Evolutionary perspectives on pregnancy: maternal age at menarche and infant birth weight

David Coall, James Chisholm

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    82 Citations (Scopus)


    We present a novel evolutionary analysis of low birth weight (LBW). LBW is a well-known risk factor for increased infant morbidity and mortality. Its causes, however, remain obscure and there is a vital need for new approaches. Life history theory, the most dynamic branch of evolutionary ecology, provides important insights into the potential role of LBW in human reproductive strategies. Life history theory's primary rationale for LBW is the trade-off between current and future reproduction. This trade-off underlies the prediction that under conditions of environmental risk and uncertainty (experienced subjectively as psychosocial stress) it can be evolutionarily adaptive to reproduce at a young age. One component of early reproduction is early menarche. Early reproduction tends to maximise offspring quantity, but parental investment theory's assumption of a quantity–quality trade-off holds that maximizing offspring quantity reduces quality, of which LBW may be the major component. We therefore predict that women who experienced early psychosocial stress and had early menarche are more likely to produce LBW babies. Furthermore, the extension of parent–offspring conflict theory in utero suggests that the fetus will attempt to resist its mother's efforts to reduce its resources, allocating more of what it does receive to the placenta in order to extract more maternal resources to increase its own quality. We propose that LBW babies born to mothers who experience early psychosocial stress and have early menarche are more likely to have a higher placental/fetal weight ratio. We review evidence in support of these hypotheses and discuss the implications for public health.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1771-1781
    JournalSocial Science and Medicine
    Issue number10
    Publication statusPublished - 2003


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