The Under-recognized Implications, of Heterogeneity: Opportunities for Fresh Views on Scientific, Philosophical, and Social Debates about Heritabiity

Taylor, Peter J.
September 2008
History & Philosophy of the Life Sciences;2008, Vol. 30 Issue 3/4, p431
Academic Journal
Despite a long history of debates about the heritability of human traits by researchers and other critical commentators, the possible heterogeneity of genetic and environmental factors that underlie patterns in observed traits has not been recognized as a significant conceptual and methodological issue. This article is structured to stimulate a wide range of readers to pursue diverse implications of underlying heterogeneity and of its absence from previous debates. Section 1, a condensed critique of previous conceptualizations and interpretations of heritability studies, consists of three core propositions centered on heterogeneity and six supplementary propositions. Reference is made to agricultural evaluation trials in which a number of different genetically replicable varieties are raised in multiple replicates in one or more locations. In such analyses, the best case for illuminating genetic and environmental factors can be achieved; analyses in human genetics, in contrast, fall far short of the ideal. Section 2 identifies a wide range of questions that invite philosophical, historical, sociological, and scientific inquiry. These are organized under four headings: debate over the conceptual implications of heterogeneity; history of translation of methods from agriculture and laboratory breeding into human genetic analysis; racialized imaginaries in the analysis of differences among groups; and areas of scientific inquiry that may allow more attention to underlying heterogeneity.


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