Nature vs. Nurture

Revenge of the Identical Twins

April 27, 2010

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Revenge of the Identical Twins

Due to Polish president Lech Kaczyński’s death in the tragic April 10 plane crash, his identical twin brother Jarosław, Poland’s brooding former prime minister, announced on April 26 that he is running to replace his twin.

This kind of heartwarming/unsettling vibe is common with stories about twins. In a civilization that celebrates individualism, identical twins have played a slightly subversive role ever since Castor and Pollux.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the spotlight first shone on the Kaczyński twins when they starred in a 1962 hit kids’ movie. Being an identical twin provides an easy entry into acting in front of the camera. Both child labor laws limiting the number of hours allowed on the set and the tantrum-proneness of small children encourage producers to hire spares.

And young audiences, quite reasonably, are fascinated by identical twins. (The real question is why adults aren’t.) Identical twins make up no more than 1/250th of the population. (In contrast, due to late marriages and fertility treatments, fraternal twins are up to around 1/33rd.) Yet, many grown-ups can remember vividly a pair with whom they attended school.

Despite their advantage at getting a foot in the film industry door, identical twin child actors, such as the Kaczyńskis, seldom stay stars as adults.

One reason is that real-life twins almost never get to play twins in movies. In plays and movies, twins often bear a heavy load of symbolism and plot mechanics. These dual characters are normally conceived not as realistic portrayals of twins, but as tour de force opportunities for singleton stars to play two implausibly contrasting personalities, such as the good twin and the evil twin (Bette Davis in various movies) or the tormented artistic screenwriter and his amiable hack sibling (Nicolas Cage in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation). In the upcoming Leaves of Grass, Edward Norton plays both an Ivy League professor and his twin brother, an Okie dope farmer.

These kind of movies allows actors and screenwriters to fool around with stark dualities. Nevertheless, they generally don’t have much to do with what it’s like to be an identical twin.

In case you are wondering, among today’s numerous pairs of film-making brothers, two are twin pairs: the half-black/half-Armenian Hughes brothers (Menace II Society) and the Polish brothers (Northfork). (Although they can be hard to tell apart, the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men) are three years different in age.)

Dick and Tom Van Arsdale, 1970s NBA all-stars, epitomized one trait often seen among identical twins: phenomenal levels of sibling rivalry combined with tremendous loyalty to each other against the world.”


During Hollywood’s golden age, Julius and Philip Epstein, screenwriting identical twins, dreamed up the most perfect line in movie history. Desperately needing to decide what Captain Renault says after Rick shoots Major Strasser in Casablanca: “they turned to each other and with one voice cried out, ‘Round up the usual suspects!’” Or, at least, that’s how they told the story.

While movie twins look alike but act wildly different, real-life twins often see themselves as less similar, both in looks and personality, than they appear to strangers.

The American equivalent of the Kaczyński child stars are Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (who, oddly enough, increasingly look like the Kaczyńskis). They started out playing the same infant on TV and went on to earn about $100 million dollars from direct-to-video movies for kids. Yet, they claim they are not identical, but fraternal twins.

This is not uncommon. For example, the extremely similar-looking stars of the 2004 American Olympics gymnastic team, Paul and Morgan Hamm, were always told by their parents that they were fraternal twins because their hair twirled in the opposite directions. Other twins, such as the two pairs of NBA-bound seven-footers to star for the Stanford basketball team, Jason and Jarron Collins and Brook and Robin Lopez, don’t know and don’t try to find out.

Twins illustrate the relativity of human differences. Bernard Shapiro became Principal of McGill University, the most prestigious college in Canada, and then Ethics Commissioner of Canada, while his twin brother Harold became president of Princeton and chairman of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission under Bill Clinton. The two always considered themselves fraternal twins because, growing up, Bernard was more scholarly and Harold more athletic; and then Bernard preferred psychology and Harold economics. (They ended up specializing in psychometrics and econometrics.)

Identical twin stars seem less common in movies than in team sports, where their superior cooperation skills can help. For instance, the Sedin twins of the Vancouver Canucks finished second and third in the National Hockey League in points per game this year. In basketball, tall twins grow up with the advantage of having to pick on somebody their own size when practicing in the driveway. Dick and Tom Van Arsdale, 1970s NBA all-stars, epitomized one trait often seen among identical twins: phenomenal levels of sibling rivalry combined with tremendous loyalty to each other against the world.

Among the most sophisticated portrayals of twins are two dramas/screenplays that don’t mention twins: Sleuth by Anthony Shaffer and Amadeus by Peter Shaffer, two rivalrous English twins who considered themselves fraternal. Psychoanalyst Jules Glenn argued that their plays manifested “the personality characteristics and interactions of twins” including “mutual identification, role reversal, intense rivalry and affection, as well as a desire to keep things ‘even.’”

This is not to say all these pairs are identicals, just that individuals tend to overestimate how individual they are.

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