Rebellious Laterborns
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Rebellious Laterborns

Rebellious Laterborns

 [Book Review]

FRANK J. SULLOWAY, Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1996.  653 pp.  $30.00 cloth, ISBN 0-679-44232-4.

Reviewed by Alan C. Elms

Frank Sulloway’s first book, Freud: Biologist of the Mind, was deeply researched and deeply ambivalent about Sigmund Freud.  His second book, 17 years later, is also deeply researched, but not at all ambivalent about its most frequent biographical example, Charles Darwin.  Sulloway’s admiration for Darwin is unbounded, and Darwin has inspired his general approach to the book’s central concern: the psychological effects of sibling rivalry.

            Darwin gave Sulloway two ideas that work in tandem.  Just as biological species seek a successful environmental niche, Sulloway argues, each human child searches for a niche within the family.  And just as biological species are more likely to survive if they find a divergent niche, so children seek a distinctively different family niche from their siblings.  Sulloway employs these Darwin-inspired assumptions to organize and explain a great deal of information about human behavior.  Firstborn children tend to occupy the family niche of parent surrogate, and by so doing they gain parentally bestowed attention, approval, and resources.  Laterborn children, who remain at least for a time weaker and more ignorant than their firstborn siblings, cannot readily take over that niche.  Therefore they develop different behavior patterns and different personalities from firstborns, in order to gain a share of parental attention.  Having found family niches appropriate to their birth order, firstborns and laterborns direct the same behavior toward situations outside the family, and they continue to do so as adults.

            Starting with these basic assumptions, Sulloway confirms them through massive statistical analyses of diverse sets of biographical data.  In science, in politics, and in religious movements, he finds that firstborns maintain tradition and hold to conservative positions.  Laterborns are, as the book title announces, “born to rebel.”  Sulloway demonstrates, for example, that laterborns were much quicker to adopt the Darwinian evolutionary viewpoint than were firstborns.  Younger firstborns gradually caught on as their resistant elders died off, but by Sulloway’s calculations, on average “an 80-year-old laterborn was as open to evolutionary theory as a 25-year-old firstborn” (p. 35).  Sulloway finds similar reactions of firstborns and laterborns to nearly two dozen other scientific innovations, from glaciation theory to continental drift and from early psychoanalytic theory to physical indeterminacy.  Likewise in the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, laterborns marched in the vanguard while firstborns held as long as they could to the old authority systems.

            The main thrust of Sulloway’s arguments is advanced through these quantitative analyses of hundreds or thousands of data points at a time, presented in carefully designed graphs.  But the book contains nearly as many pictures of individuals as of statistical distributions, and Sulloway makes effective use of biographical sketches to illustrate his points.  Darwin himself appears over and over as a prime instance of the theoretically rebellious but modest and sensitive laterborn.  Specific laterborns are often contrasted with firstborns similar in background except for birth order—sometimes from the same family—to show how sibling divergence led them to dramatically different careers and beliefs.  At first glance, Sulloway appears to be as nomothetic as any biographical scholar can get; he is always looking for the general rules behind the particular behavior pattern.  But he is clearly fascinated with all those individual lives as well, and describes key aspects of many of them.

            Often these individual examples are discussed not merely as illustrations of general points but as further tests of Sulloway’s hypotheses.  He insists that he wants to know the circumstances under which his birth order model doesn’t work, so he can determine how to make it better.  In responding repeatedly to such challenges, Sulloway makes it clear that the model is not as simple as it first appears.  The final model is substantially interactionist and situational, with such variables as parent-offspring conflict and shyness complicating the picture significantly: e.g., “Parent-offspring conflict makes honorary laterborns out of some firstborns” (p. 123).  But birth order remains, in virtually all of Sulloway’s statistical analyses, the overriding variable in predicting who will hew to a conservative course and who will rebel, whether in science or religion or politics.

            Sulloway’s demonstrations of birth order effects, in diverse populations and in response to diverse issues, are so impressive that they cannot be ignored.  Indeed, they should henceforth be consulted by any biographer who wants to understand as fully as possible why a specific subject chose a life path different from that of his or her siblings.  But though Darwin inspired Sulloway to adopt this explanatory approach, we—and Sulloway—may be able to improve upon it by reconsidering certain Freudian concepts.  That’s because Freud turns out to be a more direct progenitor of Sulloway’s approach than Darwin is.

            Sulloway proposes that Darwinian evolutionary processes are directly involved in birth order effects:  “Extensive individual differences have been preprogrammed by Darwinian evolution and are constantly being augmented by family experience.  Millions of years of biological evolution have seen to it that siblings turn out to be very different from one another” (p. 253).  But what exactly has been “preprogrammed” here?  Sulloway offers no evidence that laterborns consistently inherit a different set of behavioral tendencies than do firstborns.  Laterborns are not in that sense actually “born to rebel”; they don’t get some gene combination or genetic mutation that makes them greater behavioral innovators and thus more probable survivors and prolific parents than firstborns.  Any “preprogramming” is presumably in the direction of potential for behavioral variation, and of motivation to get enough parental attention to survive childhood.  In those regards, firstborns and laterborns are born equal.  Within the family pressure cooker (and at least to some extent outside of it), they then develop behavioral strategies that may get them at least as much parental attention and resources as the siblings they’re competing with.  But they don’t pass these strategies genetically to their offspring.  They may teach some of their acquired strategies to their children; Sulloway documents certain behavioral patterns across several generations.  But the unavoidable fact is that every laterborn who becomes a parent must start off with a firstborn child, and every firstborn parent who has more than one child gets at least one laterborn.  In a sense, the evolution of firstborn and laterborn behavior patterns begins again with each new generation of each family.  That process is Darwinian only by analogy.

            So how are Sulloway’s concepts Freudian rather than Darwinian?  In two ways: first, in terms of behavior patterns that develop through intense early family emotional interactions; and second, through the generalization or projection or transference of these childhood behavior patterns onto people and situations outside the family.  Sulloway argues that firstborns and laterborns, having found a particular behavioral style that helps them deal effectively with siblings and parents, then apply the same style to other interactions in new emotional and intellectual territory.  Darwin didn’t discuss such matters; Freud did.

            When Freud discussed them, he emphasized the child’s interaction with parents rather than with siblings.  But he didn’t leave siblings entirely out of the picture; he noted sibling rivalry in theory, in myth, and in individual case histories.  Perhaps Freud should have elevated sibling rivalry over Oedipal conflicts, since he himself was more concerned with protecting his close maternal relationship from the inroads of his younger siblings than from the competition of his middle-aged father.  Sulloway, on the other hand, acknowledges that a major moderating influence on birth order effects is conflict with a parent—he doesn’t stipulate which one, but chances are pretty good in our culture that it will be the same-sexed parent.  So he and Freud may be closer, in terms of the actual family patterns most important to their subjects’ adult behavior, than the writings of either one acknowledge. 

            Of what importance is it that the processes Sulloway describes are more Freudian than Darwinian?  For one thing, close attention to internal family dynamics rather than to a biological-evolutionary concept of overall selection pressure suggests the likelihood of more complex behavioral and emotional patterns than Sulloway has yet explored.  He usually discusses the child’s relationship with the parents as though the parents are a single unit whose approval and resources the child seeks with a single strategy.  But children do distinguish between mother and father, and they typically direct different strategies toward each.  For example, Freud’s competition with his siblings was mainly for his mother’s love.  Toward his father Freud felt largely shame.  Shamed by him or ashamed of him on various occasions, Freud responded by seeking to go beyond his father, to triumph over him (though Freud also felt guilty about wanting to do so).  Freud simplified this set of feelings toward mother and father into the standard Oedipal dynamic, just as Sulloway tends to reduce his data to a standard sibling-conflict dynamic.  Sulloway may well be correct that sibling conflict is often more important when it comes to political or scientific “rebellions.”  But the large number of possible family dynamic patterns besides these two are obscured by a focus on either or both, and some of the rest may be more significant in other areas of adult endeavor.  Speaking of those “other areas,” I’d hazard a guess that even the orthodox Oedipus conflict might turn out to be more important than sibling rivalry among male creative writers (the subject population in which Freud first noted the Oedipus conflict).  While I and other researchers continue to explore such propositions psychobiographically, I’ll look forward to seeing Sulloway test them statistically.

            Sulloway’s own writing style is clear and lively, often using humor as well as example to maintain reader interest without pandering to a “popular” audience.  But I’d like to register one complaint about his choice of language: his unnecessary demonization of firstborns.  Sometimes this is part of his humor, as in his observation concerning the lesser effect of parent-child conflict on laterborns: “Who needs to have Attila the Hun for a father, or the Wicked Witch of the West for a mother, if you already have a domineering older sibling?” (pp. 121-122).  But often it reads as a hostile overinterpretation of his data: “Firstborns find it particularly hard to admit their mistakes” (p. 161).  “Relative to their younger brothers, firstborn males seem to be budding ‘terrorists.’ . . . During radical revolutions, firstborn predilections for tough-minded policies can result in large-scale terrorism” (p. 285).  “Excessive violence and a penchant for cruelty are firstborn traits” (p. 293).  “For every later-born dissenter who suffered death in an effort to challenge despotism, there were usually firstborn rulers and magistrates who signed the death warrants” (p. 361). At the same time, laterborns are often idealized:  “Laterborn political leaders, who seem to be more flexible than firstborns, have also done a better job of keeping their countries out of war” (p. 298).  “With the birth of modern society, numerous local cultures have owed their liberating social values, and their respect for individualism, to Reformation laterborns who successfully rebelled” (p. 283).  “The fruition of the Scientific Revolution is the greatest of the laterborn triumphs I have discussed in this book.  By winning this battle over the rules of knowledge, younger siblings successfully transformed this creative domain of human inquiry into a process of perpetual rebellion” (p. 367). 

            Well, maybe laterborns are most often the good guys of history and firstborns are the bad guys.  But it’s probably more productive to consider how the complementary qualities of firstborns and laterborns have each contributed in their own ways to the disasters and triumphs of human history, rather than describing one group in the worst terms possible and the other in the best.  Sulloway does acknowledge certain positive contributions by firstborns, but he reports them grudgingly: “The scientific originality of firstborns, which is indisputable, lies in clever puzzle solving, pushing established theories into new but socially acceptable territories. . . . most Nobel Prize winners provide good examples” (pp. 356-357).

            Sulloway probably has a statistical analysis already in progress, or at least an informal scatter-plot, that tabulates positive and negative reviews of his book as a function of the reviewers’ birth order.  I proudly acknowledge being a firstborn, but according to the book’s Appendix 11, “How to Test Your Own Propensity to Rebel,” I am also a 100% honorary laterborn.  Maybe that’s why, in spite of the book’s general animus toward firstborns, I feel comfortable in concluding: This book is fun.  This book is useful.  This book is stimulating.  Read it.  Study it.  Give it as a gift to your younger siblings and your laterborn offspring.


[Published in Biography, 1998, 21, 58-62.]


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