Revolting brothers

January 10, 1997

Lewis Wolpert's lively review of Frank Sulloway's Born To Rebel (THES, December 20) contains an interesting factual error.

Lenin was not, as Wolpert asserts, the first-born in his family. He had an elder brother, Alexander, who was also involved in revolutionary activities, for which the Tsarist authorities executed him. The presence of two revolutionaries in one family is another piece of evidence undercutting Sulloway's contention that birth order determines receptiveness to new ideas.

But, as Wolpert implies, no evidence would make much difference to Sulloway's argument. Sulloway's delusion is that psychology can give him an infallible short-cut to understanding the world.

Birth order is for him the determinant of originality: if you are first-born, your ideas cannot be original. He denies that James D. Watson and Francis Crick were genuine creators, for he has the key to understanding all biology: he knows that Watson and Crick are first-borns.

Sulloway's reading of political history is similarly superficial. Lefebvre and Soboul should have saved themselves the bother of studying the class conflict of the French revolution, for Sulloway has the key to understanding all history: it is just a matter of sibling rivalry.

I did enjoy Wolpert's review, but might I suggest that for our entertainment The THES invites Sulloway's elder sibling (I presume he has one) to review his next book.

Will Podmore

Dalston London E8

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