The Largest Twin Festival in the World is a Scientific Mecca

We know this sounds like the setting of a Dr. Seuss book, but way back in 1817, a pair of twins named Aaron and Moses Wilcox founded a city in Ohio together, and, of course, they called it Twinsburg. In 1976, 37 separate sets of twins showed up for the very first Twin Days Festival. And today, the weekend draws about 2,000 sets of twins and other multiples every year. But what makes this place a gold mine for scientific data?

Doublemint Data

We've already told you about how important identical twin astronauts are to studying the future of space travel. Well, aspiring Mars colonizers are not the only scientists who recognize the value of two sets of identical genetic data that underwent different experiences in life. In short, Twin Days is one of the most important annual events for the scientific community at large.

When journalists (and identical twins) Jeffrey and Thomas DelViscio asked Kent State assistant professor Chance York what science would do without twins, his answer was blunt: "We'd be screwed." The festival is often attended by representatives of several scientific fields. One regular presence? The FBI.

It takes some awfully powerful facial recognition technology to differentiate between a set of siblings with the exact same genes. (Even twins have trouble telling themselves apart.) And every year, twins help the FBI improve theirs by allowing themselves to be scanned. Other tests involved recording a particular passage of words to test out voice recognition gear, and behavioral studies of social media usage.

Johnny Law's not the only one with an eye on these twins. Dermatologists from Proctor & Gamble have camped here to study skincare behavior and health, and chemical sense researchers gathered data on the taste perception of people with identical genes. We can only assume it's also where Improv Everywhere finds all of their pranking doppelgängers.

Nature Versus Nurture

The idea of a twin study has been around since Sir Francis Galton, the English scholar who coined the phrase "nature versus nurture" in 1875 (to be fair, though, he also came up with the word "eugenics", and the less said about that the better). Back then, we didn't even know about genes yet. But in the years since we've accepted gene theory, the picture that twin studies have painted has only gotten more elaborate — and stranger.

In 1979, the "Jim Twins" astonished the scientific community when they were shown to have lived incredibly similar lives despite being separated at birth. Jim Springer and Jim Lewis were identical twins but didn't meet until they were 39 years old. And things got creepy, fast. Both had grown up with pet dogs named Toy, both had been married twice (first to a woman named Linda and second to a woman named Betty), both had sons named James Alan (or Allan), both smoked the same cigarettes and drank the same beer, and both had a habit of leaving love notes around the house. It was enough to start a hurricane of questions about how great a role genetics played in our lives.

Dr. Thomas Bouchard, Jr., of the University of Minnesota psychology department, was particularly struck with the story of the two Jims. That's why he started the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. Over the course of two decades, Bouchard gathered data on the physical and mental characteristics of twins that were raised separately through a series of tests and a 150,000-question survey meant to test their intelligence. Their results? A lot of mental characteristics are genetic — they found that twins had similar religious habits (in terms of fervor, if not exact faith), similar criminal profiles, and even similar IQs. So maybe it's true that twins have a strange connection that we don't totally understand yet — but we're not holding out hope for telepathy.

How Twins Advance Science

Written by Reuben Westmaas October 12, 2017

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