All in the Family

by Steve Sailer

Published in National Review, 12/9/96, 1,050 words

Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, by Frank J. Sulloway

New York: Pantheon Books, 1996, 653 pp., $30

Born to Rebel arrives on a crest of imposing hype, with serious scholars comparing its importance to that of the works of Charles Darwin. For 26 years, this statistically inclined MIT historian has labored to uncover why it was Darwin who originated the theory of natural selection. After building a database of 6,566 scientists and other historic figures from the 16th through the early 20th Centuries, the answer's now obvious to him: Darwin was the 4th child born in his family. To Dr. Sulloway, much of history is literally sibling rivalry writ large, an eternal struggle between conservative, authoritarian, and closed-minded "firstborns" and liberal, rebellious, altruistic, and open-minded "laterborns." (Pop quiz: Name Sulloway's birth rank and politics.)

Despite the author's tendency to torture his examples to fit his comically obvious prejudice that firstborn = conservative = bad (one of his illustrations of a firstborn with a "conservative ideology" is the Unabomber), there is almost certainly some truth in his general idea. Sulloway's findings agree fairly well with popular stereotypes, the urban folk wisdom of our time. One of his accomplishments is to solidly ground his logic in Neo-Darwinian sociobiology rather than academically popular literary movements like Freudianism: sibling rivalry is genetically motivated competition for scarce parental resources. Older, bigger children defend their privileges, while younger kids try to subvert the status quo. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. (The "only child," by the way, appear to be too variable to generalize about.)

A careful reading reveals, however, that Dr. Sulloway does not actually explain the cause of Darwin's creativity. It turns out that laterborn scientists are not significantly more innovative. (Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein were all firstborns. Genius remains largely inexplicable.) Instead, laterborn scientists are merely more receptive to other's innovatory theories, especially when there isn't much evidence one way or another. Once solid data becomes available, this gap rapidly closes. (Firstborns, in turn, seem to deserve some credit for resisting new but bad ideas like phrenology, the once-popular pseudo-science of predicting personality from skull bumps, which laterborns were nine times more likely to favor.)

Birth order, it appears, primarily influences opinions, not accomplishments. Keep in mind that those of us who get our opinions published tend to vastly overrate the historic importance of published opinions.

Despite heroic research efforts, lucid prose style, and admirable zeal for statistically testing hypotheses, at times Sulloway can sound like Matt Groening's Seventh Type of College Professor: The-Single-Theory-to-Explain-Everything-Maniac. ("The nation that controls magnesium controls the universe!!!") Yet, family dynamics are a curiously impotent Single Theory. No nation can use birth order to control the universe because no nation can control birth order. The great engines of history remain cultural differences propagated through families, not differences between individuals spontaneously generated over and over again within families. For example, in one of his few attempts to explain distinctions between countries, Sulloway cites France's low birth rate and consequent high proportion of firstborns to explain why so many French scientists stubbornly resisted Darwin. Yet, since France's low birthrate continued into the 20th Century, by this logic France's surplus of firstborns should also have made French soldiers loyal conformists, while fast-growing Germany would be saddled with an undisciplined army of too many "born to rebel" laterborns. The events of May, 1940, however, would seem to cast doubt on this reasoning.

When Sulloway leaves the relatively firm ground of scientific history for the swamp of politics, his analysis becomes a bit of a mess, partly because politics itself is messy. Unlike scientific revolutions, most political revolutions -- whether the American revolution, England's Glorious Revolution of 1688, Japan's Meiji Restoration, the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Mussolini's putsch or Hitler's takeover -- contain both radical and conservative elements.

Eventually, somebody may make sense of the relations between birth order and politics, but they'll need a far more sophisticated understanding of politics than Sulloway brings to the job. His first weakness is that he assumes that "conservative," "liberal," and "radical" means roughly the same thing in all places and all times. For example, his description of Darwin's politics -- "Darwin was ahead of his time, and his worldview was that of a twentieth-century liberal" -- is a much more accurate portrayal of Sulloway's own ideology. True, Darwin was a "liberal", but a nineteenth-century free market liberal, infinitely closer in outlook to Milton Friedman than Hillary Clinton. Darwin was linked to the rising tide of survival-of-the-fittest capitalism by blood and marriage (both his mother and wife were Wedgwoods, members of the factory-owning family that developed the first brand name in history); by heavy stock market investments; and by intellectual heritage (the single most important influence on Darwin was economist Thomas Malthus, a follower of Adam Smith). In spirit, Darwinism was Whig free market economics applied to biology.

Further, Sulloway seems not to realize that it's much harder to define what's the orthodoxy to rebel against today than in, say, 1517 (the first year in his database), when the Catholic Church unquestionably defined the intellectual Establishment. He tends to assume scientific progress remains upsetting to conservatives. Yet, beginning in the 1920's with the discovery that subatomic reality is indeterminate (which flummoxed atheistic determinists), many recent scientific revolutions have proved deeply gratifying to the prejudices of sophisticated conservatives. For example, the now-validated Big Bang theory was long pooh-poohed by the scientific establishment out of anti-religious bias: the Big Bang is disturbingly close to Genesis ("Let there be light") and Thomas Aquinas' Prime Mover proof for the existence of God.

Most notably, the sociobiologists' ongoing "rediscovery of human nature" validates conservative distrust of the dominant liberal dogma that all differences between humans are the product of social conditioning. Today, the Pope appears more enthusiastic about Darwinism than the self-proclaimed "cultural radicals" who control who gets tenure in university humanities departments.

Paradoxically, by offering even more evidence that human nature is fixed and that the power of state-mandated social reform to advance harmony and happiness is highly limited, Sulloway ends up offering additional reassurance to conservatives in their rebellion against liberal othodoxy.

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