Beyond quantitative and qualitative traits: three telling cases in the life sciences

Biology and Philosophy 35 (3):1-26 (2020)
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This paper challenges the common assumption that some phenotypic traits are quantitative while others are qualitative. The distinction between these two kinds of traits is widely influential in biological and biomedical research as well as in scientific education and communication. This is probably due to both historical and epistemological reasons. However, the quantitative/qualitative distinction involves a variety of simplifications on the genetic causes of phenotypic variability and on the development of complex traits. Here, I examine three cases from the life sciences that show inconsistencies in the distinction: Mendelian traits, Mendelian diseases, and polygenic mental disorders. I show that these traits can be framed both quantitatively and qualitatively depending, for instance, on the methods through which they are investigated and on specific epistemic purposes. This suggests that the received view of quantitative and qualitative traits has a limited heuristic power—limited to some local contexts or to the specific methodologies adopted. Throughout the paper, I provide directions for framing phenotypes beyond the quantitative/qualitative distinction. I conclude by pointing at the necessity of developing a principled characterisation of what phenotypic traits, in general, are.

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Davide Serpico
Università degli Studi di Milano


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