranking woman in the extremely male-dominated field of mathematics is the German-born Emmy Noether (1882-1935), best known for her substantial contributions to abstract algebra. Dirk J. Struik in A Concise History of Mathematics agrees that “She was - and is - the most outstanding woman mathematician in the history of mathematics.” Many believe that the Austrian-born physicist Lise Meitner should have shared the Nobel Prize with Otto Hahn for the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938. In the late twentieth century, the American astronomer Vera Rubin did pioneering work on galaxy rotation rates and the question of so-called dark matter. All the three latter women are Jews and fall under the story of the extremely high scientific contribution of Ashkenazi Jews. A few other notable women can be mentioned, especially in astronomy with figures such as Henrietta Swan Leavitt, and women have a significant presence in literature. Nevertheless, the major achievements in the arts and sciences have overwhelmingly been made by men.

It is conceivable that a couple of ancient Babylonian and maybe Mayan mathematical astronomers could have made the lists of achievements in mathematics or astronomy, but for the most part we don’t know their names. From the Middle East Murray mentions a handful of names, prominent among them Muhammad ibn al-Khwarizmi followed by Omar Khayyam; Ulugh Beg ranks highest from this region in astronomy, which in my view is all correct. He includes mathematicians Aryabhata, Brahmagupta and Bhaskara II from medieval and Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) from modern India. I have been told that the contributions of Korean, Chinese and Japanese mathematicians increased in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, for instance with work done in algebraic geometry by Kenkichi Iwasawa (1917-1998) from Japan. This is, however, after the timeline of Human Accomplishment, which ends in 1950.

The most serious omission in my view is Seki Takakazu or Seki Kowa (ca. 1642-1708), probably Japan’s most celebrated mathematician but as far as I can see not listed by Charles Murray. A contemporary of Leibniz and Newton in Western Europe, Seki Kowa has been credited with independently developing a number of mathematical achievements that have been credited to Europeans, for instance Bernoulli numbers, named after the great Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernoulli. Fukagawa Hidetoshi and Tony Rothman write in Sacred Mathematics: Japanese Temple Geometry:

“Most of Seki’s works were published posthumously by his disciples and, because Japanese mathematicians traditionally deferred to their masters, this has always made it difficult to know precisely what he did and did not do. Seki’s exact birthdate and birthplace remain unknown, but he was a close contemporary of Newton. Of samurai descent, he was adopted in infancy by the noble family of Seki Gorozayemon and went by that surname. Later, he worked in the treasury of the Koufu clan, whose head was Lord Tokugawa Tsunashige.…there is no question that he was the first to develop the theory of determinants, a decade before Leibnitz. He also discovered the so-called Bernoulli numbers before Jacob Bernoulli, and Horner’s method 150 years before Horner, although in this he was anticipated by the Chinese.”

Because of the Tokugawa ban on Jesuit missionaries after 1637, Japanese scholars and shoguns sought Chinese translations of European natural studies. Meanwhile, the introduction to European mathematics had triggered a revival of interest in mathematics in China. Chinese traders searched for classical texts long since lost in China but still available in Japan or Korea, with their Chinese-inspired cultures and scripts. This internal East Asian trade in scientific texts could be significant. Benjamin A. Elman states in A Cultural History of Modern Science in China:

“Moreover, in addition to Li Ye’s Sea Mirror of Circular Measurement, the seminal works of Qin Jiushao (1202-1261) on polynomial algebra and other important topics were presumed lost….Korea and Japan played an important role in preserving lost Chinese works. For example, Ruan Yuan (1764-1849) recovered a lost mathematics primer by Zhu Shijie (fl. end of the thirteenth century) from a 1660 Korean edition that dated back to 1433. When transmitted to Japan, Zhu’s primer and its single unknown algebraic notations helped guide advances in mathematics in Japan in the seventeenth century. Some have claimed, too, that a nineteenth-century Chinese work on the accumulation of discrete piles as a finite series - a cutting-edge mathematical principle of the day - was inspired by Seki Takakazu’s (1642?-1708) Compendium of Mathematical Methods published in 1712. After the famous Korean calligrapher Kim Chong-hui (1786-1856) and several Korean emissaries visited Beijing and met Ruan in 1810, Kim sent Ruan the Korean edition of Zhu’s primer, and Ruan presented a number of his works to Kim.”

A handful of Chinese mathematicians are listed, but not Qin Jiushao (ca. 1202-1261) from the thirteenth-century peak of traditional Chinese mathematics prior to European contact. My personal opinion is that he should be mentioned, too. Nevertheless, you could find Western scholars here and there that might be included as well, as the case of Kristian Birkeland shows, and the inclusion of a handful of Asian figures would not have done much to change the overall balance. Similarly, while it is possible to argue over the relative rankings of some of the individuals mentioned by Murray, they are virtually all relevant figures. He has made detailed lists with names and years of important advances in technology, mathematics, biology, medicine, physics, chemistry and astronomy which I find valuable and have sometimes used as a source of inspiration, especially when writing about the history of medicine.

Murray’s work isn’t flawless. Nevertheless, while you can argue that a certain individual is ranked too high or too low or that a handful of people might be included here and there, this doesn’t do much to change the basic conclusion: The lists of human achievement, especially in the sciences, are heavily dominated by those widely denounced today as Dead White Males, for they are almost all men from Europe or Europe’s offspring overseas. For good or bad, people of European origins largely created the modern world. You can certainly find great achievements such as the spectacular mountainous Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru, or the magnificent Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia in Southeast Asia, yet as Charles Murray writes:

“Evidence scattered from Angkor Wat to Machu Picchu attests to the ability of human beings throughout the globe, not confined to the leading civilizations, to achieve amazing technological feats. And yet, and yet….Modern Europe has overwhelmingly dominated accomplishment in both the arts and sciences. The estimates of the European contribution are robust. They cannot, in any way I have been able to devise, be attenuated more than fractionally. As I write, it appears that Europe’s run is over. In another few hundred years, books will probably be exploring the reasons why some completely different part of the world became the locus of great human accomplishment. Now is a good time to stand back in admiration. What the human species is today owes in astonishing degree to what was accomplished in just half a dozen centuries by the peoples of one small portion of the northwestern Eurasian land mass. Not only does Europe dominate the narrative of human accomplishment, so does the minority that has become known in recent years as dead white males.”

Murray is considered controversial by some people because he supports the thesis that intelligence, measured in IQ, is not equally distributed among all nations and peoples; it is higher among Europeans and East Asians than others, and highest among Ashkenazi Jews. During the past 200 years, Jews have left their mark vastly disproportionate to their numbers. It is difficult to estimate how much the state-sponsored extermination of most of European Jewry by the Nazis in the 1940s has hurt Europe, not just morally and culturally but probably economically as well. This does not mean that Mr. Murray believes that IQ is the only significant variable. Far from it.

Wealth makes it possible to accumulate a surplus beyond the necessities of survival and makes it possible to support people who are engaged in work not directly related to food, shelter or clothing. There is no doubt that there is a correlation between wealth and great accomplishment, at least as an indicator of cultural and national vitality. This could mean that the development of modern capitalism indirectly contributed to achievement. While a minimum level of wealth is definitely necessary for accomplishment, there is by no means any automatic correlation between the two. After the Spanish discovery and conquest of the Americas by Cortez, Pizarro and others, massive quantities of New World gold and silver flowed back to Spain in from 1500-1650. But instead of using it to create science and industry, the money “was frittered away on war and luxury. Worse than merely wasted, Spain’s temporary riches also inculcated in her people a reluctance to work that spread from the rich through the formerly industrious working class.”

Western culture has by and large enjoyed the benefits of greater political freedom and more individualism as opposed to the common emphasis on consensus and traditionalism. Purpose and autonomy are intertwined with another defining cultural characteristic of European civilization, individualism. Autonomy refers to a person’s belief that it is in his power to fulfill the meaning of his life through his own acts. Anti-individualistic cultures inhibit individual accomplishment as originality is suspect. According to Murray, “Highly familistic, consensual cultures have been the norm throughout history and the world. Modern Europe has been the oddball.”

Christianity played an important part in this, too. As Murray writes, “It was a theology that empowered the individual acting as an individual as no other philosophy or religion had ever done before. The potentially revolutionary message was realized more completely in one part of Christendom, the Catholic West, than in the Orthodox East. The crucial difference was that Roman Catholicism developed a philosophical and artistic humanism typified, and to a great degree engendered, by Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274). Aquinas made the case, eventually adopted by the Church, that human intelligence is a gift from God, and that to apply human intelligence to understanding the world is not an affront to God but is pleasing to him.”

Charles Murray argues that Christianity was an important variable, not that it explains everything. He does not say that it is impossible to find purpose in a secular life and achieve great accomplishments, only that it is harder to do so. It is here that Christianity has its most potent advantage: devotion to God trumps devotion to most human causes. Even the greatest of talents have to spend a lot of time and work on practice and on absorbing external impulses. From Michelangelo to Beethoven, the willingness to engage in such monomaniacal levels of effort is related to a sense of vocation. Consequently, a person with a strong sense that “I was put here on Earth to do exactly this” is more likely to accomplish great things than someone who lacks such a sense of purpose. By this Murray means a transcendental element, something more important than the here and now. Those accomplishing great achievements are not necessarily indifferent to worldly motives like money, power, fame and glory, but the giants often had a strong feeling that their lives had a purpose, a feeling they had even before they had achieved anything substantial.

The Enlightenment’s passionate commitment to reason was close to religious, yet after Freud, Nietzsche and others with similar messages, the belief in man as a rational being took a body blow. It became fashionable in Europe at the turn of the twentieth century to see humans as unwittingly acting out neuroses and subconscious drives. God was mostly dead among the European creative elites at this time. Such beliefs undermined the belief of the creative elites that their lives had purpose or that their talents could be efficacious. Murray believes that the twentieth century witnessed a decline in per capita accomplishment, as intellectuals rejected religion. He expects that almost no art from the second half of this century will be remembered 200 years from now. It's a challenge for democratic societies to keep up standards of excellence when there is an obsession with making everyone equal. He has noticed that young Europeans no longer take pride in their scientific and artistic legacy; attempts to point this out to them will typically be met with pessimism and a sense that European civilization is evil and cursed. The decline of accomplishment in Europe, once the homeland par excellence of geniuses, was in all likelihood initially caused by loss of self-confidence and a sense of purpose.

Maybe belief in a higher purpose is necessary for the creation of true greatness. Achievements that outlast the lifespan of a single human being are generated out of respect for something greater than the individual. Many Europeans no longer experience themselves as part of a wider community with a past worth preserving and a future worth fighting for, which is perhaps why they see no point in reproducing themselves. Europe in the past believed in itself, its culture, its nations and above all its religion and produced Michelangelo, Descartes and Newton. Europe at the turn of the twenty-first century believes in virtually nothing of lasting value and so produces virtually nothing of lasting value. It remains to be seen whether this trend can be reversed.


Western Accomplishment & Culture

Competition is the cornerstone of Western culture.  Autonomy and freedom had to be first won and then protected.  However, every faction struggled to impose consensus, and it was this competition among religious sects, nations, classes, dynasties and ideologies that produced the individuality and liberty Westerners take for granted today.


Instead of rejecting consensus and tradition, Western societies were torn by appeals to opposing ones, with none able to achieve final victory.  Whereas Islam and the Qin dynasty conquered one and for all, the Habsburgs, Popes and Napoleon were short-changed in their bids for mastery.

an interesting footnote

Steve Sailor interviewed Murray a while back, who replied: "In Western music, Mozart and Beethoven were in a dead heat, with Bach third. A rather vocal minority is upset about Bach not being on top. I'm not. I love Bach, but it's awfully hard to listen to Beethoven's later symphonies and string quartets and figure out how anybody could possibly be ranked above him."

I cannot for the life of me understand why Wagner is not right up their with these other three, and I'd rate Bach highest, perhaps.  Too bad no one asked me!  :-)

a few brief comments

The most striking omissions from the Western philosophy list are Jesus of Nazareth - Jesus Christ to believers - and Saint Paul... I understand this point, but it does look somewhat artificial to include religious Christian thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas and Augustine on the list, but exclude the two persons who founded the entire Christian religion.

First, if we take the gospel stories as pointing to an historical figure, we can probably take the sayings of Jesus in either a philosophical or psychological way. However, as they stand on their own (i.e., w/o official church commentary), it is often very difficult to know what he is saying, as the statements appear to be ciphered. This is, in fact, stated up front by Jesus in one of the gospel passages.

Paul, on the other hand, can hardly be thought of as a philosopher, at least in the usual sense of the word.

Aquinas (and other schoolmen) can properly be called philosophers, inasmuch as they delineated the boundaries between natural and revealed religion, and consequently discussed subjects common to rubrics of logic, epistemology, and the other strictly philosophical categories.

In contrast, among those ranked below the top twenty in technology is Johannes Gutenberg... I find this somewhat odd given that his printing press was arguably one of the most important inventions in European history.

Gutenberg's contribution cannot be discounted at all, but is likely underrated because most people take it (and its results) for granted. There are those, such as the erstwhile cultural critic and professor of English literature, H.M. McLuhan, who would raise an eye as to Gutenberg's low ranking.

Whatever the case, in the US our schools have "black history" month (and a trip to our local library now shows a Puerto Rican history exhibit this month).  Who knows how many other "minority" histories there are?  But, at the end of the day, as this book shows, we all know who is who.

Missing ...

(Fox) Talbot, Edison, Savery, Lenoir, Arkwright...

You don't need to be a latterday Alan Turing to work out the surname of somebody I believe deserves a mention here.