Abstract: Gene–environment (G–E) covariance is the phenomenon whereby genetic differences bias variation in developmental environment, and is particularly problematic for assigning genetic and environmental causation in a heritability analysis. The interpretation of these cases has differed amongst biologists and philosophers, leading some to reject the utility of heritability estimates altogether. This paper examines the factors that influence causal reasoning when G–E covariance is present, leading to interpretive disagreement between scholars. It argues that the causal intuitions elicited are influenced by concepts of agency and blame-worthiness, and are intimately tied with the conceptual understanding of the phenotype under investigation. By considering a phenotype-specific approach, I provide an account as to why causal ascriptions can differ depending on the interpreter. Phenotypes like intelligence, which have been the primary focus of this debate, are more likely to spark disagreement for the interpretation of G–E covariance cases because the concept and ideas about its ‘normal development’ relatively ill-defined and are a subject of debate. I contend that philosophical disagreement about causal attributions in G–E covariance cases are in essence disagreements regarding how a phenotype should be defined and understood. This moves the debate from one of an ontological flavour concerning objective causal claims, to one concerning the conceptual, normative and semantic dependencies.
Comment: This paper discusses difficulties for determining whether traits like intelligence are heritable, drawing on philosophical work regarding causal intuitions. It's accessible enough to use in a lower-level undergraduate course, but also generates good discussion in a graduate level course. It could be used to further a discussion about the nature of genes or in a discussion of philosophy of race/gender from a biological perspective.