Double Dilemma: Why Estranged Twins Still Live Strikingly Similar Lives
Jim Lewis and Jim Springer were twins separated shortly after birth and adopted by different families. When they reunited 39 years later, they were surprised to discover some odd similarities and coincidences — to say the least, they were both named Jim, they both had a dog called Toy, their wives’ and sons’ names were identical, and they liked the same beer and cigarettes. How does it happen that, even estranged, twins live identical lives?
Behavioural scientists have long been mired in the nature versus nurture debate. They’ve been struggling to figure out whether the significant factor in forming a human personality is genetic or environmental. Today the “nurture predominance” seems to be more popular as it is in sync with the democratic ideals and the concept of the “self-made” man. John Watson, the founder of behaviourism, would say that if he was given a dozen healthy babies, he could raise them into virtually any kind of person.
However, recently such an approach was challenged by an increasing number of studies on twins separated at birth. Scientists see such twins as a perfect “research field” concerning the nature/nurture debate as they have identical DNA, but their family and social experiences differ.
No cheating on genes
Jim Lewis and Jim Springer were identical twins separated at the age of four weeks and put for adoption. The adoptive families happened to give both boys the same first name — James, and both were nicknamed Jim. When the twins were reunited in 1979 in their late thirties they discovered a bunch of other odd similarities. Both Jims weighed 180 pounds and were six feet tall. In their childhood they both had dogs named Toy, liked math and weren’t good at linguistics.
They gave their sons the names of James Alan and James Allan. They even went to the same beach in Florida for a family holiday. Their career paths were quite similar and were both in security — one was a bodyguard and the other — a deputy sheriff. Both Jims suffered from severe headaches, preferred Salem cigarettes and Miller Lite beer. Different hairstyles were probably the only thing that could help distinguish between them.
At the time reuniting identical twins was still a rare happening. Thus, when Professor Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr. from the University of Minnesota read a newspaper story about the Jims, his eyes lit up. The University of Minnesota was known for its studies in behavioural genetics, and Prof. Bouchard has spent years trying to figure out the relationship between nature and nurture. “It was just sheer scientific curiosity,” Bouchard says. “I thought we were going to do a single study of a set of twins reared apart. We might have a little monograph.”
The day the tests were to begin, Bouchard took the twins to breakfast. He was going to tell them what the study will look like, but the breakfast didn’t get that far. From the very first moment Thomas met the Jims, he felt obsessed with every little thing about them — up to the way they bite their nails. The similarity of their posture and habits took his breath away. “You are staring at us,” one of the Jims told him. The professor had to apologise but remained staggered:
After this first meeting, the Jims underwent numerous personality and medical examinations, including cardiograms, X-rays, and blood tests. Bouchard’s team was eager to learn everything they could about the twins in one weekend. They were tested for allergies and shared their fingerprints. They even filled a sexual history questionnaire that was so detailed that some of the twins that participated in followed-up studies refused to do it. By Sunday evening researchers knew the books the twins liked to read and the TV shows they preferred, what they ate for breakfast and how much decay there was in their teeth, their pulse and their fears, their blood pressure after physical exercise and talents.
The Jims case paved the way for further study — tens of other separated twins would arrive in Minnesota in the years to come. Among other “test subjects” at the Bouchard lab were Daphne Goodship and Barbara Herbert, who had been also adopted as babies and met thirty-nine years later. The women had different backgrounds — while Barbara had been adopted by a modest family, Daphne was raised as a middle-class woman. Nonetheless, when the girls met at King’s Cross Station in London, they were both wearing a beige dress and a brown velvet jacket.
So different, but so alike
Bouchard’s research has proved that even the irreconcilable can be reconciled when it comes to identical twins. Jack Yufe and Oskar Stöhr were born in Trinidad in 1933 and were uncoupled some months later by a bitter divorce. Jack was raised in Trinidad by his father, a Jewish merchant in Port of Spain, and Oskar found himself in the all-female household of their German maternal grandmother. While Oscar was dreaming of becoming a Hitler Youth member, Jack was working in Israel and exploring his Jewish identity. In 1954 Jack was on his way to the USA and decided to stop in Germany to see his twin brother. Though the reunion was chilly, twenty-five years later they met in Minnesota. Together with Jack, Thomas Bouchard welcomed Oskar at Minneapolis airport.
Bouchard says. “They have a kind of swagger to their bodies.” They wore similar glasses, a short moustache and a blue two-pocket shirt. Despite illustratively different backgrounds, Jack and Oskar shared plenty of odd habits, such as reading magazines from back to front and flushing the toilet before use. Of course, many of their views and preferences differed dramatically, but the very core — temperaments and mannerisms were much more alike than different.
Those studies have shown the nurture plays a far less prominent role than we thought and have left many behavioural scientists puzzled.
“We never said [family environment] didn’t matter,” said Nancy L. Segal, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Twin Study Center at the University of California, Fullerton. “We just made the point that the environment works in ways we hadn’t expected.” Segal was one of the researchers that dug deeper into the issue decades after the first separated twin research was initiated.
Another study, published in Live Sciences journal, found genetics accounted for 70 percent of IQ variation among twins, whereas only 30 percent were due to family environment differences. A 2005 paper by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Kennon M. Sheldon pointed out that happiness was 50% dependent on genetics.
Despite the fact that such studies shed more light on the issue, nature-nurture debate persists. Today we are observing a rapid development of genetic technology — scientists have gone from choosing genetically better embryos before in vitro fertilisation (IVF) to pre-birth gene editing aimed at preventing chronic disease. Some scientists even claim we’re a few years away from so-called designer babies and that shortly we might be able to pre-determine the child’s eye colour, IQ and other characteristics before birth. Still, the society, as well as many prominent scientists, remain sceptic with regard to the attempts to cheat on our genetics, as it might bring as many unwelcome surprises as it will good ones.