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The practice of eminence: An interview with Charles Murray

By Bernard Chapin
web posted February 2, 2004

Dr. Charles Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar in Culture and Freedom at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC. AEI is one of the most prestigious research think tanks in the world and some of the most important names in conservatism can be found within their roster of scholars and fellows. Dr. Murray has published voluminously over the years and his books have had tremendous influence over the way ideas are discussed in our nation today.

Charles MurrayHis most recent work, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, came out this fall Previous works, such as The Underclass Revisited, Income Inequality and IQ , and Losing Ground are well-known. Yet, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, sent the media into a hysterical frenzy and the responses to it seemed to tell more about its reviewers than it did about the text in question. Mr. Murray is certainly a polymath and a renaissance man.

BC: Mr. Murray, your new book, Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950, has been recently released. The subject matter covers an immense span of time and a diverse range of cultures. What made you decide on undertaking such a project? Also, how long did it take you to complete your Herculean task?

CM: Why? I didn't want to repeat myself, for one thing. I was tired of the social policy debate, which had gotten trivial after 1996. I've always been fascinated by great achievements (that's why my wife and I wrote a book about the Apollo lunar program back in the 1980s). And there was the promise of huge data bases. Playing huge data bases is my chief joy professionally.

I got the idea in 1997 and finished the manuscript in January 2003. The last three years were the most intense I've ever experienced with a book--in effect, I was working from six to six every day.

BC: You selected over 4,000 individuals as apexes of human excellence. For our readers who may not have read any reviews or heard of your work, can you explain your selection process?

CM: It's a standard historiometric technique for measuring eminence: Go to a large selection of first-rate histories, chronologies, encyclopedias, or biographical dictionaries, record all the people who are in them, and measure how much space is given to them. To become part of the database I used for the major analyses, a person had to be mentioned in at least 50 percent of the sources covering that person's field. If I had chosen another criterion--thirty percent, say, or seventy percent--it would have affected the number of people in the database, but the geographical and historical patterns would have been the same. (I know, because I tried out such possibilities.)

BC: Western civilization dominates the list since 1400 AD, in terms of great accomplishment, but what is your opinion of our future dominance? Is the west, as a civilization, on the decline?

CM: The sciences and the arts have different stories. In the sciences, East Asian and South Asian scientists are joining with Western scientists, but Western science is not in decline. In the arts, I think a strong case can be made that the density of accomplishment began to decline in the mid 19th century and continued through the end of the period I studied (1950). An impressionistic look at the arts since 1950 gives me no confidence that we have seen a resurgence of enduring work. On the contrary, it is hard for me to think of much of anything that has been done since 1950 in the arts that people will still care about 200 years from now. For example, you can still find the works of Austen, Fielding, and Dickens in a typical airport book store, let alone "serious" book stores. What books written from 1950–2000 will still be selling in the airport bookstores of 2200? What music from 1950–2000 will be people still be playing? And if you tell me the Beatles or Pink Floyd, as a few people have, I've got a question for you: Seriously?

BC: Many of your critics have labeled you as a right-wing extremist. This is most puzzling to me. Have we reached a time when nearly every region of human thought is demarcated as being either left or right? I've read quite a few evolutionary psychologists who take great pains to communicate to their readers that they are not "right-wing." Why is it that anybody who wishes to discuss individual variation must be denounced as a "right-winger?"

CM: I'm a libertarian, which is an extremist of a sort, but not the kind that most people have in mind by "right-wing." I didn't see this topic as having much to do with politics when I started, and I still don't. The bulk of the human accomplishment I dealt with occurred under the aegis of absolutist governments, with most of the rest scattered among aristocratic republics and the mixed British system. One can ask how accomplishment fared under different political systems, and I ask that question in the book, but the answer is certainly not that liberal democracies provide the most fertile soil. Actually, whatever political implications one can try to force from the book go against my own political preferences. The arts began their decline just as liberal democracies were taking hold, for example.

BC: Why is the topic of genius itself so offensive to people? We don't think twice about using the results of human achievement, so why is there so much resistance to celebrating great individuals?

CM: Inequalities of all sorts became disreputable during the last half of the 20th century.

In the beginning, it was healthy -- the Civil Rights Movement being the prime exhibit, but also feminism in its original form. Then we moved from the idea of giving everyone open opportunity to the idea that unequal outcomes are bad. If one celebrates the existence of genius, I guess the implication is that some people are immensely more skilled, more industrious, or more efficacious than others. Everyone knows it is true, but no one wants to say it, because it implies that some other people are dumb, lazy, or feckless--which in turn implies that some inequalities merely reflect real inequalities in ability. A certain way of looking at the world (and we're back to politics now) finds this offensive. I don't.

BC: Along the same lines, there is no disagreement when scientists state that there are racial differences in terms of skin cancer, hypertension or sickle-cell anemia, so why is there such strife over stating that there might be ability or skill variations present between racial groups?

CM: It's going to be another century or two before we have enough distance from this issue to discuss it dispassionately. I don't think "strife" is the right word to describe the discussion of racial differences. "Hysteria" is a better word. I think white guilt about what whites did to blacks is a profoundly important cause. I have no problem with whites feeling guilty--we have much to feel guilty about--but it would be helpful if whites would understand that to talk about racial differences is not to talk about "inferiority" versus "superiority" of people. People are complex bundles of virtues and abilities, and no global judgment of the worth of groups is possible. To discuss discrete characteristics, whether it's hypertension or mean IQ scores, should not threaten anyone. But it does, obviously.

BC: One review of Human Accomplishment stated this would not be a controversial book like some of the others but I disagree. I believe that your favorable comments regarding Christianity as the guiding force behind western achievement may make you even more susceptible to attacks than in the past. Why do you think there so much negative sentiment (in the west) against Christianity?

CM: So far, very little of the reaction to the book has dealt with my discussion of Christianity. I suspect this is one area in which the times are changing. When I first wrote a draft of that section, I said something to the effect that my position was not original, but it had not been fashionable for some decades. By the time I was correcting galleys, I had to stick in a footnote discussing several recent books making a case for Christianity quite similar to mine, written by people who (like me) are not believers. I think that at least some elements of the elites are taking a new look at religion in general and Christianity in particular.

BC: I was at a workshop [recall the words of Kinsley Amis here] where your book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, was randomly referred to as "racist" by the main speaker. I, unfortunately, did not have the courage to stand up and dispute this slander amidst a throng of 500. Have you found that The Bell Curve controversy damaged your career or enhanced it?

CM: I think the damage has been substantial in certain respects--I've been effectively shut out of broad swathes of academic activity. On the other hand, the American Enterprise Institute has been unflinchingly supportive. When you spend your life as I do, getting up every morning and spending your work time exactly as you wish, it takes a little imagination to feel sorry for yourself.

BC: I'd really like to know what your opinion is of Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. Do you think his critique is legitimate? Don't the factors he sites all weigh on g (general intelligence) anyway?

CM: There are two Howard Gardners. The Howard Gardner who writes so engagingly, instructively, and provocatively about the different aspects of human creativity and ability is a treasure. The Howard Gardner who continues to insist that these are independent intelligences, with "intelligence" used in the sense of solving problems (as he himself means), has to confront the mountain of evidence that any way of measuring problem-solving abilities in different domains does not reveal independent abilities, but ones that are dominated by a common general factor. Howard doesn't dispute the existence of the mountain, but says that he doesn't accept the results of the existing tests. He gives us no way to falsify his theory. In my view, a theory that can't be falsified fails one of the basic criteria of good science.

BC: If you could mandate one educational reform for our public schools what would it be?

CM: Privatize every school in the country. And if we can't do that, my second choice is to require that no one graduate from high school without having taken a solid, year- long course on statistical reasoning. Half the stupid arguments extant, whether about the environment or the 2000 presidential election or FCC regulations, are stupid primarily because people don't understand probability and statistical distributions.

Thank you very much for your time Dr. Murray.

Bernard Chapin is a writer living in Chicago. He can be reached at bchapafl@hotmail.com.

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