Pulling Back the Curtain on Heritability Studies: Biosocial Criminology in the Postgenomic Era
Callie H. Burt, Ronald L. Simons
27 MAR 2014
Unfortunately, the nature-versus-nurture debate continues in criminology. Over the past 5 years, the number of heritability studies in criminology has surged. These studies invariably report sizeable heritability estimates (∼50 percent) and minimal effects of the so-called shared environment for crime and related outcomes. Reports of such high heritabilities for such complex social behaviors are surprising, and findings indicating negligible shared environmental influences (usually interpreted to include parenting and community factors) seem implausible given extensive criminological research demonstrating their significance. Importantly, however, the models on which these estimates are based have fatal flaws for complex social behaviors such as crime. Moreover, the goal of heritability studies—partitioning the effects of nature and nurture—is misguided given the bidirectional, interactional relationship among genes, cells, organisms, and environments. This study provides a critique of heritability study methods and assumptions to illuminate the dubious foundations of heritability estimates and questions the rationale and utility of partitioning genetic and environmental effects. After critiquing the major models, we call for an end to heritability studies. We then present what we perceive to be a more useful biosocial research agenda that is consonant with and informed by recent advances in our understanding of gene function and developmental plasticity.