Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 24, Issue 1, pp 81–105 | Cite as

From heritability to probability



Can a heritabilityvalue tell us something about the weight of genetic versus environmental causes that have acted in the development of aparticular individual? Two possible questions arise. Q1: what portion of the phenotype of X is due to its genes and what portion to its environment? Q2: what portion of X’s phenotypic deviation from the mean is a result of its genetic deviation and what portion a result of its environmental deviation? An answer to Q1 provides the full information about X’s development, while an answer to Q2 leaves out a large portion unexplained—that portion which corresponds to the phenotypic mean. Q1 is unanswerable, but I show it is nevertheless legitimate under certain quantitative genetics models. With regard to Q2, opinions in the philosophical and biological literature differ as to its legitimacy. I argue that not only is it legitimate, but in particular, under a few simplifying assumptions, it allows for a quantitativeprobabilistic answer: for normally distributed quantitative traits with no G-E correlation or statistical G × E interaction, we can assess the probability that X’s genes had a greater effect than its environment on its deviation from the mean population value. This probability is expressed as a function the heritability and the individual’s phenotypic value; we can also provide a quantitative probabilistic answer to Q2 for an arbitrary individual where the probability is a function only of heritability.


Heritability Probability Normal distribution Quantitative genetics Behavior genetics Analysis of variance 


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas, School of PhilosophyTel Aviv UniversityTel AvivIsrael

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