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Am Psychol. 1997 Apr;52(4):366-80.

On the incomplete architecture of human ontogeny. Selection, optimization, and compensation as foundation of developmental theory.

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  • 1Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Education, Berlin, Germany.


Drawing on both evolutionary and ontogenetic perspectives, the basic biological-genetic and social-cultural architecture of human development is outlined. Three principles are involved. First, evolutionary selection pressure predicts a negative age correlation, and therefore, genome-based plasticity and biological potential decrease with age. Second, for growth aspects of human development to extend further into the life span, culture-based resources are required at ever-increasing levels. Third, because of age-related losses in biological plasticity, the efficiency of culture is reduced as life span development unfolds. Joint application of these principles suggests that the life span architecture becomes more and more incomplete with age. Degree of completeness can be defined as the ratio between gains and losses in functioning. Two examples illustrate the implications of the life span architecture proposed. The first is a general theory of development involving the orchestration of 3 component processes: selection, optimization, and compensation. The second considers the task of completing the life course in the sense of achieving a positive balance between gains and losses for all age levels. This goal is increasingly more difficult to attain as human development is extended into advanced old age.

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