Olivia Dakeyne

The odd couples

The odd couples
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This is the first post in an occasional series about rediscovering old science books.

Twins, Lawrence Wright posits, pose a threat to the established order. People have long been scared of, and intrigued by, them. The doppelganger holds a special place in the gothic canon, whilst some cultures have even seen men cutting off a testicle in the hope it would eliminate the possibility of twin-bearing. Conversely, twins have been held up in voodoo ceremonies as objects of worship or been the subject of televised wonder and investigation. Whether the sentiment is positive or negative, we see them as an aberration and have tended to hold such specimens at arm’s length. More than anything else, Wright says, this is because we are scared of what they can tell us about ourselves.

With an identical twin for a father, I expected the tales of synchronised thought processes or uncannily similar life-choices to be the most enthralling sections of the analysis. These nuggets of trivia are diverting and, at times, fascinating; but the book is at its strongest when it dances round the results of research, focusing on the motives behind such investigations and the moral issues that they create. The narrative takes an uncomfortable turn as we face the morally-murky side of scientific discovery.

Two separate yet genetically identical entities are, of course, incredibly useful when it comes to medical research. Twin-related study has been invaluable: the recognition and labelling of certain diseases as genetically predetermined rather than the fault of the mother, for example. Yet because genetically identical individuals living in differing environments allow extrapolations to be drawn about such delicate subjects as race and social strata, scientists can become over-enthused. Time and time again, the dark shadow of eugenics lurks around the corner. Countless incidents are listed; many of them more modern and bound-up with our society than we would like to think. It becomes evident that twins have been used repeatedly as a tool in the persecution of others.

Immoral actions aside, the root cause for twin-led research is philosophically interesting. Take the constant search for a pattern in the distribution of twin births. Some studies show that twins are more likely to be conceived during the summer months than the winter ones, while others have concluded that unwed mothers or those in their first few months of marriage are more likely to conceive twins than their counterparts. A light and breezy theory for these sorts of trends is posited, but the very act of research might tell us more about mankind than anything that the trends do themselves. We seem to be preoccupied with unearthing or imposing underlying patterns and meanings upon seemingly random chaos. For example, much of the research into twins separated at birth hinges on their continued similarity, despite wildly different external environments and upbringings. Similarities are noted, almost greedily, down to the names of spouses and offspring. These findings beggar belief; are we really to suppose that genetic factors can predispose you to choose a wife with the name Linda?

The need to impose order and feel connected to others may be a response to our fear of the universe’s chaos, and our ultimate feelings of isolation. We are marooned inside our own bodies and can never physically connect with someone else – or even know, for certain, what they are thinking. Our cells and vital matter are bound-up and contained within our skin; an outer casing that keeps us separate from others.

With this in mind, there seems to be something almost romantic about the reuniting of separated twins. It is oddly reminiscent of potential lovers, scoping each other out for suitability – of people trying to find their other half, metaphorically or almost literally (if we conjure up the image of the zygote splitting). Yet twins, though formed from the same set of cells, are still an entity all of their own – and perhaps feel this human isolation even more keenly.  We learn of a pair of twins, separated at birth, both homosexual, who become lovers after being reunited and introduced – an almost poetic attempt to be reunited as one.

Wright’s book gives an interesting historical overview of twin-led research and the scientific explanations behind various related medical oddities; but it does much more than that. When read in a philosophically-open frame of mind, it will send you into a self-questioning reverie on the human condition. Is that ever time wasted?

Twins: Genes, Environment and the Mystery of Identity by Lawrence Wright was first published in 1997.