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August 10, 2003

The West & The Rest

Charles Murray is coming out with a new book, Human Accomplishment, and The American Enterprise Institute has an essay adapted from the book that finishes with this assertion:


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

via Steve Sailer

Godless comments:

Yeah, this is a bit dodgy. I think Murray's quantification (97%!?) is more than a bit suspect. But let's dissect this. First, forget about the art...I don't consider that very important. Critical acclaim means far less in art than it does in mathematics. Only a mathematics expert can evaluate the truth value of a mathematical claim. Art, on the other hand, is much more like language in that common usage/appeal determines its value. For example, a game like GTA3 or FFX which appeals to tens of millions of people is no less of a work of art than some obscure painting which pleasures only a few thousand critics and art historians. In math one must be a snob, but in art one can very definitely be a populist.

So - art aside - let's talk about the science. First of all, it's certainly true that European scientific contributions get short-shrift in the humanities departments of today's left-wing academy. PC spin aside, the original scientific contributions of men of Northern/Central European descent [1] in the last four to five hundred years are unmatched. [2] I like to quote this classic rant by Fred Reed on this topic:

We pale males aren't perfect. Far from it...But we have contributed a few things to civilization. For example:

Euclidean geometry. Parabolic geometry. Hyperbolic geometry. Projective geometry. Differential geometry. Algebra. Limits, continuity, differentiation, integration. Physical chemistry. Organic chemistry. Biochemistry. Classical mechanics. The indeterminacy principle. The wave equation. The Parthenon. The Anabasis. Air conditioning. Number theory. Romanesque architecture. Gothic architecture. Information theory. Entropy. Enthalpy. Every symphony ever written. Pierre Auguste Renoir. The twelve-tone scale. The mathematics behind it, twelfth root of two and all that. S-p hybrid bonding orbitals. The Bohr-Sommerfeld atom. The purine-pyrimidine structure of the DNA ladder. Single-sideband radio. All other radio. Dentistry. The internal-combustion engine. Turbojets. Turbofans. Doppler beam-sharpening. Penicillin. Airplanes. Surgery. The mammogram. The Pill. The condom. ... Polio vaccine. The integrated circuit. The computer. Football. Computational fluid dynamics. Tensors. The Constitution. Euripides, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Aeschylus, Homer, Hesiod. Glass. Rubber. Nylon. Roads. Buildings. Elvis. Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors. (OK, that's nerve gas, and maybe we didn't really need it.) Silicone. The automobile. Really weird stuff, like clathrates, Buckyballs, and rotaxanes. ... Bug spray. Diffie-Hellman, public-key cryptography, and RSA. Et cetera.

So - that much of the thesis is not in dispute. However, the question of European *historical* dominance is dicier. If I was to enumerate my objections, they'd be as follows:

1. A moving Civ power graph for the several hundred year span between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance would have Asian civilizations ahead, with China in the lead and Europe well behind. Indeed, there are many who'd argue ( pace , Dienekes) that Europe's time in the sun was from 1500-1945...and that they (as a group) are a power on the wane, with America ascendant and China on the wax. Murray acknowledges Europe's decline, but does not mention that Europe was *not* always ascendant...which makes his thesis quite chronocentric.

2. Most of these post 1500's breakthroughs were not those of Europe or the West per se , but rather those of Northern/Central Europe (Northern Italy, England, France and Germany). Countries like Finland, Sweden, Greece, Spain, Russia, America, etc. were not making truly major contributions during the period from 1500-1900. Of course, some of those countries made contributions in the past (Greece), while others made their mark in the 20th century (Russia, America).

3. Foundational discoveries made in the ancient past need to be more heavily weighted than modern discoveries. A suitable number system is crucial before you can do algebra. Roman numerals did not do for this purpose; Indo-Arabic numerals did. Algebra is in turn crucial before you can do analytic geometry. Descartes' Analytic geometry is what motivated calculus. Newton's calculus drove modern physics, and so on. These "path clearing" discoveries count for more, as the first leaps of abstraction are the hardest.

Anyway, I think that this book will be even more poorly received than the Bell Curve. The Bell Curve was fundamentally a work of science; one could simply tell the critics that they were *wrong* about IQ. This, however, is an intepretation of history - and thus far more contentious. Yet many critics will contend that both IQ and Murray's art/science totals are pseudoscientific quantification metrics intended to boost the egos of European males. As J. Malloy said:

I can't wait to see the media reviews for this book considering the thesis (which could easily be construed as implicitly racial) and Murray's *cough* Post-Curve reputation

Yeah, unfortunately I think this is how the coverage will pan out. My view is that Murray has many interesting things to say (and I will probably buy the book), but (as outlined above) his chronocentrism damages his conclusions.

[1] And Ashkenazi Jews, by the time the 20th century rolled around.
[2] East Asians started to kick it into gear again after the post WW2 period, but they have not contributed original science (in recent years) to match their manufacturing/refining expertise. Still, as Murray notes, this is not unusual:

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 my view, even if there is an East Asian genetic creativity deficit, there is a technical solution on the horizon.

Posted by razib at 02:40 PM




As a european ancestry guy, I'll assume a yoga position (thanks India) that allows me to kiss my own ass. As Newton said "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." Lots of non-european shoulders out there.

Posted by: martin at August 10, 2003 09:02 PM


true martin, but let's not forget that newton's statement was actually laced with sarcasm- particular toward robert hooke ("hooke's law")....

hooke & newton's other contemps might have been bright, but it was sir isaac who was the sun amongst the firmament....

Posted by: razib at August 10, 2003 11:18 PM


I think Godless would not disagree with me if I said mathematics is the foundation of much western achievement and superiority and is the pinnacle of human achievement. And mathematics was developed by the Arabs and Indians.

Posted by: Jason Soon at August 11, 2003 05:20 AM


PS In particular algebra. There would simply be no theoretical sciences without algebra

Posted by: Jason Soon at August 11, 2003 05:40 AM


Jason, don't forget the greeks and the chinese.
And it seems to me they only "invented" easy math, geometry, alegebra, trig, etc... let's see them some invent some college level math and then we can give them their prop's...

Posted by: -b at August 11, 2003 06:43 AM


well i was thinking even further back to the nameless geniuses who tamed fire, developed iron tools, etc.-we're dead without them. I don't want to badmouth my clan (go white people go!) but I have problems with this whole idea-
#1 it wasn't Europeans as a tribe who made the advances-it was a subset of smart individuals. It's like celebrating a university for winning a Nobel-the cafeteria workers had nothing to do with it-though it's nice teambuilding to pretend the daily helping of mac and cheese was integral to the research.
#2 the man has picked out items-art and science- most valued by and specialized in by the West-and found the West was the best at producing these items. Surprising indeed.

Posted by: martin at August 11, 2003 09:31 AM


the man has picked out items-art and science- most valued by and specialized in by the West-and found the West was the best at producing these items. Surprising indeed.

This is rather Po-Mo. What criteria would you pick?

Why be cynical? 97%. That's fucking amazing.

PS - I can't wait to see the media reviews for this book considering the thesis (which could easily be construed as implicitly racial) and Murray's *cough* Post-Curve reputation

Posted by: Jason M. at August 11, 2003 09:56 AM


my point wasn't that europeans didn't build upon the discoveries of other groups/civilizations, but while we can respect the other natural philosophers of the day, we must stop and acknowledge newton's singular genius (mechanics, optics & calculus [co-creator for the last of course]). that doesn't mean that there weren't geniuses after newton, just like i doubt that if human civilization lasts into the near future, there won't be a cultural explosion that will match "europes." i happen to think that the "next level" will be a transcendence of the narrow-box of a geographic & cultural entity.

PS-i'm not hinting at any genetic determinist agenda here, while i think that the biological substrate is a contingent property there is a lot of culture & historical happenstance & geography that plays a part.

Posted by: razib at August 11, 2003 11:06 AM


How about liquor and love? or in the words of another "significant figure" in the Western arts-Jimmy Buffett (did he make the cut?)-"Why Don't We get Drunk & Screw." Certainly two things that still rule daily life in the West (at least mine).
There's evidence of Mesopotamian fermentation of
Vitis vinifera (grapes) and grain (barley and wheat) dating 4500-4000 BC. What was happening in Europe then?
Human sexuality? Well, if electron microsope shots of wiggling sperm or wet T-shirt contests are your thing-yes, the West rules. But for my tastes (ahem) the East has always had superior wisdom and skills in this area.


Posted by: martin at August 11, 2003 11:13 AM


The East has superior wisdom in sexuality??


try telling that to centuries of the female part of the human race - suttee, footbinding, concubinage, etc

Posted by: Jason Soon at August 11, 2003 03:26 PM


I was thinking more of things like the Chakra Puja. Nothing like it in the western tradition. But you might track down a copy of van Gulik's "Sexual life in Ancient China," Leiden, 1961. I'll stand by my assertion.

Posted by: martin at August 11, 2003 06:54 PM


Indian/Hindu society is so repressed, sexual-wise, and it seems to me that it's always been that way.

I don't know what the history of Tantric sex is, but for most of the Indian establishment it's about as foreign as homosexuality.

Posted by: Johnny Rotten at August 12, 2003 01:15 AM


According to Godless, "Only a mathematics expert can evaluate the truth value of a mathematical claim. Art, on the other hand, is much more like language in that common usage/appeal determines its value. For example, a game like GTA3 or FFX which appeals to tens of millions of people is no less of a work of art than some obscure painting which pleasures only a few thousand critics and art historians."

This seems to presuppose a crudely utilitarian conception of aesthetic value: whatever gives the most pleasure to the most people.

So if Danielle Steele's latest best-seller gives enough pleasure to enough bored housewives and beach-goers, it might turn out to be a greater work of art than *Hamlet*--which latter, after all, probably *detracts* from the happiness of most of the students who have to read it...

Why would anyone accept such an absurd conception of artistic greatness?

Posted by: Vinteuil at August 12, 2003 04:16 AM


You can't just say it's absurd and expect that to make it so. That's lazy.

Please explain how Hamlet's worth can be objectively demonstrated. Can the depth and profundity of a metaphor be quantified?

Posted by: Jason M. at August 12, 2003 06:26 AM


Why would anyone accept such an absurd conception of artistic greatness?

Good cases have been made. I just read a pretty good one on 'Alas, A Blog' not too long ago. Ctrl + F for the 1st entry by PinkDreamPoppies.

Posted by: Jason M. at August 12, 2003 06:43 AM


well-if Murray will extend Newton to cover the west, it seems fair to extend the creators of the Maithuna asanas to cover the east. Then the fact that most hindus are sexually repressed is equivalent to saying most europeans don't do the calculus. I'm just saying the Newtons of sexuality seem to come from the East.

Posted by: martin at August 12, 2003 06:57 AM


As for art-of course it can't be objectified-but (paraphrasing Hume) a man who can't tell that Scotch is a superior drink to Pepsi is just out to lunch.

Posted by: martin at August 12, 2003 07:05 AM


Jason Malloy: It's not po-mo. I will suggest social order (of a sort most Westerners don't even value, but most Westerners don't value math, science, or art much either, just technology, which is VERY different from science), population maintenance (high density), peace, introspective disciplines, medicine (until the development of vaccination and antibiotics) as fields in which the East has traditionally been dominant.
I will also assert that while China was in decline and not producing great culture in the 16th century, they would still kick Europe's ass in a Civ power graph until the late 17th century.

Posted by: michael vassar at August 12, 2003 07:22 AM


I don’t think it’s lazy to assert without proof (objective or otherwise) that *Hamlet* is aesthetically better, or greater art, than *Sunset in St. Tropez*. Such an evaluation is simply part of the basic data of aesthetics, which any serious conception of aesthetic value had better accommodate.

Compare ethical evaluation. Suppose that someone came up with an “ethical” system which led to the conclusion that torturing innocent children was *pro tanto* morally good. It would be a non-starter. No conceivable defense of it could possibly carry more conviction than our shared intuition that innocent suffering is *pro tanto* morally bad. Such a system might be more or less interesting, but it just wouldn’t be a system of “ethics” as traditionally conceived.

Aesthetics is like that. If Godless thinks that something is artistically good to the extent that it is hedonically optimal, and if that leads to the conclusion that Danielle Steele is a greater artist than Shakespeare, or that GTA3 and FFX are aesthetically better than the paintings of, say, Chardin, then that merely shows that his conception of aesthetic value totally misses the boat.

The main problem with Godless’ aesthetic “populism” is its casual dismissal of artistic expertise. What does it matter how many airheads get a few cheap kicks out of Danielle Steele? And what does it matter how many callow schoolboys can’t get past the difficulties of Shakespeare’s language? The interesting question is, what do intelligent, sensitive, experienced judges think--those who are in a position fully to appreciate *both* Shakespeare *and* Danielle Steele (or *both* GTA3 and FFX *and* Chardin)?

In the long run, the value and importance of a work of art is no more (and no less) “subjective” than the value or importance of a mathematical or scientific discovery. These are both normative questions, and that is where the subjectivity enters in. Charles Murray’s inventory of artistic achievement is just as solid as his inventory of scientific achievement--however solid that is.

Posted by: Vinteuil at August 12, 2003 10:51 AM


What a vision of the future gc holds out to us. A race of super-intelligent clones who enjoy video games and rap music and see no important difference between Mona Lisa and a painting of a weeping clown on black velvet.
Yes, I'm sure that will be much better than our current benighted era...

Posted by: John Purdy at August 12, 2003 06:13 PM


This is kinda off-topic but what the hell ....

Johnny said :

"Indian/Hindu society is so repressed, sexual-wise, and it seems to me that it's always been that way.

I don't know what the history of Tantric sex is, but for most of the Indian establishment it's about as foreign as homosexuality"

Naah, they're not as repressed as some might imagine.

Check out this rather interesting survey on the sexual attitudes of urban India :

http://headlines.sify.com/2130news1.html?headline=A~survey~on~urban~Indians'~sexual~habits

Here's a little snippet from the article :

"Homosexuality: About 17 percent of the respondents have felt sexually attracted to person of the same sex and about half of them have indulged in homosexual activities! About 78 seventy eight of the population agrees that Homosexuality is considered a taboo on the society. 20 percent of those who have responded on Homosexuality feel that it is normal to be attracted to a person of same sex"

Anyway, while the survey is a pointer to more liberal sexual attitudes, it ought to be taken with a pinch of salt - there obviously is a sampling bias.

Posted by: king kong at August 13, 2003 12:17 PM


One could also argue that who invented something first is not as important as how the invention is used later on, e.g. the Soviets first launched Sputnik but most commercial satellites don't seem to come from Russia today. The same way the Asian countries (I guess particularly China in the next decades) seem to take western inventions and in many cases market and produce them more efficiently than the western countries, partially because the people there seem to be more diligent. So if in a couple of decades most of the computer and biotech industries should be in China it won't make much of a difference if they were invented in the US.

Posted by: Phil at August 15, 2003 09:25 AM