Frank's War 

How a Berkeley scholar's groundbreaking research sparked one of the nastier academic debates in recent memory.

Some people bite down and won't let go. Ever.

Frederic Townsend is one of those people. While an undergraduate at the University of Denver more than three decades ago, he wrote a paper about birth order -- the study of whether and how a child's chronological position among his siblings affects his development, personality, and comportment as an adult. Does being a firstborn child influence your financial success? Does being a laterborn affect your future relationships? Even as a college student, Townsend thought the debate seemed strange, because the research "went every which way." There were studies showing that family birth position played a critical role in human development, and others that concluded it had little, if any, impact. "Everyone has a birth order," says Townsend, now a 53-year-old attorney and commodities trader in the Chicago area. "It seems important in your life, and therefore it seems entirely plausible that it would have an effect on your personality, your choices, who you are."

In 1997, Townsend's longstanding interest in the subject led him to buy and read Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives, a new book by noted scholar and Berkeley resident Frank Sulloway. The result of 26 years of exhaustive research, Sulloway's book was published to great acclaim and hailed as a masterpiece. The author was a Harvard-trained Ph.D and Darwin expert who also had been a recipient of a prestigious "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation. Born to Rebel demonstrated why Sulloway was such a celebrated thinker. He'd managed to boil down five hundred years of history into one compelling and completely original idea: that the driving force of human history is sibling rivalry.

From his extensive research, the 57-year-old author had come to believe that children adopt evolutionary strategies at home to differentiate themselves and survive, much like the creatures Darwin studied in the Galapagos. In what Sulloway calls "an evolutionary arms race played out within the family," siblings battle to maximize their share of parental attention and family resources and to ensure themselves a stable position in the family.

The strategies children develop, Sulloway determined, differ by birth order. Firstborns, according to his theory, are more assertive and jealous, and tend to minimize competition from new siblings by dominating them. They are also self-confident and deferential to authority, whereas laterborns, the weaker ones in the family constellation, are more creative, independent, and open to new experiences; they identify with the underdog and are likely to question authority and the status quo. These laterborn children are "born to rebel" and, according to Sulloway's vision, have most changed the course of history. Born to Rebel backed the author's bold theory with reams of data, historical examples, and complex statistical tests.

Sulloway, himself a laterborn, analyzed 121 historical events and revolutions that took place over five centuries and concluded that birth order was the "fuel" that fed some of the world's most important social and political upheavals. He compiled a database containing more than a half-million biographical data points gleaned from tens of thousands of historical biographies and then plotted out the data to figure out just what it all meant. Laterborns, he concluded, have driven most radical revolutions.

With Born to Rebel, Sulloway was not only offering a unifying theory to explain critical historical changes, he was backing it up with quantitative statistical methods, something few had done before him. And he claimed that his model was incredibly precise. "Based on a seven-variable model of the Reformation, Martin Luther's predicted probability of becoming a Protestant was 67 percent," Sulloway wrote. For Protestant reformers John Knox and John Calvin, his model predicted 78 and 80 percent likelihoods that they would join the Reformation, respectively.

The book was hailed as nothing short of revolutionary. The New York Times deemed it "fascinating and convincing," while The Boston Globe opined that it would "define research agendas for years to come." In an October 1997 profile of Sulloway published in The New Yorker, one eminent anthropologist predicted the book would elevate its author into "the pantheon of thinkers, like Freud and Darwin, whose work has radically and forever changed the way we look at ourselves and the world."

The scholar made the TV rounds, appearing on Nightline and The Charlie Rose Show, and revived the worldwide debate among social scientists about the importance of birth order. Academics had debated the matter for decades, but theories that it played any significant role in human development had largely fallen out of favor in recent years. Sulloway changed all that.

Despite the avalanche of great publicity, something about Sulloway's book didn't sit right with Townsend. After reviewing the data and charts throughout the book, he concluded that its claims were overreaching and broad. And because he's a man who doesn't let go, things didn't end there. Little did he know he was about to ignite one of the nastier academic debates in recent memory.


In an effort somewhat akin to an ant attacking a lion, Townsend wrote a critical review of the book for the Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, an obscure New Jersey-based academic publication. Although he wasn't a trained academic, Townsend concluded in his review that Sulloway "uses estimated, selective, and even missing data to support a theory that is refuted by the very studies he relies on."

Sulloway doesn't seem like someone who'd find himself in the middle of a bitter debate about the veracity of his work. His résumé contains page after page of degrees and honors from prestigious universities and foundations, yet he is articulate in a way that's not at all intimidating -- professorial, polite, and direct. The researcher has never married and has no children; he has made his work the focus of his life, and it has paid off. He negotiated a $500,000 advance for Born to Rebel, and received $250,000 from the MacArthur program in 1984, no strings attached. Sulloway has been affiliated with Stanford University and MIT as a research fellow or visiting scholar, and currently conducts research at UC Berkeley's psychology department, where he also works with graduate students and occasionally teaches.

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