With its perky orchestral soundtrack, listen-with-mother narration, and sunny cinematography, B.B.C.1’s two-part The Secret Life of Twins largely regarded its subject as a heart-warming example of lifelong companionship. Yet in a capitalist society, where the bourgeoisie are the dominant social force and individual enterprise and consumer choice are the invisible hands which whisk on our world, the very idea of the identical twin – an individual with no individuality – a self with not an original hair on its head – is assuredly the sovereign of all horrors. In Western literature, the twin has often arrived straight from hell. In The Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), James Hogg’s Devil walked the Earth as every twin, with the ability to assume the visage of any of his victims. Since Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson (1839) was harried to hell by his doppelganger, “the double” has become a hallmark of Gothic fiction.
The Secret Life suggested that we are “fascinated” by identical twins, although “unnerved” may be a better description. These monsters characteristically appear pristine and a little vacant, and they must constantly experience the same self-consciousness, and display the same reserve, as ordinary people who are placed in front of a mirror.
“The Secret Life of Twins” is an odd title, not least because a twin cannot, by definition, have a secret life – their doppelganger is surely familiar with their every thought. Programme 2 ventured into this territory with an account of Mark and John, two twins from Kansas who are respectively gay and straight/married. Mark was adamant that being gay is an innate and permanent part of his psyche. The pair were hauled before a specialist in epigenetics (so much for their “secret” life), who told them that Mark’s gay gene may have been “turned on” by epigenetic chemicals. Whatever this is, it is not science. Both Mark and John’s wife must surely have wondered whether John remains in the same closet which Mark jumped out of at the age of 26 (they live in Kansas, for fuck’s sake), but the programme never demanded that he issue a denial. In any event, we would require a whole programme rather than a brief glance to get to the bottom of whatever is really going on between these twins.
It was thus with programme 1’s case study of Mia and Alexandra, identical twins who were separated at birth in a Chinese orphanage and adopted by families who lived on different continents. Mia was sent to California, whilst Alexandra went to Norway. The money shot of this episode was always going to be the moment when the two six-year old twins, who could not even speak the same language, were reunited for the first time. This occurred in the road outside Mia’s Sacramento home – both looked overexcited and dumbfounded, but neither had the heart attack which I was expecting. “Despite the language barrier, Mia and Alexandra’s bond was instantaneous,” the narrator glowed. The onlooking foster-parents enthused that the two were communicating despite not sharing a language. The girls agreed enough to flee quickly from the cameras.
Any authentic reaction of scientific interest was lost due to the intrusion of the cameras and the management of the parents, whilst paradoxically, the sentimental narrative meant that we got to learn nothing of what really transpired between these girls – indeed, there was no attempt to interview them in depth. Despite being raised in very different environments, the girls seemed identical once put together, leading Mia’s foster-mother to wonder whether she had any authority as a parent. Yet all children are pretty similar, and the comparison of the girls soon became somewhat inconsequential (“they are both strong-willed”). Very nastily, the twins had to be broken up, because they were the cherished property of their respective foster-parents. Although it was conceded that the twins were “in tune” with each other and “wanted to be together,” Alexandra was sent back to Norway, and, of course, this horror was filmed too – we saw both twins wailing at the airport.
These cases hail from “the very latest in Twin Studies.” Monozygotic twins provide specialists in this field with two identical test models, comparisons of whom can potentially isolate acquired and innate characteristics. For example, the brains of two monozygotic twins are genetically identical, but if one twin suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder then their brain can be scanned to learn where it has digressed from its apparent duplicate. Points of departure could be subsequently addressed and corrected, and this approach may eventually furnish treatments for diseases such as leukaemia. Moreover, “Twin Studies” offers amazingly easy answers to the Nature vs. Nurture debate, and simple empirical tests on twins can potentially disperse great fogs of philosophical uncertainty.
Whilst one does not wish to look a treatment for leukaemia in the mouth, one would rather that the Nature vs. Nurture debate remained unresolved. Were it established that our behaviour was determined entirely by our genes, then the result would be scientific predestination or a sort of god-forsaken Calvinism, in which free will was exposed as a hopeless fiction, and any ideology which depended upon human agency was discredited as empirically unjustified. The idea of genetic determinism is so poisonous that the human mind should instinctively vomit it out. The Secret Life anticipated these anxieties and it hastened to reassure us that Nature vs. Nurture is an obsolete framework of thinking, and that science is now interested in how our genes dance to environmental tunes and how our bodies manage our genes with “epigenetic chemicals.”
The programme contended that “some of the most profound influences on us occur between conception and birth” – up in the womb, for example, the foetal twins’ battle over the placenta may determine how pushy they are in later life. And then there are those epigenetic chemicals – “the cutting edge of modern medicine… one of the most exciting new areas of science” – which the programme likened to an orchestral conductor who determines how the “sheet music” of our genes is “brought to life.” Confusingly, the programme later claimed that, through the agency of these chemicals, our behaviour and environment may determine which of our genes are “switched on or off,” which rather suggests that the conductor is now tearing pages out of the sheet music.
“Twin Studies” ultimately identifies few opportunities to depart from our “genetic destiny,” and certainly nothing which involves human agency and volition. Moreover, it is typically assumed the specialists in this field are serving the common good, whereas their work may equally toss eugenicists the keys to their dystopia. Identifying a predisposition to leukaemia would be an incredible achievement, but we should remain wary that geneticists do not appoint themselves as biological social workers and start deleting the anti-social behaviour applications from our hard drives. This meddling could eventually reduce us to something as awful and inhuman as a twin.