In his book “Human Accomplishment” the American Charles Murray calculates the contribution to civilisation made by individuals throughout history up until 1950. To give his calculations as much objectivity as possible he measures the amount of attention given to an individual by specialists in their field in sources such as biographical dictionaries – put crudely, the greater the frequency of mention and the larger the space devoted to an individual, the higher they score.
Murray quantifies achievements under the headings of astronomy (Galileo and Kepler tied for first place), biology (Darwin and Aristotle), chemistry (Lavoisier), earth sciences (Lyell), physics (Newton and Einstein), mathematics (Euler), medicine (Pasteur, Hippocrates and Koch), technology (Edison and Watt), combined scientific (Newton), Chinese philosophy (Confucious), Indian philosophy (Sankara), Western philosophy (Aristotle), Western music (Beethoven and Mozart), Chinese painting (Gu Kaizhi and Zhao Mengfu), Japanese painting (Sesshu, Sotatsu and Korin), Western art (Michelangelo), Arabic literature, (al-Mutanabbi) Chinese literature (Du Fu), Indian literature (Kalidasa), Japanese literature (Basho and Chikamatsu Monzaemon), Western literature (Shakespeare).
Objections have been made to Murray’s methodology such as the fact that many of the great achievements of the past, especially in the arts, have been anonymous, which give it a bias towards the modern period, and fears that it has a built-in Western bias – the representation of non-Western figures in the science and technology categories is minimal. Nothing can be done about anonymity – it is worth pointing out that the majority of those heading the categories lived at least several centuries ago – but Murray substantially guards against pro-Western bias with the breadth and number of his sources and it is simply a fact that science and advanced technology arose only in the past few centuries and that both are essentially Western achievements. It is also noteworthy that Murray’s method only places one of his fellow countrymen at number one in any category (Edison in technology). If any bias exists it is unlikely to be conscious. At worst, Murray’s findings can be seem as a fair rating of Western achievement.
The list of those heading the various categories (see second paragraph above) suggests that Murray’s method is pretty sound despite any possible methodological shortcomings, because those who come top are all men of extreme achievement. There might be arguments over whether Aristotle should take precedence over Plato or Kant, but no one could honestly argue that Aristotle was an obviously unworthy winner of first place in the philosophy category.
Of the 13 categories which can include Westerners (they are obviously excluded from non-European literature and art), Englishmen are indisputed firsts or share first place with one other in four: biology Darwin with Aristotle; Physics Newton with Einstein; combined scientific Newton alone; Western literature Shakespeare alone. No other nation has more than two representatives at the top of a category. The thirteen Western ncluding categories have a total of 18 people in sole or joint first place. England has nearly a quarter of those in first place and more than a quarter of the 15 who are drawn from the modern period, say 1500 AD onwards.
Apart from those coming first, the English show strongly in most of the Western qualifying categories (especially in physics – 9 out of the top 20, technology – 8 out of the top twenty – and Western literature). The major exceptions are Western art and music, where English representation is mediocre. I think most people who think about the matter at all would feel those quantified cultural strengths and weaknesses represent the reality of English history and society.
The fact that England shows so strongly in Murray’s exercise gives the lie to the common representation of the English as unintellectual. Moreover, there is much more to human intellectual accomplishment than the fields covered by Murray, most notably the writing of history and the social sciences, areas in which England has been at the forefront throughout the modern period: think Gibbon, Macaulay, Herbert Spencer and Keynes.