The ecology and evolutionary endocrinology of reproduction in the human female


  • Virginia J. Vitzthum

    Corresponding author
    1. Anthropology Department, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405
    2. Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405
    3. Center for Integrative Study of Animal Behavior, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405
    4. Department of Gender Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405
    • Kinsey Institute, Morrison Hall 302, Indiana University, 1165 E. Third St., Bloomington, IN 47405, USA
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Human reproductive ecology (HRE) is the study of the mechanisms that link variation in reproductive traits with variation in local habitats. Empirical and theoretical contributions from biological anthropology, physiology, and demography have established the foundation necessary for developing a comprehensive understanding, grounded in life history theory (LHT), of temporal, individual, and populational variation in women's reproductive functioning. LHT posits that natural selection leads to the evolution of mechanisms that tend to allocate resources to the competing demands of growth, reproduction, and survival such that fitness is locally maximized. (That is, among alternative allocation patterns exhibited in a population, those having the highest inclusive fitness will become more common over generational time.) Hence, strategic modulation of reproductive effort is potentially adaptive because investment in a new conception may risk one's own survival, future reproductive opportunities, and/or current offspring survival. The hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian (HPO) axis is the principal neuroendocrine pathway by which the human female modulates reproductive functioning according to the changing conditions in her habitat. Adjustments of reproductive investment in a potential conception are manifested in temporal and individual variation in ovarian cycle length, ovulation, hormone levels, and the probability of conception. Understanding the extent and causes of adaptive and non-adaptive variation in ovarian functioning is fundamental to ascertaining the proximate and remote determinants of human reproductive patterns. In this review I consider what is known and what still needs to be learned of the ecology of women's reproductive biology, beginning with a discussion of the principal explanatory frameworks in HRE and the biometry of ovarian functioning. Turning next to empirical studies, it is evident that marked variation between cycles, women, and populations is the norm rather than an aberration. Other than woman's age, the determinants of these differences are not well characterized, although developmental conditions, dietary practices, genetic variation, and epigenetic mechanisms have all been hypothesized to play some role. It is also evident that the reproductive functioning of women born and living in arduous conditions is not analogous to that of athletes, dieters, or even the lower end of the “normal range” of HPO functioning in wealthier populations. Contrary to the presumption that humans have low fecundity and an inefficient reproductive system, both theory and present evidence suggest that we may actually have very high fecundity and a reproductive system that has evolved to be flexible, ruthlessly efficient and, most importantly, strategic. Yrbk Phys Anthropol 52:95–136, 2009. © 2009 Wiley-Liss, Inc.