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Untimely Ripped: how Nature's Great Experiment challenges our views of children and society

Dr. Tom Shakespeare

Research Fellow, Policy Ethics and Life Sciences Research Centre

University of Newcastle

 

Watching Nature's Great Experiment, I felt somewhat like a midwife. The background to this artwork was a group show which I planned to curate at Newcastle's Hatton Gallery which would have been entitled "Born or Made?". The plan was to bring together artists with scientists to explore questions of nature and nurture.   I introduced Jordan Baseman to my colleague Professor Terrie Moffitt (Institute of Psychiatry) in the hope that they might find common ground for a collaboration about twin studies. In the event, that funding bid failed, stillborn like so many hopeful plans, but Jordan was able to raise money elsewhere to fund the project.

All collaboration is prone to failure, and perhaps partnerships between scientists and artists are riskier than most. They come from different traditions, and often speak different languages. Terrie Moffitt took a huge risk, sharing her team, her research subjects, and her ideas with Jordan Baseman. He in turn approached the enterprise with a strong sense of responsibility towards the team, and the people with whom they were working. His past role as a worker in Emergency Psychiatric Units in the United States gave him some insight into what it's like to visit strangers' homes, and intervene in their lives.   He approached the films and interviews which he used for the work with respect and ethical sensitivity: for example, the voices have been manipulated to prevent the subjects being identified. But even so, he was anxious when he finally submitted the work to Terrie and the team for their feedback, conscious that they might not approve, might not understand, might even feel violated by what he had done to their material. In the event, the call that came a month later was positive - "We love the work".

Twin studies have always been both compelling and contested. Fraternal bonds have been resonant since Cain and Abel, but twin relationships are even more intense and troubling.    They recur in the work of William Shakespeare, himself the father of twins. In the nineteenth century, the twin study method was devised by Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin who coined the word "eugenics". In the twentieth century, Sir Cyril Burt famously falsified the data from his twin studies, to reinforce his assumptions about the inheritance of intellectual ability. Most notorious of all, Josef Mengele used his role at Auschwitz to pursue his private and evil obsession with twinning: of his 3000 subjects, only 157 survived his curiosity, according to Lawrence Wright.

Twins are significant for science because they offer insight into the roles played by nature and nurture (a dyad coined by Shakespeare himself in The Tempest ). Identical twins   (called monozygotic because they originate from the same fertilised egg) share all their DNA, while fraternal twins (called dizygotic, because they originate from two separate eggs) on average share half their DNA, like any other pair of siblings. Logically, if identical twins share more similarities than fraternal twins, then the cause is likely to found in their genes, not their environment. Where twins are reared apart, in different environments, their similarities suggest genetic factors at play. This is the assumption that has launched a thousand twin studies, as geneticists and psychologists attempt to prove that phenomena like schizophrenia and depression and even divorce and religiosity are substantially heritable. Evidence seems to suggest that separated twins are more alike than twins reared together, a finding which seems to confound crude arguments from either nature or nurture.

The largest twin database in the UK is at St Thomas' Hospital. Given that the Apostle Thomas was known as Didimus (the twin), this seems as ironic as the fact that the US equivalent is a research centre led by Professor Thomas Bouchard in the twin cities of Minneapolis-St Paul. The St Thomas' Twin Research and Genetic Epidemiology Unit collects a vast amount of information about their twin pairs - 300 measurements ranging from sense of humour to blood cholesterol. The ultimate goal is to explore the role of genes in complex diseases such as arthritis, heart disease and asthma. As part of the research for his project, Baseman visited Professor Tim Specter, who leads the study, and is author of a popular science book, Your Genes Unzipped, explaining how many features of our lives are to some extent influenced by our DNA. Many people, particularly those schooled in the social sciences, are resistant to the sometimes extravagant claims made by twin study enthusiasts and journalists. They retort that a deeper understanding of probability and the role of coincidence might make some of the correlations in the lives of separated twins appear less significant.

Modern twin studies remain controversial, but may yet hold the clue to future improvements in human health, perhaps even to improving social harmony.

Professor Moffitt's own research on anti-social behaviour has shown how causality is more complicated than some DNA determinists imply. The story of one family in Holland, who shared both a rare metabolic difference in a particular gene, which produces an enzyme called   monoamine oxidase A, and also a history of criminal violence lead to stark headlines about crime being in the genes. But by following 1000 New Zealanders born in 1972 for 26 years, Moffitt's team showed that it was not the DNA   alone that was responsible for the behaviour. Instead, it was men who had suffered abuse or family problems, who also had a particular version of the MAOA gene, who were most likely to go on to commit crimes in later life. Genes influence resilience, affecting the way that different people react to trauma or stress. In other words, in this and other areas biological and social factors combine to create the complexity of human embodiment, personality and behaviour.

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The context for Jordan Baseman's work is not necessarily to be found in video art. He is fascinated by the media - by film, TV and particularly radio. He is inspired by documentarists like the oral history pioneer Studs Terkel. He constructs implicit narratives, selecting and editing the material to tell a carefully crafted story about how life is, creating what he calls "manipulated realness".

His purpose is not didactic - it's more complicated than that. His job is not to tell, but to show. Here's something which is right in front of your eyes, but that you haven't been able to look at directly. Baseman reveals and juxtaposes and shares, but then leaves us to make up our own minds. We're not sure what he means by the work. By our involvement in the trilogy, we become almost co-creators in pieces which linger with us as troubling memories.  

Laws of Variation uses found film - a 1957 Wellcome Trust documentary about the birth of twins, one of many jaw dropping historical films which Baseman looked through. The footage is compelling, but too extreme to be viewed in comfort.

Watching these images we realise that we come into the world by a violent, even brutal process. There is something animalistic in the footage of babies being pulled from their mother's womb. They are twisted and turned, grasped with forceps.   They emerge almost lifeless, hunks of pallid, bloody meat, to be cleaned up, airways cleared, and turned into babies by human ministration. The mother is an unseen presence, shrouded in green sheeting, an obstacle to be torn or cut by episiotomy to allow her children into the world. And then follows the placenta, a formless mass of tissue, but stemming from the same egg and sperm: the life-giving, life-less twin on which everyone of us for our first nine months relied.

Against this runs the soft, calm and insightful voice of Terrie Moffitt herself, reflecting on the unnatural nature of twins, bringing out aspects of that unusual experience which we may never have considered. The rarity of twinning - just over three births in every thousand - is known, but Moffitt shows that it's a potentially strange and difficult relationship.   We see these particular babies in their first moments of life, and already we wonder what will become of them, how it will be for them. So skilfully has Baseman selected and edited from the interview that he recorded with Moffitt that we could be lulled into thinking that the voice over had always been present on this film.

Voice-over is a dominant technique in Baseman's video work. He is particularly adept at using image and sound at variance - bringing together two different things which comment on each other and create something new. For example, in his previous work Under the Blood, the pictures were of open heart surgery at Papworth Hospital, while the soundtrack was taken from the Pentecostal sermons of Billy Graham, with his rhetoric of sin, atonement and rebirth through the blood of Christ.

But in the Tape One/Tape Two film, there are no visuals. There's not even any of Baseman's electronica on the soundtrack.   Just those voices, two young women talking about two girls. It is left to us to imagine that mother, those children, their home. We can't not get involved. We want to understand the plot we are presented with. By default, we create our own   back-story to the matter of fact account which we watch unfold on screen, the words hanging there for emphasis.

Is it the Bad Mother or the Evil Twin who is to blame? Maybe Mum's just honest when she says "Her being away is just bliss. Heaven." Would we be different, if we were in her shoes?   Researchers point out that different children evoke different responses in parents: it is not just that bad parenting leads to difficult children, but also that difficult children can evoke poor parenting. Causality works both ways.

Like its companions, this film plays with our ideas about childhood. We live in a society which cannot decide whether infancy is a time of prelapsarian innocence, or monstrous danger: badly behaved at best, Bulger-killers at worst. Our television screens are saturated with programmes which turn family struggles into entertainment. Aren't other people's children awful? Put them on the naughty step!   


These two interviews follow the same path, ask the same questions. But there is more to say about the difficult daughter. Goodness writes white, as they say: "she's alright... she'll do for now". We hear the tantalising voice of a child in the background, and we want to know more. Is that the good one, or the difficult one? Is there a father involved? What will happen with these girls, whose mother admits that she'd never wanted to have children at all?

It is in Nature's Great Experiment that the contrast between words and pictures is most extreme. Lisa Cant, one of the ten researchers whom Baseman interviewed, talks lucidly about her feelings about visiting homes where toddlers eat out of bin bags or a three year old kills the family pet with a shovel.   She wonders how life can be like that, and what effect she and her colleagues are having by their intervention into these families. Is there anything that can be learned from twins at all? Meanwhile, scenes of urban neglect flick past, a bleak slide show of peeling paint and neglected graves. This is what life is like, Baseman seems to be saying, and you think that genes are worth worrying about?

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It would have been easy to have made an obvious piece about twins. There is such popular fascination with individuals who look almost exactly the same as each other, whose lives sometimes follow eerily parallel tracks. In the DNA era, we find it challenges our sense of self and our notions of free will when we discover how many of our choices and behaviours are largely down to our genes. Twins slide easily in cliché or hyperbole. They threaten our notions of identity.

Instead, and this is partly explains the grateful reaction from Terrie Moffitt's team, Jordan Baseman has done something more open-ended, more complex, and ultimately more compelling. This three part work ends up being as much about environment as it is about genes. I would rather think of it as a trilogy: it seems clear that the films belong together, that there are common themes running through them, and that each comments on the others. I had thought that Baseman would look for biology, but all the time it was society that was at issue.


What comes strongly through the work is the strangeness and brutality of human existence, from the traumatic miracle of birth to the day to day lives of quiet desperation. It is clear that these young researchers, who go several times a week into the homes of strangers, are marked and changed by their experience. Whereas, as Moffitt points out, most people stick with their own kind, and rarely see how others live, behavioural scientists have a licence to learn about the wider world in all its fascinating and often depressing variation. Baseman describes these young students and postdocs as sponges, soaking up life so it can be turned into data, collecting information about ourselves to remind us what life is like. From their testimony we discover that twin studies are not simple matters of cause and effect, genes and environment interacting in some neat arithmetic.

Some psychologists tell us, from their twin studies research, that personality is approximately 40% caused by genetic factors, and only 10% down to shared environmental factors (i.e. family). But DNA works not like a blueprint, but like a recipe. What sense does it make to divide up influences as if they were ingredients in cake? It's impossible to work backwards from the result and identify the separate factors that went into the mix. Every cook knows that the same recipe can turn out differently every time - it depends on the weather, the oven, the timing, the sequence, the tiny errors that send things down another path.   Nature and nurture, as Terrie Moffitt's own research proves, cannot be unwoven so easily or neatly.

Like the subtle research project which forms its subject, Baseman's work does not give us simple arguments or trite comparisons.   We are not handed answers on a plate. Instead, as in all successful art, we have to work out what's going on, and each form our own personal response: outrage, horror, fascination, curiosity, grief, shame, despair. The work engages our emotions as well as our intellects. We move beyond the neat dyad of nature versus nurture, and realise instead the complex dialectic of birth, life and social relationships.

 

 

Further Reading

Nuffield Council on Bioethics (2002) Genes and Human Behaviour: the ethical context

Matt Ridley (2003) Nature Via Nurture: genes, experience and what makes us human, Fourth Estate.

Lawrence Wright (1997) Twins: genes, environment and the mystery of identity, Weidenfeld and Nicholson.