I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Being told they look like someone else happens to many people, but “looking like” and being “exactly the same as” are very different things.
Our Evolving Features
Go for a walk in a park and check out the squirrels. They all look the same. See a herd of wildebeest or impala on a nature show. You can’t tell them apart. These animals recognize one another through smell, humans do it by vision.
Behavioural ecologist Michael Sheehan at Cornell University says “Humans are phenomenally good at recognizing faces; there is a part of the brain specialized for that.” He and his colleagues have found that “It is clearly beneficial for me to recognize others, but also beneficial for me to be recognizable. Otherwise, we would all look more similar.”
It makes evolutionary sense that we can quickly recognize and avoid the idiot who behaves badly and seek out the company of good people.
How Much Facial Diversity Is there?
Dr. Garrett Hellenthal is with the genetics institute of University College London. He says there are so many variables in facial construction that the chance of finding an exact replica is nil.
A 2015 study in Australia looked at the probability that two people would share the exact same eight facial features. The odds turn out to be about one in a trillion, and that’s just for eight features. Throw in the environmental, lifestyle, and aging factors that have an effect on the way we look and the odds are too big to contemplate.
Certainly, people can find an “almost-me” person but not a precise double.
It’s a bit like the no-two-snowflakes-are-alike proposition. At a distance, all snowflakes look white, spiky, and crystalline. Even under a microscope two snowflakes can look remarkably similar. But, at the molecular level they are not identical.
We don’t have to poke about in molecules to demonstrate that no two human faces are precisely the same. Not even identical twins have exactly the same features.
Studies have also shown that while one person sees an amazing similarity between two faces, another person will see the faces as different. This, according to George Washington University’s Dr. Dainele Podini, is because of the way we read faces.
Some people start by looking at the mouth first and working up to the eyes, others reverse the order. Studying facial geography in different ways gives the viewer a different perception of what they see.
Clothing, hair cuts, and build also influence us. According to The Telegraph (U.K.) this “is known in psychology as ‘verification bias.’ Once one thing makes sense we bend the facts so that everything else fits the mental picture we have built.”
You have to feel a little sorry for Erin Clements, Senior Pop Culture and Lifestyle Editor for NBC News, TODAY. Somebody, gave her the assignment to write an article about celebrity look-alikes.
However, any objective observer would have to conclude none of the people pictured look remotely like their supposed doppelgangers. This exercise in finding look-alikes in the world of show business pops up all over the internet with equally unconvincing claims that two stars are carbon copies of each other.
What are easier to find are regular, non-famous folk who look very much like celebrities. It’s even possible to buy an app that will find your celebrity twin.
Social media has been recruited for people to find their almost-identical other person.
Eighteen pairs who found their other self on Reddit are featured on a HuffPo story. There are a few that do look remarkably similar but most of the others look alike because they have the same beards, haircuts, and glasses.
The same confusion is sown in many other internet posts, most of which inform the potential viewer they’re about to see something “incredible” or “mindblowing.” But, side-by-side images of George Carlin and Charles Darwin fall far short of the hyperbole. Although sometimes, the resemblance is bang on.
Neil Richardson retired from the priesthood and settled in the community of Braintree, Essex, England. When out for walks he was constantly being greeted by people who called him John. By chance, Neil met retired teacher, John Jemison, a man with whom he shared a remarkable facial closeness and found the two men lived a few miles apart. They had both studied at the same college, although not at the same time, and both taught religious studies.
- In 1999, Richard Anthony Jones was convicted of aggravated robbery in Kansas. He was identified as the man who attacked a woman in an attempt to steal her purse. Jones claimed innocence. Seventeen years later, Jones was released from prison when it became clear that a doppelganger named Ricky Lee Amos was the likely culprit.
- Doppelganger is a German word meaning “double walker.” Legend has it that if you see your doppelganger it is an omen of the coming death for both you and your twin.
- Prosopagnosia is an abnormality that impairs a person’s ability to recognize faces, including their own. Writer Stephen Fry and co-founder of Apple Steve Wozniak both have the condition that is often referred to as “face blindness.”
- Country music legend Dolly Parton once entered a drag-queen look-alike contest. She says that when she walked across the stage “I got the least applause” of all the contestants. One of the male drag queens was picked as the most Dolly Parton look-alike.
- “Human Faces Evolved to Be Recognisable, Scientists Say.” Paul Gallagher, The Independent, September 16, 2014.
- “No Two Snowflakes Alike - True or False.” Anne Marie Helmenstine, ThoughtCo.com, March 6, 2017.
- “Famous Doppelgangers: 17 Celebrity Pairs We Have Trouble Telling Apart.” Erin Clements, TODAY, November 30, 2018.
- “Could You Track Down Your Doppelganger?” Sarah Knapton, The Telegraph, April 17, 2015.
- “Here Are The Chances of You Having a Doppelganger.” Josh Hrala, Science Alert, July 18, 2016.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor