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Born to Rebel’

In response to:

The Roots of Radicalism from the November 14, 1996 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Frank J. Sulloway’s Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives [NYR, November 14, 1996], Jared Diamond remarked that “In all traditional human societies as in animal societies, the first-born is usually the parent’s favorite, enjoying higher status. Who ever heard of a society where the youngest child customarily inherits the estate?”

The term for this form of inheritance is ultimogeniture. A quick pass through a sample of 862 traditional cultures in the Ethnographic Atlas (G.P. Murdock, 1967) resulted in a list of sixteen in which land, house, animals or other moveable goods, or all of these go to the youngest son or, in rare cases, daughter. These societies are located in Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America. As examples, the farmers of Bali leave the house and its associated land to the youngest son; and the Hopi Indians of Arizona formerly left the house to the youngest daughter, who also had authority over the clan land allocated to her house.

The effect of birth order on adult actions that Sulloway documents may be due to socialization for family roles as well as to any innate characteristics of age difference or competition for parental attention within the set of siblings. Unlike primogeniture, ultimogeniture lays the responsibility for family continuity on the shoulders of the youngest, leaving the older ones to strike out on their own. I wonder whether the strong birth-order effect that Sulloway finds for previous generations in Europe and America would show up so strongly in less hierarchical families. In earlier times, older siblings often had authority over, and responsibility for, younger ones. Today, the oldest child is rarely a parent’s surrogate or lieutenant, and siblings are more likely to be treated as peers. Cultural definitions of family roles, and how children are trained to fill them, may modify or override other features of family organization. We won’t know that until we test it.

Alice Schlegel
Professor of Anthropology
University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona

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