Anthropology’s Twins

The animal nature of twins is deeply implicated in the emergence of anthropological theory during the twentieth century. The anomalous statuses attributed to twins, and especially the intermediary capacity to be a hybrid mix of human, spirit, inanimate thing, and animal, have captured the imaginations of (predominately) white, Western sociologists and anthropologists. That twins can be viewed as simultaneously animal and human, for example, has provided some with a powerful explanatory license, especially to those wishing to collate and tabulate various oral, written, material records of custom and belief in order to understand what motivates local practice. The remaining mystery of twins, when analysed across many different communities, has produced a situation in which twins, much like the spirits that are said to possess them, are understood to the visible, manifest content of deeper, more latent structures of cultural meaning and social reproduction. The logic here is that, were it was possible to find a prior cause for the classificatory anomalies that twins are understood to represent, then wider patterns and rationales of social organisation may become clearer.

In the 1930s E. E. Evans-Pritchard reported that, much like the spiritual simian flight of the Yorùbá or the snake-born twins of the Ubangia, the Nuer of South Sudan viewed their twins to be sacred children of God. With striking parallels in terms of birth and marriage rites, the sacred aspect of Nuer twins was expressed to Evans-Pritchard in a way that also drew attention to their animal capacities. In a statement that has now entered as formative statement in the history of cultural anthropology: ‘a twin is not a person, he is a bird’.[1] The ‘correct’ way to interpret such declarations about twins and birds – as a metaphorical speech-act or a literal description of an alternative way of understanding the world or a demonstration of the symbolic, meaning-making structure of a ‘primitive’ mind – came to dominate debates in social anthropology. Keen to develop a more symbolically adept alternative to the functionalist perspective of human rite and ritual, Evans-Pritchard argued that by claiming that ‘a twin is a bird’ the Nuer display a kind of pragmatic or adaptive relativism. Twins, in this view, are malleable objects whose meaning is caught in a dynamic structure of cultural need and interest: ‘an object may be perceived in different ways according to different affective interests.’[2] Thus, Evans-Pritchard explains that the equivalence drawn between twins and birds is not based on a fact of physical or social similarity but on a common access to God and spirit. As he wrote later in his book Nuer Religion, birds are ‘a suitable symbol in which to express the special relationship in which a twin stands to God.’[3] Evans-Pritchard was in disagreement with the ideas of Lucien Lévy–Bruhl, whose theory of ‘primitive mentality’ argued that people such as the Nuer had a pre-conscious capacity for articulating contradictory notions – their ideas about twins should be read as an expression of this underdeveloped, contradictory style of ‘primitive’ cognition. Evans-Pritchard cautioned against naïve literalism and, instead, demanded a deeper understanding of how the mind poetically engages with an environment. The spiritual and animal quality of twinship for the Nuer were not to be taken at face value, but were evidence of a cultural poesies that should be as comprehensible to the outsider as it is intended by their informant: ‘an imaginative level of thought where the mind moves in figures, symbols, metaphors, and analogies, and many an elaboration of poetic fancy and language’.[4] The distinction here between poetry and its hidden meaning, the explanans and the explanandum, is a distinction that wholly supports the role of a mediator, analyst, or interpreter; in short, an anthropologist to bring an event into meaning. In an attempt to characterise both the multiplicity of meanings that entities like twins can elicit, as well as the urge to provide anthropological readings of such entities, Wendy James has argued that, ‘Actions, however plain, tend to carry something of the ambivalent about them, to refer implicitly to other actions and actors off-stage, and thus to resist reduction to plain singular meaning.’[5] Anthropological practitioners such as James, in this guise, can acknowledge their partiality and their descriptive compulsion as part of a common metaphysical problem. Twins are not unique and alone in demanding the expert intervention of anthropologists to be made meaningful, but their presence – whether observed, reported, or discussed across anthropological theory more broadly – permits a dichotomy between what they are taken to be and the many different things they could signify.

Developing his commentary on Evans-Pritchard’s work, Claude Lévi–Strauss argued that the cause of what he termed ‘totemism’ – of which a comparison between human groups and animals may be taken as an example – should shift both from subjective utility to objective analogy but also from ‘external analogy to internal homology.’[6] In other words, from self-interested individualism to the universal and objective condition which causes humans to compare themselves to animals. With an analytic trajectory set towards causal objectivity, Lévi-Strauss argues that the meaning the Nuer ascribe to twins and birds reflects ‘a series of logical connections uniting mental relations.’[7] On a hierarchy of relations, twins are elevated above other humans in a way that birds are to other animals. Therefore, what is being expressed by the expression ‘a twin is not a person, he is a bird’ is a simple form of relational thinking. A geographically and culturally isolated belief is raised to the level of universal significance: ‘this kind of inference is applicable not only to the particular relationship which the Nuer establish between twins and birds […] but to every relationship postulated between human groups and animal species.’[8] It is within this context – in a discussion regarding the quasi-animalilty of twins – that Lévi–Strauss declared his now famous bon mot: ‘natural species are not chosen because they are “good to eat” but because they are “good to think [with]’’’.[9] Widely quoted and influential this statement encapsulates a way of seeing and interpreting the cultural beliefs of others by recognising how material objects, animals, and other totems do not exist to serve straightforward utilitarian purposes. Rather, these are things by which the world comes to be identified and understood, objects of thought whose symbolic substance reflects the ways in which humans construct and assign meaning. What is especially complex about this statement is that the equivalence made between animals and twins, in whatever context, is understood as an instrument for modelling social relations while, of course, being a social relation in their own right. Their lack of unitary exclusivity, as mobile and symbolic intermediaries, makes twins thinking, feeling things who do work for both the subjects of study (e.g. the Nuer) and the anthropologist who seeks to refine a descriptive expertise or, as Lévi-Strauss does, uses them to provide the evidence for a foundational and universally observed form of human cognition. It must be emphasised, therefore, that twins in these anthropological texts are objects with which to establish, test and debate the nature of ‘anthropological authority’.

The macro-level clarity that twins might bring to some research projects can be grounded in local-level ambiguities. As structuralist anthropology competed with symbolist approaches, and where theories that prioritised higher-order unity over the contradictory, messy or contingent, twins were again the favoured objects of discussion. Victor Turner’s study of Ndembu twins in Zambia developed the concept of ‘hybridity’ in anthropological thought, providing a means to account for the diverse response to twin births and higher order multiples in African societies. Misty Bastian claims Turner’s study ‘helped to frame most anthropological debates about multiple birth’, especially for those who seek to foreground tension, conflict, and discomfort as an explanation for ritual process as well as tacit evidence for social development.[10] It is telling that Turner’s analysis is one that keenly focuses upon category distinctions and their transgression – defining cultural hybridity according to how twin births cause members of Ndembu society ‘classificatory embarrassment’.[11] The birth of twins is simultaneously ‘a blessing and a misfortune’ because in terms of kinship, corporate relations, and social status, twins do not fit into single-born norms, such as the norm of bearing one child at a time or the conformity to birth orders used as a primary means to share out resources. Hence, Turner argues that the hybridity of twinship is expressed in these socially–embedded terms: ‘what is physically double is structurally single and what is mystically one is empirically two.’[12] Such a formulation works to locate hybrid identities both internal to the twin relation and against exterior cultural organisations and practices. On account of being so riddled with yet further paradox, Turner argues that twins gain their explanatory capacity:

In many societies, twins have this mediating function between animality and deity: They are at once more than human and less than human. Almost everywhere in tribal society they are hard to fit into the ideal model of the social structure, but one of the paradoxes of twinship is that it sometimes becomes associated with rituals that exhibit the fundamental principles of that structure; twinship takes on a contrastive character analogous to the relationship between figure and ground in Gestalt psychology.[13]

To the trained observer, twins are an enlightening paradox – an aporia that illuminates and provides a measuring stick for social order and ritual necessity. The ritual treatment of twins is, therefore, an expression of collective desire to restore an ideal order. Though they are disruptive and liminal figures, attempts to incorporate and manage difficulties associated with twins helps to clarify ideals that are otherwise hidden.

Turner’s analysis has been hugely influential and his ethnographic successors have reflected upon the difficulties attached to the ‘plural and contested identities’[14] of twinship. In analyses such as these twins remain stranger outsiders. Whatever magic, mysteries, or malevolence might be attached to them their identities are framed in such a way that compounds this difference by adding a responsibility of anthropological power. So Susan Diduk, writing of the Kedjom of Cameroon, places the telling capacity of twins in the hands of twins themselves: ‘By doubling personhood, by appearing to be so extraordinary, twins allow exploring the ordinary qualities of the person in Kedjom and Grassfields society. They help to construct a language of difference that ironically is contingent upon and reveals the mundane.’[15] Twins ‘allow’ and ‘help’ to elicit the broader nature of what it means to be a ‘person’ among the Kedjom. This is, I think, more than a rhetorical formulation but subtle proof that twins are used as evidence of a society trying to organise itself, to affect distinctions between the extraordinary and the quotidian. She writes how twins ‘illustrate something central to Kedjom and Grassfields conceptions of childhood. Beliefs about twins reflect and reproduce the cultural emphasis on inequality at the same time that they are also treated as profoundly equal.’[16] Helping, allowing, illustrating – twins are both active and inactive in these verbs. In a quite a simple sense, twins do all these things by doing nothing at all. They are neither asked for their assistance, nor are they allowed to object to the inferences made in their name. Whether or not recuperation into a norm is possible or even desirable, anthropological theory has sought to safeguard twins as a tool of cultural analysis because they are circumstantial and pre-existing, beyond the manipulation of the dispassionate observer. As a consequence, it is important to observe how ‘classificatory embarrassment’ felt by the communities discussed is in sharp contrast to confident descriptions of that ambiguity. ‘Twins are never children, never adults,’ writes Walter E. A. van Beek in connection to the twins of the Kapsiki/Higi of North Cameroon and Northeastern Nigeria, ‘but forever liminals: they are born initiates, they remain so during their whole lives, forever in-between, powerful but fragile, a dangerous blessing.’[17] Used to bring clarity to societies, twins become ‘equipmental figures’ in anthropological accounts such as these – their patterns of kinship and religious practice, brought to light through the ambivalence surrounding their status as humans. They are, as van Beek calls refers to them elsewhere but without the same sense of classificatory mystery, ‘monitoring instruments’; a means for anthropologists to get a better view of the shifting and competing political, gendered and generational tensions which have so influenced the course of the social sciences in recent decades.[18]

[1] E. E. Evans-Pritchard, ‘Customs and Beliefs Relating to Twins Among the Nilotic Nuer’, The Uganda Journal (1936), p.236.

[2] E. E. Evans-Pritchard, ‘Lévy–Bruhl’s Theory of Primitive Mentality’, Bulletin of the Faculty of Arts, Cairo University, II (1934), p.32.

[3] E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Nuer Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), p.132

[4] Evans-Pritchard, Nuer Religion, p.142.

[5] Wendy James, The Ceremonial Animal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p.7.

[6] Claude Lévi–Strauss, Totemism, trans. Rodney Needham (London: Merlin Press, 1964), p. 78. Italics removed.

[7] Lévi–Strauss, Totemism, p.80.

[8] Lévi–Strauss, Totemism, p.81.

[9] Lévi–Strauss, Totemism, p. 89. ‘With’ is added because the adjectival plural of the French expression bonnes à penser is difficult to translate and ‘good to think’ grammatically incorrect. See Edmund Leach, Claude Levi-Strauss (New York: Viking, 1970), p.31.

[10] Misty L. Bastian, ‘‘The Demon Superstition’: Abominable Twins and Mission Culture in Onitsha History’, Ethnology 40.1 (2001), p.14.

[11] Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago, IL: Chicago UP, 1969), p.45.

[12] Turner, The Ritual Process, p.45.

[13] Turner, The Ritual Process, p.47.

[14] Susan Diduk, ‘Twinship and Juvenile Power: The Ordinariness of the Extraordinary’, Ethnology 40.1 (2001), p.42.

[15] Diduk, ‘Twinship and Juvenile Power’, p.30.

[16] Diduk, p.34. Italics removed.

[17] Walter E. A. van Beek, ‘Forever Liminal: Twins Among the Kapiski/Higi of North Cameroon and Northeastern Nigeria’, in Twins in African and Diaspora Cultures: Double Trouble, Twice Blessed, ed. Philip M. Peek (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011), p. 180.

[18] Walter E. A. van Beek and Thomas Blakely, ‘The Innocent Sorcerer: Coping with Evil in Two African Societies, Kapiski and Dogon’, in African Religion: Experience and Expression, eds. Thomas Blakely, Walter E. A. van Beek, and Dennis L. Thomson (Oxford: James Currey, 1994), pp.196–228. See also Stephen Van Wolputte, ‘Twins and Intertwinement: Reflections on Ambiguity and Ambivalence in Northwestern Namibia’, in Twins in African and Diaspora Cultures, p.66.

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.