, Volume 87, Issue 11, pp 476-486

First online:

Life history evolution: successes, limitations, and prospects

  • Stephen C. StearnsAffiliated withUniversity of Basel, Zoology Institute, Rheinsprung 9, 4051 Basel, Switzerland e-mail: Tel.: +1-203-4328452

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 Life history theory tries to explain how evolution designs organisms to achieve reproductive success. The design is a solution to an ecological problem posed by the environment and subject to constraints intrinsic to the organism. Work on life histories has expanded the role of phenotypes in evolutionary theory, extending the range of predictions from genetic patterns to whole-organism traits directly connected to fitness. Among the questions answered are the following: Why are organisms small or large? Why do they mature early or late? Why do they have few or many offspring? Why do they have a short or a long life? Why must they grow old and die? The classical approach to life histories was optimization; it has had some convincing empirical success. Recently non-equilibrium approaches involving frequency-dependence, density-dependence, evolutionary game theory, adaptive dynamics, and explicit population dynamics have supplanted optimization as the preferred approach. They have not yet had as much empirical success, but there are logical reasons to prefer them, and they may soon extend the impact of life history theory into population dynamics and interspecific interactions in coevolving communities.