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Am J Hum Biol. 2005 Jan-Feb;17(1):22-33.

Fetal programming: adaptive life-history tactics or making the best of a bad start?

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Department of Anthropological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, California, USA.


Fetal programming is an ontogenetic phenomenon of increasing interest to human biologists. Because the downstream consequences of fetal programming have clear impacts on specific life-history traits (e.g., age at first reproduction and the general age-pattern of reproductive investments), a number of authors have raised the question of the adaptive significance of fetal programming. In this paper, I review in some detail several classical models in life-history theory and discuss their relative merits and weaknesses for human biology. I suggest that an adequate model of human life-history evolution must account for the highly structured nature of the human life cycle, with its late age at first reproduction, large degree of iteroparity, highly overlapping generations, and extensive, post-weaning parental investment. I further suggest that an understanding of stochastic demography is essential for answering the question of the adaptive significance of fetal programming, and specifically the finding of low birth weight on smaller adult body size and earlier age at first reproduction. Using a stage-structured stochastic population model, I show that the downstream consequences of early deprivation may be "making the best of a bad start" rather than an adaptation per se. When a high-investment strategy entails survival costs, the alternate strategy of early reproduction with relatively low investment may have higher fitness than trying to play the high-investment strategy and failing.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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