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Evolution. 2011 Feb;65(2):476-89. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2010.01142.x. Epub 2010 Nov 3.

Selection on menopause in two premodern human populations: no evidence for the Mother Hypothesis.

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Section of Ecology, Department of Biology, University of Turku, FIN-20014, Turku, Finland.


Evolutionary theory suggests that natural selection should synchronize senescence of reproductive and somatic systems. In some species, females show dramatic discordance in senescence rates in these systems, leading to a clear menopause coupled with prolonged postreproductive life span. The Mother Hypothesis proposes that menopause evolved to avoid higher reproductive-mediated mortality risk in late-life and ensure the survival of existing offspring. Despite substantial theoretical interest, the critical predictions of this hypothesis have never been fully tested in populations with natural fertility and mortality. Here, we provide an extensive test, investigating both short- and long-term consequences of mother loss for offspring, using multigenerational demographic datasets of premodern Finns and Canadians. We found no support for the Mother Hypothesis. First, although the risk of maternal death from childbirth increased from middle age, the risk only reached 1-2% at age 50 and was predicted to range between 2% and 8% by 70. Second, offspring were adversely affected by maternal loss only in their first two years (i.e., preweaning), having reduced survival probability in early childhood as well as ultimate life span and fitness. Dependent offspring were not affected by maternal death following weaning, either in the short- or long-term. We suggest that although mothers are required to ensure offspring survival preweaning in humans, maternal loss thereafter can be compensated by other family members. Our results indicate that maternal effects on dependent offspring are unlikely to explain the maintenance of menopause or prolonged postreproductive life span in women.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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