Revenge of the Kid Brother

Frank Sulloway says your birth order determines your personality  and he's got the numbers to prove it


Scott Rosenberg
October 21, 1996 11:00PM (UTC)

when social scientists try to apply the rigid yardstick of statistics to taffylike questions of historical causality, there's always a hint of farce. If you can explain the past through a statistical model, you inevitably suggest that you can also predict the future and we know how impossible that is. So we see the figure of the statistical historian hunched over his data, muttering, "According to my calculations, the stock market should have crashed ... yesterday!" as a distant cousin of the numerologist, the astrologer, or the reader of chicken entrails.

Frank Sulloway, an M.I.T. scholar with a radical and at first glance pretty wacky theory about birth order and history, seems well aware of this image problem. In his new book "Born to Rebel," he focuses on scientific and political revolutionaries, but he might almost be writing about himself: "Individuals who launch radical revolutions typically require strong determination, courage, and independence of mind. Unfortunately, their divergent ways of thinking have tended to condemn these bold thinkers to rejection, ridicule and torment."

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Sulloway, by any measure, has got the right stuff to be an intellectual revolutionary. He's obsessive and single-minded; as he surveys revolutions from Copernicus to Darwin, and from the Protestant Reformation to the French Revolution his theory becomes a one-size-fits-all idee fixe. Birth order, Sulloway believes, is a statistically valid predicter of individual character and human history. Give him your family lineup, Sulloway promises, and he'll tell you the likelihood of your becoming a rebel or a dictator, a pacifist or a terrorist.

according to Sulloway, firstborns are typically conservative, aggressive, jealous and over-achieving; "laterborns" are more easygoing, adventurous, open to experience and likely to make creative breakthroughs. Sulloway himself? A laterborn a natural-born rebel.

Sulloway declares that "the primary engine of historical change" is sibling conflict, rooted in a Darwinian struggle within the family based on birth order: "Compared with firstborns, laterborns are more likely to identify with the underdog and to challenge the established order. Because they identify with parents and authority, firstborns are more likely to defend the status quo. The effects of birth order transcend gender, social class, race, nationality, and for the last five centuries time."

This theory, expounded at exhaustive length and in minute detail in "Born to Rebel," sounds too simple and too mechanical to credit. Like any vision of human beings behaving involuntarily, repetitively, predictably the hallmark of slapstick it's unwittingly ridiculous. And any theory that takes something as complex as history and tries to reduce it to a limited statistical model has got to be nutty, right?

Sulloway, having perhaps been jeered at one too many times, fights back in "Born to Rebel" with an enormous, exhaustive and finally stupefying array of charts, appendices, probability coefficients and cross-correlation studies. (One appendix even offers a handy formula, "How to test your own propensity to rebel.") To conduct his studies, Sulloway plugged more than a million "biographical data points" into his computer. Remarkably, nearly every test he runs supports the birth-order theory! And when a major example seems to contradict it Galileo was a firstborn the theory always wrinkles to accommodate it. (Galileo was nine years older than his next sibling, and therefore "functionally an only child," and only children are "the least predictable subgroup in my family dynamics model" and besides, Galileo's dad was himself a rebel, and that throws everything out of whack.)

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To those of us who might argue that history is too subtle and subjective to reduce to a statistical model, Sulloway's reply is, basically, balderdash: "Although historians have rightly appreciated the role of historical context, they have failed to investigate the issue scientifically. Owing to the plethora of interactions between individual dispositions and behavioral contexts, this problem is too complex to be resolved by narrative methods." The very complexity that you might think places history beyond the reach of a spreadsheet merely eggs Sulloway on to plug more and more variables into his Wayback Machine.

Sulloway's stated inspiration is Charles Darwin, whose motto, "It's dogged as does it," gets cited more than once in "Born to Rebel." But as Sulloway gets down and dirty with his data points, he instead brings to mind Hari Seldon, the galactic-class slide-rule addict of Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" trilogy. In that saga, Seldon founds the discipline of "psychohistory" by applying the laws of statistics to the tides of human affairs. Sulloway, alas, isn't half as much fun as Seldon; even Asimov's narrative style, clunkily dated but still entertaining, might help render Sulloway's brand of psychohistory more readable.

"Born to Rebel's" central insight, viewing the family and history through a Darwinian rather than Freudian or Marxist lens, cries out for the literary skills of Darwin's able latter-day followers like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, who have the writerly chops to elucidate the profounder implications of abstruse theoretical disputes. Sulloway's approach as a writer is simply to spread out his research papers and then fill in the gaps with biographical nuggets.

"Born to Rebel" is meticulously organized only at the level of its table of contents. Indeed, a New Yorker profile reports that, "to evaluate chapter and book titles, [Sulloway] created a rating system in which the syllables of a potential title were calculated along with its sibilance, 'punch value,' and 'euphony index' all of which were reduced to an over-all ratio, rank-ordered, and then randomly tested on unsuspecting subjects walking the streets of Cambridge." Perhaps you can successfully evaluate titles that way and "Born to Rebel" isn't a bad choice. But Sulloway's market-research approach to writing doesn't help him with the more creative challenge of structuring a lengthy volume to build and hold a reader's interest.

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Page by page, "Born to Rebel" is clumsy, misshapen; you keep waiting for it to build some momentum, and it keeps collapsing in repetitious citations. Most lay readers will hustle through its scholarly apparatus, at best satisfied that Sulloway has successfully responded to critiques by colleagues with doleful names like Ernst and Angst and grateful not to be in the shoes of the unfortunate graduate students stuck with all the quantitative legwork.

The book is a classic university press volume, an overblown monograph pounced on by a commercial publishing house because of the obvious talk-show appeal of its central idea. That appeal is undeniable, and it has already won "Born to Rebel" tons of space in The New Yorker, Newsweek and other outlets. But the discussions of Sulloway's ideas you're likely to have over the water cooler or the dinner table are going to be far more absorbing than any time you spend with the book.

For all its statistical underpinnings, in fact, "Born to Rebel" is most valuable as a provocative prod for personal musings about family dynamics. For instance, my effort to take a resolutely unscientific survey of the Salon office and find out whether our data points match Sulloway's came up with resoundingly inconclusive results. But the things I learned about my coworkers!

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As for me, a laterborn, if Sulloway is right, I should be championing his ideas. But rebelliousness despite all the apparent precision of Sulloway's elaborate models is a slippery quality to quantify. Maybe a rebel would embrace a radical theory that shatters existing assumptions. Then again, maybe a rebel would instinctively resist an over-hyped idea that reduces human behavior to numbers.


Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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