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Keywords:

  • grandmother hypothesis;
  • mother hypothesis;
  • heritability of longevity

Abstract

The evolution of postmenopausal longevity in human females has been the subject of debate. Specifically, there is disagreement about whether the evolution of the trait should be understood as an adaptive or a neutral process, and if the former, what the selective mechanism is. There are two main adaptive proposals to explain the evolution of postreproductive longevity: the grandmother and the mother hypotheses. The grandmother hypothesis proposes that postreproductive longevity evolved because it is selectively advantageous for females to stop reproducing and to help raise their grandchildren. The mother hypothesis states that postmenopausal longevity evolved because it is advantageous for women to cease reproduction and concentrate their resources and energy in raising the children already produced. In this article, we test the mother and the grandmother hypotheses with a historical data set from which we bootstrapped random samples of women from different families who lived from the 1500s to the 1900s in the central valley of Costa Rica. We also compute the heritability of longevity, which allows us to determine if genes involved in longevity are nearly fixed in this population. Here we show that although longevity positively affects a woman's fertility, it negatively affects her daughter's fertility; for this reason, the heritability of longevity is unexpectedly high. Our data provide strong grounds for questioning the universality of the grandmother hypothesis and for supporting the mother hypothesis as a likely explanation for the evolution of human postreproductive longevity. Am J Phys Anthropol, 2008. © 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.