Sometimes when Charlie Chasen or Michael Malone were walking alone in Atlanta, people would mistake one for the other.
Longtime friends who live in Atlanta are unrelated. Their ancestors don’t even come from the same part of the world.
Malone’s family is originally from the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic. Chasen’s family came from Scotland and Lithuania.
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Nor are they the result of a very dark family secret. Yet they look strikingly similar.
It’s not just their brown hair, beards and glasses. It is also the structure of their nose, their cheekbones and the shape of their lips.
“Michael and I are going back and it’s all been a lot of fun for us because over the years we’ve confused each other all over, all over Atlanta,” Chasen told CNN’s Don Lemon. .
“There were some really interesting situations that came up just because people thought we were the other person.”
The two look so alike that even facial recognition software has struggled to tell them apart from identical twins. But now scientists think they can explain what makes them so similar – and could explain why each of us can have a look-alike.
According to a new study, people who look alike, but are not directly related, always seem to have genetic similarities.
Of those with these genetic similarities, many also had similar weights, similar lifestyle factors, and similar behavioral traits such as smoking habits and education levels.
This could mean that genetic variation is linked to physical appearance and can also potentially influence certain habits and behaviors.
Scientists have long wondered what creates a person’s look-alike.
Is it nature or education?
A team of researchers in Spain tried to find out. Their findings were published Tuesday in the journal Cell Reports.
Dr Manel Esteller, a researcher at the Josep Carreras Leukemia Research Institute, has worked on research involving twins in the past, but for this project he was interested in people who look alike but have no real family connection for almost 100 years.
Art leads to science
So he turned to art to answer a question about science.
He and his co-writers recruited 32 people with look-alikes who were part of the I’m Not A Look-alike! by Canadian artist François Brunelle.
The researchers asked the couples to take a DNA test and fill out questionnaires about their lives.
The scientists also ran the images through three different facial recognition programs.
Of the people they recruited, 16 pairs had similar scores to identical twins identified using the same software.
The other 16 pairs might have looked the same to the human eye, but the algorithm didn’t think so in any of the facial recognition programs.
The researchers then took a closer look at the participants’ DNA. The pairs that facial recognition software said were similar had many more genes in common than the other 16 pairs.
“We were able to see that these lookalike humans actually share several genetic variants. And those are very common among them,” Esteller said.
“So they share these genetic variants that are linked in such a way that they have the shape of the nose, the eye, the mouth, the lips and even the bone structure. And that was the main finding that genetics puts them together .
They’re similar codes, he said, but that’s just coincidental.
“In the world right now, there are so many people that eventually the system is producing humans with similar DNA sequences,” Esteller said.
That’s probably always been true, but now with the internet it’s much easier to find them.
Other factors at play
When they took a closer look at the pairs, they determined that other factors were different, he said.
“There’s the reason why they’re not completely identical,” Esteller said.
When the scientists took a closer look at what they call the epigenomes of the lookalikes that looked the most alike, there were bigger differences.
Epigenetics is the study of how environment and behavior can cause changes in how a person’s genes work.
When the scientists looked at the microbiome of the pairs that looked the most alike, they were also different.
The microbiome are the microorganisms – viruses, bacteria and fungi too small to be seen by the human eye – that live in the human body.
“These results not only provide information about the genetics that determine our face, but could also have implications for establishing other human anthropometric properties and even personality characteristics,” the study says.
The study has limitations.
The sample size was small, so it’s hard to say that these results would hold true for a larger group of look-alikes. Although the researchers believe 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.
Dr. Karen Gripp, a pediatrician and geneticist at Nemours Children’s Health, whose research is referenced in this work, said the study is really interesting and validates much of the research that precedes it.
Applying science to the real world
Gripp uses facial analysis software to assess his patient’s facial features that could suggest certain genetic conditions.
“It’s a little different from the study, but it’s really going in the same direction,” Gripp said.
“These changes in a person’s genetic material affect facial structures, and it’s really the same underlying hypothesis that was used in this study as being effectively confirmed, unlike other things like the microbiome that don’t didn’t seem to be as relevant.”
Regarding the question of nature versus nurture that the study raises, Gripp thinks both are important.
“As a geneticist, I strongly believe that nature and genetic material are very important for almost everything, but that doesn’t take away from saying that education is just as important,” Gripp said.
“For every person to succeed 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
Gripp said the study also highlights that there are still limits to the accuracy of facial recognition software.
While several cities concerned about privacy issues and misidentification issues have passed rules prohibiting or restricting the use of facial recognition software by local police, the U.S. federal government and some local law enforcement agencies l use more frequently.
In 2021, a US federal investigation found that at least 16 federal agencies used it for digital access or cybersecurity, six used it to generate leads in criminal investigations, and another 10 planned to expand its use.
It is also used more commonly at airports.
Some companies use it to make hiring decisions. Some landlords have installed it so that tenants can enter buildings. Some schools use it to take attendance and monitor movement in public spaces on college campuses.
“If you translate this study into the real world, it shows you a potential pitfall where digital facial analysis tools could misidentify someone,” Gripp said.
Although the technology has improved, previous studies have already shown the technology to be much less accurate when identifying people of color, and several black men have been wrongfully arrested due to facial recognition.
“If you think about facial recognition software that often opens computer screens and things like that, misidentification is possible,” Gripp said.
“So I think that also taught us something very important about facial analysis tools.”
But the study seems to suggest one conclusion.
At least physically, we may not all be unique.
“I think we all have someone like us right now, a double,” Esteller said.
While some would prefer to be singular in appearance, Malone, who happens to be friends with his double, takes comfort in the fact that he is not alone in his appearance.
His resemblance to his friend brought them closer, and he thinks if more people knew how similar they were to others, maybe they too could find some commonalities, especially in this polarized world.
“It made me realize that we’re all connected,” Malone said.
“We are all connected because humanity probably starts with a small thing.”