so the mother of all meta-analyses of twin studies and the heritability of human traits was published the other day: “Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies” [pdf].

the authors looked at “17,804 traits from 2,748 publications including 14,558,903 partly dependent twin pairs, virtually all published twin studies of complex traits.” 14.5+ MILLION twin pairs! as james thompson said, this study pretty much represents “the mother of ‘F*** Off’ samples.” (~_^) in future, if someone says to you that twin studies were debunked a long time ago, blah, blah, blah, just point them to this paper.

and the upshot is: we are not blank slates. we never were.

from the paper, “[A]cross all traits the reported heritability is 49%.” in other words, these researchers found that pretty much half of the variance in all sorts of physical and behavioral traits in humans — the differences that we see between people — can be accounted for by genetics.

here’s a key table from the paper. i took the liberty of jiggling it around a bit so it would fit better on the blog (h2 is what you should be looking at here — that’s narrow sense heritabilty):

twin studies meta-analysis

the press has picked this up as there being an even split between nature and nurture, genes versus “the environment.” here, for example, from the huffington post*:

“Nature Or Nurture? The Long-Running Debate May Finally Be Settled”

“It’s an age-old debate: do our genes make us who we are, or is it the environment in which we were raised?

“There’s long been agreement that both ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ play some role in determining many aspects of our physical and mental selves, from our height and weight to our intelligence and disposition. But as to which plays the bigger role in shaping us, scientists have never seemed to agree.

“That debate may now be over, thanks to a sweeping analysis of studies conducted around the world for more than five decades. The analysis — involving more than 14.5 million twin pairs from 39 countries — indicates that nature and nurture are virtually tied.

“Across all of our traits, in other words, genes and environment exert equal influence.”

yeeeessss…but what is “the environment”? on hearing that most people will think of things like reading bedtime stories to kids or playing mozart to your unborn fetus. but those sorts of things are decidedly not what the environment is in this context. from kevin mitchell of wiring the brain:

i’ve blogged this before, but i think we all need to read it again — from steven pinker on “the environment”:

“Even the technical sense of ‘environment’ used in quantitative behavioral genetics is perversely confusing. Now, there is nothing wrong with partitioning phenotypic variance into components that correlate with genetic variation (heritability) and with variation among families (‘shared environment’). The problem comes from the so-called ‘nonshared’ or ‘unique environmental influences.’ This consists of all the variance that is attributable neither to genetic nor familiar variation. In most studies, it’s calculated as 1 – (heritability + shared environment). Practically, you can think of it as the differences between identical twins who grow up in the same home. They share their genes, parents, older and younger siblings, home, school, peers, and neighborhood. So what could make them different? Under the assumption that behavior is a product of genes plus environment, it must be something in the environment of one that is not in the environment of the other.

But this category really should be called ‘miscellaneous/unknown,’ because it has nothing necessarily to do with any measurable aspect of the environment, such as one sibling getting the top bunk bed and the other the bottom, or a parent unpredictably favoring one child, or one sibling getting chased by a dog, coming down with a virus, or being favored by a teacher. These influences are purely conjectural, and studies looking for them have failed to find them. The alternative is that this component actually consists of the effects of chance – new mutations, quirky prenatal effects, noise in brain development, and events in life with unpredictable effects.

“Stochastic effects in development are increasingly being recognized by epidemiologists, frustrated by such recalcitrant phenomena such as nonagenarian pack-a-day smokers and identical twins discordant for schizophrenia, homosexuality, and disease outcomes. They are increasingly forced to acknowledge that God plays dice with our traits. Developmental biologists have come to similar conclusions. The bad habit of assuming that anything not classically genetic must be ‘environmental’ has blinkered behavioral geneticists (and those who interpret their findings) into the fool’s errand of looking for environmental effects for what may be randomness in developmental processes.”

and more from kevin mitchell:

“Just because some trait is not genetic does not mean it is not innate. If we are talking about how the brain gets wired, any number of prenatal environmental factors are known to have large effects. More interestingly, however, and probably a greater source of variance across the population, is intrinsic developmental variation. Wiring the brain is a highly complex procedure, reliant on cellular processes that are, in engineering terms, inherently ‘noisy’. Running the programme from the same starting point (a specific genotype) does not generate exactly the same output (the phenotype) every time. The effects of this noise are readily apparent at the anatomical level, when examining the impact of specific mutations, for example. In many cases, the phenotypic consequences are quite variable between genetically identical organisms, or even on two sides of the same brain. (If you want to see direct evidence of such developmental variation, take a directly face-on photograph of yourself, cut it in half and make mirror-image copies of the left and right sides. You will be amazed how different the two resultant faces are).

If the way the brain is wired is determined, not just by the starting genotype, but, to a large extent by chance events during development, then it is reasonable to expect this variation to be manifest in many psychological traits. Such traits may thus be far more innate than behavioural genetics studies alone would suggest.

in other words, it’s NOT genes + environment (or nature + nurture) — not as most people would think of it anyway. it’s genes + shared environment (which, since it’s shared, i.e. the same for the individuals in question, oughtn’t to make a difference, right?) + nonshared environment (which can include de novo mutations and development noise, which also may be heritable! iow, variation itself might be a genetic trait.). not much room for the effects of nurture here.

so, when you see a figure like 51% for “environmental” causes behind the differences we see in traits between people, remember that that very much includes biological causes like new mutations that are particular to individuals and developmental “noise,” which again may ultimately be regulated by genes.

(and, no, it’s not epigenetics either! see here and here and here.)

h/t once again to jayman for cluing me in on this in the first place! (^_^)

*to give credit where credit is due, the huff post journalist did mention that part of what’s included in “the environment” is measurement error. that is correct. edit: see comment below about measurement error. so the 49% heritabilty figure should be considered a very conservative figure.

p.s. – there’s even a dedicated website where you can have a look at all the heritability numbers for yourself. enjoy!

see also: Gone with the Wind from dr. james thompson, Nature, nurture and noise from kevin mitchell, and About Developmental Noise and Environmental Hereditarianism from jayman.

previously: it’s not nature and nurture…

(note: comments do not require an email. the blank slate.)