A discussion between Bruce Charlton and commenter Dearieme here brought up the question of whether or not France, given its long cultural dominance and large population, was underrepresented among the ranks of civilization-making geniuses.
At first I supported Bruce in saying that France was roughly equal to Britain and Germany. In Charles Murray’s book Human Accomplishment, he identifies a total of 4,0002 significant figures in the arts and sciences, and roughly equal numbers of them from the period 1400-1950 come from those three regions. (Italy is a respectable runner-up, but no other region even comes close.)
Upon further consideration, though, it still seemed that there was a qualitative difference between the great Germans and Englishmen on the one hand and the great Frenchmen on the other. As great as Lavoisier and Descartes were, they and their compatriots still seemed to be a notch below the likes of Newton, Shakespeare, Einstein, and Beethoven. So I went back to Human Accomplishment and looked only at the best of the best — the top 72 of the 4,002 greats identified by Murray, those who scored at least 50 on a scale where Shakespeare is 100 and Richard Wright is 1.
Here’s how the nationalities of those 72 super-greats break down:
At this level of accomplishment, Germany is clearly in a class of its own, with both France and England lagging behind.
If we lump together countries which are culturally and historically akin, the chart looks like this:
The Germans still dominate, and would do so to an even greater degree if the Netherlands (usually considered part of Großdeutschland despite the language difference) were included, but the Anglosphere is now close behind it — and, yes, the French do seem to lag a bit. The real underachiever, though, is Spain — historically one of the most powerful countries in Europe, on par with England and France, but with only a single dubious name to contribute to the ranks of the super-great.
Here are the names of the people represented on the charts above:
- Greater Germany
- Germany: Beethoven, Einstein, Mozart, Kepler, Koch, Herschel, Bach, Gauss, Goethe, Wagner, Kant, Leibniz, Paul Ehrlich, Dürer
- Switzerland: Euler, Paracelsus (both German Swiss)
- Poland: Copernicus (German Polish)
- Austria: Haydn
- The Anglosphere
- England: Newton, Darwin, Shakespeare, Faraday, Cavendish, Halley, William Smith, Harvey, J. J. Thomson
- Scotland: Lyell, Watt, James Hutton, Maxwell
- USA: Edison, Thomas Hunt Morgan
- New Zealand: Rutherford
- Italy: Galileo, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Dante, Titian, Virgil (Roman), Giotto, Bernini, Cassini (Italian French), Marconi
- France: Descartes, Lavoisier, Pasteur, Lamarck, Cuvier, Laplace, Fermat, Cezanne
- Greece: Aristotle, Hippocrates, Plato, Euclid, Galen, Ptolemy (Greek Egyptian), Homer, Archimedes
- Sweden: Berzelius, Linnaeus, Carl Scheele
- Denmark: Tycho, Bohr
- Netherlands: Rembrandt, Huygens
- Spain: Picasso
Many of the specific fields of art and science catalogued by Murray are dominated by a particular nationality. Below I list all the fields in which a single nationality accounts for at least 50% of the super-greats.
- Music: 5/5 (100%) are German (including one Austrian).
- Physics: 6/9 (67%) are from the Anglosphere; 4/9 (44%) are from England proper.
- Chemistry: 2/3 (67%) are Swedish.
- Art: 6/10 (60%) are Italian.
- Mathematics: 4/8 (50%) are German (including one German Swiss).
- Earth sciences: 2/4 (50%) are Scottish.
- Philosophy: 2/4 (50%) are Greek.