Book Review – Twins Talk: What Twins Tell Us about Person, Self, and Society, by Dona Lee Davis

This book review was originally commissioned by American Anthropologist and an edited version will appear in the journal soon.

Herself a twin sibling, Dona Lee Davis has interviewed identicalCover (monozygotic) twin pairs to demonstrate the performed and negotiated quality of twin identities in a society largely organized by, and structured for, singleton expressions of self and sibling experience. With chapters organized around broad themes – ‘Twinscapes’, ‘Talk’, ‘Performance’, ‘Body’, ‘Bond’, ‘Culture’, and ‘Twindividuals’ – Davis weaves her own experience of being a twin and of attending conferences such as the International Congress of Twin Studies into material gathered through her interviews with 23 twin pairs at the annual Twins Festival at Twinsburg, OH. She is open about the pleasurable complications of describing herself a ‘native’ (p. 33) alongside her twin informants, claiming a level of access to her subject that those born without a direct experience of the life-long condition of being a twin would struggle to fabricate. Davis’ affective, autoethnographic proximity to her interviewees is at once an engaging and revealing feature of this book. Consequently, her presentation of twinship is entangled in the desire to supplement an outsider’s with an insider’s perspective: to provide a record of twin personhood that has been collaboratively ‘voiced’ into anthropological significance, alongside the analytic desire to bring coherence to and amplify those voices beyond the economically and politically specific time and space of their festival origins.

Despite aiming to ‘normalize twinship’ (p. 7), the gestationally and experientially exclusive position adopted by Davis is one that serves to extend the long and complex history of phenomenological mystery, exoticism, and categorical indistinction attributed to twinship in canonic works of ethnography (Rivers 1906; Evans-Pritchard 1936; Lévi–Strauss 1964; Turner 1969; Peek 2011) and in broader works of sociology and cultural theory (Schwarz 1996; Stewart 2001; Bacon 2010; Viney 2014). The difference is that while these works are largely concerned with how singletons have defined twins, Twins Talk focuses on how twins co-produce ‘self’ and ‘identity’ within and without the twin dyad. Perhaps it is necessary that Davis locates twins at numerous cultural and psychological ‘faultlines’, with the insider-outsider structure of the author’s analytic position made symmetrical with the ambivalently distributed identities that it brings to light. Davis concludes that she and twins are counterhegemonic subjects, able to refuse dominant notions of body or selfhood determined by Western individualism.

Twins Talk seeks to listen to how pairs talk their way through interpersonal relationships; performing the complex ‘self work’ (p. 8–9) of narrativised becoming that are structurally occluded by biomedical research projects. This contrast finds traction through the selective ways that Davis approaches biomedical twin research as a field replete with what she calls ‘blindspots’ (p. 101, p. 170): the failure to speak about twins in terms that recognize an expanded and expansive sense of autonomy and personhood. She is particularly critical of researchers who use the language of the instrumentation or thingliness of twins, to stress the primacy of genes and genetics to twin identities, for example. By taking the controversial and idiosyncratic work of Thomas J. Bouchard and David Teplica as exemplary, Davis suggests a view of contemporary twin research dominated by a crude scientism that ‘exists above and beyond culture’ (p. 173). This largely ignores the rich culture of dissent that has left a 140 year-old tradition of using twins in medical research no more internally consistent or univocal in content than ‘anthropology.’ Though Davis makes passing reference to the novel, postgenomic epistemologies, technologies and methods that have revolutionized twin research in the last 10 years (Bell and Spector 2011; van Dongen et al 2012), a frustratingly one-sided battle emerges between a malevolently blunt genetic determinism on the one hand and Davis’ benevolently sophisticated conception of culture on the other. We are not told why approximately 1.5 million twins should volunteer to be treated as ‘zombies or performing monkeys’ (p. 37) or for the alienation, misrepresentation, and reductiveness that Davis complains are endemic to twin research in the life sciences. It might be telling that these feelings are scarcely registered among her interviewees. More needs to be understood about why twins volunteer for health research, how molecular and molar relations can or cannot come into the public domain, and why twins continue to be used to explore an incredible range of traits, behaviors, and diseases.

There is no doubt that Twins Talk is an invaluable record of a particularly voluble minority of festival-going twins who are willing, eager, and capable of presenting themselves as talking twins, sympathetic to their biographies being raised to anthropological significance. Davis has worked hard to translate the specificity of her talking partners so that their experience may resonate among those voices that have not been recorded in this study. ‘There is one thing twins know how to do,’ she says, developing a metaphor introduced by one set of her talking partners, ‘it is to interchangeably lead and lean while sharing the stage’ (p. 27). Yet the presumed heroism of transforming silence into speech ought not be at the cost of understanding why some twins prefer not to talk, neither leading nor leaning nor even identifying themselves as “twins” above all else, and before all others.


Bacon, Kate 2010 Twins in Society: Parents, Bodies, Space and Talk. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Bell, Jordana T. and Tim D. Spector 2011 ‘A Twin Approach to Unraveling Epigenetics.’ Trends in Genetics 27, 3. 116–125.

van Dongen, Jenny, P. Eline Slagboom, Harmen H. M. Draisma, Nicholas G. Martin and Dorret I. Boomsma 2012 ‘The Continuing Value of Twins in the Omics Era.’ Nature Reviews Genetics 13. 640–653.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E 1936 ‘Customs and Beliefs Relating to Twins Among the Nilotic Nuer.The Uganda Journal. 230-238.

Lévi–Strauss, Claude 1964 Totemism. Translated by Rodney Needham. London: Merlin Press.

Peek, Philip M. Ed 2011 Twins in African and Diaspora Cultures: Double Trouble, Twice Blessed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Rivers, W.H.R 1906 The Todas. London: Macmillan.

Turner, Victor 1969; 1997 The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure Piscataway, NJ: AldineTransaction.

Schwartz, Hillel 1996 The Culture of the Copy: Striking Likenesses, Unreasonable Facsimiles. Zone Books: New York.

Stewart, Elizabeth A 2003 Exploring Twins: Towards a Social Analysis of Twinship. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Viney, William 2014 ‘Curious Twins.’ Critical Quarterly 53.2. 47–58.


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.