Tag Archives: Charles Murray

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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Smoking and creativity: 20th-century data

Collecting data on the smoking habits of 18th-century writers wasn’t working out so well. After going through the 20 most eminent writers on my list but only being able to find anything for about half of them (and realizing that this track record could only get worse as I moved on to the more obscure authors), I decided I needed to find a more cooperative sample.

Figuring that there would be more biographical information available for more recent figures, and that English-speaking writers would have more biographies in English, I looked at male writers from English-speaking countries (Britain, Ireland, and America) who turned 40 (or died, for those who didn’t make it to 40) between 1900 and 1950. As before, the list of significant writers comes from Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment.

This time I was much more successful. My list includes 59 men, and I was able to find some kind of information for all but 6 of them. You can see the spreadsheet here.

I had hoped to analyze the data to see if higher levels of literary accomplishment were associated with higher rates of smoking. But unfortunately the early 20th century, unlike the 18th, seems to have been a time when just about everyone smoked. My sample includes a grand total of three, count them, three unambiguous non-smokers (Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser, and Robert Frost), plus three more (Eugene O’Neill, Graham Greene, and William Carlos Williams) who smoked but later quit. For whatever it’s worth, all three of the non-smokers are relatively eminent (scoring 15, 10, and 6, respectively, on a list where the median score is 4), but it’s hard to draw any real conclusions from such small numbers.

Another problem is that, though some are more eminent than others, everyone in my sample is an eminent writer. If I want to compare highly creative people to those who are less creative (rather than comparing the super-super-creative to the merely super-creative), I need a control group of people from the same period who did not work in a creative field. Of course, they must still be famous enough to have left behind adequate biographical information, which rather limits the choices. Athletes are out, for obvious reasons. Politicians are a possibility, but they may well have below-average rates of smoking for image-related reasons. (Certainly this is true today; I’m not sure whether it would have been true in the early 20th century.) Captains of industry could work, I suppose, if I could find a list somewhere, and if a sufficient number of them have gone down in history. I don’t have any other ideas.

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Tobacco use among 18th-century writers

As a follow-up to my post on smoking and creativity, I’ve compiled a list of all the significant 18th-century figures in Western literature (as listed by Charles Murray in Human Accomplishment) and am in the process of gathering information on who smoked and who didn’t.

In contrast to my previous post, I am here restricting myself to a limited time period (the 18th century)  and am considering relatively minor literary figures as well as major ones — from Goethe and Rousseau all the way down to George Farquhar and Maler Müller. The idea is to compare the major figures with the minor ones to see if tobacco use is associated with higher (or lower) levels of literary accomplishment.

I have put my data (what I have so far) on a spreadsheet here, which anyone can read and edit. So take a look, and if you happen to know anything about any of these people’s smoking habits or lack thereof, just add it to the spreadsheet. After I’ve collected enough data, I’ll put up another post analyzing it.

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