Evolutionary obstetrics

Published on October 1, 2007 Reviewed on August 16, 2020   44 min

A selection of talks on Gynaecology & Obstetrics

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Hello, my name is Wenda Trevathan, and I'm Professor of Anthropology at New Mexico State University in the United States. In this presentation, which I have entitled "Evolutionary Obstetrics", I want to provide an evolutionary medicine perspective on human birth. In order to do this, I want to place birth in the context of human evolutionary history.
I have three objectives in this presentation. First, I want to describe the evolutionary history of human birth, highlighting its unique aspects. I also intend to illuminate the deep evolutionary roots of the human need for assistance at birth. And to understand something about how humans give birth in the presence of other individuals rather than in solitude, as many mammals do. And I want to demonstrate the value of an evolutionary approach in medicine, especially for obstetrics.
There are a number of ways in which human birth illustrates the principles of evolutionary medicine that have been reviewed in some of the other lectures in this series. It's an excellent example of the lack of perfection in design. In fact, human birth is often used as good evidence against the idea of an intelligent designer because of all the complications associated with labor and delivery. The way humans give birth results from a series of tradeoffs that have left the body vulnerable to a number of challenges. Discomfort during labor and delivery may have both proximate and ultimate explanations. And birth illustrates the Trivers hypothesis about parent-infant conflict. The terms highlighted are some of the classic terms used in evolutionary medicine.
It's important to remember that evolution is about survival and reproductive success. In order for genes to be subject to natural selection, individuals need to survive to the point where they can reproduce and then pass them along to succeeding generation. The moment of birth is probably the single most risky hour in the normal life course. Therefore, it's a point of intense natural selection. And the survival and reproductive success of two individuals is at stake, the mother and the infant. There are, in association with this, numerous tradeoffs with regard to birth in the course of human evolution.