Denis Dutton, The New Criterion, February 2004.
Readers familiar with Charles Murray’s work (Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life) know that he is not a man to shy away from controversy or bold opinions. In Human Accomplishment, Murray’s aim is nothing less than to determine the geographic and chronological distribution of creative genius in science and the arts across the whole of the world during twenty-eight centuries, from 800 BC through 1950. It’s a tall order. Murray assembles histories, surveys, and encyclopedias of the arts and sciences, 163 of them, and records their treatment of significant figures. Using an initial cut-off that leaves only individuals who are mentioned in at least 50 percent of his sources, he comes up with a list of 4002 writers, philosophers, mathematicians, musicians, poets, astronomers, painters, physicists, biologists, and innovators in technology. These are then rated in a system devised and refined in order to provide an objective assessment of high achievement across cultures and over the ages.