NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Accounting for Human Achievement

November 7, 2003

In his new book, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, Charles Murray identifies the 4,002 most significant figures in the arts and sciences throughout human history. He subjects these individuals and the cultures in which they thrived to quantitative analysis.

Murray finds that nations and societies have discovered great things at irregular times and in scattered settings:

  • An overwhelming proportion of the most accomplished individuals are found in Europe from 1400 to the mid-19th century -- but the frequency of outstanding artistic accomplishment has since declined.
  • Specific nations and cities have fostered disproportionately large shares of high-achieving individuals for a time before declining, but the single most important factor explaining continuing streams of accomplishment is the existence of exemplary individuals in preceding generations.
  • Some 98 percent of the high achievers were men, since the obstacles to women's achievement have only recently been removed.
  • It wasn't until the 19th century, when -- as more recently with women -- the status of Jewish people improved in some western countries; since then a disproportionately large share of high-achievers have been Jews.

A number of factors account for the rise and decline of outstanding accomplishment in human civilizations, says Murray. Economic prosperity makes a difference, as does freedom of action for artists and scientists. Human accomplishment is also fostered by cultures in which the most talented people believe that life has purpose and individuals can act effectively to fulfill that purpose.

Source: Charles Murray, "Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950," Book Summary, October 2003, American Enterprise Institute.


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