A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Does the Bible tell people to handle snakes? Plus: are there five kinds of twins?

January 7, 2000

Dear Cecil:

Is there some reference to snake or serpent handling in the Bible that would drive people to the religious conviction that if they are true believers snakes will not harm them? I live in Alabama and know of such groups but don't know anyone who has participated in one. I am interested in finding out why and how these groups got started and how they worship.

A hallmark of Christian fundamentalism is taking the Bible literally. Snake handlers take it really literally. They point to Mark 16:17-18, in which the risen Jesus tells his disciples, "And these signs shall follow them that believe; in my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover." For 19 centuries most Christians understood these signs as mere possibilities. Then in 1909 Tennessee preacher George Hensley pointed out that it didn't say may, brothers and sisters, it said shall. He challenged his congregation to handle poisonous snakes or be condemned to hell.

Needless to say, nobody ever fell asleep during one of Hensley's services. His snake-handling spectacles drew crowds from far and wide and inspired other true believers to take up the bizarre practice on their own. Today the number of snake handlers is estimated at 2,000 to 2,500, mostly Pentecostals in Appalachia and the south. The practice is condemned by most major denominations and is even illegal in a few places, but it's still popular among the rubberneckers who practice what one wag on the Net calls "recreational Christianity."

Do snake handlers get bitten? All the time. At one point this was considered a mark of sin, but the current take on it is that God moves in mysterious ways. Bitten believers refuse treatment on the theory that the saved will survive. If so, things don't look good for George Hensley.  In 1955 he was bitten by a snake, refused treatment, and died.

Dear Cecil:

During an evening of Trivial Pursuit — they really should include explanations with that game — I came upon a question asking how many types of twins there are. My answer, naturally, was two (fraternal and identical). To my surprise the answer was five! The only other possibility I could think of was conjoined twins. Gimme the straight dope on twins please, Uncle Cecil!

Cecil replies:

You asked for it, bubba. For starters, the three types of monozygotic (identical) twins are diamniotic dichorionic (DiDi), diamniotic monochorionic (DiMo), and monoamniotic monochorionic (MoMo). You see why Trivial Pursuit doesn't explain?

Despite the terminology, twin classification is actually pretty simple. It's based on placental anatomy, which is important because some types of placental development give rise to more abnormalities than others.

The issue with identical twins is the number of chorions and amnions, the two layers of the sac surrounding the fetus. (Think of it like double bagging at the supermarket.) The luckiest type of twin is DiDi — each twin has its own amnion (inner sac) and chorion (outer sac). The least lucky kind is MoMo — the twins share a single amnion and chorion and, like kids in the same bed, cause each other no end of fetal distress, including one strangling on the other's umbilical cord, one stealing nourishment from the other, etc.   Monochorionic twins have ten times the risk of abnormality that dichorionic twins do. The risk for DiMo twins — each kid in its own amniotic sac but sharing the chorionic sac — is in between the two extremes. For illustrations, see http://library.med.utah.edu/WebPath/PLACHTML/PLAC101.html and follow the links. Warning: pretty it ain't.

All fraternal (dizygotic) twins are DiDi — separate packaging for each kid. The issue is implantation. If the two fetuses implant (attach) at separate spots on the uterine wall, no prob. If they implant at adjoining spots, there's a chance one twin will steal resources from the other. So: two types of fraternal twins, three types of identical, five in all.

Then again, this is Trivial Pursuit, which claimed the Great Wall of China was the only man-made object on earth that you could see from space, so who knows what they had in mind? Another quinquepartite division is the possible boy-girl twin combinations: identical B-B and G-G and fraternal B-B, G-G, and B-G.

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