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Nature's Great Experiment: A research team's collaboration with an artist.

Terrie E. Moffitt

King's College London

May 7 2007

Nature's Great Experiment is artist Jordan Baseman's title for his fascinating new three-film work. This title comes from a shorthand phrase used by scientists to describe the enormous value of twins for research into the inheritance of health and behaviour. Twins are nature's great experiment! My research team has carried out a study of 2200 twins for the last ten years. We volunteered to let Jordan Baseman join us to learn about the research we do, and in so doing, we found ourselves a part of his art. This essay describes our experience of the project. I will begin by unpacking the title of the art to give some background on what we researchers do. Then, I'll describe how we researchers found the art-making process.

Why is the word "experiment" used in the title?

Twins are not a real experiment, and not a perfect experiment, but twins are about as good as it gets in the study of child development. In a true experimental test of causation, some factor suspected to be harmful to children would be manipulated to see how much the children were harmed. Of course such true experimentation is out of the question! Twin studies offer researchers a safe alternative to unethical experimentation. In true laboratory experiments, factor A is manipulated while all other factors are held constant, so the scientist can observe in isolation factor A's effects. When researchers compare MZ (monozygotic; one-egg) twins versus DZ (dizygotic, two-egg) twins, the genetic contribution to the siblings' behaviour is manipulated by nature, while other contributing factors such as the children's age, sex, parents, and homelife, are held constant. MZ twins are more genetically alike than DZ twins, and therefore if MZ twins are also more behaviourally alike than DZ twins, scientists can infer that genetic similarity causes behavioural similarity. Furthermore, because the DNA sequence of each MZ twin pair is 100% identical, when two MZ twins behave differently, scientists can infer that behaviour has non-genetic, environmental causes. Twins are studied to learn about the causes of behaviours such as reading skill or anxious temperament, but also the causes of illnesses such as diabetes and osteoporosis.  

Why is the experiment attributed to "Nature"?

This is because nature carries out this experiment, not scientists. Scientists merely recognised nature's gift of twins, and cleverly took advantage of it.

Why is the word "great" part of the phrase Nature's Great Experiment?

Scientists say "great" because we view nature's gift of twins as awesome. It is amazing that people who are twins live here among us. It is marvelous that scholars like Gregor Mendel worked out the laws of inheritance years ago, so that we can now understand the genetic differences between MZ and DZ twins. It is terribly lucky that twinning gives science a unique window on the fundamental mysteries of human health and behaviour. Perhaps the most wonderful, fantastic part is that twins (and their families) are generally willing to let we scientists intrude deeply into their private lives.   We researchers consider this a sacred trust between twins and science. For us, it is a great privilege.

My research team's particular intrusion into the lives of twins is a study called TEDS-Environment.

This short name stands for Twins Early Development Study, with a special focus on features of the twins' environment that affect them while they grow up. Our research has been funded by the Medical Research Council since 1998. We follow 1,116 families who have 2,232 twin children born in the 1990's. The families live all over England and Wales. They were carefully chosen to represent the widest range of conditions for children's development, from the best to the worst Britain has to offer. The Study was planned as a 3-phase study of child development. We visited the families at home to assess the twin children's development during their transition to formal schooling when they were ages 5 & 7 years old. We have visited the same children again during their transition to secondary school, when they were ages 10 & 12. In future years we plan to study the twins during their transition out of school, at ages 16 & 18. So far, after 10 years, more than 95% of the families are still taking part up to age 12!

Visits to the families are carried out by a team of intrepid research workers.

They travel in pairs to wherever the families live; their travel requires over 2,000 train tickets each year! When a research worker arrives on the doorstep, and rings the bell, she never knows what she will find behind the door: an affectionate home with delightful children, or a filthy home with cold, hungry children. In the home, one researcher interviews the parents, while her colleague interviews the children. Our team is extremely grateful, and we are often amazed, that the families continue to welcome us into their homes year after year.

Confidentiality is of paramount importance to the research endeavor.

We ask the families about any topic that could affect the children, from piano lessons to domestic violence between mum and her partner, from best friends at school to vicious bullies at school. Parents and children are remarkably candid in these interviews, and the research team is often vouchsafed with very delicate information. Scientific ethics require that we maintain a strict code of confidentiality to protect each family's privacy. Any violation of confidentiality by a member of the research team would result in instant dismissal, but this has never happened. We never publish case studies that might allow a family to be recognized. Instead, our written reports summarise the data about groups of families and children.

We view the families as collaborators with us in this research.

Study families are the holders of valuable information about how children grow up in Britain. Our research team's role is merely that of translator; our role is to convert the twins' and parents' stories to the sort of formal numbers and words that policy makers will find compelling. Our end goal is to feed findings forward to improve health and education for children.

When my research team made the decision to collaborate with Jordan Baseman our very first concern was for the absolute privacy and confidentiality of the twins and their families.

We practiced responding to Jordan's interview questions by altering key details such as age, sex, and name, to conceal any identities. Jordan worked to digitally alter voices, a technique that is particularly effective in the film called " Tape 1 Tape 2 ." It is now impossible to identify the mother who describes her children in the film. In fact, we are now unable to identify which of our research workers speaks on the tape, as her voice is so altered. Jordan himself never learned the identity of any family in the study.

Our second concern was that the art not be trite or flippant; we hoped to convey the awe and respect we have for the twin-research endeavor.

Jordan was a step ahead of us. His opening remark to me was that he planned to avoid all visual images of identicalness in the filming: no mirror images, no twin halves of apples, no twin pairs of gamboling lambs, no "Doublemint twins" singing silly songs about chewing gum. What a relief. A long-term research programme such as TEDS-environment must maintain its good reputation with many constituent stakeholders: the study families first, but also the administration of the university where we work, editors of journals who publish our reports, other researchers in our field, and funding agencies on whom we rely for vital support. We were also vigilant about how the public would engage with twin research via this art. Behavioural genetics research has a chequered history that has fostered public wariness, and even hostility.   Surveys show the public support genetics research to prevent diseases such as cancer and heart disease, but do not approve of genetic research into behaviours such as personality or intelligence. We hoped that Jordan's art would encourage a different view of twin research, a view that reflects humans' irrepressible curiosity, fascination, awe, and delight about the wide variety of humanity. Each one of us is unique! How did we get that way? Jordan shared our concern with the dignity of the art project; this shows most in the film called " Laws of Variation ."   

I was also concerned, as the research team leader, for the comfort of the research workers.

Their participation was voluntary. Jordan spent many long hours and days interviewing research workers. He wanted to understand why they take on such unusual work, and how it affects them. After a research worker has visited literally hundreds of pairs of twins, from all walks of life, what experiences have changed the way she views herself, twins, human nature, and the research endeavor? The research workers, like the families who take part in the twin study, were bravely candid during these interviews. They shared with Jordan the joys and the heartbreaks of their work visiting families' homes. The result of this bravery can be found in the film called " Nature's Great Experiment ," featuring the voice of Lisa Cant, an experienced researcher who has visited hundreds of twins from age 5 to age 12 since she first joined the study in 1999. Lisa speaks with authority.

Our final consideration was that we wanted to learn something new.

We did. One of the most compelling and surprising things we learned is the fundamental differences between the aims of artists and the aims of researchers. Both science and art are, in theory, aiming to communicate. But the resemblance stops there. One big difference in communication style has to do with ambiguity.

We researchers are duty-sworn to eradicate ambiguity in any form from our communication. Researchers share a drive to communicate as clearly as possible, and this directs all that we do. We strive to ask questions of twins clearly to prevent any ambiguity from marring interpretation of the resulting data. Scientists speak and write to each other in the workplace with intense precision, because we want to avoid any possibility of error. We spend hours editing and re-editing our reports, striving to publish our findings in plain language, allowing no room for idiosyncratic interpretation by the reader. In research, we look for the single correct answer. We count things to the decimal point. Lack of clarity makes us nervous. When we scientists eradicate ambiguity, we reinstate our intellectual comfort and we feel satisfied.

Contrast our researchers' anti-ambiguity obsession against Jordan's art. This art embraces ambiguity. The films reek of it. They are mightily confusing. For example, the films' visual content and the auditory content do not match up. Pleasant voices narrate a lighthearted topic, while images of abandoned graves parade despair before the eye. Sensory input to the viewer of this art is deliberately disjointed and even jarring. Little babies are born (surely a nice thing?) but bright red blood splashes everywhere (horrific to all but the toughest obstetrics nurse!). Key information is missing that a viewer must have to understand what is going on. The films actually do not explain that their subject is twins, or twin research. No background is given to put the narration into context. The viewer of the art does not know that the voices are those of people involved in twin research. All this uncertainty and ambiguity can be unsettling. When the research team viewed the finished films for the first time, we urged Jordan to make things clearer. I said firmly, "Jordan, I'm afraid people won't understand." Jordan smiled.  

Nature's Great Experiment will rock viewers off their comfortable mental pedestals. In the absence of instructions from the films about what to think, we project our own feelings onto the art, and long-suppressed questions rise to our minds. This art does not spoon-feed us meaning. It challenges us to work it out. Every viewer can impose their own individual meaning on the art. Oh dear, a scientists' worst nightmare! But coming full circle, Jordan Baseman's artistic enthusiasm for individuality mirrors twin researchers' scientific enthusiasm for individuality. Each person is unique! How did we get this way?


Terrie E. Moffitt

Institute of Psychiatry

King's College London

May 7 2007