Do Family Business Issues Begin in the Womb?

By Shel Horowitz

To a Darwinian determinist like U.C. Berkeley’s Frank J. Sulloway, the roots of much family conflict can be traced waaaaay back—to the fetus swimming around inside Mom, before birth.

Sulloway told the Family Business Center’s May 2007 gathering that both sibling and parent-child issues have a powerful basis in biology—starting in utero.

A biological tug of war plays out in the womb. “The interests of a fetus and mother are not the same; it is expected to be a highly conflicted relationship owing to biological conflicts.”

How was this discovered? “The giveaway was the huge amounts of a hormone circulating in mothers, 100 or more times the normal level. The fetus is secreting massive amounts of this hormone to cancel out the effects of the mother’s insulin, so it can obtain more nutrients and come out of the womb nice and big and strong. So the mom secretes more and more insulin in response.” Most of the time, these forces balance each other out, and a healthy baby is born to a healthy mother. But if the mother’s biochemistry overpowers the fetus, the mother may develop gestational diabetes—and if the fetus is stronger, the mother may develop high blood pressure.

Sulloway claims that the biology not just of humans, not just of animals, but of pretty much all living things is based on a sophisticated early detection system to determine who is most like you.

He bases his theories not only on Darwin but also on 20th-century biologist William Hamilton, who claimed that “we are twice as related to ourselves as we are to a sibling” (other than an identical twin), or to a parent. And we behave accordingly. “In practical terms, a smart Darwinian sibling would divide the pie in three, keep two pieces, and give one to the sibling.

“All sorts of animals behave in close proportion to Hamilton’s Rule. Prior to Hamilton, nobody dreamed that a ground squirrel could tell the difference between a half-sibling and a full sibling by scent.” Yet a ground squirrel will give a vigorous warning to full siblings if a hawk is nearby, but only a half-hearted call to half-siblings, and it will not even bother to put itself at risk to warn a non-relative. Hamilton’s rule led British biologist J.B.S. Haldane to joke, “I would lay down my life for two brothers, four nephews, or eight cousins.”

Fascinatingly, the evolutionary responses of other species adjust for ecological conditions; those that destroy their siblings at birth are more likely to attack if their body weight is low, and to be more tolerant if there’s a food surplus. And those species that engage in “siblicide” have developed compensations—such as being born with a full set of protective teeth.

So what does all this have to do with family businesses? “Pregnancy conflicts are typical of all family interactions,” says Sulloway. Family members are often in conflict, despite their overlapping agendas. “A gene from the father promotes growth of the fetus, and the same gene from the mother cancels out that growth. The genes actually know which parent they come from and act in the interests of that parent. These types of conflicts are typical of family dynamics as a whole.”

Hamilton’s Rule also helps explain why siblings go out of their way to express differences—something that has a lot to do with birth order. Oldest children will typically seek to win parental attention by being conscientious, overachieving, filling the role of surrogate parent—accommodating themselves to the existing social order in the family, school, and career. Many superstars in academia, performing arts, and athletics are firstborns.

And yes, firstborns gravitate toward power careers and make up a full 44 percent of CEOs (versus 18 percent middleborns and 20 percent lastborns). Steve Jobs, Al Dunlap, and Ted Turner are among the firstborns, but laterborns also have their share of power hitters, including Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Donald Trump.

Laterborns will often play the role of mediators; they are agreeable, frequently playing the humor card—and because the status quo doesn’t favor them, are often quick to embrace (or even lead) change. A high percentage of Nobel Peace Prize winners tend to come from this cohort, while Nobel laureates in other disciplines are much more likely to be firstborns.

These, of course, are sweeping generalizations, and many other factors—gender, spacing of children, disability or death, how much time a child has the undivided attention of parents (before the second child is born or after the older ones have left the house)—all come into play.

Sulloway points out too that while all siblings strive for goodies from their parents, such as affection, food, and attention, no matter how hard they try, the parents can never distribute these goodies equally. The firstborn always has a head start of one to several years.

However, it’s critical that the parents set up a structure that can…

  • Raise children who know how to cooperate as well as compete
  • Enable children to successfully enter the family business
  • Harness sibling diversity to achieve family and/or business goals
  • Create a viable structure for family business succession

In all biological systems, there’s a constant give and take. “Biology has created powerful mechanisms of control to deal with these conflicts. We have cancers all the time, and our immune system looks for them and gobbles them up before you ever know they are there. The cancer cell is 100% related to itself,” just as siblings might look out for themselves at the expense of others. “Once you depersonalize such conflicts, you realize that your sibling is doing what you’d do if you were in that sibling’s place. Expect and respect conflict. It can be harnessed as a creative aspect within family businesses.

“No computer program has ever been devised that can improve on the tit-for-tat relationship” that lets siblings as well as unrelated people reduce conflicts by rewarding cooperation and failing to reward conflict.

“We as humans are uniquely suited to cooperation, because we have the largest brains. Cooperative species always have larger brains than uncooperative similar species. It takes a big brain to remember all the cooperative interactions you need to get along successfully in real life.

“Get your kids to undertake joint tasks. Let them mow the lawn together, or plan a vacation; and if they can’t cooperate, you can just go without them.” As for succession issues, the key to a harmonious outcome is to foster a family culture of mutual cooperation while also creating specific mechanisms that depersonalize the potential conflicts inherent in this process.