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Across the great divide: pluralism and the hunt for missing heritability


Genetic explanation of complex human behavior presents an excellent test case for pluralism. Although philosophers agree that successful scientific investigation of behavior is pluralistic, there remains disagreement regarding integration and elimination—is the plurality of approaches here to stay, or merely a waystation on the road to monism? In this paper we introduce an issue taken very seriously by scientists yet mostly ignored by philosophers—the missing heritability problem—and assess its implications for disagreement among pluralists. We argue that the missing heritability problem, which isn’t going anywhere any time soon, implies that pluralism in behavior genetics is both practically ineliminative and theoretically non-integrative.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    The second law states that the environmental effects of families appear to be small in classical twin studies; the third law states that a substantial portion of the variance in human behavior fails to be explained by either genes or environment.

  2. 2.

    Because the estimates were first developed for pathological traits in medical research, GPSs are often referred to as Polygenic Risk Scores (PRSs). Here we’ll use GPS.

  3. 3.

    Sometimes ‘SNP heritability’ or ‘h 2DNA ’.

  4. 4.

    Credit goes to Wylie (2015) for coining the phrase, “Plurality of Pluralisms”.

  5. 5.

    Note that Matthews’ (2015) notion of ‘embedded mechanisms’ would not suffice, in our view, to close the mechanism gap for any complex human behavior. Although embedded mechanisms play an important explanatory role in some pattern oriented sciences, such as population genetics and statistical phylogeneticists, it is not yet clear that either quantitative genetic or molecular genetic approaches to human behavior employ embedded mechanisms.


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Research for this project was funded in part by the Center for Genetics and Human Agency via the John Templeton Foundation.

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Correspondence to Lucas J. Matthews.

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Matthews, L.J., Turkheimer, E. Across the great divide: pluralism and the hunt for missing heritability. Synthese 198, 2297–2311 (2021).

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  • Pluralism
  • Heritability
  • Genetics
  • Biology
  • Mechanism
  • Prediction
  • Explanation