Book Summary: “Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence…” by Charles Murray

Title: Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950
Author: Charles Murray
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Murray uses statistical analysis to understand what the geniuses of literature, music, art, philosophy and sciences have in common.

My Comments

Though I believe that Murray exaggerates the importance of a “few great men” in creating progress, his book is very interesting to read and his conclusions are valid.

Key Take-aways

  • Despite differences of opinion, there is a great deal of agreement as to the most important works of art and science.
  • Virtually all great human accomplishment has been since the year 800, and most of it followed 1500. The lack of progress before these times is particularly striking.
  • Virtually all of these accomplishments were made by a few thousand men.
  • From the middle of 15th Century to the beginning of 20th Century, almost everything came from Europe. As late as the 1890s, 81 percent of the significant figures were European.
  • The dominance of large capital cities in Britain, France, Germany and Northern Italy is particularly striking
  • The contributions of world outside Europe are concentrated in the arts, and many of these contributions came in the centuries from 400 to 1200.
  • After 1850, the northeast of the United States joins the short list of high contributors.
  • Artistic and scientific contributions are closely correlated with per capita GDP, capital cities and cities with elite universities.

Important Quotes from Book

The primary contribution of this book, I hope, will be to help see the pageant whole, making it possible to compare accomplishment across domains, eras, and geography.

See list of technologies invented by 800AD on page 15.

Virtually nothing of the art, literature, music, technology, mathematics, medicine, and science of 800 AD is now part of our everyday world. It was during the centuries beginning with 800 AD that our heritage in all of these fields began to accumulate.

The absence of progress is most striking in the sciences.

When you assemble the human résumé, only a few thousand people stand apart from the rest. Among them, the people who are indispensable to the story of human accomplishment number in the hundreds.

Among those hundreds, a handful stand conspicuously above everyone else. This chapter lays out the empirical phenomenon driving this conclusion, the Lotka curve.

To see just how strange the distribution of eminence is, it is useful to take a moment to think about how talents are distributed in humans. They usually take the form of a normal distribution, also known as the bell curve. The first person to put numbers to this phenomenon was a Hungarian-born American demographer named Alfred James Lotka…

Lotka’s first discovery was that about 60 percent of all the authors represented in his database had published just a single article. The other was that the number of scientists who had published greater numbers of articles plunged drastically…. In the words of Dean Simonton, so much evidence has accumulated that this general pattern may by now be said to represent an “undeniable law of historiometry.”

As the difficulty of the task increases, the curve will first become less skewed to the right, then become a normal curve, and, as the task continues to become harder, will shift toward the left-skewed shape of a Lotka curve.

Great achievement in the sciences differs from great achievement in the arts.

The artist creates something unique… A scientist’s eminence is more ambiguous. The scientist is engaged in an intellectual Easter egg hunt. The pretty eggs are hidden about the playing field in the form of undiscovered truths about how the physical universe works. Somebody is bound to find any given egg sooner or later, denying any scientist the joy of accomplishing something that would not have occurred otherwise. Nobody had to paint Las Meninas. But in a world in which the scientific method has taken hold, somebody has to discover the chemical composition of water and somebody eventually has to discover E=mc2.

The differences between great achievement in the arts and in the sciences lend themselves to a generalization: In the arts, eminence arises from genius manifested in a body of work. In the sciences, eminence arises from the importance of the discovery, which may or may not be the result of genius.

Physics didn’t really get started until the advent of experimentation and the mathematization of physical phenomena during the Renaissance. When physics finally took off, it did so rapidly and with transforming impact. Newton’s discovery of the laws of gravity and motion had a profound effect on Europe’s view of the universe and man’s place in it, rivaled only by Copernicus’s overthrow of the geocentric solar system.

Biology, chemistry, and the earth sciences follow a broadly similar pattern [as astronomy]. A handful of key advances occurred in the pre-Christian era, usually around –4C, followed by little in the next 1,500 years, and then an accelerating rate of change that steepened sharply in 18C. This sudden rise in the number of central events coincides in all three cases with major breakthroughs in understanding the inner workings of things.

The profile of events in mathematics is distinctive on two counts. First, mathematics made major substantive progress early… Second, and uniquely among all the scientific inventories, a graph of the raw number of significant events in mathematics does not continue to rise into 20C. The greatest burst of mathematical progress occurred in 17C–19C, and was already tailing off by the latter part of 19C.

In some respects, medicine looks like biology, chemistry, and the earth sciences, with some progress early on, a long period in which little happened, and a steep rise in events during 18C. But while medicine made considerable progress in preventative medicine, public health, and antisepsis before 20C, it is not clear that a trip to the doctor did much good, on average, until sometime into the 1920s or 1930s… The tipping point at which the practice of medicine became an unambiguous net plus for the patient occurred about the same time as the great cosmological discoveries in astronomy, with antibiotics being the decisive breakthrough.

The technology inventory is unique because so much occurred before the inventories even begin. By –800, a large array of key advances in the construction of large structures, road building, irrigation, transportation, and the maintenance of large cities had already been part of the repertoire of human civilizations, in some cases for thousands of years, and therefore do not appear in the roster of central events.

The story line implied by the graph on the following page is that not much happened from –800 until the middle of 15C, that really intense levels of accomplishment didn’t begin until a few centuries ago (fully half of all the significant figures do not make their appearance until 1800 or after), and that from the middle of 15C to the beginning of 20C, almost everything came from Europe. As late as the 1890s, 81 percent of the newly entering significant figures were European. The proportion contributed from anywhere but Europe never rose above 40 percent through the 1940s.

The contributions of “everywhere else” are indeed concentrated in the arts, and many of these contributions came in the centuries from 400 to 1200, when Europe was quiescent, but these amount to little in comparison to the surge of accomplishment in the arts in Europe after 1400. The overwhelming role of Europe and of the last five centuries is not changed when only the arts inventories are at issue.

The reason that any responsible history of science and technology will end up with these numbers is that historians of science and technology are all working with the same database, vast as it may be, and the data in it are, for the period we are exploring, reasonably complete. Gaps still exist, but none of them is large enough to do more than tweak the details of the large-scale portrait of what happened where.

In recognizing how thoroughly non-European science and technology have been explored, let’s also give credit where credit is due: By and large, it has not been Asian or Arabic scholars, fighting for recognition against European indifference, who are responsible for piecing together the record of accomplishment by non-European cultures, but Europeans themselves.

My contention is that there is no significant body of ignored non-European accomplishment out there for the historical period represented by –800 to 1950.

Whatever mechanism one uses to try to augment the non-European contribution in both the arts and sciences will backfire if the same selection rules are applied to Europe.

Since the emancipation of Jews in Western Europe, the percentage of significant contributions made by Jews has increased dramatically.

Since 1950 the percentage of significant contributions made by Japanese, Chinese and Koreans has also increased dramatically. There has not been a similar increase among Africans and Latin Americans.

Despite its small size, common Christian heritage, and common racial heritage, a few places within Europe have been home to far more intense levels of human accomplishment than other places… The concentration of European accomplishment from 1400–1950 is easy enough to sum up if you don’t worry about complications: the numbers of significant figures from Britain, France, and Germany dwarf those from everywhere else except Italy.

The big four alone account for 72 percent of all the significant figures from 1400–1950. Add in Russia and the Netherlands, and 80 percent of all significant figures are accounted for.

Just the five regions colored in dark blue—Île de France, Southeast England, Tuscany, Belgium, and the Netherlands—account for 26 percent of the European total. The other 24 percent come from (in order of their contribution) Bavaria, Venetia, Southwest England, Switzerland, Lowland Scotland, Lower Saxony, Saxony, Baden-Württemberg, Northeast Austria, the Italian Papal States, and Brandenburg.


            Art concentrated in Northern Italy and Flanders

            Music concentrated in Flanders with smaller concentrations in Paris and N Italy

            Literature concentrated in Paris and London

            Science concentrated in Northern Italy, Upper Rhineland and Swabia


            Art concentrated in Northern Italy, Paris and Low Countries

            Music concentrated in Northern Italy, southern Germany/Aust/Czech, London, Paris

            Literature concentrated in Southern England, Paris and SE Germany

            Science concentrated in England, Scotland, Paris, Lyon, Geneva, Lower Rhine, Swabia


            Art concentrated in North-central France, London, Low Countries

            Music concentrated in North-central France, southern Germany/Aust/Czech, N Italy

            Literature concentrated in Southern England and Paris (scattered in rest of northern Eur)

            Science concentrated in England, Scotland, Paris, Low Countries, Germany

The states that are colored represent the origins of 90 percent of the American significant figures. The small dark blue slice running in an arc from Portland, Maine, to the southern tip of New Jersey encompasses the origins of about 50 percent of them. The light blue wedge encompasses another 25 percent, and the gray fills out the remaining 15 percent. Even after factoring in the history of American expansion, the primary concentration along the northeastern coast of the United States and the secondary concentration in the belt stretching to the Mississippi is striking.

An even more striking aspect of the map is the white space covering the American South.

If instead I were to use the workplace of adult significant figures, how much would immigration change the picture?

The most visible change in the scatter plots would result from internal migration, not from movement between countries. Paris was the origin of 189 significant figures, already a large figure, but small compared to the 486 for which Paris was the workplace. For London, the comparable numbers are 113 and 295; for Berlin, they are 36 and 91.

Nearly all of the people who moved out of these countries on the periphery moved to just three places: Britain, northern France, and the United States. Britain did not end up with much of a net gain, because while 21 significant-figures-to-be moved into Britain, 16 Britons left for the New World. Only France and the United States had a substantial net gain: 31 for France and 37 for the United States.

About 22 percent of all the American significant figures from 1800–1950 were either immigrants or the children of immigrants.

For the entire period from 1500 (when the available estimates of GDP begin) to 1950, the correlation of the number of significant figures with per capita GDP is .47—a substantial relationship.

The regression analyses demonstrate that these correlations persist after controlling for factors such as population and population density, but with an unexpected twist. Richer is better, but part of the effect comes from being richer compared to other countries during the same time period, not from being richer in an absolute sense.

Dean Simonton… Using multivariate time-series analysis, he demonstrated that the strongest predictors of creativity in a current generation are the number of creative persons and products in the two preceding generations.

But cities dominate the production of significant figures even after taking population into account.

The powerful stimulus given to human accomplishment by elite cities—places such as London, Paris, Florence, Vienna, and Berlin—is borne out by the quantitative record. The

largest effects are found for the variables recording the size of the largest city, whether a city was a political or financial center, and whether a city was home to a leading university.

Two characteristics of a city are systematically associated with the appearance of significant figures who grow up there: whether the city is a political or financial center, regardless of its population, and whether the city is the location of an elite university. The effect of these latter two variables is quite large.

Purpose: A major stream of human accomplishment is fostered by a culture in which the most talented people believe that life has a purpose and that the function of life is to fulfill that purpose.

Autonomy:  A major stream of human accomplishment is fostered by a culture that encourages the belief that individuals can act efficaciously as individuals, and enables them to do so.

The magnitude and content of a stream of accomplishment in a given domain varies according to the richness and age of the organizing structure.

By organizing structure, I mean the framework for the conduct of science or the arts and the criteria according to which a society evaluates achievement.

In summary: To explain the onset of a prolonged increase in the rate of accomplishment, a first place to look is changes in the organizing structure. In virtually every instance, it is possible to identify substantial ways in which the principles, craft, or tools associated with a given field had changed, or were in the process of changing, when the burst began.

Principal message, it is this: Excellence exists, and it is time to acknowledge and celebrate the magnificent inequality that has enabled some of our fellow humans to have so enriched the lives of the rest of us.

The book’s secondary message, more implicit than explicit, is this: It is also time to render unto equality that which is appropriate to equality, and unto excellence that which is appropriate to excellence.

Or to recast the first two-thirds of the Aristotelian principle: Human beings enjoy watching the exercise of the realized capacities of their species, and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized.

For More Learning

For a deeper understanding of Technology, History and Progress, see Learning Paths.

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