May 23, 2008

Brazil v. Russia

It's interesting to compare the number of famous individuals born in two vast peripheral countries, Brazil and Russia. Charles Murray's 2003 tabulation of the 4002 most eminent names in the arts and sciences up through 1950 lists 135 individuals born in Russia versus only one born in Brazil (composer Villa-Lobos).

The two countries aren't really that comparable, though -- Brazil's population in 1900 was 17 million, compared to Russia's population of around 130 million.

On the other hand, there really weren't many famous creative figures in Russia before Pushkin's emergence in the 1820s, and then there were many world-famous writers; then, a little later, composers; and, finally, painters.

So, perhaps we're about to enter a new golden age of Brazilian artists and scientists. Stranger things have happened in the history of culture.

You can see one source of pro-Russian bias in that there are eight writers listed who were born before Pushkin, yet I haven't heard of any of them. I suspect that they get mentioned a lot in the reference books that Murray used to build his lists because scholars want to mention the predecessors of Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov in order to make a coherent story out of the history of Russian literature by providing the big names with predecessors who influenced them. In contrast, since there aren't any Brazilian writers who have made themselves world famous, there is no need to clutter up references books with the names of lesser earlier Brazilian writers who influenced them.

Fame breeds fame and obscurity breeds obscurity.

In case you are wondering, there are only 11 Portuguese on the list of 4002, one scientist and 10 writers, mostly of the wealthy 16th Century, with Camoens being the best known.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

I always thought that Murray's book was not the best way to measure the history of human achievement. The reason is that the list is dominated by the four great nations of western europe- France, Britain, Germany, and Italy, with a similar number coming from all four countries. However, when you think about it Italy probably owes more to human achievement than all of the other three combined. Of course they are the inheritors of Roman civilization, but there are numerous other considerations as well.

For example, the top people in music were, as expected Beethoven, Bach, Handel, Brahms, Haydn and Mozart. This gives the impression that Germany is the most important country in the development of music. (I know Mozart was Austrian). But the forms of music they wrote concertos, operas, et. al came from Italy. As did most of the instruments they used, cello, piano, etc. So does the terminology of music with its fortes, and crescendos, and other Italian words. There were innumerable individuals behind all of these developments but they were important in the realm of human achievement. Was Beethoven more important than the guy who invented the piano? I don't know, but doesn't the question do damage to Murray's premise of the book.

Antioco Dascalon said...

No, it doesn't. And that's the beauty of the book. The importance of the book is not the results that he got, but the method. You and I can argue all day about the influence of Italy in the development of music. But Murray quantified this influence using dozens (and in some cases hundreds) of sources such as encyclopedias and dictionaries. Of course, this eliminates those important anonymous contributors, but that caveat aside, it does a pretty good job of capturing influence. You just have to understand that that isn't necessarily the same as important, famous or intelligent/talented. But a majority of past and present musicologists have deemed Beethoven and Mozart to be the most influential in music by their collectively devoting more entries and space to them in their reference works. And the degree of correlation is remarkably high.

Steve Sailer said...

If you treat Bach and Handel as the beginning of the era of German superstars, then Italy is better represented on Murray's list before then, with 77 eminent Italian musicians compared 50 Germans. They're just not as much to say about them as there are about the greats of 18th and 19th centuries.

Anonymous said...

Country of origin is important in two ways. Certain countries are able to provide a milieu for innately talented great artists to spring up from anonymity. But in another sense a great country is needed to provide the appreciative audience that (often arbitrarily) decides that an artist is great. In the 1960's Jerzy Kosinski plagiarized several obscure Polish novels from the early 20th century, making him the toast of US intelligentsia. These novels had been published in Poland half-a-century earlier but no one then had decided that they were great. It was the U.S. audience (and proper marketing)that was necessary to make these previously worthless works great. Once the con was revealed the greatness of the artist and "his" work was greatly diminished.

In the another sense a talentless artist like Van Gogh is still worshiped as a giant today for obscure reasons related more to his personal story and the skillful application of hype by promoters.

Anonymous said...

I have a couple problems with Murray's method. First of all it shows that accomplishment as measured by references in print takes off when printing takes off. Both shoot up in the mid fifteenth century.

Secondly it fails to distinguish mere fame from real accomplishment. The best example is Leonardo. At the time (fifteenth century) almost any scholar would have praised Bruneleschi and might not have even heard of Leonardo.

Both were inventors but Bruneleschi's inventions worked and Leonardo's didn't. By a strange set of circumstances Leonardo became a star and most people today have never heard of Bruneleschi.

A few years ago after his death Richard Feynman was touted as the "smartest man in the world". if you measured his impact by press accounts on even scholarly citations you might believe this. But he probably wasn't even the smartest man in his office - and he worked in a two man office.

Murray's methodology can't distinguish between Feynman and Gel-Man because it ignores content and focuses on recognizability.

Murray counts references. This strictly quantitative approach tends to over value media darlings like Leonardo, Feynman, and Paris Hilton.

I had a professor in graduate school who said that the most important contributor to psychology wasn't Freud but was Egon Brunswick (WHO ?). Everything that Brunswick wrote was probably right and nearly everything that Freud wrote was wrong. Murray's method tests for popularity and ignores correctness.

Anonymous said...

Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov

Steve, I'm a better man than you. I've heard of Tolstoy.

Anonymous said...

I'm very surprised Machado de Assis didn't make the list.

Anonymous said...

Sure a Russian invented the periodic table.

But who invented the tele-novella?

Anonymous said...

I'm new to human biodiversity. Having picked up on this in my mid thirties it is astounding how much it explains, as I approach the halfway point of my life expectancy, my life up until this point.

You have to understand: I am Canadian. They deliberately don't teach us history, so we all get along.

Anyway, as I look to escape from western civiliation, and put on my social scientist hat to determine the best place to spend my next 50 years, South Brazil has some appeal. Russian does not.

I'm not gonna name the other places, lest I see your baby boomer asses flood the joint, but Curitiba pops up frequently when I query the black box of reason as to where I should screw off.

I just googled your interview on the matter with Charles Murray; my only gainsay as it relates to this post is that the correlation between human accomplishment and livability index for the average human might be less - even for high IQ types - than one might think.

Put more plainly - anyone reading this seriously prefer living in Russia, today, over, Brazil? Surely some do, but in proportion to the "eminence index"? I for one will take feminine women and being able to bribe my way out of driving with a beer between my legs for two bucks over some marginally and abstractly intellectually superior joint that is frozen six months of the year. I think. Possibly, my anglo nature might in practice sway me to the other side. But then this is precisely what multiculturalism is good for. Thoguht provoking post as always, Steve, thanks dude.

Antioco Dascalon said...

That's why Murray stops at 1950, to minimize the short-term effects of fame over true influence. But as every generation of scholars seeks to elevate some obscure figure, or take down some revered icon, Murray's method stands up. If other scholars follow and decide that a particular figure is hype or another underrated, soon that becomes part of the received wisdom.
And, yes, you could take the opinion of your grad school professor, or the consensus opinions of those who author encyclopedias and other reference works, whose job it is to compare the influence of different people and decide on their importance.
The great thing about Murray's book is that these are not his opinions, unlike your professors, but quantifiable facts.
Finally, don't confuse genius or even being right with influence. One can be very, very wrong but spectacularly influential, like Freud or Marx. And it doesn't matter if you are right if no one has heard of you.

Steve Sailer said...

Curitiba is in southern Brazil, at 3000 feet altitude, so the weather is really nice. (I wouldn't want to retire to too high an altitude because I don't know how well I'll deal with thin air as I age, but 3000 should be no trouble). The population is heavily non-Iberian Europeans, Germans, Slavs, and Italians. The city is famous for its innovative bus system and city planning.

Anonymous said...

Have to question the methodology of choosing leading scientists. The Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont was one of the contemporaries of the Wright brothers making contributions to science of flight.

Anonymous said...

One last point about Murray's method. The book is called Human Accomplishment not Human Influence. The modern world is built on an accumulation of accomplishments. So it is appropriate to try to measure accomplishment. I contend that at least some influential people have not actually contributed much to civilization. Further I contend that Murray's method is blind to this effect.

Stopping at 1950 doesn't solve the problem of Leonardo or Freud.

Let me remind you that Brunelschi was one of the founders of Western civilization. He more than anyone else invented the concept of intellectual property rights. At the risk of his life he defended his work on the Duomo. He demanded and received the first patent.

Bruneleschi's work on perspective revolutionized painting. Others including Leonardo made contributions but it was Bruneleschi whose work created the watershed in art. After him everyone painted differently. He was a revolutionary figure.

Leonardo was a minor figure in the Renaissance at the time. He complained often that he was underappreciated. Much of his subsequent fame rests on his notebooks. When these were first discovered it was not understood that such notebooks were common among architect-artist-inventors.

It was also not recognized that many of Leonardo's scetches were not original. Some were based models hundreds of years old and at least one was based on a Bruneleschi design.

Leonardo's notebooks showed a design for a tank - it was never built and it wouldn't work. He showed a flying machine - again not built and again it wouldn't work. Similarly his helicopter didn't work and was never built.

Leonardo's mechanical fantasies indeed did influence nineteenth century literary scholars but they didn't influence actual inventors.

H.G. Welles created "The Time Machine". It was highly influential. There have been hundreds of stories and dozens of movies based on his idea. Yet his Time Machine wasn't a real invention and I would maintain not a real human accomplishment.

The problem with Leonardo's reputation is that we confuse his Time Machine like fantasies with real working inventions. He gets credit for being a universal genius in hundreds of books and articles all based on a few intial misconceptions. Murray comes along and simply counts references and crowns Leonardo as a major contributor to Human Accomplishment.

Murray's method works well enough in the arts where influence is the object but in the sciences there are also issues of physical reality.

One last example. One could argue that Al Gore is a monumentally influential figure today. I suspect that he will be in the history books for a long, long time irrespective of the validity of Global Warming. If it turns out that he was right then he will be seen as a heroic visionary. But if he is wrong then he will still have been massively influential. If he turns out to have been wrong he will not be considered to have contributed to Human Accomplishment no matter how much ink he got.

Anonymous said...

Roberto Landell de Moura contributed to the invention of radio.

César Lattes discovered the pion (pi meson), and did not receive the Nobel Prize only because he was not head of the research team and it was not common for prizes to be shared at the time (it went to Cecil Frank Powell, 1950).

I think Mário Ferreira dos Santos will be recognized as one of the best philosophers of the twentieth century once his work becomes known outside Brazil. However, he is little remembered today even in his homeland - we have a tradition of preferring imported French philosophical crap...

As for cities, I suggest a Google Images search for "Gramado" and "Nova Petrópolis".

Skallagrimson said...

"Charles Murray's 2003 tabulation of the 4002 most eminent names in the arts and sciences up through 1950 lists 135 individuals born in Russia versus only one born in Brazil (composer Villa-Lobos)."

Isn't it interesting that arts and sciences are grouped together, both in Murray's ranking, and in the organization of university schools, meaning groups of departments. This is somewhat reminiscent of how figure skating and synchronous swimming are seen as sports. I do think I understand why science and arts are grouped together, it is related to the financing of the activities, both require independently wealthy practitioners, or they need patrons, as neither activity has any economic value for the individual performing at the median level in the field.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like Curitiba would be better off as a separate state.

Anonymous said...

Russian women are the most beautiful in the world.

Anonymous said...

"Finally, don't confuse genius or even being right with influence. One can be very, very wrong but spectacularly influential, like Freud or Marx."

Freud was wrong; Marx was largely right, at least descriptively. His prescriptions may seem "wrong" to you, but they seem wrong only to the extent that we fail to understand that they were not intended to benefit us.

Anonymous said...

"Sounds like Curitiba would be better off as a separate state."

It's part of the state of Paraná, which is one of Brazil's 26 states. The urban planner who designed its public transportation system and was at one time the mayor of Curitiba, Jamie Lerner, was also at one point the governor of Paraná. He's done a lot of traveling and lecturing on urban planning issues since then, including here. He should count as a fairly influential Brazilian.

- Fred

agnostic said...

Make that 2! Jorge de Lima is in the Lit section.

Anonymous said...

ben tillman:
"Freud was wrong; Marx was largely right, at least descriptively"

His description of the current situation was accurate, but his predictions such as the extinguishing of the middle class and socialist revolution beginning in UK or Germany were largely wrong.
I was thinking recently about the success of communism in non-industrialised Russia & China (and democratic socialism in India). It occurred to me there may be a parrallel with the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in subverting largely non-Muslim Europe and (to a large extent) the USA, whereas it has not been successful (so far) in its core aim of taking over Egypt, Jordan, Syria etc.

Anonymous said...

Note that "Leonardo the Great Genius" is essentially a 19th-century invention. His contemporaries had him much better figured out.

He was just about the last person in Renaissance Italy to turn anything whatsoever into a workable anything whatsoever. Great hand with the sketchbook, though. "Now see here, Sultan, for just five million ducats that bridge across the Gold Horn could be yours."

His fame is always about his ideas. The flying machines not only could never have flown, but were never built. The pin-making machine he was going to make his fortune out of was never built, and wouldn't have worked if it had been. Ditto all the other stuff he tried to flog to the Ottoman Sultan. Leonardo couldn't even paint a fresco that wouldn't fall off the wall inside a decade.

He was, fundamentally, a smartass, although of course that precise term hadn't been invented yet. But people in the Renaissance knew this, while it took the Victorians (and us) to turn him into something else.

Anonymous said...

I think it's interesting that great achivers in the arts tend to cluster by generation within countries. Eg I believe all the great Russian novelists were alive at the same time? Certainly it was over by 1900 (and you can't blame Stalin for that). It's quite striking that in one or two generations Ireland, with about 1/20th the population, produced probably more premier-league writers than Russia. Wilde and Shaw and Yeats emerged in the 1890s and Beckett died about a century later. Whether Brian Friel is the last of their league is too soon to judge. These are writers to whose reps the Nobel would be irrelevant, eg Flann O'Brien, Sean O'Casey (I'm taking Joyce on trust); not the merely very good indeed like Liam O'Flaherty, O'Fiaolain pere et fille etc). How do such waves of genius arise and pass away?