Human Nature

, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp 197–220

The human breast and the ancestral reproductive cycle

A preliminary inquiry into breast cancer etiology
  • Kathryn Coe
  • Lyle B. Steadman

DOI: 10.1007/BF02734139

Cite this article as:
Coe, K. & Steadman, L.B. Human Nature (1995) 6: 197. doi:10.1007/BF02734139


This paper, using modern Darwinian theory, proposes an explanation for the increasingly high incidence of breast cancer found among pre-and post-menopausal women living today in westernized countries. A number of factors have been said to be responsible: genetic inheritance (BRCA-1), diet (specifically the increased consumption of dietary fat), exposure to carcinogenic agents, lifetime menstrual activity, and reproductive factors. The primary aim of this paper is to demonstrate the value of a perspective based on Darwinian theory. In this paper, Darwinian theory is used to explore the possibility that the increased incidence of breast cancer is due primarily to the failure to complete in a timely manner the reproductive developmental cycle, beginning at menarche and continuing through a series of pregnancies and lactation. On the basis of comparative data, we assume that most women in ancestral populations began having children before age 20 or so and tended to remain either pregnant or nursing for most of their adult lives. If a woman did not have a child by age 25 or so, she probably would never have one. Therefore, selection would probably not have acted against deleterious traits, such as cancer, that appeared after that age, just as it does not act against such traits in old age.

Key words

Breast cancerBreast developmentDarwinian theoryHuman reproductive cycle

Copyright information

© Walter de Gruyter, Inc 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kathryn Coe
    • 1
  • Lyle B. Steadman
    • 2
  1. 1.Hispanic Research CenterArizona State UniversityTempe
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyArizona State UniversityUSA