Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives
By Frank J. Sulloway
Pantheon 653pp $30

Why did Charles Darwin pursue the radical idea of evolution when other eminent scientists of the 1870s such as Louis Agassiz rejected it? Could it be that Darwin was the fifth of six children, while Agassiz was a firstborn? That's the contention of Born to Rebel, in which Massachusetts Institute of Technology research scholar and historian Frank J. Sulloway argues that firstborns tend to support the status quo and laterborns to rebel against it.

Sulloway begins with a common observation: Even though siblings share genes and are raised in the same family environment, their personalities can be very different. Sulloway believes Darwin had the answer for why that is. Finches in the Galpagos Islands, Darwin found, reduce competition for similar foods by evolving into separate subspecies with a range of bill sizes--thus allowing the entire species to survive. Sulloway extends that logic to human offspring, which, he says, also compete for a scarce resource, their parents' affections. The kids' strategy is to adopt different personalities.

As befits their privileged position and superior size and strength, firstborn children tend to identify more closely with parents and authority than do laterborns. As underdogs who must fight for recognition, younger children are more open to risk-taking, more likely to question authority, and more inclined toward nonconformity. Historical change, Sulloway shows, owes much to younger siblings who break molds--Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ralph Nader among them.

It's a tantalizing theory, backed up by interesting anecdotes and impressive statistical evidence. And an additional reward awaits those readers who complete the 600-page book: a quiz called ''How to Test Your Own Propensity to Rebel.''

By Lisa Sanders


Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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