Human breasts: Unsupported hypotheses reviewed

Abstract

Unlike other apes, human females’ breasts develop before first pregnancy and are permanently enlarged. Evidence suggests breasts act as signals to males but the critical data required to confirm this are lacking. These facts have led to a number of hypotheses about the evolutionary and adaptive significance of the human breast which fall into two groups. Those that address the presence of breasts in humans are (a) that they act as releasers of male sexual behaviour, (b) that they enable females to hide their reproductive condition, and (c) that they allow infants to nurse from their mother’s hip. Those that address variability in breast size are (d) that large breasts indicate lactational potential, (e) ability of mothers to invest prenatally in offspring, (f) mother’s fecundity, and (g) her longevity. Each hypothesis is reviewed and evaluated using logical or empirical arguments. Possible ways in which the adaptive significance of human breasts can be determined in contemporary populations are outlined.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

References

  1. Alexander R. D. &Noonan K. M., 1979.Concealment of ovulation, parental care, and human social evolution. In (N. A. Chagnon & W. Irons, Eds). Evolutionary Biology and Human Social Behavior: An Anthropological Perspective, pp. 436–453. North Scituate, Mass.; Duxbury Press.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Altmann J., 1980.Baboon Mothers and Infants. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Borgerhoff Mulder M., 1987.Kipsigis bridewealth payments. In (L. L. Betzig, M. Borgerhoff Mulder & P. W. Turke, Eds). Human Reproductive Behaviour: A Darwinian Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Broude G. E. &Grene S. J., 1976.Crosscultural codes on twenty sexual attitudes and practices. Ethnology 15: 410–429.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Campaigne B. N., Katch V. L., Freedson P. &Sady S., 1979.Measurement of breast volume in females: description of a reliable method. Annals of Human Biology 6: 363–367.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Campbell B. G., 1974.Human Evolution, 2nd edition. Chicago: Aldine.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Cant J. G. H., 1981.Hypothesis for the evolution of human breasts and buttocks. American Naturalist, 117: 199–204.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Caro T. M. & Borgerhoff Mulder M. (in press).The problem of adaptation in the study of human behaviour. Ethology and Sociobiology.

  9. Clutton-Brock T. H., Albon S. D. &Guiness F. E., 1987.Reproductive success in male and female re deer. In (T. H. Clutton-Brock, Ed). Reproductive Success. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Cook M. &McHenry R., 1978.Sexual Attraction. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Cowie A. T., 1984.Lactation. In (C. R. Austin & R. V. Short, Eds). Hormonal Control of Reproduction, 2nd edition pp. 195–231. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Crook J. H., 1972.Sexual selection, dimorphism and social organisation in the primates. In (B. Campbell, Ed.). Sexual Selection and the Descent of Man 1871–1971 pp. 231–281. Chicago: Aldine.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Crook J. H. &Gartlan J. S., 1966.Evolution of primate societies. Nature, 210: 1200–1203.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Davies N. B., 1982.Behaviour and competition for scarce resources. In (Kings College Sociobiology Group, Ed.). Current Problems in Sociobiology, pp. 363–380. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Devi M. R., Kumari J. R. &Srikumari C. R., 1985.Fertility and mortality differences in relation to maternal body size. Annals of Human Biology, 12: 479–484.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Eibil-Eibesfeldt I., 1970.Ethology: the Biology of Behavior. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Fisher R. A., 1958.The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. New York: Dover.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Ford C. S. &Breach F. A., 1952.Patterns of Sexual Behaviour. London: Methuen.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Frisch R. E., 1975.Demographic implications of the biological determinants of female fecundity. Social Biology, 22: 17–22.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Frisch R. E., 1978a.Menarche and fatness: reexamination of the critical body composition hypothesis. Science, 200: 1509–1513.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Frisch R. E., 1978b.Population, food intake, and fertility. Science, 199: 22–30.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Frisch R. E., 1983.Reply to Anderson. Current Anthropology, 24: 32.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Frisch R. E. &McArthur J. W., 1974.Menstrual cycles: fatness as a determinant of minimum weight necessary for their maintenance or onset. Science, 185: 949–951.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Gallup G. G. Jr., 1982.Permanent breast enlargement in human females: a sociobiological analysis. Journal of Human Evolution, 11: 597–601.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Gallup G. G. Jr., 1986.Unique features of human sexuality in the context of evolution. In (D. Byrne & K. Kelley, Eds). Alternative Approaches to the Study of Sexual Behavior, pp. 13–42. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlabum.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Goodhart C. B., 1964.A biological view of toplessness. New Scientist, 23: (407), 558–560.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Gould S. J. &Vrba E. S., 1982.Exaption — a missing term in the science of form. Paleobiology, 8: 3–15.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Graham C. A. &Mc. Grew W. C., 1980.Menstrual synchrony in female undergraduates living on a coeducational campus. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 5: 245–252.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Gunther M., 1955.Instinct and the nursing couple. Lancet 1955: 575–578.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Hamilton C. E. &Rankin J., 1975.Changes in volume of the breast during the menstrual cycle. British Journal of Surgery, 62: 660–669.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Harcourt A. H., Harvey P. H., Larson S. G. &Short R. V., 1981.Testis weight, body and breeding system in primates. Nature, 293: 55–57.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Hartmann P. E., Rattigan S., Prosser C. G., Saint L. &Arthur P. G., 1984.Human lactation: back to nature. Symposium of the Zoological Society of London, 51: 337–368.

    Google Scholar 

  33. Hinde R. A., 1975.The concept of function. In (G. Baerends, C. Beer & A. Manning, Eds). Function and Evolution in Behaviour, pp. 3–15. Oxford: Clarendon.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Hollander X., 1985. Penthouse Magazine, 20: (3), 131.

    Google Scholar 

  35. Hytten F. E., 1954.Clinical and chemical studies in human lactation VI. The functional capacity of the breast. British Medical Journal, 1: 912–915.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Hytten F. E. &Thomson A. M., 1965.Pregnancy, childbirth and lactation. In (O. G. Edholm & A. L. Bacharach, Eds). The Physiology of Human Survival, pp. 327–350. London: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Kano T., 1980.Social behavior of wild pigmy chimpanzees (Pan paniscus) of Wamba: a preliminary report. Journal of Human Evolution, 9: 243–260.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Katch V. L., Campaigne B, Freedson P., Sady S., Katch F. I. &Behnke A. R., 1980.Contribution of breast volume and weight to body fat distribution in females. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 53: 93–100.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. Kleine C. L. &Staneski R. A., 1980.First impressions of female bust size. Journal of Social Psychology, 110: 123–134.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Konner M. &Worthman C., 1980.Nursing frequency, gonadal function, and birth spacing among! Kung hunter-gatherers. Sicence, 207: 788–791.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Kuttner R. E., 1975.On infant convenience and female breast form.American Naturalist, 109: 596.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Lamb M. E., Pleck J. H., Charnov E. L. &Levine J. A. 1985.Paternal behavior in humans. American Zoologist, 25: 883–894.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Le Blanc S. A. &Barnes E., 1974.On the adaptive significance of the human breast. American Naturalist, 108: 577–578.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Lohman T. G., 1981.Skinfolds and body density and their relation to fatness: a review. Human Biology, 53: 181–225.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Lovejoi C. O., 1981.The origin of man. Science, 211: 341–350.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Malina R. M., 1983.Menarche in atheletes: a synthesis and hypothesis. Annals of Human Biology, 10: 1–24.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Marshall W. A., 1970.Sex differences at puberty. Journal of Biosocial Science suppl., 2: 31–41.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Mason W. A., 1965.The social development of monkeys and apes. In (I. DeVore, Ed). Primate Behavior: Field Studies of Monkeys and Apes. pp. 514–543. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

    Google Scholar 

  49. Masters W. H. &Johnson V. E., 1966.Human Sexual Response. Londo: J. & E. Churchill.

    Google Scholar 

  50. Maynard Smith J., 1977.Parental investment: a prospective analysis. Animal Behaviour, 25: 1–9.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Morgan E. 1972.The Descent of Woman, New York: Stein & Day.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Morris D. 1967.The Naked Ape. London: Jonathan Cape.

    Google Scholar 

  53. Munn C. A., 1986.Birds that ‘cry wolf’. Nature, 319: 143–145.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Nassar A. M. &Smith R. E., 1975.Menstrual variations in thermal properties of the human breast. Journal of Applied Physiology, 39: 806–811.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Peaker M., Vernon R. G. &Knight C. H., 1984.Physiological Strategies in Lactation. Zoological Society of London. London: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  56. Pond C. M., 1984.Physiological and ecological importance of energy storage in the evolution of lactation: evidence for a common pattern of anatomical organisation of adipose tissue in mammals. Symposium of the Zoological Society of London, 51: 1–32.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Prentice A. M., Paul A. A., Prentice A., Black A. E., Cole T. J. &Withehead R. G., 1986.Crosscultural differences in lactational performance. In (M. Hamosh & A. S. Goldman, Eds) Human Lactation — Maternal and Environmental factors. pp. 13–44. New York: Plenum Pubbl. Corp. October 1985.

    Google Scholar 

  58. «S. J. L.», 1986.Guardian Newspaper, January 15th, p. 22.

  59. Salazar H. &Tobon H., 1974.Morphological changes in the mammary gland during development, pregnancy, and lactation. In (J. B. Josimovich, M. Reynolds & E. Cobo, Eds). Lactogenic Hormones, Fetal Nutrition and Lactation p. 221. New York: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Davard R., Bouchard C., LeBlanc C. &Tremblay A., 1983.Familial resemblance in fatness indicators. Annals of Human Biology, 10: 111–118.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Schell L. M. &Hodges D. C., 1985.Variation in size at birth and cigarette smoking during pregnancy. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 68: 549–554.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  62. Schmidt G. &Sigusch V., 1970.Sex differences in responses to psychosexual stimulation by films and slides. Journal of Sex Research, 6: 268–283.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Schort R. V., 1976.The evolution of human reproduction. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B., 195: 3–24.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Short R. V., 1979.Sexual selection and its component parts, somatic and genital selection, as illustrated by man and the great apes. Advances in the Study of Behavior, 9: 131–158.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Short R. V. &Drife J. O., 1977.The aetiology of mammary cancer in man and animals. Symposium of the Zoological Society of London, 41: 211–230.

    Google Scholar 

  66. Simpson M. J. A., 1978.Tactile experience and sexual behaviour: aspects of development with special reference to primates. In (J. B. Hutchison, Ed). Biological Determinants of Sexual Behaviour. pp. 785–807. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

    Google Scholar 

  67. Smith R. L., 1984.Human sperm competition. In (R. L. Smith, Ed). Sperm Competition and the Evolution of Animal Mating Systems. pp. 601–659. Orlando, Florida: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  68. Symons D., 1979.The Evolution of Human Sexuality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  69. Tinbergen N.On aims and methods of ethology. Zeitschrift fur Tierpsychologie, 20: 410–463.

  70. Trivers R. L., 1972.Parental investment and sexual selection. In (B. Campbell, Ed). Sexual Selection and the Descent of Man 1871–1971. pp. 136–179. Chicago: Aldine.

    Google Scholar 

  71. Trivers R., 1985.Social Evolution. Menlo Park, California: Benjamin/Cummings.

    Google Scholar 

  72. Trussel J., 1978.Menarche and fatness: reexamination of the critical body composition hypothesis. Science, 200: 1506–1509.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. Turke P. W., 1984.Effects of ovulatory concealment and synchrony on protohominid mating systems and parental roles. Ethology and Sociobiology, 5: 33–44.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  74. Weiss E., 1975.The Female Breast. New York: Bantam books.

    Google Scholar 

  75. Wickler W., 1972.The Sexual Code. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.

    Google Scholar 

  76. Wiggins J. S., Wiggins N. &Conger J. C., 1968.Correlates of heterosexual somatic preference. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10: 82–90.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  77. Williams G. C., 1966.Adaptation and Natural Selection. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  78. Witten D. M., 1971.The Breast: An Atlas of Tumor Radiology. Yearbook Medical Publishers Inc.

  79. Wood J. W., Lai D., Johnson P. L., Campbell K. L. &Maslar I. A., 1985.Lactation and birth spacing in hihgland New Guinea. Journal of Biosocial Sciences suppl., 9: 159–173.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to T. M. Caro.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Caro, T.M. Human breasts: Unsupported hypotheses reviewed. Hum. Evol. 2, 271–282 (1987). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03016112

Download citation

Key words

  • Human Breast
  • Selection
  • adaptive significance