The Promised Seed: A Comparative Study of First and Later Sons
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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.