Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives

A landmark work that illuminates the crucial influence of birth order on personality and the far-reaching consequences of sibling competition–not only within individual families but on society as a whole.

At the heart of this pioneering inquiry is a fundamental insight into human behavior: that the personalities of first-born children differ from those of their younger siblings not because of cultural differences but because common human instincts play themselves out differently in the universal quest for parental favor. Frank Sulloway’s most important finding–that eldest children support the status quo and youngest children rebel against it–provides the foundation for startling analyses of the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, and Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Concerning first borns–Did you know that:
First borns are more frequently defenders of the status quo, more accepting of parental or conventional values.
In their support of authority they will use either brains or violence to resolve conflict.
More first borns–Albert Einstein, Ivan Pavlov, Linus Pauling–are Nobel Laureates.
First borns–like Stalin, Robespierre, and Carlos the Jackal–will not shy away from tactics of terrorism.

Concerning later-borns–Did you know that:
Most later-borns more frequently turn over convention and champion reform, revolution and upheaval.
Later-borns have been the catalysts of change supporting free speech, free worship, civil rights and women’s rights.
They are the creators of revolutionary ideas–Voltaire, Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson– were all later-borns.
Those who pressed for the absolution of slavery–Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Harriet Tubman–were all later-borns.

Born to Rebel is a path-breaking study, a solid confirmation of the belief that a scientific, empirical basis exists for our understanding of human behavior.


  • Hardcover: 653 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1 edition (October 8, 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679442324
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679442325
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 6.5 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
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4 thoughts on “Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives”

  1. 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.Read more ›

  2. 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.

  3. 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.Read more ›

  4. 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

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