Twinship, Sameness, Biology: A Hypothesis

by BodyCartography / February 15th, 2013 / Posted in: BodyCartography, CounterPULSE.

Watch me. Watch me. In your imitation is the attention I crave.

“He’s going to feel watched.”

“He’s going to seek my approval.”

“He thought about how space is anything but neutral.”


What does it mean to be identical to someone else?

Oskar Stohr and Jack Yufe are identical twins who were separated shortly after their birth on the island of Trinidad in 1930.[i] The brothers grew up in very different backgrounds and finally met each other as middle-aged men recruited for a study in Minneapolis, Minnesota. When they met, Stohr and Yufe discovered they were similar in a remarkable number of ways. The psychology textbook quotes the author of the study in which Stohr and Yufe were subjects:

They share idiosyncrasies galore: they like spicy foods and sweet liqueurs, are absentminded, have a habit of falling asleep in front of the television, think it’s funny to sneeze in a crowd of strangers, flush the toilet before using it, store rubber bands on their wrists, read magazines back to front, dip buttered toast in their coffee. Oskar is domineering towards women and yells at his wife, which Jack did before he was separated.[ii]

Otto and Emmett are twins. Are they identical? Identical twins come from the same zygote (egg). One sperm crawls into the egg. The fertilized egg splits into two embryos. Science dictates that identical twins are always the same sex. Indeed, the very scientific definition of “identical” assumes that both twins are the same chromosomal, genital and psychological sex. It is not unknown for one member of a set of identical twins to be born intersexed: that is, a person who has ambiguous or atypical combinations of anatomical features that usually distinguish a male body from a female body. According to scientists, sets of twins in which one twin is intersex are not strictly identical. These kinds of twins have been renamed “semi-identical”—that is, identical in all but sex. Biologists theorize that maybe two sperm crawled into the same egg.

In movies, books and folk theory about twins, sameness is fetishized. I do not mean “fetishized” in a sexual sense (although this also happens); here I am talking about fetishization as a fascination with, or valorization of, an object or phenomenon. Sameness between individuals has a particular value: it is meant to show us the zero sum of genetic coding, where genetics, and by extension biology, is assumed to determine everything. Researchers in twin studies take a peculiar pleasure in how even twins reared apart can be so similar. Their descriptions shrug happily at the oddness, as if to say, “How can we explain it other than genetics?!” In the same way, gender roles are assumed to be just as genetic, biological and therefore set in stone: my mother used to shrug and laugh at how my brother fantasized about the number of bulldozers he owned as a small child. Oh, he’s just being a boy. That’s just who he is.

Where did you come from?

Otto and Emmett come from Minnesota. Norwegian midwesterners. Tall, blue eyes, strong jaw. High forehead. Slim and muscular bodies. Well suited to be dancers. Are they really Norwegian? Emmett and I talk about our ancestry. His mother’s family has been in the United States since the American Revolution. His father’s father was Norwegian; his grandmother was born on the contested lands of the Hungarian-Czech border. But the name Ramstad marks them as Norwegian. Maybe they will apply for funding to go to Norway and find their “roots”. What does Norwegian mean? I think of good skiiers, tall blondes, saunas, meatballs and whiteness. In the same way, we shrug and laugh at the way our mannerisms or everyday habits confirm our heritage. This makes me different. (Although we take a contradictory pleasure in asserting these differences despite how they make us the same.)

Twin studies and scientific belief in the superiority of northern races unite in the person of Sir Francis Galton. Galton was Charles Darwin’s first cousin. He traveled the world and wrote about why some humans and animals were more successful than others. Galton’s great idea was that intelligence was inherited. He contributed to eugenics, which was then a very popular philosophy, by advocating that the “feeble-minded” shouldn’t be allowed to breed. Other biologists, sociologists and demographers took this line of thinking and used it to argue that the poor or mentally ill, people on welfare, black and Native women in the USA and elsewhere should be sterilized to prevent their bad blood continuing to mix in with the population. Galton also developed a theory that African people were “two levels” below white Europeans in terms of intelligence and ability. In a study on genius, Galton wrote about the increased incidence of high intellectual achievement in brothers in the same, usually aristocratic, British families. (Women did not enter here; Galton was interested in men’s intelligence.) Critics of Galton claimed that since the brothers came from the same families, they were all of the same socio-economic status, and had similar access to quality of education and social capital—therefore one couldn’t claim that intelligence was genetic. In order to solve this pesky problem of nature versus nurture, Galton hit on a solution: identical twins. Since identical twins grew from the same genetic material, they should provide answers. “[I need] some new method by which it would be possible to weigh in just scales the effects of Nature and Nurture,” wrote Galton, “and to ascertain their respective shares in framing the disposition and intellectual ability of men. The life history of twins supplies what I wanted.”[iii] Galton sent 600 inquiries to people he knew to be twins. Thus, twin studies were born. His results were inconclusive. But ever since, biologists interested in solving the puzzle of nature and nurture have looked to twins to provide the answers.

In this age of the medicalization of life, social ideas about multiple births have changed dramatically. Since 1978, twin births have increased by over 50% in the USA. The increase is attributable to technological developments in assisted reproductive technologies. In IVF it is common for multiple fertilized embryos to be implanted in the uterus in a single cycle, increasing the chance of a viable pregnancy—but simultaneously increasing the likelihood of multiple embryos being born. Twins are no longer viewed as a happy accident of nature, blessing their parents with cuteness. They are seen as a risk of using fertility technology. But twins have always been seen as a little freakish, a little special: similar to the freakishness of the genius or of the elite athlete. Genius and elite athleticism are regarded as things that can be generated or regenerated through the proper biocapitalist rituals: investing in “good genes” by marrying someone rich, intelligent, beautiful, and sane. (God forbid that we should reproduce with people who are poor, “ugly”, mad or disabled: although these words carry with them the weight of pathologization in way that makes me hesitant to repeat them.) Just as these contemporary ideas throw us back to (historically recent) ideas about the dangers of racialized or social miscegenation, twenty-first century ideas about twinship throw us into a boiling pot of ideas about the importance of sameness. At the intersection of nature and culture, twinship straddles an unstable line between the rarity that signifies specialness or goodness, and the rarity that is considered to be pathological or weird.

We are not the same

The etymology of the word “identical” is the Latin word idem, meaning the same. From idem we also get identitas, or identity. This points us to a paradox. What we understand as identity not only indexes what sets us apart from others as individuals, but also what binds us to other people—the ways in which we can be classed or identified as the same as others. Sex (or gender) is crucial to this capacity for being identified. This is particularly so in our Euro-American culture, where scientific knowledge would divide us all into male and female, taking these two categories to be hard-wired predictors of how we will move, dress, fuck, speak, emote and desire.

The stakes of this process of questioning are immediate. How might the process of viewing change if you knew that one of the Ramstad twins identifies as transgendered? This is why it is so important for twins in which one is intersexed to be renamed “semi-identical”, no matter what sex the intersexed child is assigned or what they might identify as later on in adulthood. In order to retain the ontological coherence of the concept of identitas, science must retain the same-sex rule in the meaning of “identical”.

But what this means is not all that different to anyone else: the truth is, we all invent histories for ourselves. And these histories may be deeply felt and have deep implications for who we are now. The idea of identicality that permeates theories of twinship comes into focus here as something that also organizes our capacity to tell our stories, move through the world. This is what we are playing with in Symptom. Somewhere, Otto and Emmett are rhizozygotic twins separated at birth. Some other where, they are not the same. Which story is true? Does it matter?

[i] Robert S. Siegler, Judy S. DeLoache and Nancy Eisenberg, How Children Develop (London: Macmillan, 1998), 98.

[ii] Constance Holden, “Identical twins reared apart,” Science 207 (1980), 1324; quoted in How Children Develop, p. 98.

[iii] Francis Galton, Inquiries into human faculty and its development (London: Macmillan, 1883), 217.

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