The old friends who live in Atlanta are not related. Their ancestors are not even from the same part of the world. Malone’s family was from the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic. Chasen’s family came from Scotland and Lithuania. Nor are they the result of a deeply dark family secret. Yet they look remarkably similar. It’s not just their brown hair, beard and glasses. It is also the structure of their noses, their cheekbones and the shape of their lips.
“Michael and I go way back and it’s all been a source of great joy for us as we’ve been mistaken for each other all over Atlanta over the years,” Chasen told CNN’s Don Lemon. “Really interesting situations have come up because people thought we were the other person.”
The two are so similar that even facial recognition software had a hard time distinguishing them from identical twins. But now scientists think they can explain why they’re so similar — and explain why each of us has a doppelganger.
People who are similar but not directly related still appear to have genetic similarities, according to a new study.
Among those who had these genetic similarities, many also had similar weights, similar lifestyle factors, and similar behavioral traits such as smoking and education level. That could mean that genetic variation is related to physical appearance and may also influence certain habits and behavior.
dr. Manel Esteller, a researcher at the Josep Carreras Leukemia Research Institute in Barcelona, Spain, said he has worked on research with twins in the past, but for this project he was interested in people who look alike but have no real family connection. going back almost 100 years.
Art leads to science
The researchers asked the couples to take a DNA test. The couples completed questionnaires about their lives. The scientists also put their images through three different facial recognition programs. Of the people they recruited, 16 pairs had similar scores to identical twins identified with the same software. The other 16 pairs may have looked the same to the human eye, but the algorithm didn’t think so in any of the facial recognition programs.
Researchers then took a closer look at the participants’ DNA. The pairs that the facial recognition software said were similar had many more genes in common than the other 16 pairs.
“We could see that these resemble humans, in fact they share several genetic variants, and these are very common in them,” Esteller said. “So they share these genetic variants that are related in a way that they have the shape of the nose, eye, mouth, lips and even bone structure. And this was the main conclusion that genetics brings them together.”
These are similar codes, he said, but it’s just a random coincidence.
“There are so many people in the world right now that the system ends up producing people with similar DNA sequences,” Esteller said. This was probably always true, but now with the internet it’s a lot easier to find them.
Other factors that play a role
When they took a closer look at the pairs, they found that other factors were different, he said.
“There’s the reason they aren’t quite identical,” Esteller said.
When scientists took a closer look at what they call the epigenomes of the most similar look-alikes, there were greater differences. Epigenetics is the study of how the environment and behavior can cause changes in the way a person’s genes work. When the scientists looked at the microbiomes of the pairs that most resembled each other, they were also different. The microbiome is the microorganisms—the viruses, bacteria, and fungi that are too small for the human eye to see—that live in the human body.
“These results not only provide insights into the genetics that determine our face, but may also have implications for establishing other human anthropometric traits and even personality traits,” the study said.
The study does have limitations. The sample size was small, so it’s hard to say that these results would be true for a larger group of look-alikes. Although researchers think their findings would change in a larger group. The study also focused on couples who were largely of European descent, so it’s unclear whether the results would be the same for people from other parts of the planet.
Application of science in the real world
Gripp uses facial analysis software in her work with patients who may have genetic disorders to assess her patient’s facial features that may indicate certain genetic disorders.
“It’s a little different from the study, but it really points in the same direction that changes in a person’s genetic material affect facial structures, and that’s actually the same underlying assumption used in this study as indeed confirmed, unlike for some other things, like the microbiome, it didn’t seem to be as relevant,” Gripp said.
As for the nature versus nurture question the research raises, Gripp believes both are important.
“As a geneticist, I firmly believe that nature and genetic material are very important to almost everything, but that doesn’t change the fact that education is just as important,” Gripp said. “For any person to be successful in the world, there are so many contributing factors and the environment is so important that I don’t think it’s one or the other.”
A potential problem
“Translating this study to the real world shows you a potential pitfall that digital facial analysis tools can misidentify someone,” Gripp said.
“If you think about the facial recognition software that often opens computer screens and things like that, misidentification is possible. So I think this also taught us something really important about facial analysis tools,” Gripp said.
But the study seems to suggest one conclusion. We are not that unique physically.
“I think we all have someone who looks like us now, a doppelganger,” Esteller said.
While some prefer to be unique in their looks, Malone, who happens to be friends with his doppelgänger, is encouraged by the fact that he’s not alone in his looks. His resemblance to his friend has brought them closer together, and he thinks that if more people knew how much they resembled others, maybe they too could find commonality, especially in this polarized world.
“It made me realize that we are all connected,” Malone said. “We are all connected because humanity probably starts with one little thing.”