The incredible story of triplets split at birth

Trio: Triplets Eddy, Robert and David discovered each other 19 years after they were born.

Does nature or nurture determine who we are? Identical triplets were separated at birth and raised by very different families. Years later, the three strangers met for the first time.

It was 1980, upstate New York, and Robert Shafran was starting his first day at college. Everything was about to change.

As he walked through the campus, other students greeted him like an old friend: “guys were slapping me on the back and girls were hugging and kissing me,” he recalled. Even more strange: everyone was calling him Eddy.

Eddy Galland, it turned out, was another student who had enrolled a year earlier. The two boys looked identical. Robert investigated the connection and discovered the incredible truth: the boys were long-lost identical brothers, adopted by different families at birth.

Their tale was reported by New York newspapers. Another man, David Kellman, saw the articles and realised he looked just like the boys too.

Within weeks, the triplets had reunited and forged an instant bond. One relative described them “rolling on the floor like puppies.”

This incredible story is explored in the documentary Three Identical Strangers, currently showing in UK cinemas. However, as the film shows, the story has a dark side.

After their birth, the triplets were separated in a highly controversial experiment to test if a person’s life is decided by nature or nurture. Psychologist Peter Neubauer assigned each boy to a different family: one rich, another middle-class and the last a working-class family.

Despite their different upbringings, striking similarities emerged once they were reunited: the boys had the same taste in films, enjoyed wrestling in college, and smoked the same brand of cigarettes.

Details like this support the idea that a person’s genes have the greatest impact on life experience. Professor Robert Plomin claims that DNA can “tell your fortune from the moment of your birth” — determining factors like intelligence, personality and the risk of mental illness.

However, environmental factors matter too, as shown by the separate fates of Robert, Eddy and David. Cracks soon appeared in their relationship, they drifted apart, worked different jobs, and one brother’s life ended in tragedy.

Does nature or nurture determine who we are?

Fated

Nature is the most powerful, some argue. Scientists are finding an increasing amount of evidence which links our genes to countless aspects of our lives. Soon genetic tests may even predict what a baby’s future personality will be like. Experiences are important, but genes make the most difference.

Not so fast, others respond. If we accept that genes determine everything, we give up control over our lives. Furthermore, the different fates of these three brothers prove that even those with the same DNA can have radically different lives. Upbringing and experiences are crucial factors.

You Decide

  1. What has a bigger impact on your life: genes or life experiences?
  2. Does fate exist?

Activities

  1. How similar do you think you are to your family members? You could think about your appearance, behaviour, likes and dislikes. Overall, would you say you are more different, or more similar to your relatives?
  2. Imagine you have just met your long-lost twin, but you can only ask them one question. What would you ask them? Share your ideas with the class.

Some People Say...

“Not even identical twins can have the exact same experiences.”

John Medina

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
A scientific experiment like that imposed upon the triplets would cause outrage if it were to be suggested now. “That era, the Fifties and Sixties, [was a] Wild West period of psychology when people were doing all kinds of crazy things. People were pushing the envelope, and they were losing sight of the ethics,” says the film’s director Tim Wardle.
What do we not know?
Before he died, Peter Neubauer admitted that Bobby, Eddy and David were not the only siblings that he separated after birth. However, the exact number of twins and triplets who were part of the study remains unknown.

Word Watch

Identical
The boys looked extremely similar and shared the same DNA. In the womb they would have developed from a single fertilised ovum which split into three.
Three Identical Strangers
The film recently became the most lucrative British documentary ever at the American box office. It has also been widely tipped to win an Oscar.
Controversial
The boys’ adoptive families were not told that other brothers existed, or what the purpose of the experiment was. The test drew comparisons to Nazi experiments undertaken on twins during the Second World War.
Nature
The notion that the shape of one’s life is primarily determined by genes.
Nurture
The argument that life experience has a greater impact than genes.
Peter Neubauer
He died in 2006 after sealing the findings of his experiment in a vault at Yale University. He ordered that they remain hidden there until 2065.

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