Are Twin Studies the Closest We Get to Doing Animal Experiments On Humans?

Otmar von Verschuer in his laboratory for twin research at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut for Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics in Berlin, 1928 A version of this paper will be given at Reading Animals, The University of Sheffield, 17–20 July, 2014.

Betteridige’s Law states that every newspaper headline that is presented in the form of a rhetorical question is to be answered with a ‘no’: “Is Michael Jackson living on a desert island with rappers Tupac and Biggie?” No. “Does eating meat 5-times a day create immunity to cancer?” No. “Does the proposition of a newspaper headline when formed through a rhetorical question always constitute a false preposition?” Obviously this doesn’t bear too much thinking about, but the question: do twin studies – that is, using human twins in research into problems posed in epidemiology, molecular genetics, and behaviour genetics – constitute “the closest we get to doing animal experiments on humans” is a question without an obvious response.  Jokingly, one geneticist thinks that twin studies are indeed “the closest we can get to doing animal experiments on humans.”[1]. The question of doing experiments on human animals is, for me, a matter of animacy – a matter of life and death, matter in life and death. Since my research concerns experiments on humans and I participate in research with humans (mostly epigenetic research, but also cognitive neuroscientific imaging studies, epidemiological studies, and others). I am, as they say, entangled within this statement; ‘entangled’ in the sense that Felicity Callard and Des Fitzgerald have recently described as those “temporary, local assemblages of motivation, interest, people and machinery.” These ‘entanglements’ make it possible “to momentarily think something exterior to the ‘disciplinary’ orthodoxies of experimental and conceptual practice, and the taken-for-granted dynamics of power that underwrite much of their relationship.”[2] Being entangled in this way means that I cannot ‘claim to know where others believe’ to favour the refrain of activist and politically conservative collectives, to condemn someone for not doing something or other. Instead, being entangled means that I am not going to offer you a satisfying response to the question . I want to understand what might be common to experiments on humans and non-humans, to reveal their entanglement, and speculate as to what alternatives might be available to us.

Humans are experimented upon, cut up, observed, named, stitched back together, engineered and synthesised. As well as this situation always, somehow, calling into question what ‘the human’ might mean, the peculiarly animate relations with things assumed to be ‘outside’ the domain of ‘humanity’, brings the animal and the twin to entwine in their co-dependent relation with the experimental. More on that in a bit. For those that don’t know, Mel Chen has brilliantly documented this and allied problems in her award-winning book, Animacies, published by Duke University Press in 2012. This blog post operates as a kind of extended commentary on Mel’s provocations, and I acknowledge a debt to her for a path she has shown to me. However, when considering the status of experiments on live human subjects, a challenge arises in Mel’s book and in my own research regarding the ethics of defending humans against perceived instrumentalisation, objectification, and misanthropy, in times when the relation between humans and non-humans is being systematically, though diversely, challenged by actors big and small, live and dead, benign and war-mongering.

Those born together in a single gestation first entered studies of heredity, genetics, and then a wide range of allied fields and subfields, through Galton’s biometric analysis of “nature and nurture”– a phrase first coined in relation to his twin studies of the mid 1870s. Guided by depth biology, with an implied division between inner and outer, interior natures and exterior environments, Galton hoped to discover the mechanisms that allowed twins to “keep[…] time like two watches, hardly to be thrown out of accord except for some physical jar”[3] From Galton we can trace the long process that has scientifically en-thinged twins – recruited them as evidence and material, imagining and treating them as tools in order to animate new theories of life, development, and disease. Over 1.5 million twins and family members now participate in research worldwide, measured for a huge variety of physical and behavioural traits. Chen, whose academic background is in comparative linguistics, argues that “language users use animacy hierarchies [which is to say: the gradations of sentience, lifeliness, meaning, and individuality] to manipulate, affirm, and shift the ontologies that matter the world”.[4] With this in mind, consider the status of twins when researchers like Nancy Segal – a psychologist based in California – refer to her research participants as “a powerful investigatory tool”[5] or as “living laboratories”[6] Twins matter here, but particularly as they serve as efficient, exploratory and contingent, and future-oriented tools. Robert Plomin – a behavioural geneticist based at the Institute of Psychiatry in London – describes his studies of identical twins who differ for a given phenotype as “a sharp scalpel for dissecting non-shared environmental effects from genetic effects.”[7] Twins, then, are ‘technical things’ absorbed into experimental systems and used to bring to light and make matter the epistemic objects that comprise molecular processes, bringing to light complex organic systems, at once synonymous and experimentally distinct from those systems.[8]  I think we broach another question here: What are twin objects when they enter research paradigms as argumentative, demonstrative figures that render them tools, twin-tools, and thus ‘the closest tie’, the most ‘harmonius relation’, even an opportunity to understand the mysteries of so-called ‘person-to-person telepathy’? And here’s the rub – when humans are objectified in this way, with their pre and post-natal lives a proof of meaning, polyvalently attached – are we to respond with outrage and maintain the privileges of our species? So great are the associations between the animal rights and animal experimentation, that when the human takes the place of the place of the animal, an uncomfortable confusion of roles takes place. How we guide ourselves through this confusion is crucial, especially if the molecular substances discovered through twin studies are to be given any ontological reality outside the self-centred hermeneutic loops of European phenomenology, which grounds the animal in the consciousness-dependent otherness of the thing, to understand the thing/the animal through an instrumental for-ness. However, even beyond that tradition, where Husserl, Heidegger, Satre and Merleau-Ponty, are made absent, we can find philosophers like Martha Nussbaum defining the process of objectification through the human’s opposition to and distinction from a ‘thing’. For her, objectification occurs where “one is treating as an object what is really not an object, what is, in fact, a human being.”[9] Twins, however, are not only treated as or “blended” with things – as if ‘things’ should be also understood as separate to the human body – but twins, especially when they are used in the kind of scientific research I am thinking of are fundamentally interanimating; experimental bodies understood as a complex assemblage of cell lines, gene expression levels, methylation sites, and microbial communities, to name just a few kinds of ‘matter’ that twin research has tried to articulate. Notwithstanding this thingliness – twins remain human twins, realised in and through and perhaps despite their things that are explored through them.

It’s for this reason that I find Mel Chen’s animacy scale, or cline, both incredibly useful but also rather too linear for my purposes, her discursive approach narrows the range of practices that I take to doubly en-thing twins – practices that not only render them technical objects in contemporary genomic research – beings that are corporeally and ideationally measured, sampled, computed, and ‘shared’ as part of a globally-configured experimental apparatus – but also providing the evidence for what Nikolas Rose has characterized as the “molecularization of vitality”; which, with and among other things, decomposes, anatomizes, manipulates, amplifies, and reproduces “tissues, proteins, molecules, and drugs […] to be regarded, in many respects, as manipulable and transferable elements or units, which can delocalized – moved from place to place, from organism to organism, from disease to disease, from person to person.”[10] Here the role of animacy forces a set of ethical, epistemological, and ontological decisions that, for me, makes a critical medical humanities approach to twins necessary and possible – should twins be defended against instrumentality, safeguarding an autonomous, lively, unique, unbreakable and free ‘human’? Or, can we break with the scales of anthropocentric privilege since, doing so, pursues the more difficult and critical – ‘critical’, as in ‘urgent’ or ‘decisive’ – and certainly more risky task of understanding how and why twins come to matter in different ways and at different times? Indeed, a productive line of inquiry, it seems to me, would be to look at how the history of the concept of “animal models” relates to the modelling practices that involve twins. Doing so might allow us to ask the following kind of questions – How are the technical as well as the rhetorical dimensions of research extrapolation handled with different bodies? How exactly are human-nonhuman animacies mobilised across supposedly different research practices, and to what end? In what sense does one form of modelling beget and “model” the other form, adding layers of complexity already at work but made intangible or invisible through the pomp and ceremony of institutional PR? I suspect that these ‘models’ share rather a lot, grounding animal and human research practices in ontologies of animate matter which shore up violent, experimental, and progressive epistemologies alike.

[1]Quoted in Lucy Jolin, ‘Nature’s Control Group’, In Touch, Spring 2013, p. 22. [2] Des Fitzgerald and Felicity Callard, private correspondence. [3]Galton, ‘The History of Twins as a Criterion of Nature and Nurture’, p. 574 [4]Chen, Animacies, p. 42. [5] Nancy L. Segal, Born Together–Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2012), p. 2, pp. 10–11. [6]Nancy Segal, Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior (New York: Putnam, 1999), p. 1. [7] Robert Plomin, ‘Commentary: Why Are Children in the Same Family So Different? Non-Shared Environment Three Decades Later’,International Journal of Epidemiology 40 (2011), p. 587. [8] For more on the distinction between ‘technical’ and ‘epistemic’ thing taken from Hans–Jorg Rheinberger, Towards a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube (Stanford: California University Press, 1997), pp. 28–29. [9]Martha Nussbaum, ‘Objectification’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 24. 4 (1995), p.257 [10]Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), p.13, p. 15.


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