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Social Science Fiction
Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives. By Frank J. Sulloway (New York, Pantheon, 1996; paperback ed. 1997) 653 pp. $30.00 cloth $16.00 paper

Periodically, books appear that claim to be, and are celebrated as, “fundamental,” or even revolutionary—intended to transform received opinions as to how the world works. Sulloway’s Born to Rebel is such a book, not least in the author’s own assessment of its significance. Sulloway’s self-evaluation is shared by such distinguished scholars—quoted on the cover—as Edward O. Wilson, I. B. Cohen, Steven Pinker, and Robert Merton. Although a long, densely footnoted, statistically complex work by a scholar with sterling academic credentials—including a MacArthur Fellowship—it has enjoyed (with some notable exceptions) respectful, and even deferential, reviews in popular and highbrow journals from Newsweek to the New York Review of Books. Sulloway and his book were featured in a New Yorker profile, and received the imprimatur of the New York Times’ Book Review: “[D]espite both particular and general limitations this book is a stunning achievement.” 1

Born to Rebel is an immensely ambitious attempt to apply evolutionary theory to human history through the accumulation [End Page 259] and “scientific” control of a massive amount of data primarily concerning family birth-order and sibling relationships. The hypothesis regarding the long-term consequences, individually and collectively, of birth order is subjected to multivariate analysis with reference to a large number of variables that contribute to shaping behavior. Sulloway demonstrates to his statistical satisfaction that the best predictor for differences in historically significant behavior is the occupation of the “family niche”; “birth order provides a potential Rosetta stone for deciphering some of the basic principles that govern family niches” (21). This hypothesis precipitates the conclusion that “history is first biography and only secondarily sociology” (234).

Aside from his belief that the birth-order hypothesis is not only the Rosetta stone, but the philosopher’s stone—a sovereign remedy for the historian’s resistance to the scientific method—Sulloway is especially interested in the biographical origins of scientific innovation and the response to innovation in the scientific community: Laterborns are characteristically open to innovation and firstborns conservative. He also devotes a section of his book to “Social and Political Thought,” which contains chapters about the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution.

Sulloway recognizes that historically significant sibling relationships must depend on the “functional” rather than the biological succession of births, because of the many children who died young during the periods covered by his vast chronological sweep. What matters is the actual position occupied in the family order of surviving siblings. That is to say, “Children do not inherit special genes for being firstborns or laterborns, only genes for engaging successfully in competition for parental involvement” (xv).

In Darwinian terms, this competition is a form of evolutionary adaptation familiar in the animal as well as the human world. Each child maneuvers to survive and flourish in relation to its position in the family system:

Relative to their younger siblings, firstborns are more assertive, socially dominant, ambitious, jealous of their status and defensive. Within the family system, younger siblings are inclined to question the status quo and in some cases to develop a “revolutionary personality.” In name of revolution, laterborns have repeatedly [End Page 260] challenged the time-honored assumptions of their day. From their ranks have become the bold explorers, the iconoclasts and the heretics of history.

(xiv)

Our interest was drawn to Sulloway’s book by a section that relates birth order to collective behavior during the French Revolution (306–326). Among the other data, Sulloway analyzes a series of six votes in the revolutionary National Convention—the famous appels nominaux—in which each deputy’s vote was recorded by name. Four of the six questions posed to the Convention concerned the trial of Louis XVI, and two other votes dealt with sharply factional issues. Lewis-Beck, Hildreth, and Spitzer analyzed the same data, although to answer different questions. 2

The four questions posed to the Convention at the king’s trial were (1...