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O brother who art thou?

According to 'The Pecking order,' differences within families are the rule rather than the exception

The Pecking Order:

Which Siblings

Succeed and Why

By Dalton Conley

Pantheon, 309 pp., $24

Nearly all of us want to know why we are the way that we are; most of us want to know why those closest to us are the way that they are. Traditionally, the particulars of each life course were attributed to fate, and the most compelling lives were portrayed in the Bible and in great literature, from Homer to Shakespeare. In modern times, we look to science for clues to human achievement and destiny.

The British polymath Francis Galton was the first scholar to attempt a scientific explanation for achievement. Toting up the accomplishments of those ''eminent men of science" whom he knew best -- which included his cousin Charles Darwin and many other relatives -- Galton had little hesitancy in attributing success to hereditary influences. But Galton had not thought through his claims; in fact eminent individuals share both genes and environment, and so it is not possible to disentangle the effects of nature from nurture. Since Galton's time, the pendulum of explanation has swung back and forth between accounts that stress genetic factors, accounts that underscore cultural influences, and those that attribute a fair amount of influence to historical luck (were you born in Silicon Valley) or individual luck (a bolt of lightning, a winning lottery ticket).

In recent times, social scientists have put forth provocative hypotheses. In the 1950s psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim indicted ''icebox mothers"; in 1996 historian of science Frank Sulloway documented the rebelliousness of later-born siblings; and two years later, psychologist Judith Rich Harris downplayed the nongenetic influence of parents, while stressing the effect of the peer group. These singular explanations attract attention in the news weeklies but generally are supplanted by the next dramatic claim.

In ''The Pecking Order" Dalton Conley, a much-acclaimed sociologist in his 30s, focuses his attention on siblings. He begins his work with the intriguing and provocative assertion that about three-quarters of the differences in achievement among Americans occur within families. Unlike the aforementioned scholars, Conley knows that the differing success of members of the same family does not rest on a single factor; indeed, he revels in the multiple factors that contribute, say, to the varying lifelines of President Clinton and his ne'er-do-well half brother, Roger. In chronicling the many paths to success and failure, Conley draws skillfully on three lines of evidence: a reanalysis of three existing data sets, a new set of 175 interviews of individuals drawn from 68 families, and a review of dozens of studies carried out by other scholars. It is doubtful that anyone has undertaken so ambitious a synthesis. Yet three factors mute my enthusiasm for Conley's work.

First of all, Conley has not mastered the challenge of writing an academic book for a popular audience. In an effort to be reader-friendly, he has relegated all technical materials to footnotes and a lengthy appendix. The bulk of the text consists of vignettes and anecdotes that Conley has stitched together from the interviews. These are readable enough -- indeed, some of the more ''soap opera" sagas could have been lifted from a newspaper advice column or a high school home economics text -- but their relation to the scholarly literature remains obscure. We don't know whether the vignettes are representative portraits, ideal types, or particularly evocative stories.

Second, there is the problem of seeing the woods for the trees. Conley sketches dozens of factors that contribute to the different fates of siblings without coming up with an organizing framework or a clear take-away argument. Readers will differ in which factors strike them as most interesting -- I suspect that each of us will focus on those findings that resonate with our own experience, and those findings that we have not already read about in the press supplements. In my case, I was interested to learn that being later born in a large family reduces the likelihood of success, except for the last born; that we tend to overestimate the damaging effects of teenage pregnancy; that -- counter to much recent sociological literature -- it may be more important to know the right people with proper ties and credentials than to have many ''weak ties" to lots of people or a few ''strong ties" to kith and kin on whom you can rely if you fall on hard times; that children's fates are most likely to differ from that of their siblings if they are marginal in matters of sexuality or religious preference; that obesity in white women is about as much of an impediment to success as is dark skin in African-American women; and that the least affluent sibling is most likely to take care of ailing parents. Anyone who reads this book will learn things he or she did not know, but few will be able to stitch together a powerful and memorable lesson from it.

Finally, there is the explicit focus of this book on success. Surely, no one can deny that success is important in the America of today, but Conley would have done well to assume more distance from this dependent variable. Both his anecdotes and his data analyses reveal that, for Conley, success boils down to years of education and amount of disposable income. I would have liked more of a consideration of human and humane qualities that may be more difficult to quantify but that have been honored at other times and in other places and may still merit attention in our market-drenched world: a person's generosity, willingness to work in the community, concern with the environment, humility, sense of humor, civility, just to name a few. Conley notes that it may be economically rational for the least affluent sibling to take care of an aging parent because the cost in lost time and wages is the least. However, such a sacrifice can be seen as the highest human calling; perhaps the sibling's own difficulties have made her more empathic; and perhaps, indeed, she -- and not her Wall Street siblings -- will be welcomed at the gates of heaven.

In an evocative personal epilogue, Conley describes his own family trajectory. He concedes that, as a tenured faculty member, he is more successful in career terms than his sister, who manages a small nonprofit theater company. As he puts it, ''Our financial trajectories are also beginning to diverge substantially." He concedes that his sister has flourished in her personal life while he -- going through a divorce -- has struggled for contentment. I do not mean to be condescending in saying that, as Conley matures, he is likely to have a more nuanced view of the pecking order and will be in an excellent position to write a more authoritative book.

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