A Debate on Twin Research Has Broken Out in American Criminology

Jay Joseph, Psy.D.

In 2014, American criminologists Callie Burt and Ronald Simons published a critique of twin, adoption, and other “heritability” studies in their field, and in the process challenged the validity of studies of twins reared together (the classical twin method), and of twins reared apart.1 They also challenged the behavioral genetic position that observed behavior is the result of the additive influences of genes, the “shared environment,” and the “unshared environment.”2 They concluded that their fellow criminologists should abandon heritability studies because they are “methodologically flawed,” and because they are based on the “biologically unsound” practice of “partitioning genetic versus environmental influences on variance in phenotypes.”3 Burt and Simons’ article was followed by responses from a group of leading biosocial criminologist twin researchers.4 Burt and Simons responded to these and other critics in a subsequent article.5

A group of critically minded writers and I decided to enter this debate, and to weigh in on the validity of the twin method’s controversial MZ-DZ “equal environment assumption.” Our article was published online August 9th in the journal Logos, and is very relevant to twin studies in medicine, psychiatry, psychology, and all areas of human behavior.

I encourage readers to take a look at this article.6 A previously unpublished summary of it can be found below:

“The long-running debate on the validity of twin research recently resurfaced in American criminology, and has major implications for behavioral and medical twin research. We review the twin method’s controversial ‘equal environment assumption’ (EEA), and challenge biosocial criminologists’ claim that the assumption is well supported, and that computer simulations prove that twin method heritability estimates are valid. We also challenge the claim that the false assumptions underlying the twin method cancel each other out in favor of genetics. Most twin researchers and their critics agree that reared-together monozygotic (MZ) twin pairs experience more similar environments than experienced by same-sex dizygotic (DZ) pairs, and we argue that the twin method is therefore unable to disentangle the potential influences of genes and environment on human behavioral differences, a conclusion supported by the failures of molecular genetic research. Finally, we comment on a call to end twin (and other ‘heritability’) research in criminology.”

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1. See also Joseph, J., (2004), The Gene Illusion: Genetic Research in Psychiatry and Psychology under the Microscope, New York: Algora; Joseph, J., (2015), The Trouble with Twin Studies: A Reassessment of Twin Research in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, New York: Routledge.

2. Burt, C. H., & Simons, R. L., (2014), Pulling Back the Curtain on Heritability Studies: Biosocial Criminology in the Postgenomic Era, Criminology, 52, 223-262.

3. Burt & Simons, 2014, p. 250.

4. Barnes et al., (2014), Demonstrating the Validity of Twin Research in Criminology, Criminology, 52, 588-626; Wright et al., (2015), Mathematical Proof is Not Minutiae and Irreducible Complexity is not a Theory: A Final Response to Burt and Simons and a Call to Criminologists, Criminology, 53, 113-120.

5. Burt, C. H., & Simons, R. L., (2015), Heritability Studies in the Postgenomic Era: The Fatal Flaw is Conceptual, Criminology, 53, 103-112.

6. Joseph, J., Chaufan, C., Richardson, K., Shultziner, D., Fosse, R., James, O., Latham, J., & Read, J., (2015), The Twin Research Debate in American Criminology, Logos, 14 (Nos. 2-3), Published online 8/9/2015.

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  1. I had a psychology professor in college who made the following comment about twins studies. He said that the “nature vs. nurture” controversy could be easily resolved by studying identical twins, one of which died at child birth. In every case, the twin who received nurturing, the one which lived, had a better outcome than the one which received no nurturing because it died.

  2. It’s not hard to understand why twin researchers continue to deceive themselves about a valid basis for their research. If they were to admit they are quacks promoting the behavioral science equivalent of astrology, they could lose their jobs.

    This BS research should be exposed as a scientific fraud as much as possible, and money and time put toward understanding how genes interact with the environment differently for each individual, including each individual twin.