As a school principal for many years, a number of adopted children have attended my school. At first I did not know they were adopted and simply assumed they were the natural progeny of their parents. Some of the kids even looked like their parents, and I regarded their parents as their true biological parents.
Later, when I became aware that these children were adopted, I occasionally saw a disconnect between parents and children, and it made me think about the age-old discussion of nature vs. nurture. Which is more important in a child’s development?
Three Identical Strangers is a documentary that considers the problem from a unique perspective. The true story concerns identical triplets, Bobby, Eddy, and David, born in 1961, who were separated at birth and adopted by three different families. Each remains oblivious of the other until they meet 19 years later as adults. They are outwardly carbon copies of one another and they bond quickly as brothers.
The triplets reunited in 1980 as a result of a chance encounter at college where one brother was confused with another because they looked alike. The discovery led to a viral response by the media, which led to numerous appearances on TV. Their celebrity grew, and at first they basked in the attention they were getting. As time passed, the individuality of each brother asserted itself, and we see that emotionally they were very different.
Serendipitously, it was discovered that their separation at birth from a single mother, and their subsequent placement in homes with different economic circumstances – one blue-collar, one middle-class, and one upper-class – was the result of a psychiatric experiment conducted by Dr. Peter Neubauer who was investigating whether nurture or nature was the determining factor in who a child turned out to be.
The brothers felt like rats used in an experiment. They understood that it may have been difficult for a couple to adopt three babies at once, but they were disturbed that no one at the adoption agency told the adopting parents that their one child was one of triplets.
Dr. Neubauer’s research came to a close when he died, and the study was abandoned. The answer to this age-old question of nature vs. nurture was not resolved, especially when one of the brothers, Eddy, committed suicide in 1995.
Rabbi Dr. Paul Shrell-Fox, a psychologist specializing in ADHD and learning disabilities, asks: “Are we in charge of our destinies? Are we shaped by our surroundings? Or are we a product of our genetic makeup? “ In truth, our actions are determined by a combination of our genes and our environment. Bobby, Eddy, and David clearly were genetically similar, but the Torah tells us that we all are created “in the image of God.” The corollary: every individual is unique. Outward likeness does not mean that the inner soul, the inner emotional make-up, of a person is the same.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests that we are more than our DNA: “Our early character is determined partly by DNA – the genetic heritage of our parents and theirs – partly by our home and upbringing, partly by our friends, and partly by the surrounding culture. We are not born free. We have to work hard to achieve freedom.”
Sacks indicates that we can exercise our free will no matter our genetic or cultural background. Whether our future is determined by our genes or by the way we are educated is a question that cannot be answered. What is evident that both influence our destinies, and we still have free will to choose what direction in life we will take. We may possess biological tendencies to move in one direction, but we have the ability to make midcourse corrections that will enable us to have fulfilling lives.
Three Identical Strangers raises the question of how our future as adults is determined. The Jewish approach is to take what we are given, the God-given attributes with which God blesses us, and use them for good. Only by exercising our free will do we fulfill our cosmic destinies.