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Interpreting Heritability Causally

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2022


A high heritability estimate usually corresponds to a situation in which trait variation is largely caused by genetic variation. However, in some cases of gene-environment covariance, causal intuitions about the sources of trait difference can vary, leading experts to disagree as to how the heritability estimate should be interpreted. We argue that the source of contention for these cases is an inconsistency in the interpretation of the concepts ‘genotype’, ‘phenotype’, and ‘environment’. We propose an interpretation of these terms under which trait variance initially caused by genetic variance is subsumed into a heritability for all cases of gene-environment covariance.

Research Article
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Author order has been decided randomly; therefore, both authors are first authors. KEL and PB contributed equally to the manuscript. KEL’s distinct contribution was the ideas developed in sec. 3. PB’s distinct contribution was the ideas developed in secs. 4 and 5 and the equations in sec. 3. Other sections received equal contributions from both authors. We thank Ingo Brigandt, Paul Griffiths, Wesley Fang, Darrell Kemp, Christopher Lean, Qiaoying Lu, John Matthewson, Arnaud Pocheville, Isobel Ronai, and Karola Stotz for their comments on earlier versions of this article. PB was supported under the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects funding scheme DP150102875.


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