Parallel Lives

Which of us has not wondered how our life might have turned out had certain circumstances been different? Like characters inhabiting parallel universes in science fiction plots, we all live only a tiny fraction of the lives that might have been.

As a teenager I won an acting award, spent two years learning the Russian language (which I have hardly spoken since), and avidly pursued astrophotography (my first publication, at the age of fourteen, was a photograph of an aurora borealis that appeared in Sky and Telescope). Each of these early interests somehow faded and was overtaken by others that ended up having a more lasting impact on my life. Yet had a teacher or opportunity encouraged me to concentrate on any one of these early preoccupations, I suspect that my life, and perhaps even some aspects of my personality, might be considerably different today.

In a reflection on the mysteries of human development, the behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin and the psychologist Denise Daniels once entertained a similar question about the life of Charles Darwin.

Then the captain of the Beagle—twenty-six-year-old Robert FitzRoy—balked at the selection of young Darwin. An ardent disciple of Johann Kaspar Lavater’s theories about physiognomy and its relation to character and personality, FitzRoy was convinced that the shape of Darwin’s nose indicated a lack of sufficient energy and determination for such an undertaking. Darwin eventually succeeded in winning FitzRoy over, and FitzRoy himself later came to the conclusion that Darwin’s nose “had spoken falsely.” How might the history of science have differed had Darwin not circumnavigated the globe on HMS Beagle, visited the Galápagos Islands in 1835, and developed his earliest ideas about evolution based on his five-week visit to this veritable laboratory of evolution in action? We can only speculate about such counterfactual historical possibilities.

Nancy Segal’s Indivisible by Two makes use of a particularly powerful research method for answering such vexing questions about why our own and other people’s lives turn out the way they do. Segal studies twins—identical, that is, from a single fertilized egg, and fraternal, from two eggs fertilized by different sperm—as well as pseudotwins, children of the same age who are raised together. She does so with a passion that derives in part from the fact that she is a fraternal twin herself. A Distinguished Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences and director …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.

Letters

How to Inherit IQ: An Exchange March 15, 2007