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Testing evolutionary theories of menopause

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Daryl Shanley, Emeritus Professor Thomas Kirkwood

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Abstract

Why do women cease fertility rather abruptly through menopause at an age well before generalized senescence renders child rearing biologically impossible? The two main evolutionary hypotheses are that menopause serves either (i) to protect mothers from rising age-specific maternal mortality risks, thereby protecting their highly dependent younger children from death if the mother dies or (ii) to provide post-reproductive grandmothers who enhance their inclusive fitness by helping to care and provide for their daughters' children. Recent theoretical work indicates that both factors together are necessary if menopause is to provide an evolutionary advantage. However, these ideas need to be tested using detailed data from actual human life histories lived under reasonably 'natural' conditions; for obvious reasons, such data are extremely scarce. We here describe a study based on a remarkably complete dataset from The Gambia. The data provided quantitative estimates for key parameters for the theoretical model, which were then used to assess the actual effects on fitness. Empirically based numerical analysis of this nature is essential if the enigma of menopause is to be explained satisfactorily in evolutionary terms. Our results point to the distinctive (and perhaps unique) role of menopause in human evolution and provide important support for the hypothesized evolutionary significance of grandmothers. © 2007 The Royal Society.


Publication metadata

Author(s): Shanley DP, Sear R, Mace R, Kirkwood TBL

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

Year: 2007

Volume: 274

Issue: 1628

Pages: 2943-2949

ISSN (print): 09628436

ISSN (electronic): 1471-2954

Publisher: The Royal Society Publishing

URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2007.1028

DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2007.1028

PubMed id: 17878141


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