Heritability: a handy guide to what it means, what it doesn’t mean, and that giant meta-analysis of twin studies

1 Jun

” It is simply, at best, a snap-shot of how much of the variation in the trait that there happens to be now is statistically associated with the genetic variation there is in this population, in this range of environments, with this particular distribution of genotypes into those environments. This does not make it meaningless, or useless. But it does put severe limits on what can be deduced from it.”

Scientia Salon

CT_Quartz-IQ_SPOTLIGHTby Jonathan M. Kaplan

Recently, Nature Genetics published a paper by Polderman et al. entitled “Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies,” [1]. It has already garnered a lot of attention: blog posts and various news sites are trumpeting its conclusions, and putting their own spins on the results. For reasons I’ll briefly discuss below, I found the paper to be very strange, but my main purpose in this post isn’t to criticize it. Rather, I wish to briefly explain, in broad terms, what “heritability” actually means, and perhaps more importantly, what it doesn’t mean. The twin studies analyzed by Polderman et al. attempted to estimate the heritability of various human traits. While one can, for reasons I’ll note briefly below, raise concerns about how accurately heritability can be estimated from twin studies in humans, the more important point is that heritability doesn’t…

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