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Ecological volatility and human evolution: A novel perspective on life history and reproductive strategy


  • Jonathan C. K. Wells

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    • Jonathan C. K. Wells is Professor of Anthropology and Pediatric Nutrition at UCL Institute of Child Health, London. He uses an evolutionary approach to inform biomedical research on growth and development. His publications include The Evolutionary Biology of Human Body Fatness (Cambridge University Press, 2010).


Humans are characterized by a suite of traits that seem to differentiate them profoundly from closely related apes such as the gorilla, chimpanzee, and orang-utan. These traits include longevity, cooperative breeding, stacking of offspring, lengthy maturation, and a complex life-course profile of adiposity. When, how, and why these traits emerged during our evolutionary history is currently attracting considerable attention. Most approaches to life history emphasize dietary energy availability and the risk of mortality as the two key stresses shaping life-history variability between and within species. The high energy costs of the large Homo brain are also seen as the central axis around which other life-history traits were reorganized. I propose that ecological volatility may have been a key stress, selecting in favor of the suite of traits in order to tolerate periods of energy scarcity, and increase reproductive output during periods of good conditions. Theses life-history adaptations may have preceded and enabled the trend toward encephalization. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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