‘Curious Twins’ – Critical Quarterly, Volume 56, Issue 2, pp. 47–58

My paper, in a special issue of the journal Critical Quarterly, is now available (£) online. The essay came about through my doctoral research with Steven Connor, who left The London Consortium for Cambridge in 2012. Thanks to Joe Brooker for convening the event and editing the resulting collection, Weather Reports.

Abstract The meaning and significance of human twins is shaped by a wide range of disciplinary perspectives, many of which employ twins to test a variety of hypotheses about who or what we are. Whether twins are viewed as physical anomalies, religious miracles, or scientific marvels, criteria can be identified according to which they are separated from those born alone. This article attends to the ways in which twins are differentiated and shows how they have been used as living evidence or proof that supports sociological, religious, and scientific practice. By collating examples taken from the humanities, the social and biomedical sciences – with particular attention paid to works of social anthropology and molecular biology – William Viney seeks to articulate both the differing scales by which twins become distinct objects of research and how this sense of scale affects the extent to which they are understood as active, formative agents in those research endeavours, used to substantiate, clarify and inform. The wider aim of this article is to understand the dynamic means by which twins are drawn into and sustain explanatory narratives that extend far beyond the twin relation, taken to be generative objects in the formation of new knowledge. By tracing the exceptional cultural life of twins across different fields of inquiry we can better understand the utility of sustaining particular, exclusive human groups, both as an experimental means and as the evidential ends of research practice.

Twin intimacies

This is a version of a short paper I gave at ‘Making a Scene: Networks of Intimacy’, at The Institute for Psychoanalysis, London. Friday 19th July, 2013. Thanks go to Jennifer Cooke for organising such an interesting symposium and for allowing me to present my work.

Twins are interesting to me because, among other things, they suggest a way of thinking about intimacy’s spectrum. From an inseparable physical bond (I’m thinking of conjoined twins here but not exclusively), to the spatial and temporal dynamics of parallel, interuterine gestation followed by birth, two by two, and subsequent dialogic development. We can extend these intimacies of birth and infancy to wider fantasies about being separated from a lost twin, perhaps adopted at birth and later reunited in adulthood, meeting for the first time wearing the same clothes, liking the same music, smoking the same brand of cigarettes.

When reading academic literature about twins it’s really quite difficult to avoid statements like these, which draw heavily on the observed and assumed intimacy between twins. So, Dorothy Burlingham, the psychoanalyst and long-time partner of Anna Freud, claimed that twins represent the “closest tie between two individuals”[1] Her analytic studies led her to believe that twins enjoyed or suffered through an intimacy in their co-development, dependencies and emotional rapport. It is interesting to see how Nancy Segal broadly agrees with the claim that twins are uniquely close, but for rather more political and genetic reasons. The similar genetic make up of monozygotic twins means that they “come closer than anyone else to achieving the coordinated, harmonious relations for which we all strive”[2] Segal, herself a dizygotic twin, argues that monozygotic twins form a genetic bond that is unrivaled; a model or ideal of collective co-operation that the rest seek to emulate. Rupert Sheldrake, the biologist and researcher into morphic resonance, believes that, because twin’s relationships are lifelong, they “provide some of the best opportunities for studying person-to-person telepathy.”[3] We have, then, a third form of intimacy which depends on the popular idea that twins have a parapsychological connection, an intimacy of cognition.

Mallifert Twins
The Mallifert Twins (1981) by Charles Addams. Steven Pinker was so convinced by the genetic determination of complex behaviours, evidenced by studies like Thomas Bouchard’s Minnesota study (MISTRA), that he argued that the cartoon represents only “a slight exaggeration of the empirical state of affairs.” See The Blank Slate, 2003.

Of course, there are many ways to be a twin; not all are “bonded with the twin glue”.[4] Any conversation about twins must reckon with this presumed proximity, on various psychological, genetic or cognitive grounds, and to take on twins is to in some sense to enter a rather maddening chain of ideas which swirl around twins and their bodies, frequently taken to act as anchors, guarantors or forms of living proof for one thought or another. Our ideas about twins and twinship, I’d like to argue, are therefore in a state of perpetual dialogue with a set of substitutes – ‘proximity’, ‘similitude’, ‘likeness’, ‘closeness’, ‘exclusivity’ – let us call them what they are, relatives beset by terms of relativity, a kind of currency in an economy of ideas about what we are or could be. Twins are useful, then, for their supposed intimacy – emotional, corporeal, real or imagined. They are a useful resource.

I want to give some examples, not to confirm that twins are indeed great intimates and companions, much less the “closest tie between two individuals”, but to show how this twin attachment has been put to work for a set of wider arguments that extend well beyond the twin relation. These will be sporadic episodes and my conclusions will focus not on their explicit connection but what is assumed to be existent in the twin relationship, that is, a closeness that is both unusually intimate and has a rhetorical power that is readily drawn upon.

1. There are plenty of twins in Greek and Indo-European myth – Artemis and Apollo, Heracles and Iphicles, Castor and Polydeuces (the Heavenly Twins, the Dioscuri). But I pick two early Christian examples because they are rarely commented upon. In second and third centuries AD the Gospel of Thomas was in circulation in Syria and nearby territories. The Gospel suggests a version of religious salvation, knowing and communion that had believers literally attaining the likeness of Christ and Christ taking the likeness of his followers. So Thomas, known as ‘Didymus’, which means ‘twin’ in Aramaic and Greek, appears as Christ’s substitute. In Thomas’s 11th saying, Christ visits some newlyweds who had just seen Thomas. “And he [the groom] saw the Lord Jesus in the likeness of the apostle Judas Thomas, who shortly before had blessed them and departed from them.” When asked what Thomas is doing in their wedding chamber, the groom is given this reply: “I am not Judas who is also Thomas, I am his brother.”[5] Elsewhere in the Gospel we read of a fascinating passage, where Jesus promises twinly metamorphosis: ‘He who will drink from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.’”

Painting found in Scotland, 2012. Thought to be by Leonardo da Vinci.
Painting found in Scotland, 2012. Thought to be by Leonardo da Vinci.

Concurrent to the Syrian deification of twinship were monastic traditions operating in what is now Egypt and Libya that also stressed holy guidance and strength through a benevolent twin. When Anthony the Great (ca. 251–356) wanders in the desert, his salvation is said to have been secured by seeing an exteriorised version of himself:

He said to God, “Lord, I want to be saved but these thoughts do not leave me alone; what shall I do in my affliction? How can I be saved?” A short while afterwards, when he got up to go out, Anthony saw a man like himself sitting at his work, getting up from his work to pray, then sitting down and plaiting a rope, then getting up again to pray. It was an angel of the Lord sent to correct and reassure him. He heard the angel saying to him, “Do this and you will be saved.” At these words, Anthony was filled with joy and courage. He did this, and he was saved.[6]

Twins are used to institute what Peter Sloterdijk has identified as the beginnings of “intimate religiosity”, a relationship between the interior space of the soul and a third-person perspective on oneself, an alternative or model. Sloterdijk claims that this sacred twinliness generates an internal closeness, a colonising style of thought within religious practice.[7]

2. Shakespeare’s plays contain multiple twins and Twelfth Night has one set, Viola and Sebastian. On seeing them together at the play’s finale, Antonio asks them both: “How have you made division of yourself? / An apple, cleft in two, is not more twin / Than these two creatures.” (5.1.215–217). Invoking a naturalised, original whole, an androgynously neoplatonic idea of human origins, Shakespeare has Antonio contemplate what Carolyn Heiburn called “an original unit which has split, a unit destined to be reunited by sexual love, the symbol of human conjoining”.[8] Aristophanes, in Plato’s The Symposium, argues that until Zeus “cut men in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling” they were a single form “round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and the same number of feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike”.[9] There is a flirtation with ironic incest in this use of Platonic speculation, since Viola, dressed as Cesario, is positioned as the potential lover of her brother. And yet it also offers a deep, causal history for why the twins yearn for one another’s company. Shakespeare’s twins are therefore a means to a dramatic end, used to discuss points of human origin, similitude and sexual desire; to account, in other words, for human difference, resemblance and attraction.

Otmar von Verschuer in his laboratory for twin research at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut for Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics in Berlin, 1928. Complicit in Mengele's experiments in Auschwitz, it was von Verschuer frequently acknowledged Galton's influence, delivering a lecture at the Royal Society in June 1939 entitled, 'Twin Research from the Time of Francis Galton to the Present-Day’.
Otmar von Verschuer in his laboratory for twin research at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut for Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics in Berlin, 1928. Complicit in Joseph Mengele’s experiments in Auschwitz,  von Verschuer frequently acknowledged his intellectual debt to Galton, delivering a lecture at the Royal Society on 8th June 1939 entitled, ‘Twin Research from the Time of Francis Galton to the Present-Day’.

3. My final example of twin utility constitutes one of the most significant applications of twinship in recent times. Since Francis Galton claimed 130 years ago that some twins “are continually alike, the clocks of their two lives move regularly on at the same rate, governed by their internal mechanism”[10], the progress of human genetics has been bound to twins.[11] Geneticists have idealised them, loading them with promise and importance. They are, in the words of sociologist of science might call a “communities of promise”, filtered through the future-orientation of the biomedical sciences.[12] As I have mentioned elsewhere on this site, data from 1.5m twins is now stored in roughly 140 registries, or biobanks, worldwide.[13] The twin method that much of this research uses is relatively simple but highly contested. If you isolate one trait, eye colour for example, and compare genetically identical twins with non-identical twins, who are no more genetically alike than other siblings, then the statistical variance between the two groups for this trait is going to be caused by what divides them – genetics. This is because twin research uses the shared environment to control many variables that might otherwise confuse the comparison. What holds this method together is, therefore, an assumed lifelong intimacy – identical and non-identical twins share equal environments, equally. If twins share their environment absolutely, then the twin method is a model that projects an ideal environment, a kind of generalised intimacy, for all twins alike.

What I wish to stress is that the presumed intimacy of twins and its long history – whether in gnostic religion, early modern Platonic metaphysics or contemporary molecular genetics – has been and will continue to be profoundly useful to those looking for living proof for their ideas and beliefs. The intimacy of twins, therefore, may suggest a deep sense of interiority, intimus, but, if it does so, then it also reveals a version of the world, or habitus, that permits this kind of intimacy to flourish.


[1] Dorothy Burlingham, “The Fantasy of Having a Twin”, Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 1 (1945): 205–210.

[2] Nancy Segal, Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior (New York: Putnam, 1999), 101.

[3] Rupert Sheldrake, “Foreword”, in Guy Lyon Playfair, Twin Telepathy: The Psychic Connection (London: Vega, 2002), p.8.

[4] The expression is from Pamela and Carolyn Spiro’s Divided Minds (New York: Griffin, 2006), a book that describes the twin’s starkly divergent mental health experiences.

[5] Acts of Thomas 11.

[6] Apophetegmata Patrum Aegyptiorum, or The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1975), pp. 1f.

[7] Peter Sloterdijk, Bubbles: Spheres Volume I: Microspherology, trans. by Wieland Hoban (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011), p. 463.

[8] Carolyn Heilbrun, Toward a Recognition of Androgyny (1964; New York, Norton, 1993), 34–35.

[9] Plato, Collected Works of Plato, 4th ed, trans Benjamin Jowett (Oxford: OUP, 1953), p.520.

[10] Francis Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty, ed. Gavan Tredoux (1883; Everyman, 2001), p. 169.

[11] For a succinct and thorough account of twins in research, see Thomas Teo and Laura C Ball, “Twin research, Revisionism and Metahistory” History of Human Science 5 (2009): 1–23. See also David Burbridge, “Francis Galton on Twins, Heredity and Social Class” The British Journal for the History of Science 34, (2001): pp. 323–340.

[12] See Nick Brown and Mike Michael, “A Sociology of Expectations: Retrospecting Prospects and Prospecting Retrospects”, Technology Analysis & Strategic Management 15 (2003): 3–18.