Yes, human societies really do evolve for the better—thanks to the technologies, ideas, and other contributions of scads of mostly dead white European males.
Never let it be said that Murray (What It Means to Be a Libertarian, 1997, etc.), co-author of the hotly debated Bell Curve (not reviewed), shies from controversy. His overarching thesis will attract gainsayers from the outset, especially among the cultural relativists whom he takes great pains to twit throughout his long—but eminently readable, and often entertaining—discussion. (“Assessing the comparative contributions of the Greeks and Aztecs to human progress,” he observes by way of an opening shot, “is not a choice between equally valid constructions of reality.”) Cultural and intellectual historians of a certain bent may find more troubling Murray’s rationale for identifying those who have really made a difference in shaping the ways in which the civilized world thinks, works, and lives: his method resembles that of a search engine in ranking artists, musicians, writers, scientists, and other assorted thinkers and makers by the number of “hits” they earn in standard surveys of the literature. Michelangelo is thus the world’s premier artist because he figures most heavily in the indexes of art surveys—but, Murray rejoins, “Shakespeare gets more attention that everyone else because Shakespeare wrote better than everyone else.” Setting aside the question of whether intellectuals, like Hollywood types, can be famous merely for being famous—one manifestation of the Google effect—Murray’s overview of the progress of art and science is engaging, user-friendly, and even self-effacing. (He allows that while he doesn’t enjoy the later works of Henry James, his wife does, “and over the years I have had to accept that I don’t know what I’m talking about.”) Murray wrestles with Big Questions: What kinds of social conditions favor the arts? Why did London emerge as a world center, while Hangzhou did not? Why are Western philosophers more important than, say, their Asian counterparts, pound for pound? Why have women been so poorly represented for so long in the inventories of culturally important figures?
Murray’s answers are bound to set the walls of the academy and the halls of the learned journals ringing with rebuttals. But readers who took pleasure in Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence are sure to enjoy his arguments and elegant presentation.