Fundamental Dimensions of Environmental Risk

The Impact of Harsh versus Unpredictable Environments on the Evolution and Development of Life History Strategies

Abstract

The current paper synthesizes theory and data from the field of life history (LH) evolution to advance a new developmental theory of variation in human LH strategies. The theory posits that clusters of correlated LH traits (e.g., timing of puberty, age at sexual debut and first birth, parental investment strategies) lie on a slow-to-fast continuum; that harshness (externally caused levels of morbidity-mortality) and unpredictability (spatial-temporal variation in harshness) are the most fundamental environmental influences on the evolution and development of LH strategies; and that these influences depend on population densities and related levels of intraspecific competition and resource scarcity, on age schedules of mortality, on the sensitivity of morbidity-mortality to the organism’s resource-allocation decisions, and on the extent to which environmental fluctuations affect individuals versus populations over short versus long timescales. These interrelated factors operate at evolutionary and developmental levels and should be distinguished because they exert distinctive effects on LH traits and are hierarchically operative in terms of primacy of influence. Although converging lines of evidence support core assumptions of the theory, many questions remain unanswered. This review demonstrates the value of applying a multilevel evolutionary-developmental approach to the analysis of a central feature of human phenotypic variation: LH strategy.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Although LH theory unequivocally states that there is a trade-off between current reproduction and survival, the trade-offs may be difficult to detect in comparisons between individuals who differ in physical condition, access to resources, social support, and related factors. This is because a person who is in good physical condition and has ready access to food, shelter, and a supportive kin network may be able to grow up faster, achieve larger adult size, have more children, and produce higher-quality offspring than another person who is in poor condition and has meager resources and little kin support. These disparities often generate positive correlations between people in LH traits that are in fact negatively correlated within persons (e.g., number of births versus longevity). Consequently, unless women’s health and socioeconomic conditions are controlled for, correlations between female life expectancy and offspring number in natural fertility populations do not reliably emerge (see Hurt et al. 2006).

  2. 2.

    This slow-fast continuum has also sometimes been referred to in the literature as a quality-quantity continuum or the r-K continuum (e.g., Belsky et al. 1991; Rushton 1985).

  3. 3.

    The present review is by no means exhaustive, and additional reviews of different portions of this theoretical and empirical literature can be found in Ware (1982), Abrams and Rowe (1996), Korpimaki and Krebs (1996), and Shanley and Kirkwood (2000). More comprehensive, book-length reviews of this literature include Stearns (1992) and Roff (2002).

  4. 4.

    The Greenland Summit Ice Cores CD-ROM (1997), available from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, University of Colorado at Boulder, and the World Data Center-A for Paleoclimatology, National Geophysical Data Center, Boulder, Colorado. (See http://nsidc.org/).

  5. 5.

    Wolf and Figueredo, Human cranial capacity and global climate change over the past 205,000 years. Manuscript submitted for publication, 2008.

  6. 6.

    Such trade-offs, however, only have meaning at a given level of resource availability or “condition”: A woman in poor condition may delay onset of reproduction and possess only the capacity to produce a small number offspring that are high enough quality to survive. Her offspring are not high-quality in an absolute sense (compared with the quality of offspring that a woman in good condition could produce), but they do represent a (within-person) trade-off of quantity for quality, given her condition.

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Acknowledgments

We are indebted to Jay Belsky and Steven Gangestad, for detailed comments on multiple drafts of this manuscript, and to Marco Del Giudice, for his thoughtful input to this work.

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Correspondence to Bruce J. Ellis.

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Ellis, B.J., Figueredo, A.J., Brumbach, B.H. et al. Fundamental Dimensions of Environmental Risk. Hum Nat 20, 204–268 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-009-9063-7

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Keywords

  • Life history theory
  • Reproductive strategies
  • Puberty
  • Sexual maturation
  • Sexual behavior
  • Parenting
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Human development
  • Bet-hedging
  • Adaptive individual differences
  • Extrinsic mortality
  • Animal behavior