Giving Birth to new science (National Post, Oct. 01, 2003)

First-borns are, by a huge statistical margin over later-borns,
conscientious, high-achieving, well-organized, and perfectionistic.
They remember and even dwell on their mistakes. First-borns eagerly
gravitate to complex jobs attached to high responsibility that would
be stressful for others.

Twenty-one of the 23 original astronauts were first-borns, and no
doubt the part about remembering mistakes figured large in their
aptitude tests. Don't preen, though, first-born readers; Saddam
Hussein and Mel Lastman are also first-borns, so maybe that
"mistakes" trait is more fungible than the others.

As the second of three girls myself (sociable, willing to
compromise, free-spirited, the best marriage bet, and assertive yet
conflict-avoiding -- hey, don't shoot me, I'm just the messenger), I
got interested in birth order when I realized that my husband (an
only child, a variation of first), and virtually all my closest
women friends are either onlies or eldest children, clearly an
extension of my primary pre-adult relationship.

How much of us is explicable by our sibling placement? Just about
everything, according to birth order researchers.

Astrology has been proven to be bunk. But birth order is a
respected academic sub-discipline of Sociology. The field of
bio-sociology rose to prominence in the 1970s, but didn't become
popular because Marxism has dominated academia since the '60s.
Bio-sociology's claims for the persistence of inherited traits
ruffled the feathers of left-wing political theorists. Even peer
academics at Harvard preferred social class to account for human
evolution, and they fought to suppress research supporting
biological destiny. But birth order scholars toiled away in
obscurity, and now that Marxism and Freudianism, the Great Unifying
Theories of the 20th century, have been discredited, birth order's
time has come in the 21st.

The grand panjandrum of birth order is bio-sociologist Frank
Sulloway. His book, Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and
Creative Lives is the Bible of his discipline. Be warned: Born to
Rebel is not Loblaws check-out counter fluff; it's echt scientific
inquiry, exhaustively footnoted, diagrammed, graphed, and
stat-sized. Scientific luminaries call it a "magnificent
intellectual accomplishment" one that "will have the same kind of
long term impact as Freud's and Darwin's."

Sulloway's basic thesis is that sibling placement is the driving
force of human history. All siblings are Darwinian rivals. All
compete for emotional and intellectual resources from parents.
Variables are gender, physical traits, and temperament, but whatever
the combination, parental favour is the glittering prize. George W.
Bush, Lucien Bouchard and Paul Martin are confident first-borns,
natural leaders. Ambitious later-borns such as Pierre Trudeau and
Jean Chretien tend towards a leadership style of scrappy defiance.
Bill and Hillary are first-borns. Oprah Winfrey too. Guerrilla comic
Jim Carrey (like most comedians) is a later-born.

Sulloway studied 6,000 lives. "At the outset," Sulloway writes, "my
goal was to explain just one aspect of human behaviour -- the
propensity to rebel. Nothing prepared me for what I encountered."
His stats are irrefutable and support empirical perceptions. He
found that first-borns, with privileged access to parental love, are
preservers of the status quo, authoritative and respectful of
authority in others. Later-borns have more openness to experience
and are much more likely to lend themselves to radical causes.

Charles Darwin (the 5th of six children) is Sulloway's hero. The
book begins with an enquiry into the reception of Darwin's
discoveries. The vast majority of those who accepted Darwin's
theories were later-borns, with first-borns in violent opposition.
Sulloway categorically states: "There are no Radical Revolutions [in
science] backed by first-borns." He cites corroborative evidence
from fomenters of the Reformation and the French Revolution. In
America, later-borns spearheaded the abolition movement.

There are always exceptions to rules. Sulloway "explains" anomalies
with varying persuasiveness. For example, Hitler was a later-born
but also the first surviving child, so, Sulloway says, was a
"functional" first-born.

Sulloway, a great fan of political rebels who stubbornly champion
their beliefs -- as Darwin did -- in the face of overwhelming
resistance, is not much enamoured of first-borns. Oh yes, they are
ambitious and achievement-oriented, but also "defensive,"
"conforming and conventional," more "dominant, aggressive ...
jealous and conservative."

Not at all like us much nicer later-borns who are not only more
flexible and tolerant but "more altruistic ... and peer-oriented,"
as well as more adventurous, more likely to choose contact sports
--and more understanding of underdogs.

Being nicer is of little comfort, though, when considering whose
genes are historically dominant. Abel was nice, but Cain killed him
anyway. And so it goes.

© National Post 2003