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Born Rebels

Frank Sulloway


     ... Frank Sulloway is a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. A former MacArthur Fellow, he earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in the history of science and graduated from Harvard College summa cum laude/Phi Beta Kappa.

In the early '70s, he organized a film expedition retracing Darwin's voyage on the Beagle which resulted in a series of films. He is regularly a public lecturer and consultant to various media and educational organizations. His previous book, Freud, Biologist of the Mind, received the Pfizer Award of the History of Science Society.

Among his many honors, he was nominated for the American Academy of Achievement's Golden Plate Award by Edward O. Wilson, Francis H.C. Crick and Stephen Jay Gould, themselves former Award winners


Human childrens' archrivals in childhood are siblings. We compete for the scarce resources of parental love, attention and instruction. That rivalry has directly impacted individual human childrensâ ability to survive childhood over hundred of thousands of years. Those who survived to reproduce did so by adopting strategies which shape our personalities.

Frank Sulloway has made a powerful argument that it is our siblings and the threat they present us to getting out of childhood alive that are at the heart of who we are, the single best predictor of personality traits. Sulloway has spent 26 years testing hypotheses for what most powerfully affects our personality development and his conclusion is resounding: birth order.

Sulloway took 26 years to look at 121 different revolutions -- revolutions in science, politics, religion and social thought -- and 6,500 individuals selected from more than 20,000 biographies he has read. He demonstrates birth order is the single best predictor of personality traits. Some people are simply born to rebel.

But this is a story about learning and self-determinism, not determinism. This is not about having genes for this or that personality trait. It's a story about how in childhood, we all do adaptive things that help us compete. Sulloway describes this as Darwinian theory about human behavior with a completely environmental twist.

In his work -- described in his book Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives -- Sulloway demonstrates that birth order predicts intellectual flexibility, attitudes toward innovation and new ideas, and whether you can alter your views about what you think.

Sulloway applied powerful, sophisticated and extensive statistical analyses to test his hypotheses and also concludes that revolutions begin within families, not between them. Variables that predict why one sibling is different from another -- birth order, age gaps between siblings, gender and conflict with parents -- are the very best class of predictors for telling if an individual will accept or reject a revolution. And at the same time, Sulloway reminds us that history is the product of individuals who are infinitely diverse and complex.

Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson gets the last word. He declares Sulloway's Born to Rebel "One of the most authoritative and important treatises in the history of the social sciences."

[This Program was recorded May 30, 1997, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.]

Conversation 1

Frank Sulloway tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how his interest in the history of science led him to conclude birth order is profoundly important to the development of human personality and human history. Sulloway tells how Charles Darwin's personal story led Sulloway to ask, "What makes someone a radical revolutionary?" Sulloway describes how Darwin was converted to "one of the most unpopular ideas in the history of science."

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:34

Conversation 2

Sulloway describes the "accident" that led him from his fascination with Darwin to discovering the "gigantic" effect of birth order.  He explains how it is almost impossible to do good social science without using statistics but the use of statistics does not guarantee good social science. He concisely describes the rise of modern science and reminds us that science is not a subject but a method. Sulloway describes how the scientific method paved the way for further revolutions.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:53 

Conversation 3

The Darwinian Revolution is still going on. Sulloway describes how all living organisms represent the evolutionary success stories of surviving the perils of a world full of predators. "We are all descended from children who got out of childhood alive," Sulloway reminds us. He describes how the young of all species compete for parental investment -- love, instruction and affection. He notes growing evidence we are hard wired for the ability to take advantage of sibling strategies which have developed over hundreds of thousands of years. But there are no genes for being a first or later born. Having developed his hypothesis about the importance of birth order, Sulloway took the crucial next step. He tested the hypothesis and he describes both his conclusions and their implications.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:07  

Conversation 4

It took Sulloway 26 years to test competing hypotheses! He tells how he became convinced that birth order is the single best predictor of attitudes toward innovation -- not only what you think, but whether you can alter your views about what you think. The kind of variables that predict why one sibling is different from another were consistently the best class of predictors for predicting if an individual will accept or reject a revolution. Sulloway describes the 121 different radical revolutions and 6,500 people in his study, including conflicts between siblings within revolutions.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:03

Conversation 5

Sulloway explains how birth order is closer to self-determinism than determinism. He describes the role of some of the other characteristics important to the development of personality, including gender and conflict with parents. He tells stories of how there is an accumulation of birth order effect across generations. He declares his enormous respect for the individuality, contingencies and peculiarities of life and is convinced history is the product of individuals who are infinitely diverse and complex. He describes how birth order and the Baby Boom are affecting American culture.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:24

Conversation 6

Sulloway describes the consistent role of Darwinian theory in gleaning ever more subtle insights into human behavior, including why we are so different from each other. Sulloway assigns a powerfully constructive role to sibling rivalry as we grow in our understanding of the human mind.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:16


Frank Sulloway went considerably out of his way to make this conversation possible. In addition to admiring his work, we enjoyed his company.

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Born to Rebel is available as a Vintage paperback.


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