Conflict between siblings is a more significant force in human history than class struggle, according to Frank Sulloway, a Harvard psychologist. He believes that first borns tend to be conformist and younger siblings rebellious-and offers a pile of statistics to support his case. Matt Ridley is intrigued but scepticalby Matt Ridley / November 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Liberte, egalite, fraternite!” However successful the French revolution may have been at generating liberty and equality, it was a terrible failure at the practice of fraternity. Not only did real brothers find themselves divided against each other by the revolution, but ideological brothers-in-arms guillotined each other with relish. The Terror of 1793 is often described as “fratricidal.”
This description may be closer to the truth than historians have realised. The battles between the Girondin and the Montagnard deputies to the National Convention, which led to the Terror when the Montagnards gained the upper hand, was largely a battle between younger and elder brothers. Most of the Girondins were younger children in their families, and most of the Montagnards, elder.
Indeed, among the deputies were 16 real brothers who grew up together, including Maximilien and Augustin Robespierre. No younger brother sat to the left of his elder brother, the left being the side of the hall associated with greater extremism and repression. Here then is a new history of the French revolution: royalist elder brothers were overthrown by progressively more younger-child revolutionaries until 1793 when elder brothers grabbed back power in the violent coup of the Terror. The tolerant interlude of 1789-92 was characteristic of a period of rule by younger brothers.
A new and curious insight, or farcical sociological simplification? This analysis comes from a new book, Born to Rebel (Little, Brown), by Frank Sulloway, published in November. Sulloway is neither a sociologist, nor a professional historian. He is a psychologist at Harvard, and an odd one at that because he is a closer disciple of Charles Darwin than Sigmund Freud (although he has written a biography of Freud). His book is a long exploration of the idea that a Darwinian understanding of sibling conflict explains a great deal of human history, politics and sociology.
Of the French revolution, he writes, “Sibling strife, not class conflict, lay at the heart of the Terror. The ultimate failure of the French revolution resided in the participants’ inability to grasp this fact.”
Sulloway’s theory is that radicalism, openness to new ideas and gullibility are generally characteristic of younger siblings, whereas reaction, orthodoxy and intolerance are characteristic of their elder sibs. He demonstrates this with a mountain of statistics taken from several historical revolutions in both science and politics. During the Reformation, for example, he finds that two thirds of Catholic martyrs executed…