In Harnessing human nature Part I, we saw how natural selection takes place not only on the individual level, but on the group level. No man is an island. We are who we identify with, we make alliances, good and bad. The high point of any civilization is when its state, warrior groups conquer others, loot and occupy, and build monuments to glorify it all. In rare exception to this, sometimes civilizations just coast along under wise leadership. Andalusia under Muslim rule from the 8th to 15th cc was probably humanity's high point, though it came to a typically nasty end with the reconquista.

But what about the family? What role does it play in civilization, in shaping individuals, before they move on to their adult groups?

Frank Sulloway's Birth order, family dynamics, and creative lives (1996) brings Darwin, social evolution, to kinship. It turns out my character, personality, is mostly the result of the intense sibling interactions of the first decade of my life. And it's not Oedipus who rules the mind, but your place in the sibship. It's about your siblings, stupid!

ALL our evolution now is epigenetic (acquired) individual, kinship and group social evolution. You are your family. Your character is formed in the furnace of the family. And it's for life. Your successes and failures in life point to those critical years when you competed and cooperated with brothers and sisters for parental investment. Your scheming to get the edge on older-brother-sister and to keep younger-brother-sister from stealing the limelight is the template for your life of scheming and/or altruism.

Birth order vs sex

Birth order is the most important determinant of one's character as an adult. 2/3 due to sibling order vs 1/3 due to the sex of the child. If you're nasty or nice, blame your siblings, especially the ones just ahead of you in the pecking order. In a nutshell, firstborn are more assertive, socially dominant, ambitious, jealous of status, defensve, conservative.

The younger laterborn siblings are by definition the underdogs, questioning all these higher authorities oppressing you, often rebelling. You are more socially successful, again, by necessity. The older think the younger are spoiled, lazy. The younger think they are ignored, especially the youngest. Overshadowed by all the accomplishments of older, more experienced siblings. 

Until recent, your chances of surviving childhood at all were close to 1:2. It's still that way in much of the world. Parents invest to maximize inclusive fitness. The youngest are the first to die when times are tough. Japan laterborns are called 'cold rice'. Any threats, as seen through 3-year-old eyes, come from those closest to him, his siblings. 

Sulloway gives dozens of examples of famous people through history, whose biographies became the experimental fodder for this study of human kinship determinism. Throw out Locke and Rousseau. There is no tabula rasa, no blissful childhood of play in nurturing the well-rounded Emile. It's a mostly Hobbesian world of competition for parental investment, for survival, where the child is faced with many potentially deadly rivalries, and depending on circumstances, a good chance of dying. 

The most straightforward case is when the first child is a son, the eldest son. He gets the advantage of parents in their prime, presumably still in love. He has power thrust on him, like a monarch. Primogenture is the official stamp of firstborn power. Unsurprisingly, he is almost always conservative if his parents are, or liberal if they are. When father and son click, there is the possibility of creating a family universe, a family dynasty, that can last for centuries, or lead to transformative scientific achievements, producing great leaders. The WWII greats -- Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin -- were firstborn. De Gaulle, as guerrilla leader was, of course, laterborn.

Only if there is serious conflict, the parents lousy, or the son a bad apple (too many bad genes), seduced by an outside gang, is this evolutionary niche forfeited. And at great cost to the family, both parents and siblings. The family turns into a battleground for male dominance between father and eldest son -- the stuff of tragedy. Oedipus. Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. Turgenev's Fathers and sons. In the latter, the eldest son Arkady is seduced by the nihilist friend Bazarov, but in the end sticks with his firstborn dynastic role. The Karamazov saga features a despicable father, despicable eldest son and the laterborns both very contrasting reactions to the family breakdown.

All laterborns are reacting to the siblings who precede him/her, so the first laterborn-sibling reaction is to moderate the influence of the aggressive male or if the firstborn is a girl, the slightly less aggressive female eldest sibling. (See the table above.*) So laterborns have the questioning gene expressed right from the start. Just how questioning, openminded varies, but your version of these genes gets the nod. How the first two interact, how their genes are expressed is a process that shapes their character.

If the first laterborn is a girl, that turns a budding patriarchy into a matriarchy, at least until the next boy is born. And when her little brother is born, he will be dominated by her, his older sister, who changes his character entirely. (See table above third column.*)

Sulloway uses Charles Dickens as an example of a laterborn who suffered the plight of all laterborns, being considered expendable. While his elder sister studied music, he polished boots. Dickens' main literary theme is a child who can't count on parental investment. David Copperfield. A child doesn't know about other parents but is keenly aware if the other sibling is favoured. Dickens turned that death sentence into his literary inspiration. Awareness of birth order adds a new dimension to literary criticism. But history and biography are so rich in case studies, Sulloway doesn't bother much with literature.

If firstborn son gets a younger brother, both are reinforced in their maleness. If the laterborn is a girl, that moderates the firstborn's maleness, balancing with a normal femaleness in the younger sister. the perfect balance. (These two cases are first and second columns in the table above.*)

Sissified sons, dainty daughters

The third from the left shows the effect of an older sister on a younger brother. In Koch's study, laterborn boys especially with an older sister were considered particularly effeminate by their teachers. Girls were deemed even more feminine if they were younger siblings. That is shown in colum four. Frederick II the Great of Prussia (d. 1782) is the best known homosexual leader. His older sister was the firstborn, so he had little chance of becoming an Atilla the Hun, both as laterborn and as shaped by his older sister. On the contrary, he was a patron of the arts, friend of Voltaire, an enlightened monarch.

The boy socializes in a female hothouse, and arrives at school to the taunts of more masculine boys. The younger boy is dominated physically and emotionally, actually becoming more 'feminine' in character than the older sister, who becomes more masculine than him. Most boys manage to escape this web, but those that don't escape reach puberty in the thrall of an already mature sister whose boyfriends become the boy's love interest. A case of imprinting, like ducks. Even romance if you believe pornhub.

Having an older brother isn't much better. It generally means losing any physical contest. It pushes the younger son into finding a niche within the family which is more likely to been a feminine balance to the older brother's stronger maleness (which is reinforced by the need to compete with the younger brother for parental investment). Why homosexuality develops is still a mystery, but having either an older brother or sister increases the chances 27%.

In analyzing the family, it is necessary to keep in mind that each family member lives in his/her own universe. Your older sister sees her world, with you as a competitor for parental investment, one with less power, less experience, to be beaten or allied with in her plans. The younger brother, in his little universe, views her too as a competitor, one with more power, to be appeased or fought, whatever 'works', but also as potential ally in her (and his) own schemes for world domination. He starts out with a serious handicap, without the sense of male dominance, mastery. All his life, he will be a compromiser, fearing the female as potentially threatening, eroding his sense of maleness.

Darwin's keystone

What is evolution's intent? The family is nature's testing ground for the new adult. The family is the primary social unit, the primary social context, on the way to adult society. Your parents are your primal link with society and the past. But your siblings are the templates for all your adult interactions -- work, play, mating.

The baby must jump in the river of life and learn to survive using his wiles, his social skills and intelligence, switch on those genes that best help him survive in his little universe.  As an adult, you outgrow the family, but its imprint lasts your entire life, unless you consciously attempt to override your youth, change your epigenetics. 

It's a complex logic involving thousands of variables over 70 year for each lifetime, each one a little world, a planet in a mini-solar system with two suns (parents), orbiting, interacting with other planets, the two suns generally distant, keeping you in line with gravity. The metaphor works because the logic is basically the same in nature and man.

The general idea is continuity of genes, the firstborn having priority in reproduction, reproducing first. If and when the laterborns reach sexual maturity, they are just are good at pass on the genes, so the intense rivalry of childhood usually sorts itself out, the bright, industrious, successful reproducers becoming front and centre in the long term. The importance of first and laterborn usually loses its immediacy, just lurking inside you.

2/3 of the molding of your character comes from the family. 1/3 from whether you are XX or XY and what other genes you start with. Why so little genetic determinism? It's about your siblings, stupid! It's sibling rivalry that prompts genes to switch on and express themselves in you.

Sibling rivalry is about survival, the right to reproduce, though in our bizarro neoliberal hell, it's the right of corporations and foundations to reproduce, using humans to channel resources to feed the corporate cuckoo in the nest. But that will have to be the subject of Harnessing human nature Part iii.

The basic unit in sibship is the niche. Darwin's 13 varieties of finches is where it all began. It took millions of years for this remarkable variation on a theme to be written. Each of the 13 species is recognizable by its beak size, refined to meet a niche for different seeds and nuts.

Fast forward to your family. Each sibling must fend for himself in attracting parental investment. #1 gets to pick. If it's a he and he is a sportsman, then if #2 is a boy, he might demand a chemistry set, intent on blowing up #1. If #2 is a girl, it's much easier to find your 'comparative advantage'. These early choices are vital in activating our genome. Genes are express differently in each of us, so many genetic influences are unique to individual and not passed on. They are emergent, i.e., they emerge in offspring given the right environment.

Rule: if there's a niche, fill it. On the Galapagos Islands, there weren't a lot of birds, so God create 12 more species of finches to fill the niches. (Sorry, natural selection produced 12 more finch species.) As a species evolves, offspring adapt to many diversified places in the economy of nature. It is the keystone of The origin of species.

Evolutionary diversification allows coexistence. No need to keep fighting. Separate interests minimize direct competition, increase parent investment, increase independence. Hey, does that mean we don't need world war? That we can divvy up the niches and coexist in harmony?

In the development of personality, including gender-related traits, family niches override biology, just as they often transcend cultural stereotypes. Birth order creates more or less masculine/feminine sons/daughters.

Gender is not at all important for social radicalism. Women are on the front lines of any revolution. But the X and Y express themselves in different ways. For abolitionism there were many more laterborns as we would expect. Harriet Beech Stowe was seventh of 13. Harriet Tubman was probably nineth of 11. She was trained in tracking and scouting by her father. She escaped north then helped 300 slaves escape, returning 19 times to the south. Women are more masculine in character than many men. And vice versa.

Sulloway lumps all siblings that follow the firstborn as laterborns. When the family increases to three, then four, a new dynamic results. Groups now work in alliance on various issues. Whether the alliances are fluid and how democractic they are depends on context. If it includes the eldest son or daughter or is an intrigue by laterborns against that snooty eldest. Conflict, competition vs cooperation are the dialectic within the family. A recurring cause of conflict leads to adaptive behavour. Cain was eldest. His strategy the brute force of the angry, jealous older brother. Nice Abel, the younger, weaker, lost that battler from the start.

Sulloway has no truck with either Marx or Freud. Marx mistakenly saw the main conflict between families, i.e., class struggle. But what shapes a revolutionary is family order, not his place in society. There is no correlation between class background and being author of revolutionary texts or instigator of revolution in reality. Revolutionaries are almost always laterborn. That's all that matters. Birth order can even be perverted to turn laterborns into servants of the firstborn. Now that's class struggle. Slavery. And laterborns always have the option of rebelling, escaping the family. They have nothing to lose.

And the laterborn rule holds for all social change. Socialists are mostly laterborn, conservatives mostly firstborn. However, the militant abolitionists were often firstborn women. When social crises arise, that can throw a monkey wrench into the works and firstborns can turn against their parents to join a moral cause, use their self-confidence and assertiveness for the cause, the new family. Becoming militants, terrorists. Galileo.** Carlos the Jackal.*** 

But generally firstborns are not revolutionaries. If they are scientists, they generally build on existing research, i.e., Nobel winners Crick and Pauling. Even when the initiators of new theories are firstborn (Newton, Lavoisier, Einstein, Freud) their supporters are still predominantly laterborn. Among radical scientific innovators, firstborns are the exception. Laterborns are 4.2x the number of firstborns for controversial change. If for simple innovation, 1.4x.

The examples from history are fascinating. I urge you to read for yourself. My favourite (as a Canuck): Descendant of 5 generations of youngest sons Benjamin Franklin's eldest son William rejected the revolution, staying loyal to the crown, i.e., a higher father. Also revolutionary ideals are dicy and revolutionary violence destructive. Not firstborn tastes. 

Benjamin Branklin's firstborn William. His own Benedict Arnold

Freud : Darwin ~ Descartes : Newton

One last jab. Freud made the Oedipal complex the ruler of his kingdom of neuroses. He depicted female sexual development as a stunted form of male development. Wounded men, with penis envy and repudiation of the mother who is to blame. Freud is the classic firstborn, conscious of social status, valued authority, upper-class clentele. Though his theory scandalized, much like what laterborns are good at, he was sufficiently firstborn arrogant and brilliant to pull it off, his devoted mother in tow. All of his followers were laterborn (the best rebelled).

But Freud was spinning his theories before science had revealed chromosomes (1920s) and DNA as the transforming principle (1944). XY, the male, is modified XX , the female. The male is a modified female, not Freud's females as wounded men with 'penis envy'. And Freud minimized the role of the mother. How insane is that? And killing the father?! Why would a son try to kill the hand that feeds? It happens but it's the stuff of opera. Mozart's Don Giovanni.

On the contrary, it's survival instinct to keep parents happy and putting food on the table. As a sibling, you're much more interested in doing away with the bullying, greedy brother, the whiney, greedy sister. And just how masculine or feminine a girl is less about gonads and more about niche interactions wthin the family system. Forget penis envy. Nice try, Freud, but your theories are to Darwin as Descartes' vortices are to Newton's gravity.

Darwin leaves his religious beliefs tantalizingly vague. Contrary to what atheists loudly shout, Darwin considered evolution as fully commensurable with creationism. Origin is one long argument comparing biological evidence as creationism and evolution. Oceanic islands lack frogs and amphibians because salt water kills any floating frogs and eggs. 'It has so pleased the creator,' adds Darwin. He was still unsure when he died. 

Marx was mistaken to locate the primary engine of historical change as between classes. Yes, of course, socialism after capitalism, but it's been laterborns of all classes that were swept up into revolutionary movements. As family size drops to one child, that automatically means a more conservative society. 

Freud at least saw the family as central but gave primacy to libidinal urges. Adler and his emphasis on power relations is closer to the mark. Parents are like the state, watching, helping create mutual, hierarchical order. Parent-child conflict is less important in character formation than sibling conflict over parental resources. Sex is secondary. Sibling links are deeper than those with your mate.

For all his wonderful insights, Sulloway is still very much the nerd. Born to rebel reads like he's a diligent firstborn but the results of his study are both very conservative (Darwin is our secular god) and revolutionary (Marx, Freud out). But he loses it with his sweeping ode to laterborns. Scientific revolution by laterborns in 17thc → enlightenment and secularism → free love, communism in the 20th c. Transforming this creative domain of human inquiry into a process of perpetual rebellion.

My more jaundiced take: the two-century (18th and 19th) babyboom produced millions of educated laterborns, combined with industrial capitalism, to give life to Marx (laterborn) and, yes, the Soviet Union and our welfare state. Till both were destroyed by firstborn fanatics (Hitler and Stalin/ Khruschev/ Gorbachev) and an aging population of firstborns.    Neoliberalism reigns. Q.E.D.


*Helen Koch, 'Sissiness and tomboyishness in relation to sibling caracteristics,' Jounral of Genetic Psychology 88:231-44.

**Firstborn Galileo, son of Vincenzio who knew tuning in Pythagorean was no good for sophisticated harmony. So he discarded Pythagorean rules. A revolution in music. Radical father so son even more radical. But firstborn arrogance made Galileo's confrontation with the pope a legend. Galileo's Dialogue on two chief world systems gave Simplicio Pope Urban VIII's favorite arguments which he then refuted. The pope was literally ready to roast him.

***Carlos the Jackal's father was a militant Marxist, named his sons Ilich, Vladimir, Lenin. Firstborn Carlos ne Ilich had to outdo his dad. What a father-son combo. 

Harnessing human nature to save the world

Harnessing human nature Part iii: Mind, Madness and Modernity

Harnessing human nature Part iv: Scientific astrology

Harnessing Nature to save the world: A theory of soil












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Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.

He has lived in both the Soviet Union and Russia, and then Uzbekistan, as a UN adviser, writer, translator and lecturer. Presently a writer for the foremost Cairo newspaper, Al Ahram, he is also a regular contributor to Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Global Research, Al-Jazeerah and Turkish Weekly, and is a commentator on Voice of the Cape radio.

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