Before senescence: the evolutionary demography of ontogenesis

Daniel A. Levitis

Abstract

The age-specific mortality curve for many species, including humans, is U-shaped: mortality declines with age in the developing cohort (ontogenescence) before increasing with age (senescence). The field of evolutionary demography has long focused on understanding the evolution of senescence while largely failing to address the evolution of ontogenescence. The current review is the first to gather the few available hypotheses addressing the evolution of ontogenescence, examine the basis and assumptions of each and ask what the phylogenetic extent of ontogenescence may be. Ontogenescence is among the most widespread of life-history traits, occurring in every population for which I have found sufficiently detailed data, in major groups throughout the eukaryotes, across many causes of death and many life-history types. Hypotheses seeking to explain ontogenescence include those based on kin selection, the acquisition of robustness, heterogeneous frailties and life-history optimization. I propose a further hypothesis, arguing that mortality drops with age because most transitions that could trigger the risks caused by genetic and developmental malfunctions are concentrated in early life. Of these hypotheses, only those that frame ontogenescence as an evolutionary by-product rather than an adaptation can explain the tremendous diversity of organisms and environments in which it occurs.

  • Received October 11, 2010.
  • Accepted November 12, 2010.
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