Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950

Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950 is a book published in 2003 by Charles Murray, most widely known as the co-author of The Bell Curve. It surveyed outstanding contributions to the arts and sciences from ancient times to the mid-twentieth century. The book attempts to quantify and explain human accomplishment worldwide in the fields of arts and sciences, by calculating the amount of space allocated to them in reference works, an area of research sometimes referred to as historiometry. The book stated that “Whether measured in people or events, 97 percent of accomplishment in the scientific inventories occurred in Europe and North America“.

Index scores

Murray ranks the leading 4,000 innovators in several fields of human accomplishment from 800 BC to 1950. In each field, Murray identifies a number of sources (leading encyclopedias, histories and surveys) providing information about the leading figures in the field. The rankings are made from information in these sources. A raw score is determined, based on how many sources mention and on how much space in each source is devoted to a person. Then these raw scores are normalized so that the lowest score is 1 and the highest score is 100. The resulting scores are called “Index Scores”.

The categories of human accomplishment where significant figures are ranked in the book are as follows: Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, Physics, Mathematics, Medicine, Technology, Combined Sciences, Chinese Philosophy, Indian Philosophy, Western Philosophy, Western Music, Chinese Painting, Japanese Art, Western Art, Arabic Literature, Chinese Literature, Indian Literature, Japanese Literature, and Western Literature. The omission of several relative categories, including a broader Chinese art category or an Indian art category, are due to a lack of identifiable figures as most of the work is anonymous.

The following are some examples of the rankings found for some individual categories.


Murray collected many data for each innovator and did a statistical analysis. One result was that accomplishment has not been uniformly distributed. For example, during the Italian Renaissance, accomplishment was concentrated in Florence and Venice. In the British Isles, around London, the industrial north, and lowland Scotland. Murray argued that most innovation has been accomplished by men, not women, and Europeans, not other ethnic and cultural groups.

The book stated that “Whether measured in people or events, 97 percent of accomplishment in the scientific inventories occurred in Europe and North America“.

Murray argued that one important explanations for the racial differences are race and intelligence differences. Women are affected by the requirements of motherhood, which are both physical and emotional. Another explanation is that men’s IQ are more variable than women, meaning that there are more high IQ men than women. Men are also relatively better at mathematical and visual-spatial skills, which may be particularly important for science, while women are relatively better at verbal skills. Men also have on average somewhat larger brain size than women

There is a relationship between closeness to elite universities and human accomplishment (but not between non-elite universities and accomplishment). Furthermore, innovation is self–reinforcing: Where there has been innovation, likely more will occur.

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