Blinded by Science: Troubled in Twin Town

What a twins convention in the Midwest tells us about the future of humanity.

By Bruno Maddox|Friday, November 03, 2006

TWINSBURG, OHIO. If I had to say what creeps me out the most about identical twins—and my views on this question have been coming into focus all day beneath a midwestern sky as inscrutably blue as the fake sky in the fake painting on the fake wall of a fake child's bedroom at Ikea—I'd probably end up going with The Sight of Them in Conversation. I'm sorry, but I just don't see what twins have to talk about. Unless centuries of folklore have led me seriously astray, each twin knows what the other is thinking and feeling without his having to open his mouth, so what's left to discuss? I'm forced to conclude that the conversation's being staged for my benefit, as cover for the deeper telepathic exchange. Perhaps they're comparing notes on their mutual body—knees are feeling pretty good today, don't you think?—a prospect that I don't think I'm alone in finding deeply creepy.

Earlier, at the Twinsburg Hilton (there really is one), the receptionist confessed that what creeps her out the most is twins' preference for matching clothing. That and the way they always . . . shh, here come some now. She clammed up and bent toward her computer, while I made a show of examining the paper wallet that housed my key card, as an idling minivan disgorged two fresh pairs ofidentical people, in identical clothing, who rolled up to the desk in a honeymoonish froth of giggles and demanded a pair of undoubtedly pretty similar rooms.

Lucky for them, they'd booked in advance. For in Twinsburg, Ohio, on the first weekend in August, there are emphatically No Vacancies, all beds being filled with twins, the scientists who study them, still more twins and—this year only—one world-weary desperado simply looking for some answers.

This journey began for me back in July, when Barbara Prainsack of the University of Vienna leapt from obscurity to the top slot on the Yahoo! Science headlines page by announcing that human clones, should we ever develop any and raise them to maturity, "would feel individuality."

What? I remember thinking. Those bastards. Tilting forward in my Aeron chair, I paused American Idol, agitatedly fingered the lace of one gray New Balance sneaker and bade my iMac tell me more. What the unsettlingly named Dr. Prainsack had done, it emerged, was assemble 17 pairs of identical twins and ask them, in a nutshell, whether they, you know, felt individuality. Apparently, most of them said they did, before going on to say that they also viewed being a twin as a "blessing" and would never in a million years want to be like the rest of us: all alone and unique and, you know, individual.

Far be it from me to demean or belittle the results of a fellow Truthseeker, but suffice it to say that I was unconvinced that Dr. Prainsack had entirely smacked this one out of the park. However, her basic premise, that genetically identical twins might be able to shed some light on the issue of human cloning, struck me as a very solid one. And so, with nary a thought for my own documented psychological fragility, I did a little poking around on what I individualistically like to call "the Net" and booked myself passage to Twinsburg, 30 miles southeast of Cleveland and site of the world's largest annual gathering of identical twins. My goal: to glimpse and capture—if not have a few drinks with—a vision of our mutual future.

I can report with little fear of contradiction that it is a funny business, wandering alone and for hours through a vast crowd of identical twins. The first thing you notice is that twins absolutely wuv each other. Hand in hand, if not arm in arm, all in matching clothes—literally every double one of them—twins thronged the leafy streets and parks of Twinsburg in a quiet ecstasy of platonic love. I [heart] My Twin was a popular choice of mutual T-shirt, and you really got the feeling that all four hearts were deeply felt. I happen to have a sister, I found myself reflecting, whom I love very much. I think she feels the same about me. All the same, to get us walking arm in arm down a public street in T-shirts proclaiming our mutual affection would cost you, and I'm not exaggerating, a sum in the low four-figures—split 60/40 in her favor—and probably a good bottle of wine.

But then we're not twins, or clones—and surely this, the Love Factor, is a term that's conspicuously missing from our modern debate over the ethics and wisdom of human cloning. In most of our weirdly limited discussions of this supposedly pressing issue, clones are talked about as victims. Is it ethical, we wonder, to breathe life into a creature without its own identity, without (perhaps) a soul, who will never know the quintessential human joy of Feeling Different? What we forget is that in all likelihood clones will be tackling these rather straightforward existential puzzles arm in arm with one or more people who not only know exactly what they're going through but who love them, arguably more than anyone ever has or will love us. The implications of this are multiple. But one of them, surely, is that there might be a lot more clones around than we're banking on. If there's a more powerful force in the universe than love, it's Love Enhanced By Technology, and if clones really do adore each other as much as twins do—and some of the outfits in Twinsburg, seriously, only love can explain—it's hard to imagine that they wouldn't plow every farthing of disposable income into multiplying the flock.

At which point, or shortly after, we would be living in a very different society. For one thing, there might be more war. Think how much trouble is caused today by people whose only bond is one adaptation of the thousands of religions out there. Imagine a million young men with identical genes, identical scraggly little beards, hearing on their identical answering machines that a million other identical men may or may not have gotten fresh with their million identical sisters.

Then again, maybe peace would reign. The second thing one notices while staggering with mounting unease through a biblical horde of twins, is that they wuv other twins nearly as much as each other. Their favorite activity seems to be spotting other extremely identical twins and asking them to pose for a photo. The centerpiece of the Twinsburg festival was a giant tent where a disembodied voice—rather reminiscent, I felt, of the recorded last remarks of Jim Jones—was calling twins to the stage above a sludge of constant applause and awarding prizes to the most identical.

There was a larger ideology here, I sensed, reeling away in muted horror, a sort of pan-Twinism that would, if greatly magnified by the advent of human cloning, possibly postpone its internecine bloodbath until it had dealt with the rest of us.

But then, this is just my paranoia. It's easy to become paranoid after a day spent wandering through a leafy exurban hamlet filled with genetically identical humans. It's easy to get entirely creeped out in the twin festival's "research" enclosure watching an identical pair of slim brunettes postpone taking a bite of their identical clouds of cotton candy until students from the Ohio State University College of Dentists have finished measuring their gums.

I wonder, frankly, if Dr. Prainsack would ever dare make the trip here, or if she's more comfortable back home in Vienna, with her schnitzel, her grad students, and the close, angelic harmonies of the Boys' Choir silk-screening a sheen upon the evening sky. "Clones would feel individuality," she declares from the safety of her fortress of strudel.

As one who has spent a day toting his own individuality like an overfull chalice, only to find them at the Holiday Inn monopolizing the pool table and refusing even to consider sleeping with anyone who spent his time in the womb alone, I can tell you that if Prainsack is correct, those individuality-burdened freaks of nature, as yet unborn, are to be pitied.

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