“What makes you a twin?”

Since moving into this field called ‘medical humanities’ I have been challenged to consider some very intimidating questions: what is the relationship between biological knowledge as opposed to other kinds of knowledge and ways of understanding?; how and why has the ‘biologicalisation of identity‘, the process of rendering something biological that was previously understood to be free of biological influence, become so prevalent in contemporary British society?; when those who do not have scientific training use the name of science to support their claims, what kind of authority and what community of thinkers is being appropriated? These are questions that seem at turns philosophical, sociological, historical and political, and I air them here while mindful of the debates  that simmered throughout the 20th century, staged between the ‘two cultures‘, intensified during the 1980s to the point that it was likened to warfare, and now returning to the fore, thanks in part to the emergence, in the 21st century, of disciplinary hybrids like the medical humanities, critical neuroscience and digital humanities.

This is a new area of thinking for me and I tread with a great sense of trepidation, knowing that previous debates have been robbed of their productivity thanks to the ease and pace by which antagonists accuse one other of ignorance, misconception and political wrongdoing. When I have not been planning events on behalf of the Hearing the Voice project, due in Autumn this year, I’ve been reading Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s incredible Objectivity and Isabelle Stengers’s The Invention of Modern Science, both books interrogate the formation of autonomous scientific knowledge as a distinct territory, operating with rules of its own, and thus these writers interrogate the extent that ‘scientific facts’ are separable from other forms of human practice and understanding. Listening in on Ian Hacking’s recent lecture at the University of Leeds has also had me thinking about the epistemological feedback loop between those that categorise and those that reproduce those categories.

Why is all this important to the study of twins? On Saturday 8th June 2013 I will attend the 21st anniversary of the start of TwinUK, a registry of over 12,000 twin volunteers whose participation supports the genetic and epidemiological research based at St. Thomas Hospital, King’s College London. And I’m going to have the chance to ask some of the twins that participate in this research programme a simple question: “what makes you a twin?” I want to know how twins, especially twins who volunteer in contemporary genetics, have absorbed scientific explanations of twinning and twin behaviour. “Where do twins come from?” is another way of questioning how locating the beginnings of twins affect our changing conceptions of twinship.

All this is so relevant to the conversations I have with people about my research. From pubchat to academic conference, I often hear the phrase  ‘nature and nurture’ at some point during a conversation about twinning, often accompanied with a variation on the mono- and dizygotic, fraternal and identical distinction: “are you only interested in identical twins?”  But if I ask twins, “what makes you a twin?”, I may also hear another, related side to the idea of twinning – ideas about intimacy, competition, rarity, identicality, difference, closeness, friendship – which are variously connected with biological conceptions of the human body or isolated as ‘cultural’ or ‘social’ phenomena distinct from the casual effects of our biology. To what extent is a molecular understanding of life in competition with or complementary to this bundle of twin-making attributes or behaviours? Are people, twins and others, resistant to the idea that their twinship is reducible to a set of scientific principles and, if so, why? Furthermore, has the effort to communicate the complexity of twin research, in popular works written by research scientists such as those authored by Nancy Segal and Tim Spector, combined with the work of centres like the Department of Twin Research & Genetic Epidemiology which tries to educate twins whilst using them in research methodologies, excited an enriched understanding of experimental biology? I hope the opportunity to ask twins “what makes you a twin?” will give some place from which to answer these broader cultural and theoretical questions.


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