“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.

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.

“What makes you a twin?”

Since moving into this field called ‘medical humanities’ I have been challenged to consider some very intimidating questions: what is the relationship between biological knowledge as opposed to other kinds of knowledge and ways of understanding?; how and why has the ‘biologicalisation of identity‘, the process of rendering something biological that was previously understood to be free of biological influence, become so prevalent in contemporary British society?; when those who do not have scientific training use the name of science to support their claims, what kind of authority and what community of thinkers is being appropriated? These are questions that seem at turns philosophical, sociological, historical and political, and I air them here while mindful of the debates  that simmered throughout the 20th century, staged between the ‘two cultures‘, intensified during the 1980s to the point that it was likened to warfare, and now returning to the fore, thanks in part to the emergence, in the 21st century, of disciplinary hybrids like the medical humanities, critical neuroscience and digital humanities.

This is a new area of thinking for me and I tread with a great sense of trepidation, knowing that previous debates have been robbed of their productivity thanks to the ease and pace by which antagonists accuse one other of ignorance, misconception and political wrongdoing. When I have not been planning events on behalf of the Hearing the Voice project, due in Autumn this year, I’ve been reading Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s incredible Objectivity and Isabelle Stengers’s The Invention of Modern Science, both books interrogate the formation of autonomous scientific knowledge as a distinct territory, operating with rules of its own, and thus these writers interrogate the extent that ‘scientific facts’ are separable from other forms of human practice and understanding. Listening in on Ian Hacking’s recent lecture at the University of Leeds has also had me thinking about the epistemological feedback loop between those that categorise and those that reproduce those categories.

Why is all this important to the study of twins? On Saturday 8th June 2013 I will attend the 21st anniversary of the start of TwinUK, a registry of over 12,000 twin volunteers whose participation supports the genetic and epidemiological research based at St. Thomas Hospital, King’s College London. And I’m going to have the chance to ask some of the twins that participate in this research programme a simple question: “what makes you a twin?” I want to know how twins, especially twins who volunteer in contemporary genetics, have absorbed scientific explanations of twinning and twin behaviour. “Where do twins come from?” is another way of questioning how locating the beginnings of twins affect our changing conceptions of twinship.

All this is so relevant to the conversations I have with people about my research. From pubchat to academic conference, I often hear the phrase  ‘nature and nurture’ at some point during a conversation about twinning, often accompanied with a variation on the mono- and dizygotic, fraternal and identical distinction: “are you only interested in identical twins?”  But if I ask twins, “what makes you a twin?”, I may also hear another, related side to the idea of twinning – ideas about intimacy, competition, rarity, identicality, difference, closeness, friendship – which are variously connected with biological conceptions of the human body or isolated as ‘cultural’ or ‘social’ phenomena distinct from the casual effects of our biology. To what extent is a molecular understanding of life in competition with or complementary to this bundle of twin-making attributes or behaviours? Are people, twins and others, resistant to the idea that their twinship is reducible to a set of scientific principles and, if so, why? Furthermore, has the effort to communicate the complexity of twin research, in popular works written by research scientists such as those authored by Nancy Segal and Tim Spector, combined with the work of centres like the Department of Twin Research & Genetic Epidemiology which tries to educate twins whilst using them in research methodologies, excited an enriched understanding of experimental biology? I hope the opportunity to ask twins “what makes you a twin?” will give some place from which to answer these broader cultural and theoretical questions.