Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Murray on Human Accomplishment

Back by popular demand: Charles Murray's 1998 speech on human accomplishment. An excerpt:

Only ten thousand years ago—a flicker of an eyelash in geological perspective—humans were physiologically pretty much as we are now. We were shorter, largely a function of nutrition, and probably more of us were at the low end of the bell curve of IQ, also largely a function of nutrition. But it’s doubtful that much was different at the high end of the bell curve, on any measure of ability. Each of us in this room had our counterparts in that world—people every bit as smart, handsome, aesthetically alert, industrious, with senses of humor as witty or ribald. And yet they lived a daily life only marginally different from that of the animals they hunted. They had managed to build shelters for themselves, to use fire, to make a few kinds of tools. But they had done those things millennia earlier—let me repeat, millennia earlier. And nothing much had changed. Daily life still consisted of a struggle to avoid dying—not to avoid dying some years down the road, but to avoid dying that day or a few days hence. Ten thousand years later, look at the world around us. World-sub-now minus world-sub-then equals what I mean by human accomplishment.

Think of human accomplishment as the resumé of our species. Our personal resumés leave out a lot. They leave out how generous we have been, how kind, how reverent. They leave out the things we shouldn’t have had to do in the first place. "Stopped beating my spouse" does not get included on a personal resumé. And so it is with the resumé of our species. It does not record our spiritual progress. It does not include "Defeated Hitler," or much of any other kind of military accomplishment, for, sadly, military accomplishment is seldom something we can be proud of without also being ashamed of whatever led to it. Our human resumé does include things like the cathedral at Chartres, the Razumovsky Quartet, champagne, the water wheel, chopsticks, and the Declaration of Independence.

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