Latin American Immigration Unlikely to Spark A New Renaissance
July 25, 2004, 05:00 AM
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The recent movie A Day Without A Mexican asks the interesting question: What would happen if California's twelve million Hispanics suddenly disappeared?

Some slapstick satire ensues as the state's remaining whites, blacks, and Asians try (and fail) to pick their own oranges, wash their own cars, and care for their own children.

Yet the plot makes the unintended point that Hispanics have contributed far more drudgery than creativity to California. Although the media regularly blither about the "vibrant contributions of Latin-American culture," the plain truth is that California's main creative industries—Hollywood and Silicon Valley—employ few Latinos above the technician level.

But, then, has creativity ever been the strong suit of the Hispanic world? Can we really expect to find much scientific or artistic talent among immigrants from Latin America?

To investigate these questions, I crunched some numbers from Charles Murray's recent gift to data nerds everywhere, his book Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950.

(Here's my interview with Murray about his book and my review of it in The American Conservative.)

Murray ranked objectively history's most important creators and discoverers based on their representation in leading histories and encyclopedias.

For example, to determine the most significant Western visual artists, Murray assembled 14 leading comprehensive works by art historians such as Gombrich and Janson. For each name in each book's index, he typed into his computer basic measures of importance such as the number of pages mentioning the artist. (No surprise: Michelangelo came out on top.) It's important to note that Murray's own opinions played no role in his process.

This sounds simple, perhaps even simple-minded. But these kinds of metrics of eminence have been repeatedly validated over a century of use, beginning with Francis Galton.

The hundreds of scholars upon whom Murray relies have their personal and professional biases. But, ultimately, their need to create coherent narratives explaining who influenced whom means that their books aren't primarily based on their own tastes, but instead on those of their subjects.

For example, the best single confirmation of the greatness of Beethoven (who ties with Mozart as the most eminent composer in Murray's tables) might be Brahms's explanation of why he spent decades fussing before finally unveiling his own First Symphony: "You have no idea how it feels for someone like me to hear behind him the tramp of a giant like Beethoven." Thus, no musical scholar could leave out Beethoven without also leaving out Brahms, Schumann, Berlioz, Wagner, Mahler, and other composers influenced by Beethoven.

Murray found 4,002 "significant figures" who qualified for inclusion in his database because they were mentioned in at least half the top reference books in their field. He reserved eight of his twenty categories for Asian subjects such as Japanese Painting and Indian Philosophy. That leaves 3,404 significant figures in the twelve fields open to Westerners.

So how did Latin Americans do?

Not terribly well at all: just half of one percent of the most famous scientists and Western artists came from Latin America.

Significant Scientists and Artists: 800 BC to 1950 AD

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Total

 

Latin Americans

 

Spaniards

Total

3404

 

18

0.5%

 

69

2.0%

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Astronomy

124

 

-

-

 

1

0.8%

Biology

193

 

-

-

 

1

0.5%

Chemistry

204

 

-

-

 

1

0.5%

Earth Sciences

85

 

-

-

 

-

-

Physics

218

 

-

-

 

-

-

Mathematics

191

 

-

-

 

-

-

Medicine

160

 

-

-

 

-

-

Technology

239

 

-

-

 

1

0.4%

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Western Art

479

 

3

0.6%

 

15

3.1%

Western Literature

835

 

13

1.6%

 

33

4.0%

Western Music

522

 

2

0.4%

 

13

2.5%

Western Philosophy

154

 

-

-

 

4

2.6%

None of the 1,414 scientists who made the cut was a Latin American. That's not too surprising because the mother country, Spain, contributed only four scientists … and even one of those four was the medieval Muslim astronomer Al-Zarqali!

Latin America did a little better in the sphere of high culture, accounting for 18 (or 0.9%) of the 1,990 top artists, composers, writers, and philosophers in the history of Western Civilization. (I'm including among the Latin Americans the only Brazilian in the database, composer Villa-Lobos.)

Spain has given the world a fair-to-middling 65 cultural creators—3.3% of all significant figures in the history of Western arts and philosophy. But Spain has been in a bit of a creative slump since its brilliant Golden Age of roughly 1550 to about 1660. There have been only 25 Spanish key creators since 1700. In contrast, the small country of the Netherlands developed 46 significant figures just during the 17th Century.

The Hispanic world's strong suit has been literature, with 13 significant Latin American writers (or 1.6% of the 835 most eminent Western writers). Top Latin American authors include Borges and Neruda. Among the 33 significant Spanish writers (4.0%) are Cervantes, Lope de Vega, and Garcia Lorca.

Presumably individual genius is more likely to reach fruition in the field of literature because in the sciences or some of the other, more expensive arts, a high degree of social support for achievement is a precondition.

The three great Mexican muralists of the 20th Century, Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco, are the only Latin Americans (0.6%) among the 479 most famous painters and sculptors.

In contrast, fifteen Spaniards (3.1%) made the list, most coming from either Spain's Golden Age (for instance, Velasquez, Zubaran, de Ribera, and the Crete-born El Greco) or from the 20th Century (such as Picasso, Miro, and Dali). The titanic Goya was the only significant Spanish painter to flourish between the middle of the 17th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century.

Of the 522 best-known classical composers, only two (0.4%) were Latin Americans (Villa-Lobos and the Mexican Carlos Chavez y Ramirez) and thirteen (2.5%) were Spaniards, but most of them were late medieval figures. De Falla is probably the best-known (and perhaps only well-known) Spanish composer. (However, there have been many great Spanish performers, such as Casals and Segovia.)

Among the 154 significant Western philosophers, there are no Latin Americans and four Spaniards. Of these four, however, two were Muslim Moors (Averroes and Avicebron), one the famous Jewish philosopher of the Muslim world, Maimonides, and the fourth was Santayana, who emigrated to the U.S. as a child. On the other hand, two well-known Spanish philosophers arguably should have qualified: Ortega y Gasset and Unamuno (who showed up on the table of top writers instead).

In summary, Spain was a leading European nation up until the middle of the 17th Century, after which it fell into the third rank.

Latin America has always been a backwater of Western Civilization, except in literature.

Murray didn't cover the last half of the 20th Century, but the long-term trends seem to be continuing. Latin Americans have won a grand total of only three Nobel Prizes in the sciences and Spain only one. In contrast, Denmark has won eight, and the U.S. 206.

Latin America remains more productive in literature than in other fields, with dazzling novelists such as Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa. Over the last half century, classical composition, art, and philosophy appear to have been in general decline across the Western world, so Latin America's lack of innovation in those fields no longer stands out as embarrassingly.

In the realm of popular culture, the last half of the 20th Century witnessed the overwhelming triumph of the U.S.A. Latin American pop music was vastly outgunned by American rock and roll. But even little English-speaking Jamaica wound up having more influence on music than did Cuba, which had been the most musically dynamic Spanish-speaking country. Perhaps Castro's (hopefully imminent) demise should free up Cuba's tremendous musical talent.

The more insidious Mexican ruling party bribed its artists into comfortable submission, which may account for the lack of Mexican creativity over the last 50 years. As the PRI fell apart over the last decade, several exciting Mexican movie directors have emerged.

Nonetheless, the bottom line: Latin America has been the least creative outpost of the West. And that probably won't change much.

America is unlikely to find many creative geniuses among Hispanic immigrants—especially among illegal ones.

[Steve Sailer [email him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog.]