German dominance at the very highest levels of accomplishment

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
  • Scandinavia
    • 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.
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3 Comments

Filed under Greatness / Genius, Statistics

3 responses to “German dominance at the very highest levels of accomplishment

  1. A top 72 list that includes Einstein but not von Neumann, Edison but not Shannon, Kant but not Schopenhauer, Haydn but not Liszt, etc etc etc simply does not deserve to be taken seriously. Why not include a list of Hungarian geniuses, and then normalize to get per capita figures? Because Hungary would then be at the top, I assume.

    Unless your goal was to ridicule the top 72 list, I really do not see the point.

  2. chrstphre

    It is quite common now-a-days to hear that such & such a film has broken The ‘old’ record of viewers or dollars made during The Opening Weekend, or first year, or whatever.
    Obviously; Many factors & Variables -Should Be- considered when determining if The New Film is Actually more popular or beloved or exhibits a higher quality than by-gone films; but they seldom are.
    i personally hold to The idea that -Any- Very popular film suffers from The Very Fact that it is so popular; As it must appeal to The Damp Masses ( The Middle Hump ) to have achieved this quantitative ranking.
    The Best Films are necessarily ‘Cult’ Films which enjoy an Avid Popularity amoung a smaller population that persists year after year; Such as ‘Blade Runner’ or ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’.
    Both of these Examples were not terribly popular when they were originally released, and have never be terribly popular with audiences that seek them out ( as opposed to being force fed them with Commercial Television )

    - –

    But this is merely a Digression to A Recent Post by Wm Jas :
    German Dominance at The Very Highest Levels of Accomplishment

    Which wonders if certain European Nations produced a disproportionate number of Genius’.
    Sadly; This Analysis seems to only consider raw numbers of ‘Media Whores’
    And perhaps neglects to consider all other relevant factors.

    The Underlying Question seems to be; Are Germans ( German Jews ) or (x, smarter than other indigenous populations.
    My own guess is; Yes !
    ( Some groups
    ( Not Necessarily Germans, Jews, Asians or Californians )
    are genetically smarter )
    But how would you Properly Sift for The Correct Answer ?

    What are these Other Factors ?

    The Article mentions that Charles Murray created a List of 4,002 Significant Figures;
    But where did they come from ?
    Are some ‘Genius’’ more ‘Reputable’ than other Genius’ ?

    i am very skeptical of ‘Philosophers’ or ‘Astronomers’ or ‘Economists’ that produce Volumes of Reflections & Contemplations; But publish few brochures that agree with The Beliefs or Opinions of The Economist or Astronomer that lives Two Houses down The Block.

    The Same Argument might be Made for Artists & Musicians; But for some reason, We expect and Encourage these Disciplines to be ‘Original’ and Create NonReproducible Results.

    Obviously; Heretical Genius’ that require a Lengthier Period to be Proven ‘Right’ are going to be Excluded from a List like this.
    There is also a curious logical dilemma when considering The beliefs of Heretics;
    In that— If A Given Heretic believes ( and Promotes ) some seriously crazy idea that is eventually demonstrated to be correct; The Question remains; At The time that Immanuel Velikovsky made his predictions for Venus & Mars; Did he have good sound reasons when formulating these ideas, or was he just ‘Lucky’ ?

    Are Artists; Like Robert Crumb, that produced a huge quantity of extremely Original & Superiorly Crafted Illustrations; Going to be Neglected from this list because he worked in The Socially Reprehensible Medium of Comix Books ?

    Might this also be extended to Chefs, Common Mechanical Skills, Quilters or Other Crafts, Fashion Design, Film Production, Martial Arts Innovator, or UnSpecified All Purpose Problem Solver—

    After considering:
    Unspecified All Purpose Problem Solver,
    It’s occurred to me that These Lists of ‘Significant Figures’ are Only Going to Be Media Whores that have sought out Publicity & Fame !

    How can we Possibly create a Filter to Identify Genius’ that are not at all Famous ( ! ?
    That are The Anti-Thesis of Famous People ( !
    These are Ordinary ( Genius’ )
    ( And there are A Lot of Them / Other Researchers have looked for them, and found them in The most Unlikely Places )
    That routinely Solve Important & Common Social or Political Problems, and Receive Absolutely No Credit for Their Efforts ( !

    “When you do things right,
    It should look as if you haven’t done anything at all.”
    or
    “When you do things right,
    People won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”
    : Bender in ‘Futurama’ after ‘Finding gawd’

    It seems to me that i considered this once before;
    And i was thinking that you might go and visit these countries, communities, cultures & societies;
    And attempt to unbiasedly quantify The Elemental Quality of Life there ( ?

    Might it be Assumed that these ‘Most Functional’ Communities have ‘Secret Santa’s’ that are taking care of everyone in a manner that encourages The Community Itself to take credit for their functionality.
    This level of Wu Wei would require a much higher practice of Hands On Genius than The inane Musings of Thomas Aquinas, Benedict Spinoza, Jean-Paul Sartre or Lenny Bruce.

    Given this; And without undertaking any serious cultural analysis;
    It seems to me that The Countries that have The Best Standard of Living
    Produce The Fewest ‘Significant Media Whores’.

    So what this is actually measuring;
    Is Whether A Culture or Nation Encourages Personal Accomplishment
    or Social Contribution.

    : – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – : o

    Neglected Factors :

    Genius’ per Capita

    Excess Population

    Wealthy Populations / It seems to me that Poets often come from Poverty, but Scientists, which require expensive laboratory equipment tend to exclude those without an expendable income.
    What about Mathematicians ?
    The Most Famous Naive Artists are always very poor ( ?

    Mean Annual Temperature / Do Colder Climates produce more ‘Indoor’ Activities which Encourage Cerebral Leisure Activities ?

    Decorative Architecture / Do Cultures that encourage more decorative domestic Technologies Inspire other interests to excel in a like manner ?

    : – - – - – - – - – - – - – - – : o

  3. chrstphre

    i was reviewing the wikipedia entry for Charles Murray’s ‘List’ and noticed that he’d put Picasso in with a 77 ! ( Out of Maximum Influential Value of 100 )
    Very often when i’m watching the News, i will rarely, but occasionally note a story which features ‘facts’ which i know are clearly wrong ! and i will think;
    If this is wrong, and i’m only able to reasonably verify this 1% of the time, doesn’t this reasonably mean that of all the stories that i can’t verify or know nothing about, are also wrong to a very large degree !
    As with this mention of Picasso as a leading artistic influence, which is just complete nonsense…! What does this say about the rest of his list(s ?
    As for Picasso; He came up with one marginally clever idea and then milked it for the rest of his life, never once working to evolve or improve upon this idea that ‘Art doesn’t necessarily have to mirror reality exactly.’ This is hardly a brand new idea, and along with minimalism, why continue to paint minimalist works or Abstract Expressionist Works after the First one. You’ve made your statement that for a painting to be a painting; This is the minimum criteria that is required. OK. Done that. Move on. Picasso never moved on.
    It just drives me crazy when certain very mediocre people are thought to be very famous !
    According to the WikiPedia Article; Murray apparently created this list by looking for ‘Cross Reference’ to these people to see how ‘Influential’ their works have been.
    Using this Criteria & Method; Wouldn’t Paris Hilton be one of the most important and influential Celebrities of Western Civilization ?
    Certainly in 100 years; Researchers such as Murray will think so.
    As for Picasso; He is mentioned so very often because he’s become a very easy name to drop when mentioning any art relevant (x and the more his name is dropped, the more likely the next pundit will drop in again.
    This loops around to my older question of ‘What makes an idea good?’
    Why is the idea of Hexagon such a better idea than a Heptagon?
    Because Hexagons have so many applications, and Heptagons don’t !
    How really Influential was Picasso ?
    Did he leave a school of follows that continued to paint like him?
    No.
    He did not.
    Except for a spate of little girls; Autumn de Forest, Aelita Andre & Marla Olmstead, No one paints like Picasso, and the only reason these preadolescence girls are famous; is that they are imitating his incredibly pedantic style exactly !
    In Short; If Picasso is being rated so highly on his list(s, then there is something very wrong with his methodology !

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