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Three Identical Strangers: What the Bizarre Story Says About Nature Vs. Nurture

Katy Ward
Three Identical Strangers: What the Bizarre Story Says About Nature Vs. Nurture
It’s hard to imagine the shock of discovering, at the age of 19, that you are an identical triplet. However, this is the premise of the 2018 hit documentary Three Identical Strangers, which explores the strange story of Robert Shafran, Edward Galland, and David Kellman.

Adopted into different families as babies, these three genetically identical siblings knew nothing of the others’ existence until they met by chance at college, underwent DNA testing to confirm their connection, and became instant celebrities. 

We take a closer look at their fascinating tale to find out some insights into the debate over nature versus nurture that has intrigued scientists for centuries. 

A Chance Meeting

When Robert Shafran started college in New York in 1980, he soon discovered that he shared a remarkable resemblance to another classmate: Edward Galland.

Curious to learn more, he tracked down his mystery counterpart. As well as sharing the same facial features and curly black hair, the two men had the same birthday and also discovered many mutual passions, which included a love of wrestling and Marlboro cigarettes. Not long after the meeting, medical records confirmed they were identical twins.

Not surprisingly, their experience made headlines across the world. Then, the story took an even more bizarre twist. After reading their story, David Kellman, who studied at another college, found he bore a remarkable resemblance to the pair. Further tests revealed that he was a third sibling.

After their reunion, the three brothers became a hit with the media. They even had a cameo in Madonna’s movie Desperately Seeking Susan. After moving in together, they opened a restaurant, which they unsurprisingly named Triplets.

But despite the story’s popular appeal, it also had a more troubling side, as the trio had all suffered from behavioral and mental health issues. As babies, they each had a tendency to bang their head against the side of the crib if they were left alone. And by the time of their reunion, Edward and David had spent periods in psychiatric hospitals, while Robert was on probation for charges connected to the murder of a woman during a robbery. 

As the trio grew older, they began to spend less time together and also became less similar in appearance. Then, in 1995, at the age of 33, following years of mental health struggles, Edward Galland took his own life. His brothers were devastated by his loss. 

Lab Rats or Human Beings?

The year of Edward’s death, The New Yorker published an article exposing an alarming psychological study in which the 3 men had been unwitting participants. 

Led by Dr. Peter Neubauer and the Child Development Center, the researchers behind the study sought to investigate the link between nature and nurture in child development. In other words, is it a child’s genes or their environment that shapes them in later life?

As part of the investigations, they placed sets of identical twins and triplets in different adoptive homes and observed their development through a string of home visits.

Further, the triplets were placed with families of different social classes: one in a working-class home, one with a middle-class family, and the third in a wealthy household. 

All of the boys’ adoptive fathers were noted to share different temperaments and approaches toward child-rearing. In simple terms, this difference in their environments would act as means of testing the impact of “nurture” in their development. Importantly, none of the parents were aware of the experiment or that the other brothers existed.

Some defenders of Neubauer’s experiment have pointed out that closed adoptions were commonplace during the early 1960s and that many psychologists at the time believed that twins and triplets would develop better if placed separately. 

After Edward’s passing, however, the two remaining triplets felt a growing anger toward the researchers who had conducted the experiment.

“It’s beyond anger,” Robert said in an interview with The LA Times. “We’ve been called ‘subjects.’ We’re victims. There’s a big difference. I don’t want to play off like we’re horribly injured people now as adults—we have families, we have children—we’re relatively normal people. But they treated us like lab rats. Nothing more. And we’re human beings.”

Putting Nature and Nurture Under the Microscope

Although the details of the experiment caused a great deal of controversy when they became public knowledge, the core issues behind the investigation were nothing new.

In fact, examples of the debate over nature vs nurture can be found as far back as Chinese philosophy from thousands of years ago. During the 17th century, thinking on the issue polarized into 2 camps: the idea that each person is born as a blank slate, molded by society, set against the notion that certain traits are inherent in our nature and cannot be escaped.

If nature is predominant, one would expect the boys to follow similar life paths and show similar personality traits regardless of the homes into which they were placed: traits hardwired into their DNA would inevitably prevail. 

If, however, nurture is the primary driver in human development, one would expect the boys’ shared biological parentage to have little impact in determining their later outcomes.

Of course, in real life, the issue is more complicated. If anything, the brothers’ story has shown that the interaction between nature and nurture is complicated. Shared tastes and behaviors show that genetics clearly play some part in determining what people enjoy and struggle with, but the relationship between how we are raised, life outcomes, and people’s choices is far from clear. 

DNAs Tests for Adoptees

While the brothers’ story is extraordinary, and, at times, devastating, the world of DNA testing can also be relevant for more commonplace adoptions.

Having a DNA test could be especially important to find out about any living relatives if you were adopted as part of a closed adoption. In this case, you may not have a great deal of information about your biological family.

If you are an adoptee and would like to track down potential relatives, certain DNA-testing companies, such as AncestryDNA, offer a specialist service that is aimed at helping adoptees find possible relatives. You are probably unlikely to find an identical twin, but there is the potential to find living relatives, create connections, and even gain insights into your own personality in the process.

Like Looking in a Mirror

While there is unlikely to be another story as unusual as that of the brothers, there have been several cases of people meeting a doppelgȁnger and performing DNA tests to check if they are related.

A case reported by ABC News involving two women from Ireland is a prime example, as the pair shared eerily similar features and mannerisms.

"It was like watching myself,” one of the women told the news outlet. “Our facial expressions are exactly the same, our eyes and nose crinkle the same way, we smile the same and she also talks with her hands just like me."

Despite the startling similarities between the two women, DNA testing revealed the pair were not immediately related and were unlikely to share any common ancestry. In this case, it seems that nature played no part in determining the striking resemblance between the two women.

"We were shocked," one of the women told ABC News. "We thought, 'OK, we definitely have to have relatives from the same place somewhere down the line,' but that wasn't the case [...] Doppelgȁngers really are, in fact, a mysterious phenomenon."

DNA Testing and Your Health

Although taking a DNA test may not necessarily reveal a long-lost sibling, it can almost certainly provide you with valuable information about your health. Health-focused DNA tests, such as those offered by Futura, can determine whether you possess any genes or genetic mutations associated with particular illnesses.

Although DNA test results don’t offer any guarantees that you will develop a certain condition, they could prompt you to take certain precautions to safeguard your health. 

All the brothers, for example, suffered from the same sight condition, amblyopia, which results in a lazy eye and is one of the leading causes of vision impairment in children. However, only David was treated for the condition—a fact that left both his brothers deeply resentful.

In terms of the nature v nurture debate, it was genetic factors that caused each to have the condition, but crucially, environmental conditions led to only 1 receiving treatment.

If you are diagnosed with a serious illness, genetic testing can also help you—and your medical team—determine the best treatment options. This is especially true if you are diagnosed with cancer as the effectiveness of some treatments will depend on your genetic profile.

If you are concerned about the link between your health and your genetics, you could consider a test from a provider that specializes in this area.

If you’d like to learn more about the potential uses of DNA tests, read our article 10 Important Reasons for Getting a DNA Test.

Conclusion

While no documentary could provide a definitive answer concerning the nature versus nurture debate, the brothers’ story is one of the most illuminating insights we have into this issue. 

Although it is possible to argue that nature set two of them on the path to the same college, nobody can say with any certainty what led Edward in a more tragic direction than his brothers. If anything, the story’s message is most alarming in what it tells us about the ethics of scientific experimentation and the pressures of celebrity. It shows us that human lives are complex, not simply a result of predetermined factors one way or another.

Katy Ward
Oxford graduate Katy Ward is a seasoned journalist and editor covering personal finance and software topics for Eleven Writing and Top10. Over a 15-year career, Katy has worked with several finance titans, including Barclays, Tandem Bank, and Yahoo! Finance.