Heritability studies: Methodological flaws, invalidated dogmas, and changing paradigms

Callie H. Burt

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    2 Scopus citations


    Purpose - Heritability studies attempt to estimate the contribution of genes (vs. environments) to variation in phenotypes (or outcomes of interest) in a given population at a given time. This chapter scrutinizes heritability studies of adverse health phenotypes, emphasizing flaws that have become more glaring in light of recent advances in the life sciences and manifest most visibly in epigenetics. Methodology/approach - Drawing on a diverse body of research and critical scholarship, this chapter examines the veracity of methodological and conceptual assumptions of heritability studies. Findings - The chapter argues that heritability studies are futile for two reasons: (1) heritability studies suffer from serious methodological flaws with the overall effect of making estimates inaccurate and likely biased toward inflated heritability, and, more importantly (2) the conceptual (biological) model on which heritability studies depend- That of identifiably separate effects of genes versus the environment on phenotype variance - is unsound. As discussed, contemporary bioscientific work indicates that genes and environments are enmeshed in a complex (bidirectional, interactional), dynamic relationship that defies any attempt to demarcate separate contributions to phenotype variance. Thus, heritability studies attempt the biologically impossible. The emerging research on the importance of microbiota is also discussed, including how the commensal relationship between microbial and human cells further stymies heritability studies. Originality/value - Understandably, few sociologists have the time or interest to be informed about the methodological and theoretical underpinnings of heritability studies or to keep pace with the incredible advances in genetics and epigenetics over the last several years. The present chapter aims to provide interested scholars with information about heritability and heritability estimates of adverse health outcomes in light of recent advances in the biosciences.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)3-44
    Number of pages42
    JournalAdvances in Medical Sociology
    StatePublished - 2015


    • Epigenetics
    • Heritability study
    • Microbiome
    • Plasticity
    • Postgenomics
    • Twin study

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
    • Health(social science)


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