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The Public Interest June 1, 2003

Measuring Achievement

Charles Murray

Society and Culture

Eurocentrism has in recent years joined racism and sexism as one of the postmodern mortal sins. The Left’s fight against Eurocentrism explains why students in elementary school are likely to know more about Mayan culture than French culture, and why liberal arts students at elite universities can graduate without taking a course that discusses the Renaissance. The assumption that Eurocentrism is a real problem accounts for the reluctance of many to celebrate Western culture-or even defend it.

Part of the Eurocentric critique is based on an open hostility to Western culture. Other cultures, it is claimed, were more in tune with the earth, fostered more nurturing personal relationships, or were more cooperative than the despoiling, competitive Europeans. These are not positions to be refuted by logic and evidence-the West’s arbitrary allegiance to “logic” and “evidence” is one of its supposed evils. Another rationale for increasing attention to non-Western cultures is simple historical accuracy and balance. This is the “Eurocentric hypothesis,” which might be put as follows: When Westerners set out to survey history, they conveniently find that most of it was made by people like themselves. Sometimes this parochialism is fostered by a prescribed canon of fine art, music, and literature that marginalizes non-Western traditions. Other times it is a function of ignorance, which leads Western historians to slight the scientific and technological achievements of other parts of the world. In either case, the result is a skewed vision that does not reflect real European preeminence, but rather Eurocentric bias.

This argument is plausible. It is easy to mock today’s New Age deference to the Mayans, but the great civilizations of East Asia, South Asia, and the Arab world left splendid legacies in the arts and sciences. The West may have been pivotally important, but has it been too much at center stage?

Measuring Excellence

The data I collected for a book on human accomplishment left me with a way to explore that question. The data consist of inventories of people and events assembled from major histories and encyclopedic sources, covering the period from 800 BC to 1950. Each inventory was based on a dozen or more sources widely regarded as authoritative, drawn from a mix of countries. For example, the Western visual-arts inventory used 14 sources from the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, and Japan, ranging in length from single-volume histories such as Janson’s History of Art to the 34-volume Grove Dictionary of Art. The methods are described fully in my forthcoming book. Here, I limit myself to a few basics.

The science inventories (subdivided into astronomy, biology, chemistry, earth sciences, physics, mathematics, medicine, and technology) were worldwide-that is, Chinese and Arab scientists were part of the same inventory that contained Copernicus and Newton. My working assumption was that historians of science are able to identify important scientific achievements independently of the culture in which they occur.

The arts inventories (subdivided into the visual arts, music, and literature) and the philosophy inventory could not be worldwide. Even though some sources for these topics purported to cover the entire world, the weight given to different artistic traditions involves judgments and preferences in ways that accounts of scientific accomplishment do not. It could not be assumed, for example, that a history of the visual arts written by a German would use the same standards for Chinese or French art as for German art. To avoid the problem of cultural chauvinism within the Western world, I selected sources balanced among the major Western countries (along with other precautions discussed in the book). For non-Western countries, the most direct way to sidestep this problem was to prepare independent inventories. For philosophy, I prepared separate inventories for the West, China, and India. For the visual arts, I made use of distinct inventories for the West, China, and Japan. For literature, I used separate inventories for the West, the Arab world, China, India, and Japan. Music was restricted to the West. Altogether, 4,002 people qualified as “significant figures,” defined as those who were mentioned in at least 50 percent of the sources, in one or another of the inventories.

As the entry point for exploring the Eurocentric hypothesis, consider the simplest of all questions: If the 4,002 significant figures are divided into three groups consisting of European peoples, people from the rest of the West (the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand), and non-Western peoples, how are they distributed over the period from 800 BC to 1950? Figure 1 below shows the results.

The story line implied by the graph is that little happened from 800 BC until the middle of the fifteenth century, that really intense levels of accomplishment didn’t begin until a few centuries ago (fully half of all the significant figures make their appearance after 1800), and that from the middle of the fifteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century, almost everything came from Europe. As late as the 1890s, 81 percent of the newly entering significant figures were European. Thirteen of the remaining 19 percent were from North America. But if this is the most direct story line, it is also one that leaves open many reasons to suspect that various factors are misleading us. The rest of the discussion works through the major possibilities.

Populations and Prejudices

The bulge in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries shown in figure 1 will prompt many readers to ask whether we are seeing the effects of “epochcentrism” (paying excessive attention to people in the recent past) and a growing population. A detailed answer to these questions consumes the better part of two chapters in my book. The short answer is that these phenomena do have a limited influence on the data, but do not bear importantly on the Eurocentric hypothesis.

The problem of epochcentrism is concentrated in the recent past. Cutting off the inventories at 1950 eliminates most of it, and the rest is concentrated in the first half of the twentieth century. In any case, epochcentrism applies equally to the Western and non-Western worlds. You may visualize figure 1 stopping at 1900, or visualize it with the totals for all three groupings somewhat reduced. Neither alternative changes the overall shape of graph.

In the case of population change, it is true that a country of 100 million people tends to produce more significant figures than a country of 10 million people, and the growth in Western significant figures is related to the increase in Western population. But the non-West has always had a larger population than the West, and in raw numbers, population growth in the last three centuries was greater outside the West than within the West. A revised graph that takes population into account would make Western dominance since 1400 greater, not smaller.

Geniuses and Giants

The most obvious objection to the story told by figure 1 is that a head count of significant figures is the wrong way to think about the distribution of accomplishment. The reason for teaching ancient Greek philosophy is not that 32 significant figures in Western philosophy come from ancient Greece, but that 2 of those 32 were Plato and Aristotle. The reason for teaching nineteenth-century European literature is not that it produced 293 significant figures, but that the 293 include writers of the stature of Tolstoy, Hugo, Keats, and Heine.

True enough. But as history has worked out, the ages rich in giants have also been rich in near-giants and the rest of the significant figures who make up the inventory. This point can be made more fully by examining the actual rosters of significant figures, but for the sake of brevity consider what happens when the raw numbers are weighted by the eminence of the people in question. The “eminence scores” I calculated for the significant figures used techniques for measuring eminence-essentially, by measuring the amount of attention given to people-that were originated by polymath Francis Galton in the 1860s and have been refined by succeeding generations of scholars. The specific method I employed produced scores ranging from 1 to 100.

These scores have the potential to shift the pattern shown in figure 1 substantially-one Aristotle, with his eminence score of one hundred, counts the same as a hundred Antiphons, and one Shakespeare counts the same as a hundred Dubose Heywards. Because I prepared separate inventories for the non-Western traditions, Eurocentrism cannot deflate the scores of the non-Western giants in the arts-Shakespeare and the Chinese poet Du Fu both have scores of one hundred, for example. However, as one can see in figure 2 below, employing eminence scores in place of a head count does not change the main outlines of the distribution of accomplishment shown in figure 1, either across time or geography.

The second graph shows an increased visibility of non-Western cultures after about 500 AD. However, the main point of Western dominance after 1400 persists, with West meaning Europe until the late nineteenth century.

The effects differ across inventories, but only in the case of the Western philosophy inventory, where the eminence scores drastically raise the importance of ancient Greece, does the balance between pre- and post-1400 visibly shift. Take Western literature as an example. Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles are giants of Western literature-but the post-1400 era has its own giants (Shakespeare, Goethe, and Moliere, for example) plus dozens of other near-giants who merit attention, compared with only a handful of near-giants from ancient times. In the end, a student with unlimited time to study Western literature has as much great literature post-1400 as pre-1400 (more, by most estimates), and a vastly larger number of works that are worthy of study. Taking eminence into account does not (again, with the exception of Western philosophy) radically elevate the importance of pre-Renaissance accomplishment.

An examination of significant figures in the sciences shows the same profile, but with even fewer people coming from outside the West. One might object that the role of the non-West is underestimated because of anonymous scientific discoveries, which might be more numerous in China, India, or the Arab world than in the West. Another possibility is that the number of significant figures after the mid-1800s is inflated because, as scientific teams have become more common, more scientists are identified with a single invention or discovery. Both possibilities may be checked by turning to the inventory of “significant events” in the sciences, compiled in the same way as the inventories of significant figures. (Specifically, a significant event refers to one mentioned in at least 50 percent of a large set of chronologies of scientific events.) An inventory of significant events shows the same Western dominance as the inventory of significant figures. Europe and North America together account for 97 percent of both the significant figures and significant events.

The Record in the Sciences

Are these “Eurocentric” numbers? In science as in the arts, we have grown accustomed to hearing the claim that the European contribution is overrated. In his Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998), David Landes quotes a historian of Chinese science, Nathan Sivin, to represent the essence of the new historical perspective:

The historical discoveries of the last generation have left no basis for the old myths that the ancestry of modern science is exclusively European and that before modern times no other civilization was able to do science except under European influence. We have gradually come to understand that scientific traditions differing from the European tradition in fundamental respects-from techniques, to institutional settings, to views of nature and man’s relation to it-existed in the Islamic world, India, and China, and in smaller civilizations as well. It has become clear that these traditions and the tradition of the Occident, far from being separate streams, have interacted more or less continuously from their beginnings until they were replaced by local versions of the modern science that they have all helped to form.

Landes then gives the essence of the countervailing view in his response:

This [Sivin’s view] is the new myth, put forward as a given. Like other myths, it aims to shape the truth to higher ends, to form opinion in some other cause. In this instance, the myth is true in pointing out that modern science, in the course of its development, took up knowledge discovered by other civilizations; and that it absorbed and combined such knowledge and know-how with European findings. The myth is wrong, however, in implying a continuing symmetrical interaction among diverse civilizations.

In the beginning, when China and others were ahead, almost all the transmission went one way, from the outside to Europe. That was Europe’s great virtue: unlike China, Europe was a learner… Later on, of course, the story was different: Once Europe had invented modern science, the current flowed back, though not without resistance. Here too, the myth misleads by implying a kind of equal, undifferentiated contribution to the common treasure. The vast bulk of modern science was of Europe’s making… Not only did non-Western science contribute just about nothing (though there was more there than Europeans knew) but at that point it was incapable of participating, so far had it fallen behind or taken the wrong turning. This was no common stream.

This may seem to be one of those conflicts between experts that a layman is unable to assess, but it is not. On the contrary, it is easy to reach an independent judgment about allegations of Eurocentrism if one subjects the allegations to close scrutiny. Reread Sivin’s passage, and note how effectively his language evokes the image of an exaggerated European contribution without ever specifying that it is in fact exaggerated. This is standard practice. Two other examples demonstrate how the evocation differs from the evidence actually presented. The first is taken from the publicity copy of the 1998 edition of Arnold Pacey’s Technology in World Civilization:

Most general histories of technology are Eurocentrist, focusing on a main line of Western technology that stretches from the Greeks through the computer. In this very different book, Arnold Pacey takes a global view … portray[ing] the process as a complex dialectic by which inventions borrowed from one culture are adopted to suit another.

The other is from the publicity copy of the 1999 edition of an introductory college history text, Science and Technology in World History by James McClellan and Harold Dorn:

Without neglecting important figures of Western science such as Newton and Einstein, the authors demonstrate the great achievements of non-Western cultures. They remind us that scientific traditions took root in China, India, and Central and South America, as well as in a series of Near Eastern empires.

Lest we fail to get the point, the publisher adds a blurb from a professor at Stanford, who tells us that

Professors McClellan and Dorn have written a survey that does not present the historical development of science simply as a Western phenomenon but as the result of wide-ranging human curiosity about nature and attempts to harness its powers in order to serve human needs.

But do these two books in fact challenge my assertion that 97 percent of both significant figures and events in the sciences occurred in Europe and North America? Pacey’s Technology in World Civilization is a wide-ranging account of the ways in which the recipients of new technology do not apply it passively, but adapt it to their particular situation. With this interaction between technology and culture as his topic, Pacey does indeed spend more time on non-Western civilizations than would a historian describing who invented what, where, and when. For example, he has a chapter on railroad empires, with 18 pages of material on how railroads developed in Russia, Japan, China, and India. But who invented the railroad engine, tracks, trains, and the infrastructure of complex railroads? All this occurred in England.

Similarly, McClellan and Dorn’s Science and Technology in World History presents material on non-Western societies. But McClellan and Dorn, unlike Pacey, are writing a history of science. The 10 scientists with the most index entries are, in order, Aristotle, Newton, Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Ptolemy, Kepler, Descartes, Euclid, and Archimedes-a wholly conventional roster of stars. Of all the scientific figures mentioned in McClellan and Dorn’s index, 97 percent come from Europe and the United States-precisely the same percentage yielded by the inventories I compiled.

There is nothing wrong with the historiography of either of these books. Both are consistent with the sources used to compile my science inventories. The contrast between the packaging for the books and the facts within them is emblematic of our times. The packaging illustrates how intellectual fashion says things should be. The facts contained therein reflect the way things really are.

The reason that any responsible history of science and technology will end up with these numbers is that historians of science and technology are all working with the same data which are, for the period we are exploring, reasonably complete. Gaps still exist, but none of them is large enough to do more than tweak the details of the general portrait of historical achievements.

Herein lies a difference between the layman and the specialist. Is the average European or American often unaware of the technological sophistication achieved by non-Western cultures? No doubt about it, and in this sense the charge of Eurocentrism is often appropriate. But what is really at issue is whether historians of science and technology in the last half-century are aware of the non-Western record-and it is clear that they are. Europeans used the works of the great Arab scholar-scientists of a millennium ago as the foundations for European science (which is why so many Arab scholars are known by their Latinized names). The great works of Indian mathematicians have long since been translated and incorporated into the history of mathematics, just as the works of Chinese naturalists and astronomers have been translated and incorporated into the narratives of those fields.

In recognizing how thoroughly non-Western science and technology have been explored, let’s also give credit where credit is due: By and large, it has not been Asian or Arab scholars, fighting for recognition against Western indifference, who were responsible for piecing together the record of accomplishment by non-Western cultures, but Westerners themselves. Imperialists they may have been, but one of the byproducts of that imperialism was a large cadre of Continental, British, and American scholars who, fascinated by the exotic civilizations of Arabia and East Asia, set about uncovering evidence of their accomplishments that inheritors of those civilizations had themselves neglected. Joseph Needham’s seven-volume history of Chinese science and technology is a case in point. Another is George Sarton’s Introduction to the History of Science, five large volumes published from 1927 to 1948, all of which are devoted to science before the end of the fourteenth century-including meticulous accounts of scientific accomplishment in the Arab world, India, and China.

Of the remaining ways in which one could attenuate the 97-percent proportion I assign to both significant figures and significant events in the sciences, my proposition is that none work. I attach two provisos to that claim: First, attempts to add new events to the non-Western roster must consist of discoveries, inventions, and other forms of “firsts.” No fair adding the first Indian suspension bridge to a catalog of Indian technology if suspension bridges were already in use elsewhere.

The other proviso is that the rules for inclusion of a person or event must be applied evenly. If one augments the inventory of non-Western accomplishment by going to Joseph Needham’s seven-volume account of Chinese science and technology, one must also augment the inventory of Western accomplishment by going to comparably detailed histories dealing with German science (for example)-in other words, no fair using the naked eye to search for Western accomplishments and a microscope to search for non-Western ones.

If one observes these two constraints, the Western dominance of people and events cannot be reduced more than fractionally. For every new non-Western person or event that is added to the list, dozens of new entries qualify for the Western list, and the relative proportions assigned to the West and the non-West do not change. The differential may become even more extreme, because the reservoir of Western scientific accomplishment that did not qualify for the inventories is so immense.

The Record in the Arts

In compiling the inventories for the arts, I assumed that my method precluded direct comparisons of artistic activity in the West and non-West. It did indeed prevent comparisons that would assign specific percentages to the West and non-West of the type presented for the sciences. But nevertheless a few observations are possible.

The Western arts inventories are much larger in total numbers than their non-Western counterparts. In the visual arts, the West produced 479 significant figures, compared to just 111 and 81 for China and Japan respectively. In literature, the West has 834 significant figures, compared to 82, 83, 43, and 85 for the Arab world, China, India, and Japan respectively. Is this a function of different levels of detail in the sources? Not in any readily apparent way. Encyclopedic sources specific to each inventory were used to establish the universe of potential significant figures. The mix of sources for each inventory-encyclopedic sources versus major histories, for example-was comparable across inventories. For whatever reason, references of comparable scope-encyclopedic sources compared with encyclopedic sources, histories compared with histories-of art and literature in non-Western cultures do not contain nearly as many people as sources dealing with the West. As far as I was able to determine, the pattern applies equally to sources written by the native-born of a given culture and sources written by foreigners.

How might the differences in numbers falsely underestimate the contribution of the non-West? No important parts of the world have been left out-the inventories include all of the countries with long-standing traditions of named writers, painters, sculptors, and composers. Any alternative conclusion requires that we assume that the distribution of artistic excellence among the significant figures is utterly different in Western versus non-Western cultures, and that the quality of artists in the non-Western traditions is so much higher than in the West that even though their numbers are far fewer, virtually all of them are worthy of extended study, whereas only a small proportion of the significant figures of the West are worthy of study. But this line of argument has neither a rationale nor evidence.

What if we were to discard artists as the unit of analysis, and substitute artistic works for assessing relative contributions? If we limit ourselves to attributed works, the substitution of works for artists will have no effect, or will be in the West’s favor. The authors, composers, painters, and sculptors of the post-1400 West were, as a rule, prodigiously productive. Compare the body of work by Shakespeare or Goethe with that of Li Bo or Murasaki; that of Michelangelo or Picasso with that of Sesshu or Zhao Mengfu; and so on down the list from the giants to the merely excellent. At every level, the aggregate number of major works is at least as large for Western as for non-Western artists.

Shall we consider lost works? Some of the most highly regarded Chinese artists have no surviving works at all. But the West similarly has painters such as Zeuxis, Polygnotos, and Apelles, considered by their contemporaries as artistic equals to the sculptor Phidias. None of their paintings survive, nor does any work of their lesser contemporaries. Even in literature, the masterpieces the West retains from ancient days are probably outnumbered by the ones we have lost. We know that Euripides wrote at least 90 plays, for example, and only 18 of them survive. One of the greatest of the surviving Greek dramas, The Trojan Women, won only second prize in a contemporary competition. We know nothing about the play that took first place. Inserting a correction for lost works will not redress the imbalance between West and non-West.

Adding anonymous works also won’t alter the picture. In literature, many non-Western cultures have traditions of authorless folklore, but so does Europe, with separate and rich traditions ranging from ancient Greece through the Norse Sagas and into the Renaissance, with contributions from every European language. In the visual arts, countries such as India and Persia have important bodies of unattributed painting and sculpture, but so do the countries of Europe, embracing virtually all the sculpture, paintings, and mosaics from the fall of the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages.

Expanding the definition of artistic accomplishment to include other forms of art that existed in East Asia, South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and pre-Columbian America runs into the same problem. Shall we add architecture, a category omitted from the visual-arts inventory? Certain structures in Asia and Central America belong on any list of great architectural accomplishment. But the entire roster of such architectural landmarks from outside Europe will be exceeded by comparable landmarks in medieval and Renaissance Europe alone, before we even look at European architectural accomplishment since then. Shall we introduce the decorative arts and crafts into the inventory of art works? Whatever gems of fine artisanship are introduced from Asia, Africa, and the Americas are going to be matched in quality and outnumbered by orders of magnitude by those originating in Europe. Consider the sheer volume of fine artisanship in stone masonry, stained glass, tapestry, and painted decoration from European churches and cathedrals alone.

Just as in the sciences, whatever mechanism one uses to try to augment the non-Western contribution in the arts will backfire if the same selection rules are applied to the West. It is impossible to be as precise about the relative contributions of West and non-West in the arts as in the sciences, but the generalization seems as valid: A balanced presentation of human accomplishment in the arts will naturally devote the large bulk of its attention to the West, and a large portion of this to Europe from the Renaissance onward.

The End of European Dominance?

I have gone to considerable lengths to document facts about the geographic and chronological distributions of human accomplishment that are controversial mainly because of intellectual fashions, not because the facts themselves can be disputed. Now is the time to introduce some cautions about the interpretation of those distributions.

The first caution is directed to those of us in the United States. Many Americans combine our civilization with that of Europe under the broad banner of “the West,” but this is presumptuous. In his landmark Configurations of Culture Growth, written during the 1930s, anthropologist A.L. Kroeber observed that “it is curious how little science of highest quality America has produced”-a startling claim to Americans who have become accustomed to American scientific dominance since 1950. But Kroeber was right. Compared to Europe, the American contribution was still small then. In the arts as well, a large dose of American humility is in order. Much as we may love Twain, Whitman, Whistler, and Gershwin, they are easily lost in the ocean of the European oeuvre. What we Americans are pleased to call Western civilization was overwhelmingly European civilization through 1950.

The second caution is not to place too much weight on the numbers. The number of lost works and forgotten artists in the period before 1400 would, if taken into account, increase the pre-1400 proportion somewhat. Not a lot-even very generous estimates of the bias created by lost works only modify the dominance of modern Europe-but some. It is also important to remember that the period prior to 1400 may have had comparatively few significant figures, but it was rich in giants.

Furthermore, much of that genius came from outside Europe. Aristotle had different insights into the human condition than Confucius and Buddha, but not necessarily more profound ones. Those who are in a position to make such judgments describe the greatest poetry from China as among the greatest poetry ever written. A fine Japanese rock garden or ceremonial tea bowl expresses an aesthetic sensibility as subtle as humans have ever known.

The third caution is to remember that many civilizations arose independently of Europe, and rose to similar technological levels-developing tools and techniques that enabled them to build large structures and road networks, develop complex agricultural practices and distribution mechanisms, conduct commerce, and build thriving cities. Evidence scattered from Angkor Wat to Machu Picchu attests to the ability of human beings throughout the world to achieve amazing technological feats.

And yet the underlying reality is that Europe since 1400 has overwhelmingly dominated accomplishment in both the arts and sciences. The estimates of the European contribution are robust. I write at a time when Europe’s run appears to be over. Bleaker yet, there is reason to wonder whether European culture as we have known it will even exist by the end of this century. Perhaps this is an especially appropriate time to stand back in admiration. What the human species can claim to its credit in the arts and sciences is owed in astonishing degree to what was accomplished in just a half-dozen centuries by the peoples of one small portion of the northwestern Eurasian land mass.

Charles Murray is a senior fellow at AEI.

https://www.aei.org/publication/measuring-achievement/