Frank Sulloway - The Birth Order Effect

Take any revolution and explain why some people dismiss it out of hand while others embrace it tenaciously. In terms of scientific revolutions, this is even more difficult to explain, since the evidence to support or demerit any new theory is publicly available to dissenters and assenters alike. If the evidence is the same for everyone, why do people sometimes draw polar opposite conclusions? This was the puzzle that Frank Sulloway set out to solve many years ago, and after researching historical records and amounting a massive collection of independently rated points for a great number of possible variables over a quarter of a century, he discovered that the foremost engine of historical change is, believe it or not, birth order, with first-borns defending the status quo and siblings later rebelling against it.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, families aren't homogeneous environments in which siblings face the same pressures. In the always present competition for resources and parental investment, siblings occupy different ecological niches within the same family, each attempting to maximize his or her own self-interests. Having once experienced the sweet taste of complete parental devotion, and attempting to return to that golden age after having to regretfully share with younger siblings, first-borns tend be territorial, conservative defenders of the status quo, industrious, dedicated and more intelligent. Later-borns, on the other hand, tend to rebel against authority, become more revolutionary, have more open minds and express themselves more creatively.

When it comes to revolutions, whether they be social, political, scientific or religious, later-borns tend to favor the new paradigms, while their older counterparts tend to reject them. If you categorize revolutions as radically ideological (Copernicus, Darwin), technical (Newton, Einstein), controversial (Phrenology) and conservative (Eugenics), later-borns tend to support the first three, while first-borns tend to support conservative revolutions. The implication is fascinating: even when first-borns carry the torch of revolution, their revolutions tend to be conservative and reaffirm the status quo...

His book, Born to Rebel, is one of the most interesting works I have ever read. Not only does he provide ample evidence supporting his evolutionary hypothesis, he analyzes a great number of historical figures from all walks of life and demonstrates time after time that birth order is playing a major role in their dispositions toward acceptance or rejection of different paradigms. Most interesting of all is how seeming exceptions, such as first-born Galileo, actually help further confirm Sulloway's insights into the effects of birth order.

The video below shows an elucidating conversation between Frank Sulloway and Charlie Rose, in which they discuss the fascinating effects of birth order. By the way, Sulloway looks way different from what I had imagined when I originally read his work a few years ago...

If you don't want to get all technical, however, you can see Sulloway being interviewed by Stephen Colbert:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Frank Sulloway
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionFox News

When I think of my own case, I tend to fear that although I heartily accept evolution, Nietzsche and a Humean bundle theory of mind, maybe it is my biological first-born status that might be what holds me back from fully embracing the strange world of quantum mechanics, string theory and dialetheistic paraconsistent logic, as explored by Australian philosopher Graham Priest in his book Beyond the Limits of Thought.

Then again, would the fact that I do find these ideas fascinating, and agree with Sulloway's radical conclusions, make me a functional later-born?
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