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The Science of Identical Twins

It can be challenging to resist taking a
second glance when you encounter a set of identical twins. While it is true
that each human being is unique, many people are fascinated to see two
individuals who appear so much alike. In addition to turning heads and inciting
non-twins to wonder, “What would it be like?”, identical twins have offered
valuable insights into human biology and development.

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Identical twins are known as monozygotic because
they develop from the same single fertilized egg, or zygote. In monozygotic
twins, the zygote splits and leads to the development of two separate
individuals. Monozygotic twins are distinct from dizygotic twins, known as
fraternal twins, because dizygotic twins develop from two separate zygotes. As
a result, identical twins typically exhibit more shared physical and behavioral
features than fraternal twins.

In fact, identical twins
share approximately 99.9% of their DNA, and differences in their personality
and appearance can sometimes be imperceptible. Their nearly identical genetics
provide an intriguing opportunity for biologists and psychologists to explore
the age-old nature-versus-nurture question: What characteristics of human
beings are dictated by our DNA, and where does the external environment play a
larger role?

To study the influence of
heredity compared to experience, scientists have studied identical twins
adopted into different families at birth. In many instances, the separated
twins were found to be “identical strangers”, sharing not only physical appearance
but also personality and mannerisms, hobbies, careers, and lifestyles, despite
having lived completely divergent lives since early infancy. Findings from such
twin studies suggest that genes have considerable impact on both physical and behavioral
qualities, largely outweighing the effects of environment and experience.

Despite these intriguing
findings, scientists have long debated the strength of the claims that can be
drawn from the results of twin studies. Often, the economic and social status
of families who adopt and raise separated twins is very similar. Because of the
parallels in their upbringing, it is difficult to conclude with certainty that
the shared traits of separated twins are due to genetics alone. Other studies
have even shown that identical twins raised in the same home can exhibit vast
differences in their personalities.

While the science of twins has not closed
the book on the nature-versus-nature debate, identical twins have helped
researchers gain new knowledge about human genetics and outcomes. Many
scientists now concur that our human qualities result from both genetics and
environmental experience, and numerous identical twins have contributed to this
compelling idea.