Natural selection in utero induced by mass layoffs: the hCG evidence


Ralph Catalano, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley, 50 University Hall, Berkeley, CA 94720-7360, USA.
Tel.: 510-642-3103;
fax: 510-588-4715;


Evolutionary theory, when coupled with research from epidemiology, demography, and population endocrinology, suggests that contracting economies affect the fitness and health of human populations via natural selection in utero. We know, for example, that fetal death increases more among males than females when the economy unexpectedly contracts; that unexpected economic contraction predicts low secondary sex ratios; and that males from low sex ratio birth cohorts live, on average, longer than those from high sex ratio cohorts. We also know that low levels of human chorionic gonadotropin (i.e., hCG) measured in the serum of pregnant women predict fetal death. We do not, however, know whether male survivors of conception cohorts subjected to contracting economies exhibit, as theory predicts, higher hCG than those from other cohorts. We show, in 71 monthly conception cohorts including nearly two million California births, that they do. We thereby add to the literature suggesting that the economy, a phenomenon over which we collectively exercise at least some control, affects population health. Our findings imply that the effect arises via natural selection – a mechanism we largely ignore when attempting to explain, or alter, how collective choice affects our biology.