Out of Order

Frank Sulloway says firstborns are conformists. Our visionaries beg to differ

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Terry Tempest Williams
Author of several books on the environment, including An Unspoken Hunger (Vintage, 1995).

BIRTH ORDER: oldest child—and only female—in a family of four siblings.

“My two brothers have been in a more oppositional position to our parents than I am, and especially my next-youngest brother, who is by far the most conservative. There were in many ways more expectations on him, as the firstborn son, than on me, particularly because of our family pipeline-construction business, which he was expected to take over. Not much was expected of women, so I was given more freedom. The most interesting thing to me about Sulloway’s book is his discussion of biology. We are animals; we forget that.”

Sulloway: “Because Williams was not expected to occupy a certain niche—namely, the successor to the family business—it would be reasonable to argue that niche structure was a little different in that family. And her point about biology is well taken. Part of the argument behind Born to Rebel is that we do the kinds of things that would be expected from our animal relatives—including sibling competition for parental love, affection, and resources as a mechanism for getting out of childhood alive. It’s a mechanism that is no longer needed in most modern societies, because we’re all going to make it out of childhood alive. But prior to a century ago, half of all children did not survive childhood.”


Stephen Mitchell
Celebrated translator of religious texts such as the Book of Job and the Tao Te Ching. 

BIRTH ORDER: first of two brothers.

“I have gone through long periods of actively rejecting my parents’ values. My father was a doctor, and my parents expected me to be a doctor. So there were a good 15 years when they doubted my sanity, because I was on what was to them a very bizarre path. But on this path I have connected with old traditions, so in that sense I feel conservative. As far as Sulloway’s work goes, I resist any kind of large, world-encompassing concept. As Lao Tzu says, in the process of knowledge every day you learn something; in the process of real understanding every day you drop something. Eventually, you wind up in the place where there’s no structure and even the most profound truth is an obstacle.” 

Sulloway: “Well, I’m on the side of rational thinking and hypothesis-testing. There are, however, many stories from religious texts that fit my model. Cain—the elder brother—slew Abel; you would not expect it to be the other way around. Firstborns are more jealous of parental attention; they are also more physically aggressive and in fact more likely to inflict pain on their siblings. For example, I have extremely rigorous data on the Protestant Reformation. It shows that younger siblings were 48 times more likely to be burned at the stake for heresy than firstborns.


bell hooks
Author of numerous books that mix feminism, Buddhism, and postmodern cultural theory with keen insights into racial relations.

BIRTH ORDER: middle child of seven siblings.

“I was definitely the rebellious kid in my family. Part of it was that I wanted to do everything that my brother, born just nine months before me, did—so when my parents tried to lay gender roles on us, I bore the brunt of trying to rebel against that. As the only son, my brother was the infinitely more desired child. I always tease him that he didn’t have six sisters, he had six slaves. But it seems to me that it’s impossible to separate birth order from class and other factors. Part of why my birth order is important, for instance, is that my parents were beginning to feel the strain of running a large, working-class family.”

Sulloway: “If bell hooks was indeed discriminated against because of her gender, that would tend to make her more liberal. For example, I’ve done a thorough analysis of the civil rights movement and, in general, the middle children, including Martin Luther King, are the most inclined to support nonviolent types of reform. Now, what about the fact that Malcom X was also a middle child? Well, he had an immediately older brother who was light-skinned, while Malcom X was dark-skinned. And his mother favored the older brother over him. It seems to be a reasonable hypothesis that if your mother discriminates against you—whether it’s for skin color or gender—you’re less likely to be a middleborn peacenik.”


Molefi Kete Asante
Author of dozens of books about the African-American community, including Afrocentricity and The Afrocentric Idea.

BIRTH ORDER: fourth child—and first son—in a family of 16 siblings.

“I’m now writing my autobiography, The Making of an Afrocentrist, so I’ve been thinking about this issue. I would probably put race, class, and religion above birth order. I am more radical than any of my younger siblings. But there is another way to view it. My three sisters were older than me by at least six years, and they did treat me like a little brother. So I think Sulloway’s book is provocative.”

Sulloway: “There is little or no evidence that social class has much influence on personality. The same is true for race. Having said that, my prediction for a radical in a family of 16 is that he or she would come from a higher birth rank than Asante did. I would have expected him to be more like 14th of 16. But still, the biggest difference of all is between being first and not first.


Paul Hawken
One of the pioneers of socially responsible business in the United States and author, most recently, of The Ecology of Commerce (HarperCollins, 1993), which stresses market-based solutions that would reward conservation and discourage consumption.

BIRTH ORDER: Second—barely—of three siblings. Born five minutes before a fraternal twin sister.

“My older brother was somebody I didn’t want to be, that’s for sure. My twin and I were better at everything than he was, and that was traumatizing for him, so his compensatory mechanism was to become a bully, an authority figure, the alpha male. I’m sure that had a big effect on me. I don’t like alpha males. I think Sulloway offers a brilliant hypothesis—but one about which nothing can be done in practical terms. Say you’re a prospective parent and you’ve read Sulloway, what are you going to do? Not have a first child?”

Sulloway: “Competition is the primary force driving human development and human behavior. It is helpful for parents to know that it’s not their fault; it’s a natural process that has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. Younger siblings are always trying to make sure things are determined by a kind of equal Darwinian competition. So it’s interesting that, in his work life, Hawken has actually developed a model that works. There’s a social intervention—namely, reward or punishment for polluting—but then the rest of it is left up to the competitive marketplace.”