Inclusive heritability: combining genetic and non-genetic information to study animal behavior and culture


  • Étienne Danchin,

  • Richard H. Wagner

É. Danchin (, CNRS, EDB (Laboratoire Evolution et Diversité Biologique), and Univ. de Toulouse, UPS, UMR5174, 118 route de Narbonne, FR–31062 Toulouse, France. – R. H. Wagner, Konrad Lorenz Inst. for Ethology, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Savoyenstrasse 1a, AU–1160 Vienna, Austria.


Phenotypic variance results from variation in biological information possessed by individuals. Quantitative geneticists often strive to partition out all environmental variance to measure heritability. Behavioral biologists and ecologists however, require methods to integrate genetic and environmental components of inherited phenotypic variance in order to estimate the evolutionary potential of traits, which encompasses any form of information that is inherited. To help develop this integration, we build on the tools of quantitative genetics and offer the concept of ‘inclusive heritability’ which identifies and unifies the various mechanisms of information transmission across generations. A controversial component of non-genetic information is animal culture, which is the part of phenotypic variance inherited through social learning. Culture has the unique property of being transmitted horizontally and obliquely, as well as vertically. Accounting for cultural variation would allow us to examine a broader range of evolutionary mechanisms. Culture may, for instance, produce behavioral isolating mechanisms leading to speciation. To advance the study of animal culture, we offer a definition of culture that is rooted in quantitative genetics. We also offer four testable criteria to determine whether a trait is culturally inherited. These criteria may constitute a conceptual tool to study animal culture. We briefly discuss methods to partition out cultural variance. Several authors have recently called for ‘modernizing the modern synthesis’ by including non-genetic factors such as epigenetics and phenotypic plasticity in order to more fully explain phenotypic evolution. Here, we further propose to broaden the concept of inheritance by incorporating the cultural component of behavior. Applying the concept of inclusive heritability may advance the integration of multiple forms of inheritance into the study of evolution.