Is Giftedness Tied to Cultural Values?

Human Accomplishment

By Gwydion M. Williams

  • What’s mistaken and what’s useful in Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment (a geographic / historic survey of famous names, mostly dead white males.) How he fails to mention evidence that most US creativity comes from recent arrivals, while being fully assimilated appears to depress creativity.


Seeking Wisdom

In 1492, Columbus was trying to find a new link to the prosperous cultures of East Asia, after the Islamic World cut Europe’s direct links. Unexpectedly, Columbus found two huge new continents—a point he never properly understood, but which boosted European culture as a whole. Arguably, the existence of this ‘New World’ fuelled the growth of new science and new art, proving dramatically that there were huge areas of knowledge where the ‘ancients’ were wrong.

Europe after 1492 entered into a self-reinforcing cycle of new discovery, invention and self-improvement. Yet Adam Smith reckoned that China was richer than any part of late 18th century Europe, itself hugely advanced since the time of Columbus. (You’ll find Smith’s comments very easily via the index in The Wealth Of Nations, but I’ve never seen the New Right take the least notice when Adam Smith said something that does not suit their current outlook.)

Despite the wealth and sophistication of other cultures, it’s clear that something unique happened in Europe from the 16th to 19th centuries. But exactly when and where did it happen? And why did it happen?

Many writers have noticed that mediaeval alchemists had the experimental method—investigate on the basis of a theory, but be ready to change your view according to what you find. Mediaeval theologians had a kind of ‘theory of everything’, that could potentially be linked to mystical or alchemical ideas—and actually was linked in the work of men like Newton and Kepler.

Latin Christianity also had no strong tradition of secret or esoteric knowledge. Announcing your best discoveries to the world was a heritage of the Ancient Greeks, the practice of at least some Greek thinkers, and those were the people whose books and reputations survived the ages.

No one in Western Europe objected to open publication of new knowledge in Latin, the standard language of education in their culture. Not many believed that there was some body of esoteric secret knowledge: Newton was probably the last substantial thinker to take such ideas seriously. So European culture was pre-adapted for the scientific revolution which failed to occur in other cultures. Cultures that were sophisticated but burdened by ancient traditions that they viewed as sacred and unalterable.

Is that it? Or is there more?

Charles Murray’s book Human Accomplishment performs the interesting statistical exercise of putting together a large number of reference works and seeing which names emerge as significant between 800 BC and 1950. He then maps this against their nationality, region and date to see what patterns may emerge. And indeed there are patterns, not all of them expected. And not all of them noticed by Murray. He avoids many things the awkward mass of evidence in favour of the notion that high achievers include a disproportionate number of homosexuals. It does seem true, and there are also other notable names whose approach to sex was reproductively negative. But that is another topic. Here, I am looking at what’s useful in the data he actually collected.

A bias towards Dead White Europeans should not obscure the interesting patterns Murray finds among those Dead White Europeans, the main creators of global culture between 1500 and 1900. He makes a useful measurement of a few hundred individuals whose creative achievement are consider important by Western sources.

Regarding the origins of these exceptional named individuals, Murray’s own data should tell him that the dominant element is social, humans making each other usefully creative by their multiplex interactions. But you’d not expect such a conclusion from the co-author of The Bell Curve, which cited genetic differences as the reason for existing inequalities. Yet his hard facts show puzzling outbreaks of high-achievement in particular places, and a shortage of exceptional achievements in other places that look just as suitable. Achievement differs markedly between groups that apparently have the same opportunities. It unexpectedly appears and disappears, as with Italy pioneering the modern West and then lapsing into relatively low achievement in the 18th century. This cannot be explained by wholly genetic causes: it might be a mix of culture and genes, but makes more sense as a purely cultural process.

In Chapter 13, Murray identifies a European core where most of the creativity has taken place over the past few centuries. He looks at various possible causes, including war, and conclude that they do not explain it. He does not notice that his ‘creative core is approximately the parts of Europe that have not been conquered by outside or alien forces since the fall of the Roman Empire. I’d already come to believe that this area and its special history were the key. Only in Europe did each successive wave of barbarians extend civilisation to their own homelands. Starting with the Classical-Greek conquerors of the Mycenaeans and ending with the Germanic and Slavonic conquerors of the Roman Empire.

What didn’t make sense to me was the exclusion of Norway and Sweden from the ‘creative core’, especially since Denmark is included. Not only were they connected socially, they also produced major figures from a relatively small and sparse population: Norway’s population density is the lowest in Continental Europe.

Doing a quick count of a few of Murray’s categories, I found that Denmark and Sweden were comparable for arts and science. Norway seemed short of major scientists, but had notable musicians and a surprising tonnage of literary figures. I suspect that Murray failed to allow for population density and that the ‘core’ would change shape if this were done. It’s also evidence there is a lot more to ‘giftedness’ than genes, because it is unlikely that the various Scandinavian peoples are much different genetically.

Despite such flaws, there’s a lot more about regional patterns in the book, and it is worth reading for that much.

Almost everything west of Vienna is a hybrid of Latin and Germanic culture—as are some things east of Vienna, but Europe east of Vienna has much more cultural diversity. It might be that the Latin / Germanic cultural hybrid had particular advantages, but also it is vastly less damaging for a culture to be conquered by another branch of its own civilisation, rather than something less familiar. In Spain, North African Muslims overran the sophisticated culture of Visigoths. Then sophisticated Muslim-ruled Spain was reconquered by armoured barbarians, who invented European colonialism as a way of continuing the fight. Spain and Portugal led the European expansion into the wider world, but there was very little original science or art. The best was Cervantes, whose origins were Jewish.

Both conquest and resisting conquest would be expected to narrow and harden a culture. The less familiar the culture, the worse the damage is likely to be. The repeated conquests of the various ancient civilisations by steppe-nomads must have been hugely damaging. There is general agreement that the Russians were knocked back centuries by their conquest by ‘Tartars’—actually the westernmost extension of the Mongol Empire.

When Europe was becoming formidable in the 18th century, China and India were ruled by dynasties with a steppe-nomad origin; the Mughals in India and the Manchus in China. The Manchus also had an apartheid system, with the majority Chinese at the bottom and minorities like the Tibetans shown favour. The earlier Mongol ruler of China had also had a racist system. Under Kublai Khan there were four levels; first Mongols, then other Steppe-Nomads, North Chinese ranked third and South Chinese at the bottom. This was very damaging for the Sung-Chinese tradition, which had been highly creative, but had been limited to the South after pre-Mongol nomads had conquered North China.

The Ming dynasty came between Mongol and Manchu. But it never felt itself safe: the early Ming emperors had to face Timurlane, and in fact faced him successfully. Yet it was the general steppe-nomad threat that led to the abandonment of the Ming sea voyages a few decades before Europe’s own navigators began to expand. The Chinese did not however miss the opportunity to ‘discover Europe’: they already knew about it, a cold and impoverished place beyond the Islamic world. Chinese scholars had even made maps of Russia and Eastern Europe for their Mongol overlords. But nothing they saw was very memorable, in the way that the Far East was fascinating to those few Europeans who visited it.

That was the Mongol heritage in Asia. In mediaeval times, they had also damaged Europe east of Vienna, but got no further. Their aggression got diverted towards the Islamic world, helping to end its ‘Golden Age’.

Western Europe from maybe the 15th century got into a cycle of positive feedbacks. Ships from Europe’s Atlantic Coast took wealth from the rest of the world, by trade or by plunder. Gold from the New World paid for the goods of South Asia and East Asia, which were generally more sophisticated than anything Europe could produce at the time. 18th century British aristocrats would send off to China for sets of crockery emblazoned with their family crests. Towards the end of the century, innovators like the Wedgwood family produce decent English ‘China-ware’.

Murray gives a lot of names and graphs, some of them useful. A conspicuous omission is a comparison between European nations, or between Western Europe and its colonies. You can deduce it backwards from his figures for Jewish accomplishments (which I’ll discuss later). Murray must have calculated the number of outstanding achievers per million of population, which would be valuable for assessing the accomplishments of various nations. But we do not get those figures.

We do get an interesting list of names in Appendix 5, The Roster of Significant Figures, along with national origin and ‘period in which they were active’. This is usually the year in which they turned 40 but less for those who died young, like Keats. That makes it biased: someone else’s statistical study showed that poets really are more likely to die young than other creative people. Few physicists and even fewer mathematicians have produced significant work after they were 35, whereas Defoe was nearly sixty when he published Robinson Crusoe, his first novel.

In the 20th century, it was widely suggested that Old Europe had completed its own ‘golden age’ and was sinking into mediocrity. At the height of the Cold War, it was Russia and America who were the Youthful Giants, and Brezhnev at the height of his power looked very formidable. We know now where that led, and the USA’s current dominance may not be much more solid. The often-quoted advantage in GNP growth does not allow for the USA’s fast-growing population. GNP growth per head is much the same in ‘Old Europe’ and the USA.

Murray’s data indicates that the USA has been a sink of creativity. He is careful not to let it show, of course. He does note how much less creative the Southern USA is. Since the South is gaining cultural ascendancy, we may expect things to get worse. Sub-Americanisation would be a new Dark Age, if it succeeded in its drive to remake the whole world in its own image.

In the USA, the North produced 184 significant figures and the states of the Confederacy 24, a 7 to 1 ratio. (Ibid, page 305). The North has generally had a larger population, but not that much larger. My own quick counts are for the USA compared to the four largest West European nations, for Significant Individuals with dates of 1800 onwards. The figures are complex and hard to interpret. The USA had 5.3 million people in 1800, 31.4 million in 1860, almost 76 million in 1900 and 179.3 million in 1960. Still, a rough assessment indicates that the US has been less creative per million of population. Thus

Maths Astronomy Medicine Technology Art Literature Music
USA 4 24 34 46 24 55 18
Britain 15 14 18 41 16 70 8
France 18 4 12 22 39 78 42
Germany 25 12 16 26 27 65 33
Italy 5 1 2 3 7 20 20

If there were a plausible way for Murray to make the USA’s genius-per-million results look respectable, I assume that we’d be given it. What he omits is probably what he dare not publicise. The USA’s creative north-eastern core is anyway showing signs of losing authority and creativity. Without the large inflow of talented Jews, this might have happened much sooner and more drastically. Yet, as I said earlier, it is the much-less-creative south and west that are becoming dominant.

The raw data suggests that the current Sub-Americanisation would be enormously wasteful of the global ‘raw material’ that it is seeking to absorb. But you have to do your own digging to find this out.

There are also oddities in the non-US data. Murray’s figures for Britain are sometimes split between England and Scotland, but not always. He also seems to regard Wales as an English region—at least he lists Monmouth-born Alfred Wallace as English. Still, Scotland has one-sixth of the medical high achievers and one-quarter of the technologists, from a population maybe one-tenth of England’s. Literature would probably show the same advantage, but it is all lumped as British.

It’s because of such defects that I’ve not taken my analysis of Murray’s stuff any further. It might be worthwhile to put all of his figures on a database and re-analyse it. But what’s really needed is a much fuller analysis, of the sort I will describe in another article.

I’d been looking for a comparison to the USA, but what also emerged was the relatively low creativity of Italy. This fits overall impressions: there was an ‘engine of creativity’ within Italy from maybe the 14th to 17th centuries, which then shut down or went quiet. There has been some recovery in the 20th century, impressive literature and film-making: maybe Italy would look better without Murray’s 1950 cut-off. Another Renaissance might occur at some future date, provided that its specific cultural features are not junked in favour of Sub-Americanisation. (The sort of thing that Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi seems to want)

Creativity is a social force that often runs in cycles and can occur or re-occur in the most unlikely places. England had been a marginal and imitative place up until the 17th century. Shakespeare complained about the pervasive Italian influence in his day, yet also made Italy the setting for a huge number of his plays, suggesting a complex attitude. An attitude that reminded me of current Third World attitudes to the USA, except that Italy then was a centre of genuinely new ideas, whereas the USA specialises in huge power crudely applied.

In Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, foreign nations and especially China helped inspire the ideas of the Enlightenment, the conviction that rational government with minimal religion was a sound idea. Meantime science took off, justified by the new astronomy that developed by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton. There was also a mass of chemical and physical discoveries that often fed into new industries: James Watt got his understanding of heat and steam from Joseph Black, a friend of Adam Smith and also James Hutton, who used sound geological arguments to conclude that the Earth showed “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”

Meantime the needs of navigation encouraged Cassini to apply Kepler’s Laws to the moons of Jupiter and work out a Standard Universal Time. This allowed longitude to be worked out from land-based observatories, and showed the true size of Europe for the first time, rather smaller than earlier map-makers had made it. Longitude at sea needed the chronometer and reliable lunar tables, which came later but as part of the same process.

The first stages of Western Europe’s take-off happened amidst religious wars, indeed. But there were Englishmen who gladly sailed as part of the ‘Spanish’ Armada of 1588. The Armada was a collective effort by the ships from various Catholic nations to collect a multi-national invasion army from what is now Belgium, a force under the command of an Italian general, the Duke of Parma. Refugee Spanish Protestants did what they could to support the English Protestant cause, and later wrote poems in Spanish celebrating the Armada’s defeat. Meantime France was split between pro-Armada and anti-Armada factions, with the Armada’s defeat helping the triumph of an alliance of Protestants and moderate Catholics which secured France for the grandfather of Louis 14th.

The Wars Of Religion were very much a family quarrel, in which each side understood the other’s position, no matter how much they disliked it. The world outside of Europe was often baffling, but was not hugely threatening. The Ottoman Turks were past their best and never a serious threat after the failed siege of Vienna in 1683.

England first got recognition for 17th century scientists like Newton and Boyle, with Boyle originally having the higher standing. No one in the 17th century took Shakespeare very seriously: only in the 18th century did he come to be generally seen as a major dramatist and poet, and even this was disputed. In Shakespeare’s own time, it was his long and uninteresting epic poems that were the most highly regarded.

Going back before Shakespeare’s time, England in the 15th century was torn by the baronial power-games that Victorians called the War Of The Roses. To outsiders, England would have seemed a classical ‘failed state’, while its cultural distinctiveness would have seemed unimportant and unlikely to ever yield anything significant. One should bear this in mind when considering modern arguments for ‘Humanitarian Intervention’.

The USA is an offshoot of Europe, primarily of England. It therefore has no understanding of how nations are actually put together. The English settlers in North America already knew how to be a modern nation before they chose to become distinctive. And the core of the USA’s constitution at both state and federal level is the English government’s schema for its North American colonies, where they mixed local elected representatives with a Governor appointed from London. The independent USA kept Governors and Presidents with a power separate from the legislature, whereas most other democracies combine government and legislature.

The USA’s greatest strength has been the realisation of ideas that began elsewhere. This was true of the iron warships that played such a part in their Civil War. Also automobiles and aircraft: the Wright brothers achieved the first flight but others were close behind. Regarding computers, the key ideas were developed by two rather odd men: firstly Alan Turing, Englishman and homosexual; and then John Von Neumann, an Hungarian Jew who fled to the USA. Britain and the USA separately built some working computers during the war, but the British government successfully uprooted its own program in a mania for military secrecy. Only in the USA did the Military-Industrial Complex successfully turn state-funded weapons research into useful consumer products. This was not allowed in Britain, where it was purely used to make better means of killing people.

The American space program that put men on the moon was essentially the German space and rocket program, begun independently in the 1920s and then taken up by the Nazis. The people involved were mostly not Jewish and they were not Nazi either. They’d work with any government that would fund their dreams, and also had no qualms about producing weapons of war.

Atomic weapons got their inspiration from a British program that got transferred during the wartime alliance, along with radar. The Manhattan Project was also boosted by refugee German-Jewish and Austrian-Jewish physicists, though they were joined by some very fine US-born physicists, almost all of them also Jewish.

Murray gives figures for Jewish achievements between 1870 and 1950 in Chapter 12 of his book. I reproduce some them here:

Significant Jews Significant Non-Jews Adjusted ratio
USA 48 261 5:1
Britain 8 170 8:1
France 18 185 19:1
Germany 40 155 22:1

I’d be more interested the data that Murray fails to give, which is the creativity per million of the entire populations of those four countries, and of the other countries he has data for. He does say “the numerator is Jewish significant figures per million Jewish population. The denominator is Gentile significant figures per million Gentile population.” (Notes to table, page 280—he does not follow the scientific habit of giving it a convenient title like 12.8.). But while Murray must have calculated the number of significant persons per million, he chooses not to give the raw data.

If you counted 300,000 Jews in a population of 50 million Britons, that would give you figures of 26.6 significant figures per million among British Jews, and 3.4 per million for non-Jewish Britons, close to the 8:1 ratio he gives. If you count 5.5 million US Jews, that’s 8.27 per million, and just 1.09 per million for 243 million non-Jews. Which is closer to 8:1 than the 5:1: we are dealing with changing population numbers between 1870 and 1950 and no doubt my estimates could be improved upon. But what seems unambiguous is a deficiency of ‘significant figures’ among non-Jewish citizens of the USA.

Murray’s work reveals a depressant effect from being fully assimilated within the USA, compared to the source cultures of Britain, France and Germany. That he failed to mention this remarkable discovery is not so surprising, given his ‘libertarian’ outlook. US libertarians believe that no one can be free unless they have been Sub-Americanised, made into a copy of existing US values. This is the ultimate Good Thing, and evidence against this view cannot be considered.

Ideologies of freedom have always confused the idea of choice with the idea of good choices. Someone choosing to do things that you dislike does not get classed as part of ‘Freedom’. Which means that you can be an authoritarian libertarian without too much dishonesty. People failing to be spontaneously free need a helping hand, or even a helpful ‘kick in the pants’. Paul Bremer in Iraq was in line with ‘Neo-Conservative’ thinking when he said “We’re going to be on the ground in Iraq, as soldiers and citizens, for years. We’re going to be running a colony almost.” (Financial Times, 28th June, Promising Postscript [sic].).

There is also no reason why freedom should be creative, or why creativity should not flourish in a repressive or discriminatory society. France produced many excellent scientists under the corrupt monarchy that collapsed at the end of the 18th century—the brilliant chemist Lavoisier was so much part of the corruption that he was guillotined by a revolutionary regime that was broadly in favour of science and rationalism.

The idea that you need a ‘free society’ to get good science is a pure myth, a fairy-story shared by liberal-left and libertarians, but not actually true. What is needed is a state that will tolerate heretical ideas: and for this a tolerant autocracy will do fine. A narrow-minded democracy can be the most repressive system of all—the USA is currently moving in that direction. Also minorities that value education can flourish despite great hostility from the wider society: Jews are the best-known case, but it is also be true of Armenians and other peoples who adapted a tribal outlook to a cosmopolitan way of earning a living.

British Jews also look to be more creative than US Jews, allowing for their much smaller numbers. This may be misleading, and I suspect that the inclusion of significant figures after 1950 would correct the impression. There are fewer Jews in Britain, indeed, and most of them have been settled for much longer and have had time to fully integrate. Britain had never much encouraged immigration, was mostly encouraging emigration, in fact. There was also widespread racist or anti-foreign objection to the wave of East Europeans and South European immigration, not just against Jews. But it seems that if Britain had allowed in a couple of million extra Jews, we’d have had maybe 50 additional significant Britons in the period.

Another interesting point would be the effect of Jews abandoning their traditional role and becoming settlers in Israel. The 1950 cut-off means that Murray’s work sheds no light on this. But a survey of Nobel prizes called The Road to Stockholm includes a suggestion that Jews in Israel are no longer as creative as Jews who remain in Europe and the USA. Again, something that could be looked at in more details by a better sort of survey.

That’s about as much as I want to say about the positive findings. The next section details how Murray produces statistical rubbish in his comparison of Europe and other civilisations.

How Murray Distorts Global Human Accomplishment

The 20th century saw an equalisation between humanity’s various civilisations, with Europe losing the ascendancy that it had built up from the 16th to 19th centuries. Also loosing the vanity it had developed during the 19th century, when it held a power-political advantage over everyone else. 18th century Europeans had seen other civilisations as worthy of respect: Adam Smith says it in The Wealth Of Nations, but very few would have disputed it at the time. It was the 19th century that ‘corrected’ such cosmopolitical views and decided that White Europeans had been superior for centuries, perhaps for ever.

Human Accomplishment shows a rigid adherence to the 19th century vision of ‘Wonderful Greeks’ followed by ‘Wonderful Us’. In the 21st century world, he would not be taken seriously if he put this vision straightforwardly. And his figures do include enough non-Westerners to make his figures plausible. Anyone likely to be reading his book would know that there were some: he gives plausible reasons for only listing a few.

As a guide to human accomplishment on a world basis, Murray is worse than useless. No music other than Western music gets included, because no names of ‘Significant Figures’ can be attached except within the Western tradition. Tables for Arabic Literature, Japanese Literature etc. are completely meaningless, because there is no rational schema for deciding how they compare with Europe, or with each other. Who can say whether Chinese art is better than Japanese art, or how they compare to the art of India? There are also quite a few human cultures whose art is not in one of Murray’s tables: Black Africa, for instance.

The art inventories give 111 significant figures for China, 81 for Japan, 479 for ‘Western’ and zero for the rest of the world. For literature, 82 significant Arabs, 83 Chinese, 43 Indians, 85 Japanese, 835 Westerners and zero for the rest of the world. What does that tell you? Nothing except that Murray has a low opinion of non-Europeans, and takes a typical American view of which of them are worth a glance.

A better method of working for ‘arts’ would be to tabulate Western references to non-Western cultures in their guides to ‘world art’, ‘world literature’ etc. This would tell you how much influence and communication there has been from a European perspective. You could also make interesting comparisons with how those civilisations rate their own people, higher or lower than Europe rates them. This would be an objective measure of the subjective viewpoint of one civilisation at one historic era, which is as far as you can meaningfully take it.

Tables for world contributions to science and technology could be more objective. Would be more meaningful, if someone gave them an honest assessment, which Murray does not. Among other things, his cut-off date of 800 BC excludes all of the civilisations of the Fertile Crescent, who invented agriculture, writing, cities, ships, astronomy, arithmetic and geometry. The Babylonia Epic Of Gilgamesh anticipates the later Classical Greek stories of semi-divine heroes. The Hindu Vedas ask questions about existence at least as penetrating as the Greeks ever managed. Plato’s well-known analogy of the soul as a charioteer resembles that in the Katha Upanishad, generally regarded as a pre-Buddhist work and thus well before Plato’s day. Plato’s Republic also introduces into Greek thinking the idea of an afterlife with systematic rewards and punishments, which definitely existed much earlier in the Hindu and Egyptian world-views.

A lot of Europe’s basic religious and political ideas came from West Asia, but Murray avoids such data (much of which cannot be credited to any known Significant Figure.) ‘Wonderful Greeks’ plus ‘Wonderful Us’ make up a single category called Western philosophy. Karl Marx is excluded, even though Locke, Nietzsche, James Mill and Herbert Spencer are all included. Chinese philosophy and Hindu philosophy get listings, but Buddhist philosophy is ignored except in as far as it remained of interest to Hinduism. (Rather like rating Jesus and St Paul by the degree to which Jewish theologians found them interesting).

The important category of political-religious thought is missing from Murray’s schema. Therefore Mohammed does not appear at all, even though his teachings created a radically new way of life that is followed by more than a billion Muslims. Science Fiction writers have sometimes played about with the idea of time travellers murdering major historical characters. Mohammed a favourite among western writers, on a general assumption that everything would have been different without his life and teachings. Or you can make him the Christian bishop of Mecca and Medina in your alternate history (although Medina would probably kept the name ‘Yathrib’ if history had gone that way.) Anyway, Mohammed is clearly in the ‘Top Ten’ of any sensible list of all-time achievements and influence. Yet he is not in Murray’s listings, whereas St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas appear as ‘Western Philosophers’.

The entire body of Islamic philosophy is dismissed as a rehash of Greek work. Considering that Islam established a way of life that was much closer to its founder’s intentions that Christianity has ever managed, I’d say this was a peculiar conclusion. Excluding Japanese philosophy as a rehash of Chinese ideas is just as odd, given Japan’s distinctiveness as a culture. Though it’s also peculiar for Japan as a medium-sized nation to be put on a par with entire civilisations. Countries like Thailand, Burma or Indonesia get nothing. I assume it reflects a US outlook, where people have distinct impressions of China, India and Japan but are mostly vague about the rest.

Murray also prefers to view ‘Human Accomplishment’ as the accomplishments of exceptional named individuals. Printing unambiguously began in China, but there isn’t any single named individual who can be credited with it. To compare the West with other traditions, it would have been better to compare inventions rather than inventors—as Murray does in one section, but still unfairly.

Europe and America have taken over the Classical Greek obsession with competitive individualism. If you want to assess the usefulness of competitive individualism, you need to allow for anonymous inventions, even undocumented inventions that appear first in one part of the world and were probably devised there.

A cut-off at 800 BC makes some sense for named individuals, but none for inventions. We mostly know where new ideas began, and before the 16th century it wasn’t often Europe. If you count Malta as Europe, then Malta has the oldest surviving stone-built buildings, at a time when Mesopotamia and Egypt still used mud-brick. But just what that culture was remains very moot. The rest of Europe just copied older ideas—there was a ditch-and-bank structure at Stonehenge before the Pyramids were raised, but the Stonehenge trilithons came much later and long after substantial stone temples had been built outside of Europe.

Beginning your survey at 800 BC gives you almost all of the significant Greeks, while excluding older thinkers who were mostly West Asian. Ending it at 1950 lets you ignore much of the 20th century’s equalisation of civilisations.

What about inventions made between the Greeks and the European Renaissance? Murray does have a ‘Roster of Central Events’, in Chapter 9. But he uses a rather odd method for compiling it, a method that just happens to give Greeks and modern Europeans a strong preponderance.

Only Greek and Roman texts are mentioned in medicine, ignoring other civilisations with sophisticated medical texts and herbs. It so happened that modern medicine grew out of a European tradition that had been rooted in Greek texts. But that is a fact of history rather than a measure of worth.

The Islamic world discovered the circulation of the blood centuries before William Harvey, but this is not mentioned. Harvey’s discovery (listed as a central event in biology) appears as “describes the heart as a pump and accurately describes the nature of the blood circulation”, which avoids the common error of saying he discovered circulation. But the Islamic discovery of blood circulation does not appear as a ‘Central Events’ in biology between the ‘Wonderful Greeks’ and ‘Wonderful Us’.

Non-Europeans get no entries at all for biology. In Chemistry, Murray includes Democritus’s philosophical idea of atoms—the category would otherwise lack anything Greek. The Arabs knew vastly more chemistry than the Greeks: Western chemistry built on their work, as is shown by words such as alkali, camphor, borax, elixir, talc and saffron, all transliterated from Arabic to Latin. Yet the ‘Arab World’ gets just two ‘Central Events’, one of which is distillation, known to the Romans and to ancient Mesopotamia.

The Classical Greeks, whose world-view was quite different from 19th century Euro-chauvinism, insisted that a lot of what they wrote was taken from Egyptian and Babylonian sources. The original thing in Greek maths was the idea of proof. Not just that a method worked, but there was some deeper reason why it would always work. This requirement for proof is a predictable product of cultures where there is debate and a circle of decision-makers who need to be convinced by arguments. Not necessarily a democracy, even a limited democracy, but a system in which no one person had the last word. This meant that arguments had to become much more objective and impersonal.

What the Greeks lacked, unfortunately, was the right criteria for judgement. Rhetorical skills were dominant, while the idea of testing your notions against the material world was seen as vulgar. Plato helped close down Greek thought, by insisting that it was only the debased and corrupted nature of the material world that stopped it from matching his own beautiful theories.

We also cannot be certain than only the Greeks made progress in the direction of modern science. We know about the Greeks because the Macedonian Empire created a pattern of Greek-speaking states that served as a model for the Roman Empire and also influenced Islam in its early days. If Demosthenes of Athens had succeeded in curbing the ambitions of Phillip of Macedon and his son Alexander, then Demosthenes would be long forgotten. Even Athens would just be another minor name from the ancient world. It was the successful Hellenic Empires and their influence on Rome that preserved a fair chunk of Greek knowledge.

We depend on copies of copies of copies of Greek works that would otherwise be lost, since no original manuscripts survive. Had these works not survived from Hellenic and Roman copies, we’d know little or nothing about them. Even as things are, scholars find references to works by famous writers that were once valued but are now lost. Even writers who were seen as top-rank but whose entire output has perished.

Islam helped preserve the Greek heritage—the story of them burning the library of Alexandria is a total lie. But Muslims added a lot, as well as preserving. It was the Islamic world that worked out the key medical ideas of contagion and inoculation. Europeans were introduced to the idea of vaccination by the Islamic World, which had in the meantime lost its science and kept knowledge alive mostly by tradition. But Islam in its great days had devised Algebra, not listed by Murray even though he credits a Greek with its beginnings and later cites the distinct and much less important development of Boolean Algebra.

If you are looking for cause and effect, Europe’s take-off shows a dependence of many things besides the Greek heritage. British science and inventiveness was secured by its Royal Society, which drew its inspiration from Elizabethan courtier / philosopher Francis Bacon. Bacon identified printing, gunpowder and the magnetic compass as three key advances over the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans. But Joseph Needham has noted that all three were Chinese inventions, transmitted to Europe via the Islamic world. Murray certainly knows of Needham’s work, but mentions it only to give excuses for discounting it. The key point that China devised Bacon’s Big Three is ignored.

In technology, the Chinese get credited with using movable type before Guttenberg, but not for originating printing as such. The exact origins of block-printing are obscure, perhaps derived from pattern-making on silk cloth, but no one doubts that it started in China, probably in the 2nd century AD. The Roman Empire had mass production of written texts, but all based on copyists with pen and ink, a much slower and cruder method. Block-printing spread from China to the Islamic world and into mediaeval Europe, creating the context in which moveable type could be accepted as a valuable step forward.

Other inventions missing from Murray’s list are the magnetic compass, the windmill and the wheelbarrow. Also the first efficient horse collar, unknown to Roman farmers whose system strangled the poor beast if it tried to use its full strength. Europeans were only able to use ploughs efficiently on heavy soils when this Chinese invention finally got to Europe, and Murray should know it but does not. He does credit China with the first use of stirrups, generally regarded as an invention of the steppe-nomads.

If you read the fine print, you find out why so many non-European Central Events’ are missing. Murray explains how he had compiled a long list of 1,560 ‘significant events’ from various source books. From these he chose 369 events that were mentioned in all the sources (Ibid, p 159). He also mentions that he breaks this rule when an event was missed by one source but he thinks it ought to qualify—he gives no clue as to how many times he has done this, nor who benefited from this flexibility.

A consequence of this method is that if 20 out of 22 sources list the Arab discoverers of blood circulation and the Andromeda Nebula, they get ‘outvoted’ by two that do not. But everyone lists the first Europeans to do substantial work on any important matter, if only to say that they were rediscovering stuff that was already known. So the European gets a ‘Central Event’, while the Arab does not. Likewise it doesn’t matter if most sources correctly recognise the non-European origins of iron bridges. Giving veto-power to mistaken listing ensures a reassuringly old-fashioned list. Dead White Europeans Rule OK.

European astronomy is build on the Greek system, which the Romans took over almost unchanged. Yet there is no serious doubt that the Classical Greek system was a simple copy of the Babylonian system. The gap in the traditional constellation pattern (covered by modern constellations like Horologium and the Southern Cross) is just that part of the sky that would not have been visible from ancient Mesopotamia—Greeks would have seen less, and Egyptians more. Also the 60-minute hour and the 60-second minute point to Babylon’s unique base-60 maths. The 360 degrees of the circle may reflect some ancient schema that tried to reconcile it with a year of 365 and a fraction days.

Five Babylonian gods were identified with the five planets known to the ancients. (Uranus and the asteroid Vesta can also be seen by a keen-eyed observer who knows exactly what to look for, but no one seems to have spotted them before they were found using telescopes). From the five planets they knew, the Babylonians devised an astrology that outlived the rest of their culture. And obviously this astrology includes the simple realisation that Venus is a single object whether it appears as Morning Star or Evening Star. Murray credits this to a Greek, Pythagoras of Samos.

The Greeks copied their system of identifying planets with gods, substituting Aphrodite for Ishtar etc. The Roman repeated the trick, with Aphrodite becoming Venus. Different mythologies never match one-to-one, of course. Experts believe that the Roman Venus was originally a goddess of gardens and fields, but later picked up Aphrodite’s role as a love goddess. Likewise the Greek Aphrodite differs significantly from Ishtar, who was also a goddess of war. Ishtar in her West-Semitic form of Astarte or Ashtoreth also got identified with the Greek Selene (moon) and Artemis (huntress).

Interestingly, the Aztecs also saw the planet Venus as significant, but as a God of War. This is strikingly different from the Greek and Roman versions, but could be a remote derivation from the love-and-war goddess Ishtar. Possibly via the Phoenicians, who worshiped Astarte. We know from Greek sources that Phoenicians sailed all of the way round Africa on an expedition sponsored by an Egyptian Pharaoh. And the scholars of Alexandria believed that you could probably reach East Asia by sailing west. There is no definite proof that anyone ever tried this, but Greeks were building on an old tradition of knowledge mixed with superstition, including Babylonian astrology. A shipload of Phoenicians arriving in the New World could have spread a lot of ideas, including the step-like pyramids that are found in both Mesopotamia and Central America. It could all be coincidence: but I’ve never seen the Ishtar connection mentioned and it may be significant.

Astrology and astronomy were not separate even in the time of Kepler, who cast horoscopes and seems to have believed in them. But astrology requires a knowledge of the apparent motion of the planets against the zodiac, required a sophisticated understanding that goes well beyond the simple recognition that the Morning Star and Evening Star are one single object. “The first complete surviving astrological text is the Venus Tablet, a collection of omens on the planet Venus compiled in the reign of the Babylonian king Amisaduqa, around 1650 BC… Originally all astrology seems to have been devoted to the king and the state, and the astrologer’s task was to offer political advice.” Microsoft Encarta 2003.

A system of astrology was also developed in China, perhaps inspired by Babylon, but using very different concepts and a different set of constellations. Western Europe inherited the Greek and Latin version of the Babylonia system, but with a considerable Arabic influence. Of the 21 brightest stars in the night sky, eight have Arabic names, five have Greek names, three have Latin names, Canopus is from ancient Egyptian and the remaining four have names given after the invention of the telescope.

Modern names include Alpha Centauri, known as air navigators Rigel Kentaurus, another half-Arab name. Rigel means ‘foot’ and is more commonly used for a star in Orion. The Arab ‘footprint’ is even bigger when it comes to less bright and famous stars: 90% of the 200 brightest stars have Arab names. (Astronomy Now, June 2004). Other Arabic astronomical terms are zenith, nadir and azimuth.

The Andromeda Nebula was first recorded by an Islamic astronomer—the Greeks must have overlooked it, since it is small and faint to the naked eye. “The Andromeda Galaxy was observed in 964 by the Arab astronomer ‘Abd Al-Rahman Al Sufi, who described it as a ‘small cloud’” (

Murray ignores the non-European discoverer and instead credits a German who did the first ‘systematic description’, a man he lists as both Simon Mayr and Simon Marius. Simon Marius also made telescopic observations independently of Galileo and studied the nova of 1604 independently of Kepler. He was guilty of some plagiarisms, but his observations of the four largest moons of Jupiter are generally considered independent. He definitely devised the names we use today: Galileo wanted to call them the ‘Medici Stars’.

Even among Greeks, Murray is sometimes unfair. It was astronomers in the Pythagorean tradition who first suggested that the Earth might not be the centre of the universe, though the fragments we have of their work suggest a baffling belief that both Sun and Earth went round an unseen ‘central fire’. But Pythagoreans suggested that both Mercury and Venus actually went round the Sun—an idea that should arise naturally from the fact that they never seem very far away from it when we look at them from Earth. Pythagoreans may have got as far as Tycho Brahe’s system of having all the planets resolving around the Sun. Aristichus (270 BC) is normally credited with originating the heliocentric system: Murray lists Aristichus under ‘significant individuals’ but omits his major contribution from ‘Central Events’.

Any list of ‘Central Events’ must credit quite a lot to the Greeks. But do not forget that they benefited from a tradition of open publication of manuscripts that were copies, sold, hoarded, remembered and cherished by later Europeans. We also know that Greek culture took its basic framework from the older cultures of Mesopotamia and West Asia, which had city-states and law-codes long before the Greeks got beyond tribal monarchies. The famous Laws of Hammurabi were part of a very old tradition. Even city-state democracy was borrowed by Greeks from the Phoenicians: the Romans recognised that their great enemy Carthage had a republican system not unlike their own, but older and with an independent origin.

The ‘dark ages’ following the fall of the Western Roman Empire were dark only in Western Europe. Byzantium kept Greek and Roman traditions alive, and was not as static as some Westerners suppose, producing the first major dome at St Sophia in the 6th century. There was vast progress elsewhere—the first iron bridges were chains fixed as suspension bridges in India and China, and not Ironbridge in the 18th century as most source books will tell you

“The first chain-link suspension bridge, the Panhogiao or Panho Bridge (c 206 BC), was built by General Panceng during the Han Dynasty. In 1665, a missionary named Kircher described another chain-link suspension bridge of 200ft (61m) made up of twenty iron links, a common bridge type built during the Ming Dynasty that was not adapted until the 19th century in America and Europe.” (cited in

The Chinese had also been drilling, for both salt and petroleum oil, for more than a thousand years before the West borrowed the method.

Still, none of these societies experience anything like Europe’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ in the 16th to 20th centuries. Perhaps it was just the accumulation of ideas within a culture that had been making steady progress since a low point in the Dark Ages. A culture that had never really resolved the tensions between its official Christianity, the much-admired Civilised Paganism of the Greeks & Romans and the heritage of Tribal Democracy from the Germanic destroyers of the Roman Empire. This may have been a fruitful tension, creating great uncertainly as to what was orthodox and what was new. Or perhaps a key breakthrough had to happen somewhere eventually. Definitely, Europe from the 16th century was not the sort of ‘Greece Mark II’ that 19th century racists made it out to be.

A single spark can start a prairie fire. But a thaw happens haphazardly by a series of events, and so does the growth of a forest on land that was clear. The European take-off in the 15th and 16th centuries involved the merger of a number of Really Big Ideas, and maybe could still have happened if one of two had been missing. My list would be:

  • Five Really Big Ideas from China: gunpowder, paper; printing; the compass; the windmill.
  • One Really Big Idea from the Hindu world: modern numerals.
  • Two Really Big Ideas from the Muslim world: algebra; vaccination. Muslims were also Europe’s immediate source for Chinese and Hindu inventions.
  • Five Really Big Ideas from the Classical Greeks: trade as a dignified activity; colonisation to distant places with no direct land link; constitutions; democracy; the idea of a discoverable mathematical basis for the world.
  • Three Really Big Ideas from Christianity: approximate equality for all male believers; the dignity of manual work; the world as an alterable place.

Four of the Greek ‘Really Big Ideas’ are of Phoenician origin, of course. Their city-states served as a model for the Greeks. And someone in West Asia devised the alphabet as a brilliant writing-system that could be used for any language and mastered quite easily by people who are not full-time scribes. Before that, West Asia also invented agriculture, cities and the bureaucratic structures that civilisation cannot exist without. All of that flowed into Europe’s pool of knowledge.

I haven’t included any Jewish influence on Europe’s ‘take-off’, because there wasn’t any. Or none unless you say that the Christian ‘Big Ideas’ were derived from Judaism, which maybe they were. But between the 2nd century separation of Christianity from Judaism and the 18th century Enlightenment, Jews had very little influence on the thinking of Christian Europeans. Christians could have usefully assimilated many Jewish ideas, including their rules on cleanliness and hygiene. But Christian Europe preferred to blame plagues on witchcraft and Jewish malice, producing the dirtiest major civilisation the world has ever seen. (See Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs & Steel for the accidental advantage this gave European colonialists.) Only in the 18th century did Jews get drawn into the process, applying their own ancient traditions of education and reasoning in new ways.

Since most non-religious thinkers keep alive the Enlightenment habit of seeing religion as negative, I must also point out that the mediaeval Church preserved the idea of democracy with its elections of bishops and other dignitaries. This idea was suppressed within Catholicism during the Counter-Reformation, but by that time it had spread to secular city-states, who could also cite Greek and Roman examples. Mediaeval religion also kept alive the Classical Greek idea of ‘discoverable truth’ via their argumentative theology, futile though most of it was as a path the understanding.

This is not the sort of thing that Murray wants to know about, of course. He knows that it’s a matter of Superior Persons, mostly Dead White Males, and that the rest are trivial nonentities. He follows Adam Smith’s example in refusing to acknowledge data that doesn’t fit, and shows the dexterity of Achilles in dodging ugly little facts that might slay his beautiful theory.

“It isn’t ignorance that makes you a fool; it’s what you know that ain’t so.” That’s a traditional US saying, and makes me think that there is hope still for the USA, if only they could acquire the very un-American attribute of modesty. But that would mean a lot of rethinking, and there are powerful forces ranged against new thought.

In Murray’s case, his mind is cluttered up with notions he won’t let go of, regardless of the evidence. Specifically, he knows that there are just a few valuable creative minds and that the rest are dross. He has shown some ingenuity in constructing a filter for them. But when the filter catches other stuff that doesn’t fit his preconceptions, he can’t or won’t take any notice.

Lots of intellectuals can’t conceive of a universe without themselves and their friends at the core of it. Which is the standard viewpoint of almost all non-intellectuals, of course—but conceiving of the universe in abstract terms is not their job, even if a few of them manage it as a hobby. Taking the most objective view possible to contemporary humans should be the task of the thinker, but most are not up to it. A majority produce nothing more than fancy justifications of existing forms—noting perhaps that objectivity is never perfect, and concluding that they therefore need not bother with it. It is more reassuring to ‘prove’ that our particular system is an inevitable end-of-history, rather than one of many possible forms. And by the same token, the merits of unfamiliar systems must be ignored. Murray boosts this error with prejudices dressed up as hard data.

Even apart from his European bias, Murray’s methods for finding ‘Central Events’ produce absurd results. He gives Hipparchus three entries in ‘Central Events’. One for his accurate estimate of the distance of the moon, which is fair enough. But two more for his star-maps and system of stellar magnitudes, which are important only because Europe happened to build on this system.

Stars nowadays are classified by a system called the Hertzsprung-Russel Diagram. It was in fact Ejnar Hertzsprung’s invention, published well before Henry Russel borrowed or re-invented it. But Russel was part of the US astronomy establishment, which had lots of good observing sites, the best telescopes and the most prestige. As with the non-discovery of the Andromeda Galaxy, Murray uses tricky words in his description, crediting Russel with a ‘central event’ because he took the star-diagram and “develops a theory of stellar evolution”. But the theory was wrong; it mistook the final red-giant stage of a star’s life for the primitive condensation of a proto-star out of a nebula. Nebular origins were true but unoriginal: both Kant and Laplace had worked out in the 18th century that stars and planets had probably condensed out of nebulas.

Both Hertzsprung and Russell built upon the earlier O, B, A, F, G, K, M system for classifying stars. “The present system of spectral types was developed around 1890 at Harvard. Edward Pickering led the effort, but most of the work was done by his female assistants, especially Williamina Flemming and Annie Jump Cannon.” (The Alchemy of the Heavens, page 49, Oxford University Press 1996.) Not mentioned as a ‘Central Events’, though Annie Cannon gets a listing as a ‘significant figure’.

To get back to the Classical Greeks. Apart from the very valuable notion of formal proof, every single element that Europeans view as Classical Greek has a clear origin in older cultures—mostly West Asian, though some was Egyptian. But this is not widely known even among the well-educated. All existing European culture makes use of the Greek cultural package, and Europeans are likely to know about every significant Greek. Likewise they all communicate efficiently with each other. Latin, French, German and English have variously served as the media for common transmission, and there were enough overlaps to ensure that nothing much got missed.

When it came to non-European cultures, it was another matter. They were not much in communication with Europe, or with each other. From a Western viewpoint they generally got lumped as ‘Oriental Studies’. Even while Britain ruled huge numbers of Arabs, Hindus and Black African, the British educational system drummed Latin into its pupils, with Greek and Hebrew for the cleverer ones. Only after they had made their way through this labyrinth of dead languages would a few of them get a look at the wider world.

Schools also taught French when this was the accepted common language of Europe, and carry on doing so without regard for all of the power-shifts that have happened in the 20th century. It has been hard enough to get them to give up their fixation with Latin and Greek, which give no clue as to the difference between a philanthropist and a philanderer, nor a paedophile and an arctophile.

Up until the 18th century Enlightenment, Europe was locked into its Greek and Roman heritage, along with the version of Christianity that passed from Jesus’s followers to Greek-speaking Jews. Europeans knew nothing of the Arabian Nights until the 18th century, when there was a craze for ‘Easterns’, romantic tales that played much the role that Science Fiction plays today. But while Muslim adventure-tales became well known within our culture, other things did not. Hindu and Buddhist philosophy did later spark some response, and could also be co-opted by 19th century Euro-chauvinists by supposing that these were products of an original ‘Aryan’ culture. It seems more likely now that the Indo-European invaders of India acquired their originality from the forgotten peoples of the Indus River Valley civilisation. Their writing is unique and un-deciphered, but their remains include a picture of a deity with a lot in common with the Hindu god Shiva. It could even be that the term ‘Aryan’ was borrowed from them; it is definitely not found outside of the Indo-Iranian branch of the ancient Indo-European tongue.

Western Europe from the Renaissance revived the Greek system of competitive publicity for new ideas. In Greece, this was a natural product of political fragmentation, which in turn was a natural product of Greece’s geography of barren mountains and fertile valleys cut off from each other. But though this system concentrates on praising a few Great Names, how sensible is this?

I’d have thought it logical see the highest-achievers as markers for a self-reinforcing social trend. Or rather, those markers that historians choose to take note of. Consider Watt, rated first among the technologists on Murray’s list, in line with the reference works. I reckon that Watt has been hyped, in part because he was part of an influential and creative circle in the Midlands, the early manufacturers and scientifically-minded entrepreneurs described in Jenny Unglow’s book The Lunar Men.

Watt’s biggest achievement was to improve the early and inefficient steam-engines, which were already a part of Britain’s growing industrialisation. It was his social ties that make him the Hero Of Steam, and lead to the widespread belief that he invented steam-power. His first attempt to manufacture the new design led to the bankruptcy of his business partner, and he was rather lucky to be rescued by Matthew Boulton, who may have been the only manufacturer who could turn Watt’s complex designs into something reliable enough for industry. Without Boulton, Watt might be remembered as just one among many 18th century engineers who tinkered unsuccessfully with the early low-pressure steam engines.

The idea of steam engines was known to the Greeks, but they never got beyond steam-driven toys. Building an engine that would do useful work would have been a much trickier task, and people for centuries used simpler methods like water-mills and windmills. (Greeks never thought of windmills, which began in China.) For steam, Thomas Savery demonstrated a device that he thought would be a source of industrial power. But it was Thomas Newcomen who made the steam engine a part of industry.

Newcomen used low-pressure steam for atmospheric engines that were useable for industry, but wasted heat because they depended on letting the steam condense back to water. Watt added a separate condenser that made the process slightly less inefficient.

Richard Trevithick was a major pioneer in a much bigger change, the use of high-pressure steam that could run engines without the need to condense the steam back to water all of the time Trevithick built the first steam railway locomotive. Yet Watt got hyped as the ‘inventor’ of steam power, and so holds a premier place in the reference works.

Western culture likes its heroes, but gets embarrassed by some of them. Watt was eminently suitable for Victorian hero-worship, a nice family man who started out poor and whose hard work and ingenuity led to riches and happiness in the end. But not all Great Names are like that. A surprisingly large number of highly creative people have sexual interests that are reproductively negative. Not just homosexual, but also towards members of the opposite sex who are too young, too old or where desire leads to various sort of non-reproductive sexual activity. High-achievers with a documented interest in under-age girls include Nabrakov, Schrödinger and Dodgson (Lewis Carroll).

Murray evades the whole issue, saying “the difficulties in identifying homosexuality in significant figures is too great” (page 287). That’s to say, he finds a small amount of ambiguity and hides behind it, throwing fog and darkness on a fairly clear link. But it is not that hard to identify useful categories within uncertainty. Byron was indisputably bisexual, as was Oscar Wilde. Shakespeare is a disputed case, Tchaikovsky is not. You could class your famous names by apparent sexuality and the degree of uncertainty. This would almost certainly confirmed the general believe that high achievers include a disproportionate number of bisexuals and homosexuals. And other interesting patterns might well emerge from the data.

When considering the reproductively negative, one should not forget celibacy. It mostly gets left out of ‘scientific’ debate on the matter, because Christianity has traditionally regarded it as holy. (At least mainstream Christianity has done so: Puritan tradition has mostly trashed tradition in favour of its own obsessions, with little regard for the actual teachings of the New Testament.)

If you talk about sexual interest, without getting into arguments about whether those particular individuals acted on them, the task becomes much easier. The two greatest Renaissance artists, Leonardo and Michelangelo, were both homosexually orientated. The same was true of Newton, the period’s greatest scientist. Leonardo got prosecuted for an alleged relationship with a teenager, a relationship we’d nowadays call child abuse. Michelangelo and Newton were probably celibate. Celibacy was also the choice of philosopher-mathematician Blaze Pascal, chemist Robert Boyle and economist Adam Smith—though I’ve never heard it suggested that any of them had a homosexual orientation.

If you let go of cultural prejudices and think about the matter as if it were not related to your fellow human-beings, you can ask why a human population would retain genes that are negative in terms of individual reproduction. Nothing is absolute: Canon Gene Robinson was sufficiently confirmed in his homosexuality to cause an international crisis when he was elected as an Anglican bishop, yet he had earlier been married and fathered two daughters, which means that Gene’s genes are still part of the human mix. But you’d still expect genes that were reproductively negative to get discarded by natural selection, unless there was some balancing advantage.

Please remember, evolution is not a reward for virtue (regardless of what you consider virtue to be). Natural selection is not even a particularly efficient system. The ancestors of humans and rats would have parted company some 80 million years ago, when both would have been small shrew-like creatures in a world dominated by dinosaurs. One line produced rats and a great diversity of other rodents, winners in that particular battle for ‘survival of the fittest’. The other line produced primates, who unexpectedly got grasping paws and larger brains as tree-climbing creatures. And from the primates, just one line got selected upon to eventually become human.

A million years ago, early humans were rare enough to meet current criteria of ‘endangered species’. Outsized hippos lived in East Anglia 450,000 years ago in a warm spell, and lots of other animals with them, but no trace of humans from those strata, not even a hand-axe. That’s how rare we were, even half a million years ago. Whereas rats and small-brained monkeys were a grand success, and would have been selected as ‘winners’ if the biosphere had been trimmed and ‘rationalised’ by advertising executives or cost-accountants.

Darwinism has replaced earlier forms of hero-worship, with ‘natural selection’ being identified with human perfection. It is nothing of the sort. Assuming that the underlying science is basically correct—which is my own belief—then nature rambles and the moon don’t care. There is no morality or consistency in historic biology. It is eminently sensible to believe that genes exist which are positive for creativity and negative for reproduction, and that these would be preserved if the net result was more reproduction.

Up until the 20th century, the main limits on human reproduction were food and care, which mostly came down to money, goods and social prestige. The rich and childless normally left goods or money to their relatives, and helped them during their lifetimes. Therefore an extended family or kin-group that contained outstanding individuals would leave behind extra children, even if particular gifted individuals died childless.

Note also that genes are not a ‘book of fate’, and that neither creativity nor non-reproductive sex would be automatic outcomes of any particular gene. Identical twins are more likely to share sexual orientation than other siblings, but not all of them do. There seems to be no gene that would enforce homosexuality, though many might make it more likely. Lots of things are a duet between the genotype and the environment, with accidents of experience encouraging or suppressing different aspects of an individual’s genetic potential.

A suitable survey could also look at existing populations and check whether there are an unusual concentration of homosexual, bisexual or celibate individuals among high achievers, as compared to middling achievers. A lot might be learned without the burden of an analyst who starts with a fixed notion of what it must be.

Towards Some Better Measurement

Charles Murray tells us that he began his analysis with a desire 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.” (Chapter 22). He classes them as ‘major figures’ if they appear in 90% of his sources, ‘significant figures’ if they appear in 50%, and not worthy of notice if they fall below this. He also believes that 40 ought to be the age of maximum output, and so gives this figure for anyone who lasted this long. Those who died sooner get their death date shown, with nothing to indicate the difference.

Murray started out with the fixed notion that there were just a couple of thousand significant people and that the only problem was to distinguish them from the hoi polloi. So he thrown away some of his most useful data, large number of people of some significance. If they keep track with the highly significant and the outstanding, then they tell you more about the detailed pattern. If they don’t, then this is also interesting data. But Murray didn’t want to know that. His view is typical of the traditional static-middle-class outlook, ‘bourgeois’ in the strict sense of the term. There are just a small number of really special people, from whom all good things flow. The rest of us should be ‘grateful that such heavenly creatures should dwell among us’, to borrow a phrase from teenage murderess Pauline Parker. This young lady (the film of whose story was Peter Jackson’s major achievement before Lord Of The Rings) had definitely picked up the broad attitudes of Anglo culture, even if her particular application of them was unacceptable.

No one is clever enough to anticipate everything they run into. Clever people are those who anticipate quite a lot and who also take note of the unexpected. Dr Becquerel was the third scientist to encounter the fogging of photographic plates by uranium’s natural radioactivity. The first fellow sent the plates back to the manufacturer as defective. The second man made the link and concluded it was better to store the plates well away from uranium. Of course Becquerel was also lucky enough to be pursuing a line of inquiry similar to the unexpected phenomenon he encountered, so it wasn’t so hard to switch.

Earlier, I gave details of some other major flaws I had seen in Murray’s work. Since you don’t know what else he has done to the data, I didn’t think it worth analysing very deeply. Much better if someone else should start again.

So how should it be done?

Firstly, start from a working hypothesis that the major figures exist within a social context, and often pull together a number of separate ideas or discoveries of much lesser figures. To test this, have a number of bands of ‘significance’, to see if major, middling and minor achievers really do exist at the same time and place. You might also find that middling and minor achievers follow social trends but than major achievers can occur anywhere, or might even benefit from working in isolation. Someone needs to discover what the data says, using Murray’s methods but going well below the 50% cut-off that he applies.

Possible links should be mapped in time as well as space. I’ve heard it said that cultures often produce unexpected outbreaks of original thinkers, followed by mediocrity. A flurry of great dramatists in Elizabethan days, when it was fairly new, followed by nothing very much. A rush of romantic poets within the lifetime of William Wordsworth—the lives of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats happen to nest within each other like Russian dolls, with Keats born last and dying first. But you’d expect a few such patterns by sheer coincidence, and it also depends on which poets you choose to rate as important. Even which poets you rate as romantic: how do you classify Byron, who bridges the gap between the rival Augustan and Romantic world-views? But even crude classifications would show you patterns if they exist, or suggest that there are none if there are none.

I’d also think it interesting to compare date of birth to such dates as date of first significant work, date of greatest work and date of last significant work. Einstein was in his 30s when he published the basics of General Relativity, and had been in his mid-20s when he startled the scientific world with Special Relativity etc. in 1905. His later Unified-Field work is now considered to have been a blind ally. Whereas Shakespeare’s last complete play was The Tempest, and many would rate it his best. Robinson Crusoe was Defoe’s first novel and probably his best, though he was also nearly 60 when he wrote it. Wordsworth’s later poems are generally thought inferior. Is this a pattern? Are biologists and chemists a middling case? We need hard data.

Another interesting point is how many of the high achievers fail to show early promise. Charles Darwin certainly didn’t: he was able to devote his life to biology only because his family was wealthy and he was persistent. Fred Hoyle and Stephen Hawking are among the top achievers of 20th century British physics—Hawkins is still alive and achieving—yet neither of them showed much promise as children or as teenagers. They were able to get through to a level where they could show their extraordinary talents, only because an expanded education system gave a chance to people who were neither wealthy nor wunderkinds. It would be nice to check this idea against a wider sample. And also to make a guess at how many ‘Slow Risers’ we may have lost in the days when you had to be rich or a boy- genius to get access to advanced education.

Class and community also play a role. The Anglo-Irish, the Irish Catholics and the Ulster Protestants are three communities that inhabit the same space but have quite separate connections to the Britain and to European culture. I’m fairly sure you’d find a disproportionate number of high achievers among the Anglo-Irish, quite common among religious minorities, both dominant like the Anglo-Irish and discriminated against as the Jews have been.

I also get the impression that there were a lot of writers among the group that could be called ‘children of empire, the narrow-minded governing class that contributed more to the Empire’s fall than its rise, but who were also distinct from most Britons in their view of life. I’d define this as ethnic Britons who were born in a British colony, or else three years or more service in peacetime. This group would include a lot of successful writers, maybe not good writers. But my own view is that great achievers almost always flourish within structures created by moderate achievers.

What might be really interesting is to compare the high-achievers with those who were competent or moderately successful, and then with the people who achieved much less than their intelligence and education would have predicted. My own suspicion is that many of the non-achievers and disasters have exactly the same characteristics as the ‘High Achievers’. Maybe it’s often the same habits and some get away with their risks. Or just that giftedness goes hand in hand with various sorts of maladaption. Murray is committed to a view of high-achievers as Wonderful People and so won’t look. Someone needs to get hard data.


I certainly don’t have the resources for such work, nor the qualifications. It is the sort of thing a decent-sized think-tank or university department could do and should do. Ideally, one would wish the task to be taken up by the Nobel Foundation. If they need to be motivated, you could point out that Murray has consigned Sweden to the insignificant fringes of European civilisation. What better revenge than squelching his work with something much better? Swedes are also neutral and un-aggressive and seen as such, and so would be more trusted.

However it gets done, there is a crying need for something that could be called a ‘Human Genius Project’, a top-down approach that might eventually tie in with the ‘bottom-up approach of the Human Genome Project. Re-doing Murray’s work of trawling the reference books could be done by computer, if the copyright owners could be persuaded to cooperate. A lot of reference works are now on the internet. A lot more—probably all of them—exist somewhere in electronic form. A high-prestige research project could get access and create software engines that could do a lot of the work. True, it would lead to a confusion between William Morris the socialist artist and William Morris (Lord Nuffield), Francis Bacon (Lord Verulam) and the painter Francis ‘Danish’ Bacon—not to mention JJ Thomson and William Thomson (Lord Kelvin). But this is just where humans could step in and sort things out. Apply the unique human giftedness for making sense of ‘soft patterns’ and applying sensible rules that resist any sort of exact classification.

A ‘register of Central Events’ is certainly needed. You could do it at two levels—find a consensus about what was important, and then seek expert opinion about where a particular idea began. Consulting living experts is not hugely different from looking up reference works—which are always someone’s views, and with a bias towards hanging onto old-fashioned notions.

Some claims need to be looked at critically. The religion of the Jain faith in ancient India produced some impressive mathematicians, without doubt. But though they had the idea of several different sorts of infinity, it seems different from the modern concept, which rests on the idea of an infinite set of numbers that cannot be matched one-to-one with another higher sort of infinity. At least I think that’s the point: it needs expert assessment, obviously.

Some topics are intractable. No one has established where Chess began, though India is generally favoured. No one doubts that the alphabet began among Semites, but no one knows its history before the first recorded examples (which were offerings to Egyptian gods by copper-miners on the Sinai border of Egypt). No one has the least idea who first cultivated rice, but it was probably part of a Southeast-Asian cultural pattern that was quite distinct from the original cores of Hindu and Chinese civilisations. Modern Southeast-Asians are divided between many different cultures and four entire language-families, with no clear evidence to link modern to ancient. Still, just to get the unknowns agreed upon would be useful.

A ‘Human Genius Project’ could also include the living, and would make it much easier to compare detailed life histories. True, some people who are now obscure will be raised up—neither Jane Austen nor William Blake had much of a reputation in their own lifetimes, while other once-high reputations have tumbled. Still, this is part of the data—a wide enough survey would have to pick up a few people whose fame will be posthumous, as well as give data to the future about people whom we rate highly but they will not. Such a survey would aim to get samples from the top 20% in terms of intellectual ability. You’d probably get that through magazine subscriptions, especially if you made it a mix of magazines. And also do it via the internet: people are much less embarrassed telling things to a machine.

The idea would be to compare the outstanding achievers to high achievers and ordinary achievers. If you did a few tens of thousands of individuals, you have a good chance of picking up a few who get celebrated as geniuses later in life, or maybe after their deaths. And if some of the participants were willing to give DNA samples, that would be hard data on whatever genetic component there was to genius—or perhaps evidence that no such simple link exists. It is a pretty safe prediction that any new mass of data will turn up at least one link that is so odd that no one was expecting it before-hand. In astronomy, planets round other stars have long been expected, but ‘hot Jupiters’ orbiting closer to their star than Mercury does in our solar system was staggeringly unlikely.

We are getting a good look at distant stars and galaxies, which is fine in itself. But we also need to take a hard and systematic look at ourselves—and without the preconceptions that Murray has included.

First published in Problems of Socialism and Capitalism, No. 77, Autumn 2004

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