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Father and Sons

The Promised Seed: A Comparative Study of First and Later Sons

by Irving D. Harris M.D.
Free Press, 339 pp., $6.95

Fitting human personality into contrived types is an ancient practice. Many a literary observer of human nature has tried his hand at it since Theophrastus, and many a psychologist has worked out clusters of temperamental traits which he could measure and use as moulds into which the personality of individuals could be more or less confortably squeezed. The simpler systems, like Galen’s or Jung’s, have won the greatest favor, but those which linked mental to physical qualities of constitution, as Aristotle’s and Kretschmer’s did, have had a strong attraction for tough-minded people who like to check generalizations by statistical analysis and intuitive judgments by experiment.

A fondness for statistical checks and strictly designed experiments is not characteristic of psychoanalysts. When Adler put forward his theory of organ inferiority and character-formation, he did not buttress it with numerical data. Freud said of himself “I lack the slightest mathematical ability, and have no memory for numbers and measurements.” Jung, whose studies in word-association necessarily made use of simple statistics, gave up such approaches from 1906 onwards. It is in keeping with a powerful tradition that Dr. Harris, writing as a psychoanalyst, should keep his book innocent of any quantitative analysis (apart from a brief excursion into dreams about parental death). But the book is also concerned with social and psychological considerations. Here it enters territory that has been much tilled, and Dr. Harris could have drawn heavily on experimental studies of personality and the forces that seem to shape it. He has, however, preferred to depend on his own amalgam of psychoanalytical, clinical, and popular concepts of the structure of personality. This has the merit of familiarity and plain language, the demerit of imprecision and ambiguity of application.

Specifying certain types of personality is only part of the task Dr. Harris has set himself. He seeks to relate them to whether men of eminence were the first-born sons in their respective families. This ground too has been traversed by psychologists. Most of them have, like Dr. Harris, treated the order of birth as a convenient pointer to conditions affecting early development; believing quality of nurture to have a profound and lasting influence upon character, they have taken it as a useful hard datum, an index to crucial elements in upbringing. But Dr. Harris is the first of this company to concentrate solely on the birth order of males; Disraeli, for example, would not be counted as the second of five children, but as a first-born son.

This concern with first-born sons and the rule of primogeniture—a biblical rather than a biological notion, duly set forth in the thirteenth chapter of Exodus—is frankly explained by Dr. Harris. It is part of the history of his interest in this question. He had noticed that first-born boys and girls were more tense and driving than later-born children. He then made a study of learning in relation to birth order, but limited it to boys, “because learning problems are found predominantly in boys.” He looked into the literature bearing on the order of birth and found the well-known studies of Galton, Havelock Ellis, Cattell, and Terman, which were all concerned with people of exceptional ability. He came to the conclusion that after 1925 the topic had fallen into comparative oblivion, apart from a few studies to which he makes brief reference. In this he was hardly correct: there was a modest flow of papers between 1927 and 1950 (including Adele Juda’s illuminating study); more recently the output has increased, especially since Schachter’s experimental inquiries into affiliation, and during 1963 there were at least seventeen publications dealing with the relationship of birth-order to various psychological attributes, especially dependence, conformity, and diffidence in the first born.

No one will want to blame Dr. Harris for paying scant attention to reports which concentrate on aspects of behavior that are not close to his field of interest, and which in some cases give discrepant results because they ask wrong questions. But it is still hard to accept his reason for ignoring the existence of girls. He makes no bones about it: it was a matter of practical convenience.

It [the present book] began rather unsystematically with a casual noting of the birth orders of the eminent or creative men the author had become acquainted with in his reading and earlier education. Very soon a difficulty was encountered. Biographical sketches infrequently mentioned all the brothers and sisters, or the exact position the eminent men had in the sequence of siblings. Much more regularly available was the information as to whether the eminent man was the first son or a later son. Accordingly, the investigation turned from that of exact birth order to one of first or later born sons.

Similarly he felt obliged to omit eminent women because there are not enough of them “to make a comparative study feasible.” Whether this is so or not, few would be prepared to assume that a boy who is born after his mother has had, say, four daughters but no son is exposed to much the same early nurturing experiences as a boy who is an only child: but in Dr. Harris’s scheme they are put in the same category of first-born sons.

His exclusion of female births also makes it difficult to align his findings and hypotheses with those of other students of birth order. Adler, for example, whose views are widely quoted, held that the first-born child, whatever its sex, is of necessity an only child for a time, with consequent effects upon his personality: if he is dethroned by the advent of a sibling, he will struggle to recapture his mother’s attention and failing in his attempts, turn to his father, whereas the youngest child is privileged and never dethroned. Gardner and Lois Murphy, and others, have found little or no support for Adler’s interpretation but much to indicate that relations between the siblings themselves are powerful determinants of personality.

The argument which Dr. Harris sustains is that differences in the intensity of parental nurturing and parental involvement accentuate inborn tendencies towards “connectedness” and “disconnectedness.” The meaning of these unhappily chosen terms is never precisely stated but a hazy synoptic notion can be derived from scattered instances and reflections. First-born children, or the first-born of one sex, are given to the display of connectedness in their thoughts and behavior. They are disposed to synthesize, they have wide comprehension, they are contemplative, alert to detect similarities, responsive to the inner moral promptings and authority of conscience, pessimistic, “egodivided” and “plural-minded,” cautious in making decisions, attentive to abstract or speculative concepts, theoretical, ambitious to fulfil heroic tasks, apt to see themselves as men of destiny, eager for appreciation, unwilling to accept defeat, conservative, insistent on the dignity of man, given to mysticism, romantically ready to exalt women, historically minded and disposed to make the past meaningfully continuous with the present. The polar opposites of these qualities characterize the “disconnected” later sons. They have a penchant for exact detail, they are prompt in action, have a keen eye for differences, respond to external moral and social authority, are mostly cheerful, single-minded, effective in dealing with their environment, decisive, ambitious to prove themselves the equal of the next man, militant, hungry for power, alive to the direct gratifications which the world can offer them through the senses, concerned with people’s material welfare, prone to make and enjoy comedy and satire, firmly geared to the present, considering the past only so far as it can be turned to the business of meeting contemporary needs.

To catalogue this assortment of traits and epithets does some injustice to Dr. Harris’s manful effort to convey by illustrative instances, descriptions, and exegesis what his overriding concept amounts to. Though he does not succeed, his failure is not calamitous to his main theme. He frequently anticipates and accepts critical objections to his method of investigation. He is less anxious to convince the reader that he is right than to convince him that there is a prima facie case for testing the hypothesis more fully and rigorously than he has so far been able to. He recognizes that there are points of similarity between his homemade typology and those arrived at by stricter methods or from different premises. He also admits to the uncertainties that may beset the assignment of a particular “great man” to one or other pole of his connectedness-disconnectedness axis. So formidable are the difficulties that he decided to dismiss from consideration any eminent men in his initial list who were not easily discernible as being at polar ends of the scale. This makes his collection of illustrative men shorter; it also makes his procedure suspect, the more so when he further tells us that in certain categories he arbitrarily singled out a pair of contrasted worthies—Carlyle and Emerson, Jefferson and Hamilton—for crucial comparison. He is so frank about the remarkable liberties he took in the selection of material, and so placatory in his modest disclaimers of any pretension to finality in his opinions that the reader, at first startled but presently disarmed, comes to treat the book as an unbuttoned essay rather than as a systematic psychological contribution—something modeled on Hazlitt rather than on Galton. Perhaps it would be fairer to say, modeled on Alexander or Shand rather than on Sears or Guilford.

Where Dr. Harris chiefly offends against the light is in not telling us explicitly whether he classified his eminent men as connected or disconnected before he had made any effort to find out whether they were first-born or later sons. He is doubtless well aware of the effect knowledge on this latter point might have on his would-be unbiased estimate of their personality; and unless he had formed his judgment “blind,” as one would in a therapeutic trial or any other test of an initial hypothesis, the critical reader is at liberty—is indeed compelled—to question Dr. Harris’s impartiality in deciding whom to exclude as insufficiently “polar” and whom to assign to one or other pole. As things stand it is easy to dispute some of his attributions, and to wonder why some very notable men receive no mention. A random list of omissions includes William Harvey, John Hunter, Cellini, Corneille, Diderot, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Victor Hugo, Leibnitz, Marlborough, Mendel, Rutherford, Faraday, Francis of Assisi, Grotius, Molière, Pasteur, Racine, Priestley, Louis XIV, Savonarola, Turgenev. Were they left out because they were not “polar” enough, or because there was no certainty as to whether they were first sons? One is not reassured by finding some strange juxtapositions, summoning shadowy figures from myth and fiction to rub shoulders with more substantial men: “we see such later sons,” writes Dr. Harris, “as Jacob, Hamlet’s uncle, Richard the Third, and Cesare Borgia, using the methods of deceptive attack;” “Moses, Basil the Great…Xavier and Loyola”; “the greatest romantic worship of Woman has been given by the mother-connected first sons—Abelard of Heloise, Dante of Beatrice, Shakespeare of Juliet.”

The scholarship of the book is lame, and the evidence on which it rests is much too selective; it fails to persuade. There is, however, substance in its plea that the significance of birth order in the development of personality should be more closely examined. If the necessary regard is then paid to size and sex of sibship, maternal age, social conditions, upbringing, and statistical design of the inquiry, the broad question raised by Dr. Harris and others might be brought nearer to an answer. Much more dubious is the hope expressed in his coda and his title that it would contribute towards the “attainment of full-dimensional truth” and the Brotherhood of Man. In the passage he quotes from Milton where Eve speaks of the Promised Seed, the Archangel foretells “new Heavens, new Earth…founded in righteousness and peace and love.” Dr. Harris’s aspiration, implicit in the title he chose for his book, places him squarely among the optimistic later sons.

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