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Nestle Nutr Inst Workshop Ser. 2013;71:89-102. doi: 10.1159/000342572. Epub 2013 Jan 22.

Human growth: evolutionary and life history perspectives.

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  • 1Centre for Human Evolution, Adaptation and Disease, Liggins Institute, The University of Auckland, Auckland, New Zealand.


Evolutionary and life history perspectives allow a fuller understanding of both patterns of growth and development and variations in disease risk. Evolutionary processes act to ensure successful reproduction and not the preservation of health and longevity, and this entails trade-offs both between traits and across the life course. Developmental plasticity adjusts the developmental trajectory so that the phenotype in childhood and through peak reproduction will suit predicted environmental conditions - a capacity that may become maladaptive should early-life predictions be inaccurate. Bipedalism and consequent pelvic narrowing in humans have led to the evolution of secondary altricialism. Shorter inter-birth intervals enabled by appropriate social support structures have allowed increased fecundity/fitness. The age at puberty has fallen over the past two centuries, perhaps resulting from changes in maternal and infant health and nutrition. The timing of puberty is also advanced by conditions of high extrinsic mortality in hunter-gatherers and is reflected in developed countries where a poor or disadvantaged start to life may also accelerate maturation. The postpubertal individual is physically and psychosexually mature, but neural executive function only reaches full maturity in the third decade of life; this mismatch may account for increased adolescent morbidity and mortality in those with earlier pubertal onset.

Copyright © 2013 Nestec Ltd., Vevey/S. Karger AG, Basel.

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