Twin studies stand up to the critique, again


Jason Collins


August 28, 2014

The history of twin studies is littered with attempts to discredit them - such as this bit of rubbish. Yet every challenge has been met, with a couple of newish studies knocking off another.

The basic idea of twin studies is that by comparing the similarity of fraternal twins to the similarity of identical twins, you can tease out the influence of their genes. Twin studies tend to find that most behaviours have heritability of at least 0.2 (that is, 20 per cent of the variation is due to variation in genotype), IQ a heritability of over 0.5 and height around 0.8. However, twin studies require an assumption that identical and fraternal twins have equally similar environments, and this is where the critiques begin. If identical twins have a more similar environment, the estimates of heritability may be too high.

The responses, however, are plenty. There are studies of twins reared apart. Adoption studies find similar results. For those who believe that identical twins are treated differently to fraternal twins, there are studies of misidentified twins - where everyone thought they were identical or fraternal, but they were the other. Peter Visscher and friends took advantage of the differences in relatedness between siblings to generate estimates of heritability consistent with twin studies (You are 50% related to your siblings on average, which means you can test how similarity varies with variation in relatedness . For me, that study should have been the final nail in the coffin of any arguments that twin studies hadn’t told us anything).

One critique still floating around is that people who look more similar are treated similarly (although the misidentified twin studies deal with this to a degree). And the New York Times has reported two studies that take on that argument. In the first, Nancy Segal assessed the similarity in personality of 23 pairs of unrelated lookalikes. The similarity - effectively zero. Then in a replication, Segal got a skeptic, Ulrich Ettinger, involved in the project. They found the same result - no resemblance - unlike Ettinger’s expectation that people who looked alike would have similar personalities as people would treat them the same.

These studies involves a small sample. However, they are yet another piece of evidence pointing in the same direction as all the rest.