»  National Review

December 22, 2003

  The Datanaut

Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950
by Charles Murray


[NB: This review is as it appeared in the print edition of National Review, with one small change. The editor through whose hands the piece passed changed the second word of the review to "have." I believe this to be grossly ungrammatical, for reasons I explained in Chapter 6 of Prime Obsession. The English word "data" is not a plural. It is an aggregative noun, like "rice" or "grass," referring to a large mass of stuff made up of tiny objects more or less indistinguishable from one another. Such nouns take the singular form of the verb in English: "The rice is cooked." It is indeed true that the Latin word data is a plural; but then, as I keep telling editors, if the Latin word is what they intend, they should print it in italics …]

Never has data been accessible in such quantities to so many people. Any middle-class citizen can, in the comfort of his own study, with a few movements of his fingers bring to his eyes the entire 2000 U.S. Census, or the price of every stock on all the world's bourses, or the past and future positions of all the planets and their moons. He can then inspect those numbers for as long as he wishes. That will not usually be very long. Even for the professional demographer, or stockbroker, or astronomer, the pleasures of browsing data on that scale soon pall. Our citizen soon finds himself like a ship's passenger looking out across the ocean on a calm day. With a maximum of concentration he might notice a line of whitecaps here, a change of sea color there; but the sheer quantity of near-featureless water soon wearies his attention, and he turns with relief to the variety offered by his book, his game, his companions.

To the master mariner, of course, the ocean is anything but featureless. It is a cathedral of complexity — of shoals and deeps, rocks and reefs, tides and currents. Those whitecaps, that color change, for him are freighted with meaning. They are signs, markers. Any particular sign might be ambiguous; but taken together, and weighed with the judgment attained through long experience, they reveal deep truths, and guide his ship safely to harbor.

I once suggested to Charles Murray that the true object of his intellectual passion is not sociology, or psychology, or psychometry, but statistics. Murray: "If you had said 'data,' you would have been nearer to the truth." That was when he was still at work on Human Accomplishment. Reading the book now, I see the wisdom of his reply. Murray is a master mariner of data — a datanaut, as it were. The science of statistical analysis supplies his tool kit — his sounding line and sextant — but his passion is for the numbers, and the truths that lie hidden in their dim green depths.

The data set he investigates in Human Accomplishment, the ocean on which he sailed for the five years it took him to write this book, is the record of accomplishment at the highest levels in art, music, literature, philosophy, and science. Murray thus confronted a very daunting problem right away. In one important respect this data set is unlike the census, the stock tables, or the ephemeris: It is not numeric. It is not recorded in neat ranks of digits, but scattered wordily across biographical dictionaries, encyclopedias, indexes, and compendiums. As a lover of poetry, I am certain that Shelley gave us more than did Southey; as a student of mathematics, I know very well that the accomplishments of Hilbert exceed those of Hausdorff; but if you asked me to supply quantitative justification for those statements, I would be at a loss.

Not so our fearless datanaut. For this book Murray has assembled a judicious selection of sources — those catalogs, encyclopedias, and so on, all of them listed in an appendix. He has painstakingly combed through his sources, measuring column inches and counting index entries. He has devised a sensible and rigorous definition of "significance" in the areas of endeavor he is covering. From all that, he has made a list of 4,002 "significant figures" in 21 categories of accomplishment under the five broad headings I mentioned above. To give some examples from the borderlines: The 479 significant figures in Western art include Stubbs, but not Landseer. In the 239 for technology, there is Fahrenheit but not Réaumur; in the 39 for Chinese philosophy, Kang Youwei but not Zhang Binglin; in the 522 for Western music, Salieri but not Pescetti.

Murray has further supplied a ranking — he calls it an "index" — for each figure in each category, from 100 for the figure taking up most space in his sources, to 1 for the figures (there are lots of ties, especially at the low end) taking least. Thus in chemistry, Lavoisier has index 100, while in Western music, Salieri is a mere 5.

This all sounds like pretty dry stuff. Fortunately Murray is a fluent and engaging writer. His method does, of course, raise many questions; but he has the knack of anticipating each question just as it forms in the reader's mind. How do we know that a different selection of sources would not yield different results? Isn't he just measuring fame, rather than accomplishment? How can such a study avoid "epochcentrism" — that is, inflated attention to more recent accomplishments? Do these ranked tables and indexes actually reflect something real in the real world? A dozen or more similar queries will easily occur to the reader. Murray has thought of every one. A social and hospitable man with a wide circle of acquaintances in all walks of life, he has chewed over all these issues. You might not agree with his conclusions, of course; but you will have to get up early in the morning to think of a methodological objection that has not already occurred to Murray.

Much more interesting than the questions posed by his methodology are those that arise from his results. Those results are not, on the whole, very surprising in themselves. Tops in Western music? Beethoven, Mozart. Mathematics? Euler, Newton. Astronomy? Galileo, Kepler. They do, though, imply some surprising conclusions. For instance, Murray's analyses seem to show that the rates of human accomplishment in both arts and sciences (yes, yes, allowing for population — never imagine you can think of something Murray has not already thought of) have been declining since the middle of the 19th century. Why should this be? Why, to take another conundrum, did the emancipation of European Jews lead to such a huge surge in numbers of Jewish significant figures, while no corresponding surge followed the emancipation of women?

Many of the issues that arise from Human Accomplishment trespass, as that last question does, into the carefully tended, vigilantly policed gardens of Political Correctness. I have already seen it argued that Murray has merely created a picture of human accomplishment in his own image, populated by those Dead White Males whom middle-aged conservatives esteem. Murray has thought through all that, too, and offers convincing refutations of such charges. It is simply the case that practically all the great accomplishments of the human race since a.d. 1400 have belonged to European men. Why this should have been so is another of the very interesting questions raised by this book. So far as "European" is concerned, Murray is inclined to think that much of the credit should go to Christianity, which of all religions seems best able to provide us with a purpose in life, and a motivation for attempting great deeds.

That, I suppose the critics will say, is yet more smug solipsism. Possibly so: but then, let's see your methodology; let's watch you sail this ocean; let's see whether you can come safely to shore — and, when you have docked, let's see what new understandings, what maps and charts, you have brought home with you.