Whenever you read stories about identical twins separated at birth, they tend to follow the template set by the most remarkable of them all: the “two Jims”. James Springer and James Lewis were separated as one-month-olds, adopted by different families and reunited at age 39. When University of Minnesota psychologist Thomas Bouchard met them in 1979, he found, as a Washington Post article put it, both had “married and divorced a woman named Linda and remarried a Betty. They shared interests in mechanical drawing and carpentry; their favourite school subject had been maths, their least favourite, spelling. They smoked and drank the same amount and got headaches at the same time of day.” The similarities were uncanny. A great deal of who they would turn out to be appears to have been written in their genes.
Other studies at the world-leading Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research suggest that many of our traits are more than 50% inherited, including obedience to authority, vulnerability to stress, and risk-seeking. Researchers have even suggested that when it comes to issues such as religion and politics, our choices are much more determined by our genes than we think.
Many find this disturbing. The idea that unconscious biological forces drive our beliefs and actions would seem to pose a real threat to our free will. We like to think that we make choices on the basis of our own conscious deliberations. But isn’t all that thinking things over irrelevant if our final decision was already written in our genetic code? And doesn’t the whole edifice of personal responsibility collapse if we accept that “my genes made me do it”? To address these concerns, we first need to look a bit more closely at what the experiences of identical twins really show.
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