The relative proportion of additive and non-additive variation for complex traits is important in evolutionary biology, medicine, and agriculture. We address a long-standing controversy and paradox about the contribution of non-additive genetic variation, namely that knowledge about biological pathways and gene networks imply that epistasis is important. Yet empirical data across a range of traits and species imply that most genetic variance is additive. We evaluate the evidence from empirical studies of genetic variance components and find that additive variance typically accounts for over half, and often close to 100%, of the total genetic variance. We present new theoretical results, based upon the distribution of allele frequencies under neutral and other population genetic models, that show why this is the case even if there are non-additive effects at the level of gene action. We conclude that interactions at the level of genes are not likely to generate much interaction at the level of variance.
Genetic variation in quantitative or complex traits can be partitioned into many components due to additive, dominance, and interaction effects of genes. The most important is the additive genetic variance because it determines most of the correlation of relatives and the opportunities for genetic change by natural or artificial selection. From reviews of the literature and presentation of a summary analysis of human twin data, we show that a high proportion, typically over half, of the total genetic variance is additive. This is surprising as there are many potential interactions of gene effects within and between loci, some revealed in recent QTL analyses. We demonstrate that under the standard model of neutral mutation, which leads to a U-shaped distribution of gene frequencies with most near 0 or 1, a high proportion of additive variance would be expected regardless of the amount of dominance or epistasis at the individual loci. We also show that the model is compatible with observations in populations undergoing selection and results of QTL analyses on F2 populations.