Achievements and their causes

Posted: Nov 04, 2003 12:00 AM

In this age of specialization, experts are said to know more and more about less and less. There are undoubtedly specialists who can tell you more than you ever wanted to know about toenails or toads. However, the grand study of sweeping events has not died out entirely.

What could be more sweeping than a book titled "Human Accomplishment"? It is Charles Murray's latest book and it is dynamite.

The subtitle spells out how sweeping this book is: "The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950." It is more than a historical survey of the landmark figures in many fields from various cultures around the world. It is an analysis of where, why, and how historic advances have been made in some places and not in others.

Just to pose this as a question goes against the grain of today's multiculturalism, in which all cultures are seen as equally valuable, and the non-judgmentalism that is too squeamish to declare some achievements more important than others.

Charles Murray, however, clearly believes that being able to cure fatal diseases is more important than some other things and that Rembrandt was a greater artist than your local sidewalk cartoon sketcher. Most people might regard this as obvious common sense but some of the intelligentsia may be seething with resentment at seeing their pet fetishes ignored.

Once you begin looking at the history of great human achievements -- whether in science or art, mathematics or literature -- you discover that they are not random over time or random from one place to another. They cluster in time and in space.

Landmark figures in Western art clustered in the northern half of the Italian peninsula in the 15th to the 17th centuries and on the Channel coast of France and the Netherlands in the 19th through the mid-20th centuries. Landmark figures in literature, science and music have all had their own special concentrations at different times and places.

What never seems to have happened, either in Western or non-Western civilizations, was a random distribution of achievements. Even at the individual level, achievements are skewed.

Among professional golfers, just over half have never won any tournament, anywhere. Even among the relatively small number who have ever won a major golf tournament, more than half have won just one. But Jack Nicklaus won 18.

Cities have been the scene of more than their share of great achievements in many fields. This is not just because many people have been concentrated in cities. Even in proportion to population, cities have turned out far more than their share of leading figures.

Particular groups have also had more than their share of spectacular achievements. In the first half of the 20th century, Jews won 14 percent of all Nobel Prizes in literature and the sciences combined, and in the second half of the century they won 29 percent. In both periods, Jews were less than one percent of the world's population.

Once we understand that achievements are not random and never have been, the question that arises is: What causes so much more achievement in some places than in others, at some times rather than others, and among some individuals and groups more than others?

Charles Murray's answers to these big question are too long for a column and can be found in the book. But just to have established a basis for such questions is a major contribution.

Let us not forget that we live in a time when a failure to have a random distribution of individuals and groups in the workplace or on an academic campus is regarded as a sign of bias or discrimination. The very thought that groups might differ among themselves in the required skills, attitudes and performances is anathema to many in academia, the media and even the courts.

This study of landmark achievements is itself a landmark achievement. If it does no more than get people to think about things that have been accepted as social dogmas, that will be a major contribution.

Trending Townhall Video