To answer this question, we could perform a thought experiment where McCain chooses someone else, and then we predict how well Obama would have done. Divide the change in votes by the total number of votes and we have a percentage. But even supposing we could perfectly predict the outcome of this thought experiment, this answer is problematic. Wouldn't it depend on who McCain chose instead of Palin?
Furthermore, if we did the same thought experiment for all sorts of different causes, the total percentage would be much greater than 100%, which just doesn't make any sense.
I think this is because the question simply isn't well-defined enough that it can have a definite percentage as an answer.
And yet, when it comes to human biological traits, we ask the same question and expect a definite answer.
What percentage of a given human trait is caused by genetics rather than environment?
This question is problematic, because it's unclear how exactly we would do the thought experiment. How much do we vary genetics in our thought experiment? How much do we vary the environment? And you can't just say that we vary genetics and environment by the same amount. Given a certain variety of genes, how much is an equivalent variation in environment? There simply isn't an answer to these questions, because they are bad questions.
But even though it's a bad question, scientists still deliver! Scientists talk about measuring the "heritability" of a human trait, which is just a number between 0 and 1 that can be experimentally observed. How do scientists answer the impossible?
They do it by being tricky. In fact, heritability is the answer to a different question. If you're a non-scientist, now you are put in the odd situation of having a number for an answer, but not knowing what the original question was.
Google knows all the answers
But enough suspense. Heritability answers the following question:
How much of the variation in a given human trait is due to genetic variation between individuals of a population?
The question sounds almost the same, but perhaps that's just because I couldn't word it more precisely in a single sentence.* This question calls for a thought experiment where we take a large population, and hold all environmental conditions constant. We vary just one factor, genes, and we vary it by the amount we see in the real world. What percentage of the trait's variation in the population remains? Alternatively, we can try a thought experiment where we take a large population, and leave their environment as is. But we change the population's genes, making them all genetically identical. By what percentage does this decrease the trait's variation in the population?
*The more precise definition has to do with variance, which is a statistical concept that I won't attempt to explain.
This is a convenient definition because we no longer have to rely on thought experiments to vary the genes and environment. Now we can look at the real world, and use the real world variation in genes and environment. The primary difficulty is isolating the two factors. This is usually done using studies of identical and fraternal twins. It's by no means a straightforward experiment, and there are all sorts of methodological difficulties, but it's possible.
But even if we can measure heritability perfectly, there are some rather strange consequences of the definition:
- Heritability increases as the genetic diversity of a population increases.
- Heritability decreases if a population is exposed to a wider variety of environments.
- Thus, heritability depends on which population we consider, and what point in history.
- Heritability does not tell you how hard it is to change a trait by changing environment.
Even if heritability is close to 1, it might still be possible to change the trait by changing the environment. You just have to change the environment by more than is typical for the population. This could be easy or hard, depending on specifics.
Further difficulties are caused by the fact that genetics and environment are not exhaustive categories, unless you define environment to be everything that isn't genetic. For example, what about random developmental factors in the womb? Technically, this is an environmental factor. But just like genetics, it's just a bunch of chemicals bouncing around in a way that we have no control over.
And we haven't even gotten into gene-environment interaction. For instance, what if there's a gene that simply increases human receptiveness to environment? Is that variation due to environment or genetics? Nature/nurture is a false dichotomy.
Other posts in this mini-series:
Colds and Causality
Women and Causality
Responsibility and Causality
Nature/nurture and Causality
Physics and Causality