“Twins and Doubles” – A Radio Programme on The Forum, BBC World Service

Lucky for me, my friend Lina Hakim has passed a link to this radio programme on the BBC, which features some tremendous guest speakers. The show is described in this way:

The Singh Twins are two sisters who are not only identical twins, but have created a successful career as a single artist. They will be telling us what it means to interpret the world through double vision. Also, psychologist Nancy Segal who has been studying identical Chinese twins separated at birth, and Nicholas Royle, a novelist and professor of literature, takes us into the unsettling world of doubles and alter egos in fiction.

I have not heard the Singh sisters speak before and found them to be fascinating interviewers. Nancy Segal’s new book, Born Together, Raised Apart (2013) gives an account of her work with the Minnesota twin study, receiving this rather tough response from Michael Rossi in the LRB. She provides some interesting arguments about why zygosity testing should be discounted for twins. Nick Royle, despite conflating the Freudian ‘uncanny’, ‘the double’, and other alter-egos with the biologically-specific phenomena of twinship (listen to how he historicises the double with respect to self-consciousness and Romanticism – hence ‘disturbance’, ‘dissonance’, ‘alienation’ – along with the technology of photography. Love how Segal takes him to task on this!). Royle was a tutor at Sussex while I was undergraduate there and prompted me to write a dissertation about Shakespeare’s twins, so I owe a debt to him and his book The Uncanny.

Between Lone Rangers and Double Agents

This short essay first appeared in Desert Island: Toby Phips Lloyd (Durham: Institute of Advanced Study, 2013), pp. 30–33. With special thanks to Toby Phips Lloyd, Simon James, and the IAS.

In 1979 Jim Lewis went in search of his twin brother. After six weeks he called at Jim Springer’s home in Dayton, Ohio, and discovered he had been leading a life in parallel. The ‘Jim Twins,’ as they became known, had been separated at birth. Both suffered from heart problems, were compulsive nail-biters, and suffered from insomnia. Both had married women named Linda, divorced, and then married women named Betty. One had named his son James Alan and the other James Allen. Both called their dogs Toy. Both had worked as deputy sheriffs, petrol station attendants, and at McDonalds, taken their holidays on the same Florida beach, smoked the same brand of cigarette, and drank the same brand of beer.

Whatever we might glean from such tales of twins reunited, the sudden confluence of sibling stories – durations separate yet found to be held in strange parallel with one another – is a generative structure and a place from which to construct new, explanatory narratives. Do the Jim Twins prove the genetic underpinning of complex social behaviours or do they simply demonstrate the cultural homogeneity of Middle America? Moreover, should the polarities of genetic determinism and social constructivism, and the molecular and social scales these imply, act as our only guides when assessing the riddling semantic potential of bifurcating individualism? One response might be to look at how artists have treated the idea of doubling and twinship as entwined processes that are both intrinsic and performed.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s Toby Phips Lloyd began DJing under the moniker, ‘Steve’s Evil Twin’, and seized the dramatic advantage of a proximate persona. Desert Island, among other works that reveal Lloyd’s interests in performance and portraiture, includes a video that explores biographies both large and small, real and imagined. And yet, if the video aspect of Desert Island is a kind of self-portrait it is one viewed, thanks to a sort of pseudo-twinship, through a peculiar hall of mirrors. Replacing the dialogue staged between host and celebrity – the hallmark of the BBC’s popular Radio 4 programme – Lloyd asks questions of another Lloyd who, sat opposite and in different clothing, remembers and muses between musical interludes.

Lloyd interviews himself, curbing the aural illusions of radio to striking visual effect. Paradoxically, the content of these biographical narratives, focussing on his early life and artistic interests, are not located in the interview, the dialogic aperture between interviewer and interviewee, but reverse the sequential progress between question and answer. When two people who are identical meet in the scenario that Lloyd imagines for himself then questions are formed in the knowledge of both the content and structure of the answer. This means that the whirling, analeptic quality of Lloyd’s biographical narratives – which frequently recall a past time – work in distinction to the scripted, forward momentum produced by his dominion over both roles. In a structural sense, Toby Phips Lloyd, an only child, entertains an only twin; ‘Steve’s Evil Twin’, the DJ, returns with music and the performativity of entwined remembrance.

While he confesses to childhood shyness, a predilection for solitude, and a passion for crisps, Lloyd’s song selections are both deeply personal and, thanks to the multiplicity of Lloyds implied by the video, self-consciously performed. The BBC’s programme tends to be crafted around delicately and sympathetically-edited moments of autobiographical candour. This intimacy is subtly undone; what value should we give to one person speaking in dialogue with another that is neither the same nor different? It is an arrangement that makes for uncomfortably comic scenes, such as when Lloyd opens the interview by asking why he, an artist of low media exposure, is even appearing on the programme, or when it is suggested that the reason he got a 2:2 in his film degree is because he’s a “terrible filmmaker”. A preoccupation with failure or inadequacy becomes the subject of one of the work’s most poignant moments. When musing on how “people try to hide or change things they don’t like. I think you should celebrate your imperfections because it’s what makes you special”. Lloyd, both giving and receiving, provides this reply: “that’s an interesting point”. Unsure of the sincerity of this statement, and to raise added doubt over the significance of personal, impersonal, and collective pronouns, Lloyd announces that “we should try and take some of your own advice.” Whether “we” includes interviewer, interviewee and audience alike is, in some sense, among the core mysteries of Desert Island.

In dramatising his interaction with a benevolent other, Lloyd’s work forms a contemporary iteration of a two-fold tradition. Since cases like the ‘Jim Twins’ appear in the news media from time to time, the idea of being reunited with an ‘identical’ self, who appears, acts and has had a similar life-history to our own, retains some cultural force as it prowls the borders between the fantasy of science fiction and the reality of chance. In his book, The Culture of the Copy, Hillel Schwartz has argued that imagining that we have another person walking the earth, looking alike and pursuing the alternatives that your own choices preclude, is a recurring symptom of those societies who prize a unique, unitary and authentic self (we might think of the celebrity culture enshrined by the BBC’s Desert Island Discs as being a suitable by-product of such a society).

Advance copies come in twos
Advance copies come in twos

We imagine ourselves to be double agents, argues Schwartz, because we are taught to be obsessed with the idea of being lone rangers. But, as opposed to the nineteenth–century version of ‘the double’ or ‘doppelgänger’, to be feared for its radical compromise to human individuality, Schwartz argues that there is also great comfort to be found in the idea of the double; someone like you, perhaps someone to like you, and certainly someone who has the power to describe your selfhood in a new way. When Toby Lloyd chooses a pool table as his luxury item to take with him to his deserted island – an object that is strongly emblematic of the pub in which he grew up –, he asks who he will play ‘against’. Exploiting the spatial and the combative senses of the word, Lloyd replies, “I can always play against you.”

On Twins

With over 140 twin registries in the world, carrying biometric data of hundreds of thousands of twin sets, twins have assisted in the major breakthroughs in behavioural genetics and genetic epidemiology in the last 20 years. In my recent interviews with medical practitioners, twins have been described as “more clone than clones”, a “naturally occurring experimental situation” and offering a “unique insight” into our genetic make up and the way in which we are effected by our environment.

This is a more recent, scientific aspect to the long history of twinly contemplation. I want to outline some of the other imaginative structures, the philosophical, theological and medical perspectives, which have kept twins in what might be called ‘exceptional states’ , keeping them in a long history of curiosity and wonderment. Doing so, we might, at some point, be led back to the scientific interest in twins with fresher opinions about their significance. We might even have something interesting to say about how scientific research works to isolate ‘everyday laboratories’ in the hope of bringing experimental and observational cultures into closer alignment.

I. Separated at Birth

In their conception, gestation, birth, early development, adolescence and adulthood, in life and in death, twins have been separated from those born alone. A central hypothesis of my work is that, for us to tell the story of twins and their significance in human history, we must reckon with this separation. I argue that, to tell twins together, to narrate a genealogy of their peculiar powers, we encounter the perennial problem of telling twins apart.

From ancient myth to contemporary genetics, twins are refused and often refuse to be entirely at one with a world largely populated by those born alone. My research is shaped by some wide historical parameters but limited by the biological and numerical oddity that twins present to us. I’m struck by how identical, or monozygotic twins (MZ) occur, roughly, once in every 285 births. They are, one might say, statistically routine, indeed, the rate of fraternal or dizygotic twin (DZ) births varies from place to place and form culture to culture, but population studies have shown that the rate of identical twin births remain relatively stable across time and place: 1 in every 285. Yet, and perhaps because of this statistical regularity, we still tend to find twins intensely odd. Although multiple births are extremely common, if not the norm in mammals, the relative rarity of human twinning gives multiple human births a sense of abnormal superabundance. Twins are utterly like us in every biological sense but, by so closely sharing genetic material and pre- and, more often than not, post-natal environments, they are in no way like us at all. It’s this rather simple intuition, this elastic relation between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the one and the multiple, that binds twins together and sets twins apart from singletons.

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But it is not enough, I think, to simply observe that twins are different for being two. Twins are frequently used as a shorthand for human symmetry, similitude, mirroring and the erasure of difference between people. To say ‘he is my twin’ or ‘she is as a twin to me’ is to claim an intense intimacy or physical likeness. Twins, then, are a minority group and a naturally occurring community of unreasonable duplicates, twice-born clones, egg-splitting doubles, that have taken majority stakes in the history of human self-regard.[1] For these and other psychosocial reasons, the sociologist Elizabeth Stewart has argued that twins are not simply one, not simply two, but “supra-individual unit[s]”[2], units not easily delineated into their component parts.[3]

The consequences of this exceptional, separated togetherness of the twin, echo throughout the stories that represent them, in the twin myths that revolve around conditions of remarkable similitude, in the emerging natural orders of wonder that govern scientific inquiry, in the countless stories that include or play with the idea of twins. In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, for instance, the story of estranged twins gives shape to the dual narratives of Olivia and Sebastian. In their reunion we are encouraged to consider two that have “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons! /A natural perspective, that is and is not!” (5.1.208–209). “How have you made division of yourself?” asks the bewildered Antonio, “An apple, cleft in two, is not more twin / Than these two creatures.” (5.1.215–217). Shakespeare, I think, here mixes the various meanings of the word ‘twin’ as it is now described in the Oxford English Dictionary, with its bonding powers of attraction, “Forming a pair or couple; two closely associated, connected, or related, and (usually) alike or equal” and its power to divide – to ‘in twin’ – that is, to “[be] in or [be made] into two parts or divisions; in twain, in two, apart, asunder.”[4] “An apple, cleft in two, is not more twin / Than these two creatures.” As twins, Sebastian and Olivia’s togetherness lies in their elastic separation. Twins, as doubles in a game of singles, singles that cannot help but come in pairs, as beings both together and apart, give us this natural perspective unsettled, this natural perspective that is and is not.

I might be avoiding the usual terminology employed by cultural theorists when something odd like this is encountered – ‘the uncanny’, ‘ the liminal’, ‘hybridity’ – because, in fact, it seems to me that twins can’t be so easily accommodated in that class of mixed being, like ghosts or apparitions, which operate as visible valves in the flush and flow of depth psychology. Nevertheless, there can be no getting away from the fact that twins are often strongly associated with the supernatural, with a semantic plurality, a twinly magic, a spooky kind of banal monstrosity which sets them aside from me, from us, from the so-called norm.

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Given the doubleness at the heart of a twin’s singularity, our experience of twins might be at odds with the phenomenologically, politically and narratologically private conceptions of the individual, which some philosophers and political scientists say characterise contemporary ways of thinking about and dealing with each other. But if one of the powers of twins is to dilute the idea of the consuming individual, they do so, I’d like to argue, because they are such unruly subjects in our narratives of history and cultural formation. In other words, I want to argue that twins may not be supra-individual units, simply by being at odds with the predominate unit of contemporary individualism. The curious cultural life of twins, the kinds of curiosity that they inspire, has a far longer, richer history. By appearing across time and across place, in being permitted to act in all sorts of peculiar ways, through a whole range of diverse adventures, twins resist some of their outsider, minority status and take important and formative roles in the stories we have told of ourselves. Perhaps this is one motivation behind this project – to better understand why twins are the recurring subjects in so many different kinds of story, not simply positive nor negative, not simply modern or antagonistic.

I want to tell you the modern biological story of twins so that we can later identify some related structures of contradiction which operate within and between other kinds of twin narrative. For twins to occur, either two embryos are released and fertalised during the same menstrual cycle or one fertilised embryo, at the blastocyst stage of development, essentially collapses, just a few days after fertilisation, to split the embryo into identical halves.[5] In identical twinning, exactly how or why the split occurs remains a mystery to embryologists, a causal lacuna at the point at which singletons become twins. Although this split might be the most immediate place where the imperatives of narrative and nativity coincide, the mysteries that remain about twinning as a biological process means that our conception of twins cannot begin at their conception, at the beginning of their story.

Perhaps we could try and ground the bifurcating story of twins in the first form they take and take twice, the egg, our first enclosure. Peter Sloterdijk, in the first volume of his Spharen trilogy, describes how the “self-liberation of the living being from its initial capsules or shells” gives us our initial and recursive sense of emergence, independence and freedom. The egg, writes Sloterdijk, “is a symbol that teaches us, of its own accord, to think of the sheltering form and its bursting as a unity. The origin would not be itself if what emerged from it did not free itself from it.”[6] What Sloterdijk describes is a unitary, liberated and original entity emerging from a similarly unitary and enclosed form. In his view, origins require an original structure, some broken enclosure, a single egg, a plot, in order to become distinct. Twins, however, always share this initial movement outwards; their enclosures, their stories of becoming, the plots that envelop and develop them, are necessarily mixed and shared.

II. Twins all along

I realise that tracing the intersections between the troubled structures of embryology and narratalogy is an exercise that is full of risk. But I think that doing this might help us to better understand why tales of origin and foundation, ancient and modern, embrace the twin with such enthusiasm. There are over 80 twins in Greek and Roman mythology. I want to discuss just two of the better known sets – Castor and his twin Pollux, Romulus and his brother Remus – twins that are said to help form the cosmos, twins that are said to found the city of Rome. Why the inclusion of twins, in these recurring tales of formation and nativity, when, as we have seen, issues of formation and nativity are precisely the things that separate twins from those born alone?

I’d like to suggest a sketchy response: As disputed figures of multiplicity, mixed origins and significance, the oblique nature of twins might be perfectly suited to the formation of a good myth. When compared to the modern narrative of biological formation, traditional twin myths are also generated in productive relation to their original lacunae, lacking causal grounding through apparently empty beginnings.

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Castor and Pollux are mythological figures whose motivations, powers and personalities depend on a devoted, inseparable form of twinship, but also on mixed beginnings that shape their mythic status. In one version of the myth, the twins are conceived through a union between Zeus, disguised as a swan, and the mortal Leda, to produce two heroic sons born from one egg. They are identical twins, equals, ‘Dioskouroi’, from the Greek ‘dios’,‘God’s’ and ‘kouros’ meaning ‘growing boy’, literally “sons of Zeus”. Image

Others argue, though, that Pollux is the son of Zeus but mortal Castor is the son of Leda’s husband Tyndareus; they are fraternal twins. In a further version, Leda and Zeus and Tyndareus have two sets of twins simultaneously, Castor and Clytemnestra, Pollux and Helen (later of Troy). All are born together, twins fraternal. Where Zeus fathers Pollux and Helen, Tyndareus fathers Castor and Clytemnestra. The nature of their twinning, and, I’d like to add, their status as twins as such, is a source of considerable divergence between accounts, with Apollodorus and Pindar favouring the former version and Homer the latter.[7] Our reading of the myth and its consequences, depends on the importance we give to twinship as a power to separate and divide.

Something similar, I think, occurs in the story of Romulus and Remus. As T.P. Wiseman shows, the textual evidence that can be amassed about these twins shows how Rome is built on a composite of stories, variations of an extraordinary number which might be abbreviated and reeled off in the following way: Romulus is not a twin and Remus is added later, sometime in the 4th century BC; Romulus and Remus are twins, fathered by Mars, or by Hercules, or by a figure unknown; in many versions Remus is killed by Romulus; others suggest that Remus is not killed by Romulus but by an angry mob, or by accident, while others tell of Remus’ old age and death by natural causes. Finally, some accounts argue that Romulus and Remus, as twin kings, found Rome together and live in harmony.[8] Among other things, I sense that the inclusion of twinship in these stories is not an insignificant anomaly but creates a strong possibility for narrative variation, a variation in which the precise distribution of the human and sacred may alternate, where beginnings can be contested and new interpretations worked through, appraised, assimilated or discarded. In closing – It seems to me significant that the twins in these stories have their rarity and status amplified, as superhumans, gods and demigods, because of their twinship.

A precedence is set, then – globally, twins are the unruly protagonists of hundreds of mythological stories. After centuries of wonder-rapt enquiry, twins now offer their latest mythological promise – a means of controlling and disentangling the mix of genetic and environmental factors that influence our behaviour, health and longevity, a relatively fresh myth of medical foundationalism that should only be accounted for in terms of a twin history that has always kept this foundational thinking in sight. Acknowledging the transhistorical myth-making significance of twins might help to explain the ambiguity we still feel about these figures, curiously together and in twain, and the resource of contradiction and enigma so frequently drawn upon to tell the tale of human self-regard.


[1] See Kate Bacon, Twins in Society: Parents, Bodies, Space and Talk (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010), 31–37.

[2] Elizabeth A. Stewart, Exploring Twins: Towards a Social Analysis of Twinship (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), 169.

[3] The subject of conflicting expectations and “intensified contradictions: whilst they are expected to be the same, they are expected to become different”, Kate Bacon, Twins in Society, 48.

[4] Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., s.v. ‘twin’

[5] See Renata Bortolus, Fabio Parazzini, Liliane Chatenoud, Guido Benzi, Massimiliano Maria Bianchi and Alberto Marini, “The epidemiology of multiple births”. Human Reproduction Update 5.2 (1999): 179–187. DOI:10.1093/humupd/5.2.179.

[6] Peter Sloterijk, Spheres Volume 1: Bubbles, Microspherology (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011) , 324.

[7] See Alfred Heubeck, Stephanie West, J. B. Hainsworth and A. Hoekstra, A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey: Introduction and Books I-VIII (Clarenden: OUP, 1988), 95. Also Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, trans. Robin Hard (Oxford: OUP, 1997), 1.9.16.

[8] See schema in T.P. Wesiman, Remus: A Roman Myth (Cambridge: CUP, 1995), 14.