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Half heartwarming feel-good story, half absolute horror show, what does Three Identical Strangers reveal about what makes us us, as well as what people will do for science?

Some folks will remember the story from when it was in the news back in the '80s, but it hit me like a ton of bricks when I first watched the trailer of Three Identical Strangers, and I immediately knew I had to see the documentary. A 19-year-old young man arrives at college for the very first time, only to encounter quite the crowd of people who welcome him "back", some even by kissing him. Except they don't call him by his own name — they call him Eddy. Not that many equally confusing moments later, he's face to face with one of Eddy's friends, who asks him if he was adopted and born on June 12. Soon, they crowded into a payphone booth to get in touch with Eddy, and that's how Robert found a twin he didn't know he had. They made headlines, and that's how their triplet David — "I think I might be the third" — made his way into their lives. Now they were three, and they made quite the impact working the media circuit. 

It seems, at first, to be the ultimate feel-good story. Eddy Galland, David Kellman, and Robert Shafran immediately felt like they'd known each other their whole lives, and not just because they looked exactly alike. They had eerie things in common, the sorts of things you often hear about in connection to twins. They smoked the same cigarettes, had the same taste in women, physically moved in the same way, and answered reporters' questions the same way at the exact same time. On a darker note, they also each spent time in mental health facilities as teens, and banged their heads against their cribs when they were infants. 

What makes us us? Are we, as we are now, simply the culmination of all the experiences, conscious and subconscious, we've had until this point in time? Or were we pretty much destined to become who we are now from the moment we were born, or even the moment we were conceived? There's probably no human alive who hasn't at one point or another considered this question — succinctly summed up as "nature or nurture?" — in some form.

It's a question scientists have sought to answer, too, and because identical twins are, well, genetically identical, they've been of particular interest in this field of study, especially when compared to non-identical twins. A meta-analysis of lots and lots of twin studies published over the past five decades found that "nature" is responsible for very nearly half (49 percent) our diseases and traits, while just over half (51 percent) is down to environmental factors or "nurture".

Can you really learn that much about nature vs nurture from twins who are raised in the same household, and exposed to many of the same environmental factors, though? Wouldn't it be much more interesting, much more insightful, to separate identical twins at birth and then study them as they're reared in completely different families? Dr Peter B Neubauer, an Austrian Jew born in the early 1900s who narrowly escaped the fate so many others met by making his way to Switzerland, sure thought so. 

That's how Eddy Galland, David Kellman, and Robert Shafran, who spent the first six months or so of their lives together, ended up being adopted into three radically different families — one working class, one middle class, and one more affluent, and all with different levels of paternal affection. When their parents adopted them, they were told their babies were already part of a study on the development of adopted children, and folks with clipboards, IQ tests, and cameras testing them would be part of the deal if they wanted to raise these kids. They weren't, however, told that their children were parts of a triplet set, and when they confronted the adoption agency after finding each other, they were fobbed off with the lie that the triplets were separated becaue they'd be more easily adoptable that way. 

What insights did the study offer about nature vs nurture? We don't know, because it was never published, and the research is now sealed. The remarkable similarities between the triplets seem to support nature over nurture, but there were also differences. Eddy, who had a harder childhood filled with tensions between him and his father, committed suicide, while the other two continue to thrive. Perhaps Dr Neubauer's research didn't give him the conclusion he was hoping for, and that's part of the reason the research was not made available to the public?

Even the similarities the triplets shared that seem to be entirely genetic might not be. Another possibility we have to consider is that the mental health struggles the triplets faced were at least partially the result of (the lack of) nurture, in the form of trauma caused by their seperation. 

More recent research completely rejects the dichotomy between nature and nurture, and instead suggests that the two are interlinked — one influenced by the other in ways we're slowly beginning to have a better grasp of.

The triplets' story raises ethical questions galore, too. We now know that things like the Stanford Prison Experiment, the Milgram Shock Experiment and yes, separating sets of twins and triplets for the purpose of scientific study, aren't cool. Back when Dr Neubauer was conducting his long-term research — with assistants visiting one twin or triplet to observe their development right after seeing a sibling they didn't know they had — he and those who worked alongside him apparently considered the research "exciting" rather than off-the-charts immoral. One of the triplets referred to it as "some Nazi shit", and considering the fact that all the major actors, from Dr Neubauer to the adoption agency and the study subjects, were Jewish, that certainly sent a chill down my spine. 

Yup. Things we all want answers to were being studied, but "first, do no harm" was entirely forgotten in the process. Let's hope we've left that dark era behind, and that science will serve people, not the other way around, in the future.

  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth.com

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