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.
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.
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.
Read the rest at the Brussels Journal.