July 16, 2015

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Identical twins, especially those raised apart, are the subject of much research because of the constant nature vs. nurture argument. An argument, which in many ways, is one of the leading causes of the great divide in our culture. Twenty-six years ago in Bogotá, Columbia, a hospital mixed up two sets of identical twins sending home two sets of fraternal twins. One set was raised in the country and the other in the city. Last week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine tells the story of how this was discovered and what has happened since.


This is 12,000 words long, so except for an item on the Open Championship this weekend, it is all we have. In addition, the twins article does not lend itself to many pull quotes. 

… identical twins have helped elucidate our most basic understanding of why, and how, we become who we are. By studying the overlap of traits in fraternal twins (who share, on average, 50 percent of their genes) and the overlap of those traits in identical twins (who share 100 percent of their genes), scientists have, for more than a century, been trying to tease out how much variation within a population can be attributed to heredity and how much to environment. ‘‘Twins have a special claim upon our attention,’’ wrote Sir Francis Galton, a British scientist who in the late 19th century was the first to compare twins who looked very much alike with those who did not (although science had not yet distinguished between identical and fraternal pairs). ‘‘It is, that their history affords means of distinguishing between the effects of tendencies received at birth, and those that were imposed by the special circumstances of their after lives.’’

Galton, who was Darwin’s cousin, is at least as well known for coining the term ‘‘eugenics’’ as he is for his innovative analysis of twins (having concluded, partly from his research, that healthy, intelligent people should be given incentives to breed more). His scientific successor, Hermann Werner Siemens, a German dermatologist, in the early 1920s conducted the first studies of twins that bear remarkable similarity to those still conducted today. But he also drew conclusions that for decades contaminated the strain of research he pioneered; he supported Hitler’s arguments in favor of ‘‘racial hygiene.’’ In seeking genetic origins for various traits they considered desirable or undesirable, these researchers seemed to be treading dangerously close to the pursuit of a master race.

Despite periods of controversy, twins studies proliferated. Over the last 50 years, some 17,000 traits have been studied, according to a meta-­analysis led by Tinca Polderman, a Dutch researcher, and Beben Benyamin, an Australian, and published this year in the journal Nature Genetics. Researchers have claimed to divine a genetic influence in such varied traits as gun ownership, voting preferences, homosexuality, job satisfaction, coffee consumption, rule enforcement and insomnia. Virtually wherever researchers have looked, they have found that identical twins’ test results are more similar than those of fraternal twins. The studies point to the influence of genes on almost every aspect of our being (a conclusion so sweeping that it indicates, to some scientists, only that the methodology must be fatally flawed). ‘‘Everything is heritable,’’ says Eric Turkheimer, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Virginia. ‘‘The more genetically related a pair of people are, the more similar they are on any other outcome of interest’’ — whether it be personality, TV watching or political leaning. ‘‘But this can be true without there being some kind of specific mechanism that is driving it, some version of a Huntington’s-­disease gene. It is based on the complex combined effects of an unaccountable number of genes.’’

Arguably the most intriguing branch of twins research involves a small and unusual class of research subjects: identical twins who were reared apart. Thomas Bouchard Jr., a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, began studying them in 1979, when he first learned of Jim and Jim, two Ohio men reunited that year at age 39. They not only looked remarkably similar, but had also vacationed on the same Florida beach, married women with the same first name, divorced those women and married second wives who also shared the same name, smoked the same brand of cigarette and built miniature furniture for fun. Similar in personality as well as in vocal intonation, they seemed to have been wholly formed from conception, impervious to the effects of parenting, siblings or geography. Bouchard went on to research more than 80 identical-­twin pairs reared apart, comparing them with identical twins reared together, fraternal twins reared together and fraternal twins reared apart. He found that in almost every instance, the identical twins, whether reared together or reared apart, were more similar to each other than their fraternal counterparts were for traits like personality and, more controversial, intelligence. One unexpected finding in his research suggested that the effect of a pair’s shared environment — say, their parents — had little bearing on personality. Genes and unique experiences — a semester abroad, an important friend — were more influential. …




Even non-golfers are interested in the drama surrounding this year’s Open. Brian Costa writes that Jordan Spieth might have a good chance to complete the third win in the grand slam of golf because he misses putts better than anyone else.

For an exceptional golfer, Jordan Spieth is surprisingly unspectacular. He doesn’t drive the ball especially far. He isn’t uncommonly accurate off the tee. At 21 years old, he won the first two majors of the year with all the panache of a mailman making stops along his route.

But there is one small element of his game that is unsurpassed in professional golf. And it might be the biggest reason to believe he can win this week’s British Open, a feat that would put him one major away from becoming the first golfer in modern history to complete a Grand Slam.

Nobody misses putts better than he does.

This is more of a compliment than it sounds. On average this year, when Spieth misses his first putt, the ball comes to rest just 23 inches from the hole. That is tied for the best mark on the PGA Tour.

From any distance on the green, Spieth can miss with a degree of precision that gives him the best odds of two-putting the hole. …