Who do you look like? DNA and family resemblance across generations

Who do you look like? DNA and family resemblance across generations


It’s a source of wonder how DNA can program people’s faces to resemble others sharing genetic kinship.

Resemblance is the basis of our perception of race and ethnicity.  It is also a favourite topic of conversation at family gatherings – proclaimed where it is strikingly apparent, or perhaps whispered where it is lacking.  Families generally like it when their male biological offspring look like their fathers and females look like their mothers, perhaps with the odd feature thrown in to mark the other half’s creative stamp (“He’s the spitting image of you, but he’s got my eyes”).  Some may start life looking like one parent, then ‘morph’ into the other as they get older.  Certain facial features may perpetuate for generations, or, fascinatingly, even skip generations.  What family historian hasn’t felt a thrill when they unearth an old photograph of a long forgotten ancestor with a distinct family resemblance?  DNA never forgets.

Does the actual percentage of DNA we share have any bearing on our degree of resemblance to each other?  It’s a genetic lottery, of course.  Here are some interesting examples of resemblance across generations:

Resemblance is inevitable with monozygotic (identical) twins who share 99.99% of their genes.  Film aficionados will know that the producers of Terminator 2 kept their special effects budget down by using Linda Hamilton’s identical twin Leslie in certain shots.  The film also featured identical twins Don and Dan Stanton (male monozygotic twins are less common than female).

Monozygotic twins - Linda and Leslie Hamilton, Don and Dan Stanton


More commonly, twins will be dizygotic (non-identical) and around half are male-female pairs.  They may share up to around 75% of their genes and, like any other siblings, may look similar, particularly given that they are the same age.

Dizygotic twins - Kiefer and Rachel Sutherland
Dizygotic twins – Kiefer and Rachel Sutherland


However, dizygotic twins may also look very different from each other.  Kian and Remee Hodgson were born a minute apart to mixed race parents.  The odds, however, of a mixed race couple having twins of such markedly different colours are very rare.

Dizygotic twins Kian and Remee Hodgson were born a minute apart to mixed race parents.
Dizygotic twins Kian and Remee Hodgson were born a minute apart to mixed race parents.


Siblings share 50% of their genes.  While each sibling receives the same genetic material from each parent, the combination of those genes will be different each time, resulting in both physical difference and similarities too.  Some genetic traits will always show up because of their dominance.  Some may even skip generations.

This is evident in the immediate descendants of 10th US President John Tyler.  His grandsons, Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. and Harrison Ruffin Tyler, are brothers who only share a passing resemblance.  Harrison strongly resembles his father, Lyon Sr., while Lyon Jr. strongly resembles his grandfather, John.  The Tyler family is remarkable because of the length of time spanning each generation, but this delayed time gap has no effect on their DNA programming – John Tyler’s dominant genes are still showing up faithfully in his grandson over 220 years after his birth.

The Tyler family tree

Nobody could mistake the 50% genetic similarity shared by father and son John and Julian Lennon, and the dominance of John’s genes.  Of course, the similar clothes and hairstyle invite comparison.

John and Julian Lennon
John and Julian Lennon


Adolf Hitler’s 50% share of his mother’s genes are more apparent as a younger man.  With added weight and years, his father’s genetic traits seem to come to the fore.

Klara, Adolf and Alois Hitler
Klara, Adolf and Alois Hitler


Going back a generation, grandparents share 25% genetic similarity with their grandchildren.  The dominant genes of Joseph Stalin and Eleanor Roosevelt are clear in the faces of their respective grandson and granddaughter – Yevgeny Dzhugashvili and Anna Roosevelt.

Joseph Stalin and grandson Yevgeny Dzhugashvili; Eleanor Roosevelt and granddaughter Anna Roosevelt
Joseph Stalin and grandson Yevgeny Dzhugashvili; Eleanor Roosevelt and granddaughter Anna Roosevelt


By the time we go back 5 generations, the genetic similarity shared with a particular ancestor is diluted to around 3%.  Actor Skandar Keynes is a great-great-great grandson of Charles Darwin.  He may not grow to share his ancestor’s distinctive looks in old age, but as young children the resemblance is clearly evident.

Charles Darwin and 3 x great grandson Skandar Keynes - as men and boys
Charles Darwin and 3 x great grandson Skandar Keynes – as men and boys


Another example of a 5 generation gap is Prince William and his great-great-great grandfather King Edward VII.  Depending on camera angle and facial expression, William can look like any number of his ancestors – but when he briefly sported a beard recently and was snapped in Victorian ‘non-smiling’ mode, he bore a striking resemblance to 19th century playboy Edward, ‘the Uncle of Europe’, particularly around the eyes and the nose.

Prince William and King Edward VII
Prince William and King Edward VII

After 1,000 years of ‘selective breeding’ by the royal families of Europe, the genetic similarity between William and Edward may be somewhat more than the 3% expected in a 5 generation gap.  For example, William’s grandparents – Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip – are 3rd cousins from both being directly descended from Queen Victoria, as well as 2nd cousins once removed from their direct descent from King Christian IX of Denmark.

However, things are looking up for William genetically.  At 6ft 3in, he not only towers over the 5ft 5in Edward VII, but he is also set to be the tallest ever monarch in British history (taller even than Edward I, the famed 6ft 2in ‘Longshanks’ who reigned 1272-1307).  Both William and his 6ft 2in brother Harry are the beneficiaries of their father Prince Charles’ genetic masterstroke – to inject the royal bloodline with ‘tall genes’ from the Spencer family.


The historic nemesis of British royalty, Oliver Cromwell (who signed King Charles I’s death warrant in 1649), is pictured here alongside his 9 x great-grandson Charlie Bush.  Charlie’s resemblance to his famous ancestor probably owes more to the make-up, wig and costume involved in this fun piece of living history than to his DNA – after 11 generations they will likely share less than 0.05% of their genetic material.  Nonetheless, the resemblance is quite convincing.

Charlie Bush and his 9 x great grandfather Oliver Cromwell
Charlie Bush and his 9 x great grandfather Oliver Cromwell


Family resemblances are not only confined to siblings and direct ancestors.  Cousins obviously share genetic material too.  A first cousin will share them same proportion of DNA with you as a great-grandparent (12.5%), and some uncanny resemblances can occur between seemingly distant cousins.  Ralph C Lincoln discovered he shared an ancestor with 16th US President Abraham Lincoln that made them 3rd cousins.  While Ralph has contrived to grow a similar style of beard as Abraham, a split image of their faces reveals an uncanny resemblance.

Abraham Lincoln and his 3rd cousin Ralph Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln and his 3rd cousin Ralph Lincoln


Fans of the TV genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? may recall the first UK series which featured Jeremy Clarkson (still my favourite ever episode).  He uncovered an old photo of his long-dead 1st cousin 3 times removed, George Kilner, which looked startlingly similar to a 1970s passport mugshot of a teenage Clarkson.  Jeremy and George share just 1.56% of their genetic material.

Jeremy Clarkson and his 1st cousin 3 x removed George Kilner
Jeremy Clarkson and his 1st cousin 3 x removed George Kilner


And finally…as we are dealing with resemblance, how does DNA explain the following line up of seemingly unrelated ‘doppelganger’ anomalies?

Douglas Macarthur and Bruce Willis

Eddie Murphy

Ilham Anas and Barack Obama

John Travolta

Jay Z

Nicolas Cage

Who knows?  Perhaps there is some hidden genetic kinship between these people, or the perhaps the human face can only have limited variation.  With 7 billion human beings currently on the planet, and a wild estimate of 108 billion who have ever lived, random copies are kind of inevitable.  Anyway, where would the internet be without lookalikes (especially the time travelling ones)?



  1. Slovenia very good article. made me think about the supposed photograph of my great-great-grandfather, who closely resembles my father and brother in many respects. I didn’t know about facial resemblance “jumping” generations, so this added a new twist to my research.

  2. United States Several years ago I attended the first family reunion (my father’s side) that had been held in many years. The first person I saw upon arrival was one of my brothers – who was a thousand miles away. He and this cousin we had never met were almost identical twins.

  3. United States This article is very interesting. My father always thought that his chin’s dimple was inherited from his father’s Domenech line. It was after searching my genealogy that I found that my father’s Droz line is the one that had the dimple on the chin. I found Droz relatives who were not related to our Domenech line who carry the gene. The dimple is still being inherited from our 1812 ancestor. On my line, the latest one to have the dimple on her chin is my granddaughter born in 1991. The dimple has sometimes skipped two generations in our family.

  4. United States We have our own sets of gross-generational look-alikes in my family. As a biologist and a genealogist, this sort of thing fascinates me!

  5. United States If you lined up all my first cousins (which we did one summer) and take a photo. You could see the close resemblance in many ways. We all have the same blue/green eyes that tend to turn Kelly Green when we have a fever. My younger son is almost the twin of my cousin Freddie. It is amazing how strong the genes are on my maternal grandmother’s side of the family.

    I also have a half brother and nephew, you can tell at a glance that we are siblings and aunt of nephew.

  6. United States When my mother was young, she thought she looked like her great-grandmother on her father’s father’s side. When she was in her 50s, I found a picture of her other paternal great-grandmother on her father’s mother’s side. My jaw dropped. This woman could be my mother. She wasn’t as pretty as my mother and didn’t age as gracefully – after all, this was Depression Era Oklahoma, life was hard! – but she resembled my mother more than any of her sisters.

    My father doesn’t look a lot like either of his parents. There’s something familiar, but I wouldn’t say “carbon copy.” He doesn’t look like his brother or sister very much, either. And I’ve seen his grandfather and his great-grandfather, and while there’s something there, nothing damning by any means. However, I recently connected with his paternal first cousin while posting on a genealogy board and, WHOA, they look like brothers. Amazing! Funnily, my father’s dad looks like his own grandfather, my great-great-grandfather. Tall, skinny, long head, dark pigmented Italian. My dad is only 5’8″ and very handsome. His father was never good looking. I just assumed he got his looks from his mom, but he looks so much like this cousin that obviously it’s more complicated.

  7. United States As people who are directly related (i.e. brothers and sisters) move to other cities, countries and even other continents and as those people never see each other or their offspring nor 3rd generations sprung from them…it is very easy to see how one person can look almost identical to another “not related” to them. For example: My husband’s brother & his children live in Montana; we live in Texas; neither of our children ever see each other (not to mention their mother’s Mexican & I’m puertorrican so there’s even more relatives spread out that they’ll never know of). Fast forward to: many years in the future, and it’s absolutely possible that my children’s grandchildren would run into and possibly even fall in love with my brother-in-law’s children’s grandchildren. They would never know they were indeed related to one another. Hence celebrity doppelganger pictures flooding the internet. We are bound to have relatives who look like us that we’ve never knew existed.

  8. Canada While researching my own genealogy, I took it upon myself to do a DNA test which put me in touch with several distant relatives. I have since exchanged photos with several and have thus far discovered a relative in the 5th-15th cousin range who could pass for my mother’s older twin, a fellow in the 3rd to 5h cousin range that could easily be mistaken for my late uncle, a 4th cousin 3 times removed who shares an uncanny resemblance to my aunt, and her daughter that could pass as my niece’s twin… its downright eerie sometimes.

  9. United States It’s a good thing people didn’t reference any Chinese or Asians in this post, because to me they all look alike and are all Probably related.

  10. United States At the Seattle Museum of Flight, there is a photo of a flyer that is the spitting image of Brad Pitt!

  11. Canada My father and uncle are identical twins. I have two brothers (not twins), and they always looked extremely similar to each other.

    We have a wonderful old photo of my father and uncle sitting side by side at about 8 years old or so. We can compare this photo with photos of my brothers at the same age. They all look exactly the same.

    But at the same time, one brother looks more like our dad, and the other brother looks more like our uncle.

    Basically identical, but a certain undefinable ‘something’ that sets them apart. And it’s not just unintentional bias, seeing something that isn’t there — everyone who sees the pictures agrees, and will always associate the same brother with the same twin.

  12. United States If one does a family tree, and then does DNA testing, may find the resemblances of features are from a shared ancestor.

    So far my present day male matches on DNA markers with about 55 others. and I match to over to 75 others on the female side.

  13. United States My 8 years younger sister and I look so much alike that our toddler pictures are virtually indistinguishable. Both of us look like my mother. And I have identical twin sons who look very much like my younger brother, who looks very much like my dad. The other sister resembles my dad’s family, but not as much as we resemble our mother.

  14. - Early photos taken at about the same age of my daughter and her first daughter are virtually identical–the former B&W and the latter in color. Most notable is the smile.

  15. United States I guess I look a little like Prince William. No surprise there, since we are distant cousins. – See Grand Archduke of Doggerland

  16. - My father’s mother’s family were Native American. In a history book, I found a picture of a Blackfoot Sioux chief who could have been fitted in between my father and his older brother as a long lost sibling. Same dark almost straight hair and hairline, same chin and slightly squinted eyes, same large but chiseled nose. Except… our family is Cherokee, not Sioux. :)

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