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Evolution favours shorter and heavier women—like it or not

Natural selection is still at work


 
Natural selection is still at work

Photograph by Hans Neleman/ Getty

What might our granddaughter’s granddaughter’s granddaughter’s granddaughter’s granddaughter look like? Shorter and stouter, says a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If current trends continue, its authors predict, then by 2409 descendants of the women in the study will have evolved to be one kilogram heavier and two centimetres shorter than their 2010 foremothers.

For years, some scientists heralded the end of human evolution. The post-industrial homo sapiens, they argued, was free of the kinds of “survival-of-the-fittest” pressures that could drive large-scale genetic change. In 2008, Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, gave a much-hyped lecture entitled “Human Evolution is Over.” “Not so,” says Stephen Stearns, co-author of this latest study, professor of evolutionary biology at Yale University, and founding editor of the Journal of Evolutionary Biology. “The basic take-home is that humans continue to evolve,” Stearns told Maclean’s.

“One [could express] the result as: women are going to get shorter and fatter,” he explains. But he prefers a different bent: “There is natural selection against women being slender.” Stearns’s work shows that plumper, shorter women tend to bear more children—who carry on those same traits. His analysis drew on data from the Framingham Heart Study: a survey, begun in 1948, that collected medical information from 5,209 subjects, and monitored them and their offspring for 60 years.

The weight part of the equation, says Stearns, is straightforward: “A woman has to have about 20 per cent body fat to ovulate and conceive.” But he admits that he “can’t give a good explanation of why they are getting shorter.” A separate study by Open University’s Daniel Nettle found that shorter women are more likely to be in long-term, offspring-producing relationships—perhaps, he hypo­thesized, because men evolved to disfavour tall women, who tend to reach puberty later.

Whatever the cause of the change, it won’t be speedy. Humans won’t evolve as fast as the Galapagos finches that helped Charles Darwin cement his evolutionary theory. Instead, the homo sapiens gal is keeping pace with the New Zealand chinook salmon and the Hawaiian mosquitofish.

Still, it’s that slow pace that is the heart of Stearns’s mission, which goes beyond simply musing about the female physique. He and his colleagues are out “to correct the still widespread misconception that natural selection is not operating on contemporary humans.” He explains that it’s true “hygiene, nutrition and medical care” have helped erase survival-of-the-fittest pressures. But as evolution’s “mortality component” becomes less significant, it makes “the variation between individuals and how many children they have more important.” In other words, evolution continues because of differences in reproductive success. So why all the disbelief? “Charles Darwin himself emphasized survival rather than reproduction,” says Stearns. “I think, though, that if you had the conversation with Darwin, he would get the point.”

The hitch, Stearns warns, is that predicted changes might not materialize. For instance: while evolution is literally pushing women down and out, environmental factors, like better nutrition, allow them to grow taller and stronger. The result of these battling influences is impossible to predict.

Still, more scientists are turning their attention to how the female body evolves to maximize motherhood. For Steven Gaulin, anthropology professor at the University of California, it’s not a woman’s weight that is important, as much as her proportions. “There is a strong correlation between waist-hip ratio and the cognitive ability of a child,” he explains: the bigger a mother’s hips (relative to her waist), the smarter her offspring. Gaulin estimates that with every decrease of 0.01 in a mother’s waist-to-hip ratio, her child’s average cognitive score is raised 0.061 points. The reason? “The brain is fabulously fatty.” And the fats it craves, Omega-3s, are stored disproportionately in hips and thighs. That means pear-shaped moms can better fuel their babies’ brain development.

But for others, like Dr. Andrew Clark, researcher at the University of Bristol, “just pointing out the size [of a hip, thigh or bottom is] too simplistic.” Instead, he says, you must focus on “pertness.” A fit bosom or butt signals “fertility, fecundity, offspring quality,” he explains. “They signify youth; the slings and arrows of time have not had time to work their magic and make things saggy, which is a pretty good indicator that this person still has a long reproductive lifespan.” Clark thinks sexual preference for fertile mates has made pert bums, like J.Lo’s, objects of attraction.

Stearns’s work ultimately considers more than just shape. He predicts that women will also evolve to have “better cardiovascular health” and a larger “reproductive window,” with earlier periods and later menopause. Still, he says his ideas were tough for some to buy. “When news of this result first broke—that women are getting shorter and fatter—there were a lot of inquiries,” he laughs, because the forecast seems to counter “standards of beauty in our culture.” Those standards may well have to change, at least by 2409.


 

Evolution favours shorter and heavier women—like it or not

  1. 'Evolution' is a crock. There is variation within species. We don't jump species.

    •  Evolution favours shorter and heavier women—like it or not – Interesting.Thanks for the share.bearings

  2. Typo in the last line: "Those standards may well have to change, at least by 2049." it should be 2409.

  3. It's a good thing evolution is just a theory and a particular bad one at that. Check this out : The Evidence of Nothing

    Evolutionists often speak of missing links. They say that the bridge between man and the apes is the “missing link”, the hypothetical ape-like ancestor of both. But there are supposed missing links all over the evolutionary tree. For instance, dogs and bears are thought to be evolutionary cousins, related to each other through a missing link. The same could be said for every other stop on the tree. All of the animal types are thought to have arisen by the transformation of some other animal type, and at each branching node is a missing link, and between the node and the modern form are many more. If you still don't know what a missing link is, don't worry. No one knows what a missing link is, because they are missing! We've never seen one.

    This argument from silence is an absence in the evidentiary record – a “nothing, where there should be something” if evolutionary theory were true. But evolutionary theory is not true, so the real world's fossil record has been providing irrefutable evidence, by the absence of missing links , for a long, long time (about 150 years) now. Sometimes “nothing” is the evidence for the truth!!.

    By John D. Morris, PhD and James J.S. Johnson, J.D.

  4. I just knew it. I was right all along. Pert breast, a J. Lo ass and flat belly is the way to go. Always worked for me..

  5. There was never any such thing as 'evolution' to begin with.

  6. So what if your short and skinny, thats what I want to know!

  7. These so-called "evolutionary" insights are getting so predictable. Like a bunch of scientists having nothing better to do then dream up the next order of possibilites, in case they might be right.

    And people go to school for this? Not one shred of new insight provided, not a shred! Shred it up, the entire scribble.

  8. Are there really this many Macleans commenters that don't believe in evolution?

    • Fewer people believe in it than you think and for good reason. It is a lie that needs to be propped up.

      • Clearly evolution or survival of species variants is obviously fact, but like most "general facts" is poorly understood in the specific. This is one of tthose cases where getting too specific infers you understand evolution to "a number of decimal places" not justified by current research. (translation: this is wishful BS)

        • A wolf can 'evolve' into different varieties of dogs. A fish does not become a bird.

          • oh man, some of you need to read a textbook or take a college biology class.

  9. Vindication for Sheila Copps at last!

  10. I ha to laugh when I read the article because in her final statement she says that the image of beauty in our society will have to change to favor these more stout women, and as I read that I thought, what is she talking about…the beauty ideal is all about elitism, in other words…if more women become stout in their appearance then that will make the slim ones even more sought after…the only way that stout women will become sought after is if we have a collapse of the food supply and therefore the rich will eat well and get fat. At that point stout women may become the beauty norm, but not in actual fact such a change as she describes here will simply lead to many more frustrated women in our society, and millions more for Jenny Craig.

  11. Typical religious people mouthing off about evolution when they've got absolutely nothing useful of their own to say. Let's see a counterargument on how it can be proven that the Earth is 6000 years old.

  12. Oh, man…

    I've already EVOLVED….

  13. Sad but true, what about the social aspect?
    I mean the MEAN but often true social aspect?
    A skinny less reproductively compatable female may be super smart… But also may be attractive, and a lot of time in the both human and animal world… you move up and tend to spend less time educating your self due to outtings, hangouts and other social activites.
    Where the more "pear shaped" as you put it. Are set aside and less attractive, so they tend to hover towards books, internet, that of educational substance. BAM smarter….
    Why do you think skinny blondes have such the dumb rep?
    …Just a irrational, rude and insensative thought.

  14. This article is interesting but it raises some questions…if natural selection was acting upon women to make them more fertile in this manner, it would have constantly be making women more plump and short. But human beings have existed for some time (although not long on a geological timescale) but enough for natural selection to act. This would suggest that women were all once very tall and slender- but isnt there evidence that human beings were shorter in the past and are steadily getting taller? I think while the article raises some interesting points, it doesnt emphasize the importance of how humans have removed themselves from nature. Therefore, the pressures acting on people to choose their mates is coming from the pressure of the society (which nowadays the ideal is tall and thin).

  15. Continued:
    Another point i felt was missing was the fact that society also puts a limit to the amount of children concieved, as pressures are also causing women to have children later in life (decreasing fertility) and also people are unable to afford to havee many children. Very rarely do we see families with more than say 3 children (as i've seen), as in the past families could have close to 20. These factors must be taken into account…and expected to continue and become more intense as more women devote their time to their careers before children (which is put on the back burner).
    In short, social aspects should have more influence on how women will change.

  16. Anyone who "believes" in Darwin's "Theory"…

    …explain to me again how Life got started, and split into sexes, and why all those "intermediary links" between Ape and Man are still "Missing", and about the unimaginable odds, or coincidences, if you prefer, that had to occur for the Earth to be perfectly positioned (axis, rotation, distance from sun and moon) and configured (air, water, sunlight, edible animals and plants) to sustain human life and well, you know, the sheer "BS factor" of Chuck Darwin's 19th-century fever dream…

    • OMG! I have to be fatter and stouter to be more productive for the human race….I refuse! I rather believe that I was made in the image of G-d and am gloriously and wondrously made….however he chooses to make my image…not by some mad scientist theory!

      • Exactly right, again, Lorben. You're an animal in the best sense of the word. I suspect you're attractive by any definition.

  17. swara , evolution doesn't make anything. if for every successive generation short stout women produce more offspring than tall slender women, future generations will simply have more of their DNA and genes come from these shorter stouter women, who were as a group more successful in passing down their traits.

    there is no premeditation, or forethought in natural selection

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  18. I am just thinking that how shorter and fatter they will be.Hope to see more and more research in this.

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  22. One important question….where these researchers mostly short, heavy women?

  23. Great stuff , man. Ive read your stuff before and you're just too awesome. I love what you've got here, love what you're saying and the way you say it. You make it entertaining and you still manage to keep it smart. I cant wait to read more from you. This is really a great blog car covers

  24. It is absolutely true fact. It can be easily observed in our day to day life

  25. I agree. They're time thieves and sickness givers. By the way, what's with that girl's shoulder in the photo? It looks strange and shopped.

  26. evolution is just a myth and lies. Could you consider Adam as a human living inside a cave? He must be given some knowledge and skills to live on the earth – even Noah made such a big ark. Let's ponder

  27. is this is about women being slightly fatter, not obese ?

  28. The same could be said for every other stop on the tree. All of the animal types are thought to have arisen by the transformation of some other animal type, and at each branching node is a missing link, and between the node and the modern form are many more. If you still don't know what a missing link is, don't worry. No one knows what a missing link is, because they are missing! We've never seen one.
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  29. I find this research very eye opening. I mean, one would think that evolution favors pretty and skinny women over their heavier counterparts. Still, I understand why scientists state that women with a couple of pounds on have better characteristics for carrying healthy babies. I really hope perceptions of beauty change in the future. I don't think is fair for women in general to be pressured to be as skinny as fashion models. Well, that is what I believe at least.
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  30. Evolution is intriguing. I have always thought that the prevalent factor was thin and pretty. Now, I see that heavy and short women have the advantage for carrying children. Well, it's true that most men prefer somewhat heavier women to marry. It does make sense now that I think about it since these women look as they will be able to provide healthy children. This just proves that science rules over human behavior.
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  36. This article is pure propaganda. In fact, girls are now becoming much taller due to the hormones in our dairy and meat products. And if small and plump is the case, why doesn't the beauty mags reflect that. And I'm sorry, women that are plump who try to get pregnant could expose their children to a host of issues. Healthy is the new standard, like it or not.

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  39. You can easily observe this by just taking a look at todays woman. Thanks for sharing the results.

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  43. Evolution favours shorter and heavier women—like it or not – Interesting.Thanks for the share.

  44. It inly stands to reason taht this would be the case. If you look at any of the models walking the streets you cant imagine them being able to support the life of a baby. Also, with so many skinny women have c sections this cannot be good in the long run, and this occurs in small sized (shape not height). Look at Victoria Beckham, she has had 4 children but has never given birth to one without the c section. Just my thoughts anyway, thanks

  45. Shorter and heavier woman?
    I don’t like it. I know its not true and I know modern man are trying to improve human structure to achieve its perfection.

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