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Rebel with a Cause

IN THE ARTICLE THAT PRECEDES THIS INTERVIEW I have discussed in some detail Frank Sulloway’s theory of birth order and family dynamics so I will not reiterate it here. Nor did I ask Frank to recap it in the interview. His lecture for the Skeptics Society at Caltech — which several long-time members called the best in the five year history of the series — is an excellent summary of his theory and is available from Shop Skeptic. The publicity surrounding his new book — Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives (Pantheon) — has been extensive to say the least. Even more striking than The New Yorker’s nine-page story about Sulloway and his theory was Newsweek’s six-page review, complete with Sulloway’s formula for calculating your own propensity to rebel. In the New York Review of Books Jared Diamond found no flaws whatsoever in the theory, calling it a “fascinating and convincing work.” PBS’s Charlie Rose and Patt Morrison each hosted Frank on their respective author talk shows. In addition he has been featured on numerous magazine television programs such as Dateline, was challenged by Bryant Gumble on The Today Show, and even appeared unopposed on Ted Koppel’s Nightline, almost unheard of for a program based on point-counterpoint confrontations. The author of the highly acclaimed and extremely controversial biography (within psychoanalytic circles), Freud, Biologist of the Mind (Basic Books, 1979), Sulloway is perhaps best known as the scholar who showed that Darwin did not convert to the theory of evolution during his five-year voyage around the world, but only after his return home to England. Through careful and methodical research into the primary sources Sulloway also demonstrated that Darwin’s ideas about evolution evolved over many decades and that the impact of the Origin of Species would not have been what it was had it been published earlier. Darwin delayed publication almost 25 years and the payoff was worth it. Learning from his mentor and hero, Sulloway spent a quarter-century developing his Darwinian model of human behavior that could very well be the most significant theory of history since Marx, with the added benefit that it has been scientifically tested. The long-term payoffs are unknown, but the short-term rewards have been nothing short of stunning. For his efforts, which included a two-year intensive study of book contracts and deals, Sulloway negotiated for himself (i.e., no agent was involved) a $500,000 advance, which he figures he will earn back given the spectacular sales of the book thus far. This is startling for a 600-page book, almost half of which consists of appendices filled with references, notes, and statistical tables and formulas. Will this book about revolutions itself trigger an intellectual revolution? That remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: its author is a rebel with a cause.

— Michael Shermer

Skeptic:
In your criticism of Freud you say that no theory should have to live itself out through its own tenets: “Only psychoanalysis demands that its founder’s life, his childhood, and even his self-analysis that led to this discovery follow his theory.” Yet in many ways hasn’t your life embodied your own theory? You are born third of four, you’ve led this divergent, find-your-own-niche lifestyle, and like Darwin you’ve traveled around the world and then spent 25 years carefully compiling this Darwinian theory. Doesn’t your life follow rather closely the tenets of your theory?
Sulloway:
Yes, I recognize a serious inconsistency in the comment I used to make about Freud. When I wrote that criticism it hadn’t occurred to me that the same objection might well arise in terms of a Darwinian theory of human development. If a Darwinian account is an accurate account, then the lives of great creators, including Darwin, will accord with this theory. Darwin fits as well or better than I do. He was the fifth of six children. On a measure of openness that includes social attitudes, variety of interests, and travel, Darwin and fellow laterborn Wallace are tied for third out of 2,500 scientists, and this puts them in the top 1/10th of 1%, which is extraordinarily open indeed. The important issue to focus on is that if you accept an incorrect theory of human development such as psychoanalysis, and if you then erect a story of the hero based on this theory, you are really in trouble.
Skeptic:
Where do you rank yourself on the Big Five personality characteristics?
Sulloway:
Openness: I think I would get a very high score because of all the travel I’ve done. I started my career by retracing Darwin’s voyage. The propensity to travel to relatively remote places is an excellent indicator of openness to experience. I’ve had a very unusual career, essentially living off competitive fellowships for 26 years rather than going the normal route of holding down a formal job. It’s all been a high-risk strategy. I’m probably in the top 5% on openness.

Conscientiousness: I’m highly conscientious in my work, but in most other things I’m not, so I’m probably in the middle overall. I pay incredible attention to detail and have an obsessive-compulsive streak when it comes to data analysis. So I focus my life on the one thing I’m most creative at and let everything else go.

Agreeableness: I like to think of myself as a fairly laid-back, nonaggressive person. I’m not pushy or bossy, so I’m a rather typical laterborn in this regard.

Emotional Stability: I’m emotionally stable — I don’t get jealous, I don’t use outrage as a strategy, and I do quite well in accepting defeat, which is a diagnostic aspect of agreeableness as well as emotional stability. I know of a scholar who has never applied for a certain fellowship for fear of being turned down. I never worry about being turned down. I just go ahead and assume that I will win some and lose some. The reason for this individual difference in terms of birth-order therory is that laterborn siblings are typically inferior to their elder siblings by virtue of being younger, smaller, etc., so they are used to being second best. Hence they are less concerned with failure.

Introversion — Extroversion: I’m mixed on this dimension. I am not socially dominant, which is a firstborn trait. I’m pretty sociable — a laterborn trait — but I’m also somewhat shy. I used to be much more shy, but as an academic I’ve learned to be more outgoing. But it has been a studied effort. In my book I provide a discussion about how younger siblings often start out shy because they are intimidated by elder siblings. But as they grow up they learn to become less shy, so they change more on this dimension than older siblings do.

Skeptic:
You’ve been working on this book for 25 years without publishing in peer-reviewed journals, given only a handful of conference presentations, and you’re relatively unknown outside of a small circle of scientists who know about this work. Since it appears that you’ve uncovered something quite important, how could you stand to wait so long to disclose it?
Sulloway:
There is a real peculiarity about my style as a scholar that this question helps to highlight. I spent seven years working on Freud before publishing my biography of him. I had the basic idea for the book early on, and I could easily have published an article about my principal findings. But the whole goal of this book was to develop the idea that Freud was a “biologist of the mind” influenced by Darwin and other 19th-century biologists, and to follow it throughout the whole corpus of Freud’s writings, and thereby to reconstruct a whole new understanding of Freud’s place in history. So the essence of the project was precisely its completeness. I may have been influenced in this regard by starting out as a Darwin scholar and seeing Darwin employ the same strategy. Indeed, I worked on Darwin for 12 years before I published a single article about his life and then I published eight in a row. I had many of the basic ideas about Darwin’s conversion to evolution in the first two years of my research. But what always struck me as the most interesting aspect of these ideas was to follow them out with a rigor and completeness that allowed a for me more compelling story. I used the same strategy with Born to Rebel. I knew perfectly well that other people had come to the same general conclusion as I had, namely, that younger siblings are more rebellious. It hardly takes a profound insight to reach this folk psychology conclusion. What was needed was a level of rigor in the analysis that would remove it from folk psychology, surmount all the objections by academic psychologists about the lack of control in birth order studies, and push the idea to see how far it would go in terms of a Darwinian theory of personality development. This was something that could not be done in a short period of time.
Skeptic:
Might it have hurt you to have published earlier?
Sulloway:
I think it would have been almost a complete waste of time. I could easily have published my central idea with some good supporting data. But a lot of people still wouldn’t have believed me, so I would have let the cat out of the bag without receiving credit for convincing people. There are times you don’t want to let a really good idea out if the essence of the creative enterprise is mounting a comprehensive empirical case around it. Everything I’ve ever worked on has followed this empirically driven format.
Skeptic:
In another quarter-century where do you see the flow of these ideas going? Will there be a Sullowayian school of historiography? Might textbooks change in the interpretation of world history?
Sulloway:
The part of Born to Rebel that I’m most proud of is the comprehensiveness of the argument. It’s not a book about birth order. It’s not even a book about family conflict or family dynamics. It’s a book about causal analysis in human behavior, one in which personality, as understood in terms of family dynamics, is also linked to sociological forces in adulthood. This complex causal nexus is all then linked to the moderating role of historical context. So there are three different levels of causal analysis that are going on in explaining any individual’s behavior. This theoretical aspect of the book is one on which I hope to continue working.
Skeptic:
But if you want to trigger something akin to a paradigm shift in our thinking about analyzing human behavior, especially in a historical context, you need to get other people to pick it up and run with it and to create a new research program. Surely you must be hoping this will happen?
Sulloway:
Yes, I designed Born to Rebel in such a way that it would immediately suggest to scholars other researchable topics. In fact, I wrote an appendix that consists entirely of ideas for future research. In this appendix I present 20 topics for which I wish we had answers but for which we don’t. I was very conscious that there were areas where considerably more work needs to be done in order to link an argument about childhood dispositions to adulthood circumstances, and to broader historical contexts — again, the three levels of causality I mentioned earlier. We are talking about relentless interaction effects: to show what is going on in history is very challenging because one needs to employ lots of variables and one needs to use sophisticated models that allow not only for the main effects of birth order, or age, or parental influence, but also for how these variables interact with one another. A scientific understanding of human behavior involves a spider’s web of interconnections. I finally concluded that it was time to get this book out because I had gone as far as I could with such a broad project. Having set the scope of the book as broadly as I did, I hoped that it would immediately suggest to other people new research possibilities. For example social class is a remarkably disappointing predictor of human behavior, and historians have been missing things far more important — mainly aspects of individual disposition — but they haven’t known how to go about documenting the role of such within-family differences. Born to Rebel provides a roadmap for how this research agenda might be conducted.
Skeptic:
Who are your heroes and mentors?
Sulloway:

The person who has influenced my life more than any other is Charles Darwin. I started out as a Darwin scholar and was so intent on figuring out what made him tick that I spent 20 years poring over his life. A lot of Darwin has rubbed off on my own style of thinking and research. He was a very patient individual, which I also am. His favorite expression about scientific creativity was “It’s dogged is as does it.” I already processed much of this style as a young student. I was curious how someone like Darwin, who was not a superbrain, was probably the greatest revolutionary after Isaac Newton in Western science. So much of Darwin’s success as a scientist is related to his character: his modesty that forced him to test everything rather than to just assume he was right; by contrast Freud had such a huge ego that he almost always assumed he was right so he never tested anything.

My mentors at Harvard included Jerome Kagan, a developmental psychologist who took me under his wing when I was a graduate student and allowed me to get almost the equivalent of a doctorate in psychology. Ernst Mayr has had an enormous influence on me and was a loyal supporter even before I became a graduate student. Another significant influence was Edward O. Wilson. Even though I only had one course from him — evolutionary biology — I was deeply impressed by his Darwinian vision of the world and also by his use of modeling techniques. I remember saying to myself that, had I taken this course a year earlier, I probably would have become an evolutionary biologist. Thanks to these mentoring influences the rest of my career has been the application of Darwinian principles to human behavior.

Skeptic:
You talk about 88% probability or 92% probability in predicting openness to innovation. And you do this based on a dozen or so main variables. How many more variables could you add to increase these predicted probabilities to, say, 99% or even 100%? Or is that last couple of percentage points where free will or contingency enter the formula?
Sulloway:
If we are talking about a single individual such as Darwin, whose probability of endorsing a radical innovation in science was about 94%, even if we added dozens of variables his probability would most likely remain at 94%, plus or minus a small margin of error. What we would do by adding more predictors is to reduce the error around the prediction. With a dozen predictors the error range might be 94% ± 6%, so Darwin could be as high as 100% or as low as 88%. With fifty or a hundered predictors, the error range might be ± 2% instead of ±6%. The 94% probability for Darwin comes from the fact that the group he is in — laterborns from upper-class families who were under the age of 30, politically and socially liberal, not extreme on shyness, and so on — was 94% likely to support innovation.
Skeptic:
If you have 100 Darwins, 94% of them support radical innovations in science. Why do the other six not?
Sulloway:
I have not considered every single variable that is operative, and most of these are probably variables that make a difference in only a few cases. For example, John Lubbock was a firstborn, and he would not be predicted to support Darwinian theory. But what the model doesn’t know about him is that, when Lubbock was seven years old, Charles Darwin moved to Down where Lubbock’s family lived and became Lubbock’s next door neighbor. Darwin took an interest in young Lubbock. In fact he became Lubbock’s second father, helped him to acquire his first microscope, had him illustrate some of the barnacles monographs, and even had him read the Origin of Species in manuscript! To represent such important aspects of friendship and mentoring I created a variable in the database called “personal influence.” This and other variables, including age and social attitude, help to exlain why Lubbock became such an ardent Darwinian. I am convinced, however, that we could never get 100% accuracy in prediction because of variations in temperament that we know are, to some degree, under biological and genetic control.
Skeptic:
Looking at group versus individual differences — most Jews, women, and Blacks, for example, tend to be liberal and vote democratic. How does birth order play itself out when there are strong group differences in such dimensions?
Sulloway:
Within any population of “underdogs” such as Jews or Western women before the 20th century, you will still find birth order differences — firstborns will be less open to experience than the laterborns. But often the entire subpopulation, say of Jews, is more liberal than the majority. So I always include variables such as gender and minority status in my models. Race and gender are not more important than birth order, but they are significant predictors in their own right.
Skeptic:
You make the point that Benjamin Franklin is a laterborn of a laterborn of a laterborn, going back five generations. Since you claim birth order effects are environmental and not genetic, this sounds like a Lamarckian rather than a Darwinian model.
Sulloway:
Children pick up certain things from their parents, particularly social attitudes. Personality is not transmitted from parent to offspring with any high degree of reliability because siblings are going out of their way to be different from one another and this tendency reduces the correlations. But siblings acquire a great deal of their parents’ social attitudes, so if we are dealing with younger siblings and they have children of their own, their offspring will tend to be more socially liberal because they will absorb their parents’ liberal attitudes. Generation after generation there is a build-up of liberal ideas. It’s sort of Lamarckian, in so far as the process is environmental, but there is no inheritance of acquired characteristics; it’s just an environmental process building across generations.
Skeptic:
I’m a laterborn and I am very socially liberal when it comes to women’s rights, pro-choice, children’s rights, support of the underdog, etc. But I’m against big government to solve social inequalities. I prefer to see individuals take charge of their lives and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and not to depend on aid, quotas, etc. It seems to me that your theory supports the belief that for the weak, underprivileged, and poor — the “laterborns” of society if you will — to find success, they have only to diversify, much like the Jews did in the late Middle Ages by going into banking and commerce, to find or create their own niche. Isn’t big government like the firstborn who, by setting up social programs, is preventing the laterborns from finding their own niche? Aren’t these “firstborns”creating establishment niches for these “laterborns?”
Sulloway:
When government sets up mechanisms to carry out its programs, then those mechanisms are part of the status quo. Out of the population, there will be recruitment of people who like working within the status quo to staff these programs and to get on with them. This doesn’t prohibit people who are particularly diverse and open to experience from creating their own niches. Indeed, to create a new niche there have to be some old ones that are already occupied. People need the status quo around to know what isn’t part of the status quo. I think big governmeny may just contribute to the diversity of the environment and set the stage on which creativity, diversification, and divergent thinking play themselves out.
Skeptic:
The Newt Gingrichs of the world see themselves as revolutionaries, but maybe they are not because they want to go back to the old status quo.
Sulloway:
Newt is a classic example of a “conservative” revolutionary, not a “radical” revolutionary. There are many examples of conservative revolutions that I discuss in my book, including eugenics and vitalism, where there occurred a scientific innovation that tended to support either the role of God or a former way of thinking about some problem. These ideas are significantly more likely to be supported by firstborns than by laterborns.
Skeptic:
What about people like Philippe Rushton and some of the extreme behavior geneticists who are intent on showing Black-White differences in I.Q.? Are they conservative revolutionaries in this sense?
Sulloway:
I have little doubt that individuals in our time who support extreme versions of genetic determinism are more likely to be firstborns than laterborns. There are two published studies that show firstborns prefer biologically-determined theories of I.Q. and race. These findings are not surprising because these are conservative positions to take. Firstborns like to believe everything is the way it is because we are born that way and that nothing will ever change. It doesn’t take a genius to understand why they think this way.
Skeptic:
It seems that what you are describing in the “divergent” efforts of laterborns to find an unoccupied niche is a type of social intelligence.
Sulloway:
Yes, I regret that I read Dan Goleman’s instructive book Emotional Intelligence only after I had finished writing my own book. I immediately realized that this was what I was talking about in Born to Rebel. The opening epigraph in my book is a quotation from Darwin: “I have been speculating last night what makes a man a discoverer of undiscovered things; and a most perplexing problem it is. Many men who are very clever — much cleverer than the discoverers — never originate anything.” The answer to Darwin’s quesion lies in the “character” or “personality” of the person, by which we mean emotional intelligence as well. This kind of intelligence is a form of cognitive functioning that is different from I.Q. It involves attributes like persistence, daring, and willingness to depart from the beaten path, and to challenge authority.
Skeptic:
If you were a graduate department wouldn’t you want laterborns as well as firstborns? The firstborns would be good puzzle solvers and win Nobel Prizes, but the laterborns would go off to the Galapagos and lead revolutions. How might your theory be applied to problems such as student admissions? In addition to GREs and GPAs, should we also be asking for birth-order information?
Sulloway:
The danger in doing this is that you don’t want to be too stringent in how you apply this information because it requires that you know the future needs of society. For example, if the year is 1858 and we happen to know that Darwin is going to publish the Origin of Species next year, then of course we want lots of laterborns in the population to make this transition to the new way of thinking as quickly as possible. But if the year is 1799 and Gall is just about to publish his theory of phrenology, we ought to think twice about loading the population with a bunch of laterborns who would be likely to endorse this screwball theory and to be dead wrong. Unless you can predict the future it is unwise to try to select one group at the expense of another.

There is one area of graduate admissions where there might be a practical application of my ideas. Suppose you have an individual whose GRE scores are somewhat lower than another individual, but the first individual is extraordinarily high on openness to experience, and in the letters of recommendation you can see that this person is explorative and daring. I think graduate schools should pay more attention to this type of information, which is correlated with birth order. Of course openness to experience, rather than birth order per se, is the attribute we would really want to track. There are studies showing that for scientists with I.Q.s of 125 or higher, there is no correlation between I.Q. and how eminent they became. But there is definitely a correlation between emotional intelligence (including openness to experience) and how successful a person becomes. This form of intelligence is the sum of all of the personality traits and strategies that siblings have learned in the course of childhood in competition with their brothers and sisters.

Skeptic:
How do you handle exceptions to your family dynamics model? Take Einstein, who was a firstborn.
Sulloway:
A family dynamics model actually does a reasonably good job in understanding exceptions such as Einstein. He is a firstborn, so he seems to be an exception based on this single variable. But the model is based on a dozen or so variables. Einstein was somewhat shy, and that helps him as a firstborn — he will be more reflective and open to experience than would an extroverted firstborn. He is also Jewish, so as a member of an oppressed minority he benefits considerably from this circumstance. These variables alone predict that someone such as Einstein has a 75% to 80% probability of endorsing a liberal innovation. Relativity theory was a liberal rather than radical scientific innovation, so the model gets Einstein right in terms of his scientific stance in this controversy. And don’t forget that Einstein rejected quantum mechanics, the other major revolution of his time. Firstborns are more sensitive to age than laterborns. They age “quicker” so to speak. When Einstein was in his 20s, he developed relativity theory. Later, when faced with the dilemma of quantum mechanics, he was in his mid-40s, so his probability of accepting this new liberal innovation was less than 50%. In fact, Einstein rejected quantum mechanics with one of his most famous statements: “God does not play with dice.” So a multivariate model of family dynamics, supplemented by other contingent factors about biography and history, gets him right in both instances.
Skeptic:
In your book and lectures, laterborns come out as the heroes in history. But aren’t you mostly tracking successful revolutions — revolutions that turned out to be right? Most new and radical ideas are wacky and wrong. Isn’t it good to be a firstborn, or to have firstborns around to weed out the junk, and be the puzzle solvers of the ideas that turn out right?
Sulloway:
Yes and no. It is fair to say that firstborn and laterborn strategies are equally successful in the long run, and therefore one shouldn’t adopt an evaluative approach to birth order and its influence on creative achievement. On the other hand, if you believe that dictatorships, totalitarianism, terrorism, and closed-mindedness are more generally great virtues then you should wholeheartedly support firstborns. It is equally relevant that, in the last 500 years of Western history, we owe the great egalitarian gains — freedom of speech, religious worship, political expression, and science itself — to movements backed by younger siblings and vehemently opposed by firstborns.
Skeptic:
One of the points I made in my essay on Wallace in the last issue of Skeptic is that he was too open-minded: he participated in seances, he believed in spiritualism and phrenology, he got involved in all sorts of wacky reform movements, etc. Isn’t there a virtue in not being too open-minded?
Sulloway:
Your point is well taken. Wallace makes Darwin look like an intellectual conservative. Wallace had a very different temperament than Darwin, and in many ways this circumstance undermined his ability to achieve at the extraordinary level Darwin did. There are two important ways in which they differed: Wallace was more open — more gullible than Darwin — so he endorsed more screwball ideas than Darwin did. Second, as he once wrote to Darwin in a letter, he was much more inclined than Darwin was to immediately publish a new idea before developing it fully. He lacked the infinite patience that Darwin possessed.
Skeptic:
Looking to the future, in the 21st century with China’s one-child family laws and the other industrial nations moving toward smaller families, the ratio between firstborns and laterborns is going to change radically. How might this affect liberal-conservative ratios, voting behavior, general openness to innovations, etc.?
Sulloway:
I actually did a formal statistical test of this question in Born to Rebel. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, France underwent a demographic shift about 75 years ahead of England, Germany, Spain and Italy. As a consequence, when Darwin’s Origin was published in 1859, the average French scientist had only one sibling whereas the average British scientist had four to five siblings. The only country in Europe that was significantly opposed to Darwinism was France. Was this because the inhabitants were French, as Darwin thought, or because they were French firstborns? This is easy to test. We simply control for acceptance or rejection of evolution according to sibship size. When we do, almost the entire effect for French resistance to Darwin turns out to be due to the birth-order difference.

In the late 20th century this is the same general trend we are now experiencing, which means society is becoming more conservative. (I haven’t noticed any French revolutions lately in Western society.) There is an interesting additional feature of this demographic change. As sibship size decreases, societies lose middle borns until there are only two children per family. When societies finally move down to only children, as in China, they actually gain back some of the radicalism they had previously lost. This is because only children are not being pushed into either a conservative or radical niche, so they are actually more open to experience than firstborns, and they are also more unpredictable. Only childern are free to explore any niche they want. So society gains back “revolutionary” variance in the population, compared at least with an imaginary society filled with nothing but firstborns.

Skeptic:
Evolutionary psychologists tell us that the basic male strategy is to have as many offspring as possible, while females tend to favor heavy investment in fewer offspring. This would mean the male strategy produces more laterborns — therefore more rebels — while the female strategy should produce a greater proportion of firstborns — therefore more conservatives. On most measures females, on average, are more liberal than males. What’s going on here?
Sulloway:
The analogy doesn’t really work the way you have intended because males tend to be serially polygamous and hence to have multiple firstborns with different wives. As far as gender is concerned, females are more liberal than males because in most societies they are underdogs. They are physically less strong, and historically they have had fewer social rights. If you oppress any group they will tend to become more liberal and will identify with the underdog. Women are also more empathetic and cooperative than men, which makes them more tenderminded and concerned about governments that provide social benefits for the downtrodden. A good way to view women is to appreciate that psychologically they are honorary laterborns.
Skeptic:
In the conclusion of your book you state that “all human behavior is contingent and overdetermined.” Explain what you mean by this.
Sulloway:

By “contingent” I mean that there is no behavioral propensity — such as being open to experience — that ever expresses itself in some absolute manner. It is always the social or historical context in which we find ourselves that determines how each developmental disposition actually manifests itself in specific behavior. If firstborns and laterborns are faced with a radical, scientific revolution such as Darwinism, laterborns will be strongly in favor of the new idea. But if the new idea happens to be eugenics, then firstborns will be in favor of the new idea. So if we are trying to predict openness to new ideas, birth order makes one prediction in one context and the complete opposite prediction in another historical context. Such divergent behavioral outcomes reflect the role of contingency.

By being “overdetermined” I mean that lots and lots of things end up predicting behavior, and often each one is exerting a somewhat simular influence. So you can’t get all that far with just birth order or antother single variable. In the most radical revolution I studied — the Darwinian revolution — we observe only 70% predictability using birth order alone. This means that we are unable to account for the behavior of three out of 10 people. Why? There are a lot of other things we need to know about in order to explain why people behave the way they do. The Darwinian proclivities of John Lubbock, whom I discussed earlier, are an example of overdeterminism where other variables are clearly at work, such as growing up next door to a radical innovator.

Skeptic:
If we are reducing personality and character to measurable qualities, where does morality fit into your model?
Sulloway:
Morality is related to at least two of the Big Five personality dimensions. People who are conscientious incorporate into their personality certain moral standards and convictions that they have been taught by parents. Firstborns, in particular, tend to be more reverent toward the social attitudes they have learned within the family, and hence to be more conservative. That’s what we mean by “conservative” — they want to conserve the status quo in moral values, such as religion. Other moral values are related to the agreeableness-antagonism dimension of the Big Five. People who are more agreeable tend to be more cooperative, altruistic, and empathetic, which are laterborn characteristics.
Skeptic:
On the free will-determinism issue, if your theory became common knowledge, could a firstborn say “I’m going to act like a laterborn just to spite Sulloway’s prediction”?
Sulloway:
My model of family dynamics seems to be highly deterministic, but I don’t personally view it that way. The choice of strategies that one adopts as a firstborn or laterborn is ultimately up to the child. It is a very voluntary process. You could say to yourself, “Well, I don’t want to use this competitive strategy,” but it generally wouldn’t be in your interests in a Darwinian world where sibling strategies are chosen on the basis of their adaptive consequences in competition for parental investment. You are going to act out of conscious choice because it is the logical thing to do. The process is self-determined.
Skeptic:
If I understand your model correctly, conservatives are not conservative because they are firstborns. They are conservative because this is the best strategy a firstborn can employ. Their thinking tends to be justified otherwise, such as by believing authority and religion are good criteria for moral decisions. A conservative doesn’t think “I’m pro-life because I’m a firstborn.” He thinks “I’m pro-life because I believe in the rights of the fetus.” But the belief in the rights of the fetus typically comes from religion, which is a traditional form of authority, which is something with which firstborns tend to identify.
Sulloway:
Agreed. We must remember to think of birth order as a proxy or indirect marker for social attitudes, such as conservative or liberal, and these attitudes are in turn related to personality characteristics, such as agreeableness and openmindness.
Skeptic:
As a psychologist who switched fields to history, I am struck by the lack of training historians have in the behavioral sciences. If history is biography and biography is psychology, shouldn’t history programs require their students to take courses in developmental psychology, learning and motivation, personality psychology, social psychology, and so forth?
Sulloway:
I concur wholeheartedly. It is impossible to do justice to history, and to the complexity of individual actions, without understanding human behavior, and yet virtually no historian takes a course in human behavior! Historians are attempting to write about humans and their behavior without knowing the best science available on these difficult questions. I think this is a big mistake. Also, we need to know about sociological forces, which are just as real and as influential as personality differences. Finally, to really understand history, historians need to test their claims. Unfortunately historians never take any courses in hypothesis testing. So almost everything that allowed me to write Born to Rebel involved research methods that are never learned by historians. And that’s too bad. Historians are missing a great deal. History becomes a far more fascinating topic when one draws on other social science disciplines and tests one’s hypotheses. In the long run, I hope that my book has a methodological impact independent of its specific claims about human behavior.
Skeptic:
Thank you for such an enlightening interview.
This article can be found in
Skeptic volume 4 number 4

volume 4 number 4
Anthropology Wars

this issue includes: Can History Be Science?; Sulloway on Born to Rebel; Debunking Nostradamus; Critical Thinking About History; Left and Right Science; What Happened to N-Rays?…
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Detecting Baloney

Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic) by Deanna and Skylar (High Tech High Media Arts, San Diego, CA)

The Baloney Detection Kit Sandwich (Infographic)

For a class project, a pair of 11th grade physics students created the infographic shown below, inspired by Michael Shermer’s Baloney Detection Kit: a 16-page booklet designed to hone your critical thinking skills.

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Wisdom of Harriet Hall

Top 10 Things to Know About Alternative Medicine

Harriet Hall M.D. discusses: alternative versus conventional medicine, flu fear mongering, chiropractic, vaccines and autism, placebo effect, diet, homeopathy, acupuncture, “natural remedies,” and detoxification.

FREE Video Series

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Science Based Medicine vs. Alternative Medicine

Understanding the difference could save your life! In this superb 10-part video lecture series, Harriet Hall M.D., contrasts science-based medicine with so-called “complementary and alternative” methods.

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Top 10 Myths of Terrorism

Is Terrorism an Existential Threat?

This free booklet reveals 10 myths that explain why terrorism is not a threat to our way of life or our survival.

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The Top 10 Weirdest Things

The Top Ten Strangest Beliefs

Michael Shermer has compiled a list of the top 10 strangest beliefs that he has encountered in his quarter century as a professional skeptic.

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Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future (paperback cover)

Who believes them? Why? How can you tell if they’re true?

What is a conspiracy theory, why do people believe in them, and can you tell the difference between a true conspiracy and a false one?

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The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

The Science Behind Why People See Ghosts

Mind altering experiences are one of the foundations of widespread belief in the paranormal. But as skeptics are well aware, accepting them as reality can be dangerous…

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Top 10 Myths About Evolution

Top 10 Myths About Evolution (and how we know it really happened)

If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

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Learn to be a Psychic in 10 Easy Lessons

Learn to do Psychic “Cold Reading” in 10
Easy Lessons

Psychic readings and fortunetelling are an ancient art — a combination of acting and psychological manipulation.

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The Yeti or Abominable Snowman

5 Cryptid Cards

Download and print 5 Cryptid Cards created by Junior Skeptic Editor Daniel Loxton. Creatures include: The Yeti, Griffin, Sasquatch/Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, and the Cadborosaurus.

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