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Book Review: Australia failed to put its inherited excellence to good use

By Sinclair Davidson - posted Monday, 19 January 2004


In Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, Charles Murray has compiled lists of significant figures in the Arts and Sciences. He then subjects these lists to both quantitative and qualitative analysis arriving at some unsurprising conclusions. Many readers will remember Charles Murray as co-author of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class in American Life – a somewhat controversial book published in the early 1990s. That book struck me as being a “so-what” book. I am not surprised that intelligent people have, on average, higher incomes and do not care that Ashkenazi Jews, as a group, have the highest IQs and African Americans the lowest. Perhaps it is this type of argument Michael Novak has in mind when he writes, “At last Charles Murray has a Himalayan task worthy of his great talents ...” on the dust jacket. Murray has written a magnificent book on a very unAustralian concept: “Excellence”.

It might not be fair to describe “excellence” as unAustralian – many Australians strive to be excellent in what they do and Australian sporting prowess is often excellent. Yet when I look around we do not seem to celebrate excellence. At the national level innovation, but not excellence, is trumpeted by all sorts of people and much is said about our proud history of innovative achievement and the need to do more. This need normally involves governments spending lots of money on research and development and the suspension of the laws of economics or, at least, the suspension of disbelief. Although, we have yet to plumb the depths the Singaporeans’ have achieved where the government ordered students to be more innovative and creative. The bottom line is that Murray identifies one Australian as being significant. Raymond Dart was Professor of Anatomy at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, when he made his famous discovery of the Taung skull. Basically the only Australian entry was a misfit in exile. Australia has one mention in the index. To add insult to injury, New Zealand has three individuals in the lists.

Murray has collected several comprehensive and balanced sources and determined who each of them identify as being a significant contributor to human excellence in one of several categories (philosophy, literature, art, music, the sciences and technology). Those individuals mentioned by 50 per cent or more of the sources are categorised as being significant figures. He then ranks significant individuals by creating index scores and standardising them for each category. He does this for individuals over a 2750-year period ending in 1950. He cuts off at that point in order to avoid epochcentric inclusions in his dataset. Now, I’m sure that many readers' hair is standing on end with incredulity. This seems to be a very haphazard approach and conspiracy theorists of all types would not be surprised to find that dead white male Europeans dominate human excellence.

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Murray goes out of his way to minimise all types of obvious bias. For example, he collects source material that is specific to Arabs, Chinese, Indians and Japanese while combining the rest of the world into one grouping (the West). Basically, non-Western achievement and excellence is over-emphasised by construction. Nonetheless, European males dominate. Not just any European males, however; those in Britain, France, Germany and Italy. It turns out that human excellence is very highly concentrated in a very small portion of Europe. So, non-Europeans are accounted for but what about ethnic and gender discrimination? Murray argues convincingly that minorities, women and, for that matter, non-Westerners have not simply been omitted from the source material. Ethnic discrimination is examined by isolating the impact of Ashkenazi Jews. Since religious discrimination was deinstitutionalised in the 19th century, Jews have entered into the realms of human excellence far in excess of their population numbers. While Murray does not draw the obvious policy implications of this discovery, I am happy to indicate that Jews have not “benefited” from affirmative action over the last 200 years. Yet, they have done very well. Milton Friedman has argued that Jews perform well in competitive industries under competitive conditions. Affirmative action is the very antithesis of competition. The more important point, however, is that ethnic discrimination is inefficient. How many more Einsteins could there have been without anti-Semitism?

Women make up 2.2 per cent of Murray’s significant individuals. Here he is very careful to argue that significant women are not being overlooked. In fact he shows that the proportion of women Nobel Laureates fell in the second half of the 20th century relative to the first. He also conducts sensitivity analysis on his inclusion decision rules but finds the proportion of females to males would not rise. Militant (leftwing) feminists, however, are not likely to be impressed. Their argument can be paraphrased as follows: Male-defined excellence is going to reflect male-dominated values that does not fully reflect female contributions to excellence. Murray identifies these contributions at pages 271 – 272 and chooses a subset of excellence that includes many men but few women. There can be only one response to this type of argument. Murray challenges detractors to create their own list of significant figures using consistent and transparent rules and compare it to his. I suspect, however, that no one will take up his challenge. Murray posits three reasons why women are under-represented in his sample. First, gender discrimination, which like ethnic, religious and racial discrimination is inefficient and can be expected to disappear in a competitive environment (my argument, not Murray’s). Second, biological differences related to child rearing and third, cognitive differences related to three-dimension perception. I’m not sure that this latter skill would be too important in future. Female involvement in child rearing is important and apparently a non-trivial impediment to female progress in the excellence stakes. My interpretation of this result is that public policy should concern itself less with gender discrimination per se and consider the harder biological issues associated with female economic activity.

Murray then employs regression analysis to establish the environmental determinants of human excellence. I understand the technique and had no problem following the arguments. I’m not convinced, however, that the lay reader would follow the argument or his brief explanation of the technique. Murray argues that the regression results are too important to place into an appendix yet advises readers that they can skip the details if they choose. Ideal material, it seems, for an appendix. I suspect, unfortunately, that many a reader will abandon the book at this stage.

As he indicates, regression analysis involves many choices and honest people can disagree as to those choices. I disagree with Murray’s choices. He develops his model piecemeal and then, finally, provides a combined model. His preference is for the piecemeal models. He also carries on about “random effects” and “fixed effects”, preferring the “random effects” models himself. My preferences are exactly opposite but it doesn’t really matter. This is where I think Murray has made a mistake. He seems to give the impression that the results are contradictory and I think critics may interpret the different numbers as indicating his results are not robust and attempt to throw it all out. It seems to me, however, the piecemeal models and the full model tell the same story, though they differ in terms of the details. The biggest difference in results relates to war. The piecemeal results say war has no impact on human excellence whereas the full model says it has a positive impact. Sensitive souls may be appalled that war could stimulate human excellence, however, the concept of civilian applications of military technology suggests itself. Murray doesn’t discuss the full model in too much detail so we cannot know for sure. Alternatively, it could well be that the statistically significant coefficient is not practically significant. The coefficient is about the same magnitude in all versions of the models. In the piecemeal models Murray provides a sensitivity that he doesn’t for the full model. This makes it difficult to interpret the relative merits of the piecemeal models to the full model. Most readers, however, will be unconcerned by my arguments here and friendly critics will, and reasonably can, accept Murray at face value. Unfriendly critics will not accept Murray no matter what level of detail he discloses. The empirical results indicate that success breeds success (the Matthew principle), elite cities, elite universities and greater freedom of action promote human excellence. These are unsurprising and uncontroversial results.

In the final chapters Murray indulges himself in some speculative thought on the origins of human excellence as opposed to the existence of human excellence. This is likely to raise some eyebrows but generally it seems fairly standard. I would have preferred more discussion of the impressive database and perhaps more empirical testing. It seems a bit of a waste to accumulate such a comprehensive database and then engage in some standard relatively uncontroversial discussion.

What is controversial, to my mind, is the argument entitled “The Christian Transmutation” – European dominance in human excellence is a consequence of its Christian heritage. Murray is quick to say that this argument is not popular and I also get the impression that Murray himself is not a practicing Christian. Murray, however, has no evidence for his argument. A first objection, that he recognises, is the sudden growth in Jewish excellence. He argues, however, that Jews excel when in contact with Christianity, or at least in the environment that Christianity creates. The most polite response to this argument is that I am not convinced. The second objection I have is the Islamic experience. As Murray indicates early, Islam made significant contributions to human excellence. At some point the religious leadership began to oppose scientific enquiry and the Islamic golden age ended. Murray argues that Christianity was able to accommodate scientific enquiry whereas other religions (and Eastern Christianity) were not able to do so. This argument is strained. Why Western Christianity and not Eastern Christianity? Why only after 1200 years? Is it now easier for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God? Has Christianity changed its views on money changers? More likely Christianity was unable to enforce its strictures on the ruling elites. In this regard Western Europe may be different from other regions of the world in that organised religion failed to hold the elite in thrall. In fact, Murray comments that societal elites were less likely to be religious. This is certainly true of the modern United States.

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The editor’s brief was to relate holiday reading to Australian culture. Murray is the WH Brady Scholar in Culture and Freedom at the American Enterprise Institute. What does his book have to do with Australian culture? Well, a lot and nothing. The Australian contribution to human accomplishment and excellence is pitiful. The Australian reference in the book is to James Cook’s mission to observe the transit of Venus and, while in the area, to see if he could find Terra Australis Incognita. The message that I get from the book is that we have inherited a fine culture (predominately from Britain) and done nothing with it. Unlike Esau we haven’t even sold it. Unlike 18th century Europe we have no passion to know. Like the Romans we shun learning for it’s own sake. It is often said that Australians are a practical people. The Romans were practical too and Murray is underwhelmed by their contribution to Arts and Science.

Elite cities and elite universities are important for human excellence. Australians celebrate egalitarianism not elitism – except in sport. Our national myths speak of “the bush” and our politicians emphasise “people in the country”. It seems to me that designing public policy to benefit “the bush” is the antithesis of excellence. Murray opines that human excellence is facilitated by individuals having a sense of purpose. That sense of purpose should be apparent in the education system and, in particular, in elite universities. Relativists, post-modernists and nihilists who shun purpose and, indeed, the idea of excellence itself infest the Australian education system, from top to bottom, federal and state. In short, I am not convinced that we are focussed on the determinants of excellence.

Murray fears that human accomplishment may be declining. So too do I. Australia, however, is starting from a low base and I fear that the future of human excellence in Australia will be as dismal as that portrayed in Murray’s book.

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Charles Murray's book, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 is published by Harper Collins and is available for $AUD49.95.



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About the Author

Sinclair Davidson is a senior fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs and Professor in the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing at RMIT University.

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