29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
The role of siblings within the family and beyond has received attention for many years. Sulloway pulls together a mass of research, including his own to find patterns deriving from family structure. Using a strong evolutionary stance, he shows how "sibling rivalry" for resources extends into later life. This sweeping study keeps the reader's attention with clear, straightforward prose and a refreshingly direct approach. It will keep other students of human behaviour working for many years.
The general pattern, examined within larger social, political, religious and scientific arenas, shows how later-borns become the flexible, innovative thinkers. While, necessarily, only a few become actual creators of new ideas, they more readily accept fresh concepts. Later-borns learn to adapt in the family environment - it's a survival trait. First-borns, and Sulloway notes the difference between chronological and "functional" first-borns, cling to a conservative stance. Even if the parents are radical thinkers, their first-borns will adhere to their way of thinking. Later-borns in such a circumstance are more likely to depart from the family's stance, adhering to more conservative social or political ideas. The disparity in attitudes is the norm within the family, not necessarily across family boundaries.
Throughout the book, Sulloway frequently turns to Darwin as a case study in strengthening his thesis. It's a wise choice, since Darwin is emblematic of what Sulloway asserts. middle-class, middle sibling, middle-aged at the peak of his achievements, Darwin exemplifies most of Sulloway's criteria for distinguishing birth order as a personality driver. Sulloway concedes that the focus on Darwin is a logical result of the naturalist's showing the world how evolution works. The traits he describes have biological roots, intensified by the human condition. Human families have a long time to build the patterns he describes. Since Sulloway's thesis shows that cultural and socio-economic factors have little or no bearing on the evolutionary patterns established, previous dogmas will have to be revised or discarded. In more than one sense he's duplicating Darwin's own experience.
The book concludes with a series of Appendices explaining how Sulloway built his database of events and people. He uses 121 historical "revolutions" and nearly two dozen scientific ones, as well as the Reformation to support his thesis. The criteria for selection are given and explained. He's not averse to challenges by other scholars, but they'd best have their data firmly in hand. He's buttressed his case admirably. Only one serious challenge to Sulloway's effort has emerged since this book was published. Readers should be aware of Judith Rich Harris' critique of Sulloway's methods in the Appendix of her The Nurture Assumption. This is not the place to examine the debate, but both should be reviewed by readers. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
58 of 70 people found the following review helpful
on March 31, 2006
A reader writes: "However, Mr. Sulloway's book is tightly reasoned and supported by a great deal of research."
You might want to look at the discussion of Sulloway's work in Judith Harris' recent _No Two Alike_, pp 92-112. According to that account, Sulloway's work was never published in a peer reviewed journal, the book in which it was published failed to provide the sort of information needed for other people to check the truth of his results, and Sulloway repeatedly refused requests for such data--for instance, the names of the Protestant and Catholic martyrs whose birth order rankings he offers as evidence, or cites to the studies whose results he claims to summarize.
When someone wrote a critical article pointing out evidence that his factual assertions about the data were false, he delayed the publication for several years by the threat of lawsuits.
Judging by her previous book, Harris is a careful writer, so absent some evidence to the contrary my current conclusion is that Sulloway is a fraud.
20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on December 30, 1997
This book by Frank Sulloway places birth order, and the "Darwinian" struggle for parental attention, at the center of personality formation. Sulloway has taken 26 years to write his book - Born to Rebel, and it is worth it. He bases his theories on meticulous research into the biographies of over 3000 scientists, from the days of Copernicus to the present. His theories began with, and are founded on, the observation he made back in 1972 that there are dramatic differences between the groups of scientists who promote the periodic revolutions in science, and the groups who oppose and support orthodox science. His observation is that these differences are related to differences in family position, and Sulloway demonstrates a degree of statistical significance in these relationships that is almost unheard of in the social sciences. The book is remarkable on a number of levels. First of all, the theoretical observations have a power that may put Sulloway up on a level with Freud and Piaget in unveiling the mechanisms of human development. Secondly, the topic of the book is a fascinating read: first of all, on the personal level, and Sulloway is not so much of an academic that he shuns this. There are sideline remarks throughout the book that encourage the reader to apply the insights to him- or herself. Thirdly, the book is very interesting on the level of biography, and fourthly in its insights into the history of science. Also, it is beautifully written: it survives with flying colors the test that I apply - reading it aloud. Also, Sulloway is a master of statistical exegesis - in his command of statistical theory and technique (there is an appendix on the use of descriptive statistics that stands on its own as a beautiful piece of education), in the clarity of his explanation of the significance of statistical results, and in his use of just the right diagram. I have a particular fetish about the intelligent use of statistics and the representation of quantitative data. I have two favorite books on these subjects. There is Cathy Marsh's book on descriptive statistics called Exploring Data, and a book by Edward Tufte called The Visual Display of Quantitative Data. These two books, however, are textbooks. They explain in the abstract how to use statistics effectively and truthfully, though both books abound with fascinating examples. Sulloway, though, is manipulating his numbers for real, so his achievement is doubly impressive and doubly fascinating.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on May 6, 1997
I was prepared to dismiss this book and its premise because of prior experience with birth order theories. However, Mr. Sulloway's book is tightly reasoned and supported by a great deal of research. In the end, Sulloway avoids the reductionist trap by showing how birth order interacts with a variety of other environmental factors to produce personality. Sulloway has put the issue of our biological nature squarely on the table by showing the relationship of human history to natural selection and the life forces that drive all living things. This book won't do much for our egos, but may well explain a great deal of human behavior. My only concern is the mischief that the inevitable misuse of his ideas is likely to produce
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on June 23, 1997
With a minimum of psychobabble, Frank Sulloway has cogently written about one of the great questions of child development. His historical analysis is simply superb as are his statistical explanations. (His appendix 1 on statistics explains the subject more clearly in four pages than my experience of four quarters at a major university. Thanks for the review, Frank, it's been 25 years.)
Because he shoots down some of the sacred cows of the Marxists, Freudians, and others, I am certain Mr. Sulloway will endure a lot of stupid criticism for the conlusions he draws. Yet, I am willing to bet that in 20 years, his ideas will be part of the intellectual furniture.
If one only reads one serious book per year, this is certainly the choice for 1997.
My only criticism is that I could not find where Sulloway reveals HIS birth order.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 7, 1997
As provacative and ground-breaking in its way as Alfred Russel Wallace's exposition of the theory of natural selection, Born to Rebel dares to suggest that our willingness to embrace controversial beliefs is a predictable consequence of our order of birth. The author's proof itself constitutes a facinating journey into the history of creative thought; the evocation of the childhoods of Darwin, Voltaire and Frederick the Great lend powerful support to the thesis. Sulloway's use of statistics is shockingly understandable even for someone who fled from Statistics 101. The prose flows like a wonderful after-dinner conversation; but after this feast the world is seen anew. If my allusion to Alfred Wallace escapes you, check this book out
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This is a book that attracted a great deal of attention when it first came out. And, indeed, ironically, a couple colleagues and I had a related book, "Birth Order and Political Behavior," come out at about the same time. Needless to say, we didn't sell many copies compared to Frank Sulloway's book!
The work itself has generated much controversy. I am not so much interested in that as in the book itself. He states clearly his basic thesis (Page 53): "Most innovations in science, especially radical ones, have been initiated and championed by laterborns. Firstborns tend to reject new ideas, especially when the innovation appears to upset long-accepted principles." As a firstborn, I am, of course, instantly skeptical!
Sulloway brings a wide array of evidence to bear on his thesis. As noted elsewhere, there is some controversy there, but I am still impressed with the scope of his work.
My colleagues and I, in our book, asked a different question--not about innovation and revolution: Is birth order related at all to political eminence and leadership. We studied birth order in terms of its effects on (a) the odds of being president of the US, becoming a Supreme Court Justice, becoming a member of Congress, military achievement at West Point and (b) the chances of being a British Prime Minister, Soviet leadership, United Nations secretaries general, Pope, and great generals in history. It was often quite difficult to ascertain birth order. Bottom line, though? No real impact of birth order.
It is that set of findings more than any other that raises some questions in my mind. I simply find it hard to believe that birth order can be so powerful--whether in terms of leading to eminence or to being a rebel.
Nonetheless, Sulloway's book is provocative, raises many questions, and ends up being--at least in my opinion--worth taking a look at.
20 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2000
Although the data supporting his hypothesis look very impressive and almost convincing, the problem I have with this book it that Mr Sulloway picks his Revolutionary Theories for reasons that are dubious. For example, excluding certain theories on the basis that "they would have been discovered by others around the same time" can hardly be called scientific. And then, after lots of very impressive statistics, he wanders off into the land of anecdotal evidence science that makes the reader wonder why he's working at MIT in the first place. Although there is probably a basis for some of his conclusions, and it is a great effort to bring science to this subject of popular prejudice, I can't support the raving reviews it received in the press.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on April 17, 2003
Did you ever have the feeling that you read a different book altogether?
I found Prof. Sulloway's work to be highly revealing. He obviously managed to bring this topic from coffee table discussion to true scientific value. I am a bit confused as to the criticism of other readers however. If one were not to use multi-variate statistics, pray tell how would one go about proving or disproving any social theory? The historical examples, as I understand them, are a means for the reader to understand the significance of the data, which was obviously well documented.
Clearly human behavior cannot be determined 100% from research, but it does point to significant tendencies. I found the book highly informative and well worth the effort.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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First of all, I'm not qualified to evaluate the statistical analysis work that Sulloway has done. I left this book with the feeling that he has uncovered a trend worth considering and identified the need to do better study on the impact of birth order and personality formation.
However, I found the claims in the book too large and too dramatic. Some of the discussions were distorted out of all sense to make a situation fit his theory-- particularly historical/political examples. While some of the material feels convincing and grounded, for much of the book I had the distinct feeling of a hammer trying to label everything as a nail. It may well be that the historical non-scientific examples were chosen to spice up the book and create a larger ripple. If so, it probably worked.
A number of things bothered me: Sulloway seemed to rely heavily on reported personalities of the figures involved (all historical) to identify them as rebellious. This seems to me quite prone to errors of interpretation and historical misreporting. I would have been more comfortable with actions as the standard for rebellion. I actually had a lot of trouble with how someone was adequately defining rebellion in many of the contexts that Sulloway discusses. I also had the feeling that he did a lot of picking and choosing as to which scientific revolutions he considered rebellious. Conveniently (too?) his choices fit his own hypothesis.
I was also troubled that when Sulloway found an example that seemed to break his model, he tended to come up with some kind of excuse that seemed even more tenuous and difficult to prove. Primarily here we're talking about first borns who proved quite rebellious by his standards or later borns who embraced conservative movements. Generally Sulloway seemed to argue circumstances that caused these exceptions to fall into a true birth category rather than factual (i.e., a firstborn who has a lot of conflict with the father effectively becomes a kind of laterborn).
Full disclosure: I'm a firstborn, so you could argue that I'm always going to resist innovation in thinking. I think that I'm going to gift this book to my younger sister who is actually a scientist, and see whether her revolutionary thought processes will make more sense of the text.