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The evolution of human fatness and susceptibility to obesity: an ethological approach

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 February 2006

Jonathan C. K. Wells
Affiliation:
MRC Childhood Nutrition Research Centre, Institute of Child Health, 30 Guilford Street, London WC1N 1EH, UK (E-mail: J.Wells@ich.ucl.ac.uk)
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Abstract

Human susceptibility to obesity is an unusual phenomenon amongst animals. An evolutionary analysis, identifying factors favouring the capacity for fat deposition, may aid in the development of preventive public health strategies. This article considers the proximate causes, ontogeny, fitness value and evolutionary history of human fat deposition. Proximate causes include diet composition, physical activity level, feeding behaviour, endocrine and genetic factors, psychological traits, and exposure to broader environmental factors. Fat deposition peaks during late gestation and early infancy, and again during adolescence in females. As in other species, human fat stores not only buffer malnutrition, but also regulate reproduction and immune function, and are subject to sexual selection. Nevertheless, our characteristic ontogenetic pattern of fat deposition, along with relatively high fatness in adulthood, contrasts with the phenotype of other mammals occupying the tropical savannah environment in which hominids evolved. The increased value of energy stores in our species can be attributed to factors increasing either uncertainty in energy availability, or vulnerability to that uncertainty. Early hominid evolution was characterised by adaptation to a more seasonal environment, when selection would have favoured general thriftiness. The evolution of the large expensive brain in the genus Homo then favoured increased energy stores in the reproducing female, and in the offspring in early life. More recently, the introduction of agriculture has had three significant effects: exposure to regular famine; adaptation to a variety of local niches favouring population-specific adaptations; and the development of social hierarchies which predispose to differential exposure to environmental pressures. Thus, humans have persistently encountered greater energy stress than that experienced by their closest living relatives during recent evolution. The capacity to accumulate fat has therefore been a major adaptive feature of our species, but is now increasingly maladaptive in the modern environment where fluctuations in energy supply have been minimised, and productivity is dependent on mechanisation rather than physical effort. Alterations to the obesogenic environment are predicted to play a key role in reducing the prevalence of obesity.

Type
Review Article
Copyright
2006 Cambridge Philosophical Society

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