The evolutionary biology of child health

Bernard Crespi

Abstract

I apply evolutionary perspectives and conceptual tools to analyse central issues underlying child health, with emphases on the roles of human-specific adaptations and genomic conflicts in physical growth and development. Evidence from comparative primatology, anthropology, physiology and human disorders indicates that child health risks have evolved in the context of evolutionary changes, along the human lineage, affecting the timing, growth-differentiation phenotypes and adaptive significance of prenatal stages, infancy, childhood, juvenility and adolescence. The most striking evolutionary changes in humans are earlier weaning and prolonged subsequent pre-adult stages, which have structured and potentiated maladaptations related to growth and development. Data from human genetic and epigenetic studies, and mouse models, indicate that growth, development and behaviour during pre-adult stages are mediated to a notable degree by effects from genomic conflicts and imprinted genes. The incidence of cancer, the primary cause of non-infectious childhood mortality, mirrors child growth rates from birth to adolescence, with paediatric cancer development impacted by imprinted genes that control aspects of growth. Understanding the adaptive significance of child growth and development phenotypes, in the context of human-evolutionary changes and genomic conflicts, provides novel insights into the causes of disease in childhood.

  • Received December 7, 2010.
  • Accepted January 10, 2011.
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