Ms. Geek Speaks: ‘Human Accomplishments’ through a Eurocentric POV

The #WhiteInventions on Monday morning, July 11, 2016, resulted in this graph being posted. After a little sleuthing, I discovered the source: a book called “Human Accomplishment” by Charles Murray. Charles Alan Murray is a 73-year-old American political scientist who received a BA from Harvard in history and a PhD from MIT in political science. This does not, however, make him a scientist in terms of biology or technology.

charles murray copyHis 2003 book, “Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences,  800 BC to 1950” is supposedly the ranking of well-known scientists and artists, fields that Murray is not considered an expert in.

Murray had previously argued there were “genetic reasons African Americans possessed significantly lower average IQs than white or Asians” in his “The Bell Curve” according to Julian Coman of the Telegraph. “The methodology of Human Accomplishment is disarmingly simple. For five years, he buried himself in 167 encyclopedias from around the world, adding up the column inches accorded by experts to the most significant scientists and artists throughout history, stopping the count at 1950.”

However, other critics have pointed out that his methodology was more simplistic. Writing for the New York Times, Judith Shulevitz wrote, “In his new book Murray has identified the 4,002 best scientists and artists known to encyclopedia editors, rating these great men (and occasionally women) according to how many column inches the editors have chosen to devote to each of them.”

Shulevitz identifies another problem: “As for the problem of bias against non-European contributions to the sciences, though he hasn’t used any encyclopedias published in the Far or Middle East or in the languages of those parts of the world, he has compensated by using the most authoritative reference work available, the 18-volume ”Dictionary of Scientific Biography,” which ‘includes experts in Arabic, Indian and East Asian science drawn from universities around the world.'”

Further, she notes, “His claim is simply that if some non-Western discovery or achievement isn’t included in his sources, then we don’t have to worry about it. Moreover, he excludes from his book any work of art or invention not attributed to a single individual, thereby helping to ensure that the cultures that most privilege autonomy and individualism — that is to say, Western cultures — would rise to the top of his lists. (This method probably also underestimates the strength of contemporary scientific achievements, often the result of teamwork — which may help explain Murrray’s theory of decline.)”

William R. Thomas writing for The Atlas Society also noted “For someone at pains to avoid the appearance of bias, Murray appears to have done little to access non-Western sources. For example, the sources for the Western literature inventory include three U.S. sources, one Italian, one Brazilian, one Spanish, and three German. Where are Russian or Polish scholars, the Japanese—or the French, for that matter? There should be thorough surveys of Western literature available from at least some of these countries. Murray’s sources in effect appear to heavily reflect U.S. and German views, and he isn’t in a position to test thoroughly for consistency given the limits of this pool of sources.”

Thomas further states, “Murray relies almost entirely on materials in Roman-alphabet languages, leaving translations as his only means—with a few exceptions—of using non-Western histories and compendia. The exceptions are in Japanese, where, with the help of a Japanese graduate student, Murray was able to include some arts sources.”

Worse, Thomas notes that some English sources were ignored. “It also happens that there is in English a well-regarded compendium of Chinese science and technology. However, Murray claims that this work could not be included among his sources without admitting compendia focused on individual European countries such as Germany (doing this would inflate the German numbers at least as much as the Chinese).” These are, Thomas feels especially problematic because while “Murray is right to insist on uniform standards of measurement across sources. But the lack of attention to non-Western sources is a serious shortcoming for a book that makes universal claims about human history.”

This book doesn’t exclusively vindicate white supremacy. Jews were not in Europe or in the U.S. considered white or at least white enough. And this book includes, “much space to the disproportionately high rates of exceptional achievement among modern Jews as he does to the disproportionately low rates among women and non-Westerners, rates that appear to persist even into the present.” That means the statistics do not only reflect the achievements of whites, but also of Jews.

The tactic of excluding Chinese sources also all means Murray excluded research about the people who wrote the first encyclopedias and the Chinese make up one-fifth of the world population. He also excluded other resources from Asia which is about 60 percent of the world population. That’s a considerable number of people and that means doesn’t even try to be thorough on the histories of African nations.

One must also consider the dates. Why 800 BC? It was the beginning of the Iron Age in Central Europe. It is also after the time of of Mesopotamia, one of the so-called cradles of Western civilization which is located in West Asia; it is after the time of Nefertiti, Tutankhamun and Ramesses II.

Why end in 1950, before the race to be the first in space and the first to put a person on the moon and before the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s Movement helped level the playing and working field?

Murray isn’t an expert in science or the arts. Reviewers found his research flawed, making his conclusions incomplete. Yet as #WhiteInventions Tweets indicate, he has provided fuel for those who want to insist on the genetic superiority of white people.

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