Natural selection and quantitative genetics of life-history traits in western women: A twin study

Katherine M. Kirk, Simon P. Blomberg, David L. Duffy, Andrew C. Heath, Ian P.F. Owens, Nick G. Martin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

146 Scopus citations


Whether contemporary human populations are still evolving as a result of natural selection has been hotly debated. For natural selection to cause evolutionary change in a trait, variation in the trait must be correlated with fitness and be genetically heritable and there must be no genetic constraints to evolution. These conditions have rarely been tested in human populations. In this study, data from a large twin cohort were used to assess whether selection will cause a change among women in a contemporary Western population for three life-history traits: age at menarche, age at first reproduction, and age at menopause. We control for temporal variation in fecundity (the "baby boom" phenomenon) and differences between women in educational background and religious affiliation. University-educated women have 35% lower fitness than those with less than seven years education, and Roman Catholic women have about 20% higher fitness than those of other religions. Although these differences were significant, education and religion only accounted for 2% and 1% of variance in fitness, respectively. Using structural equation modeling, we reveal significant genetic influences for all three life-history traits, with heritability estimates of 0.50, 0.23, and 0.45, respectively. However, strong genetic covariation with reproductive fitness could only be demonstrated for age at first reproduction, with much weaker covariation for age at menopause and no significant covariation for age at menarche. Selection may, therefore, lead to the evolution of earlier age at first reproduction in this population. We also estimate substantial heritable variation in fitness itself, with approximately 39% of the variance attributable to additive genetic effects, the remainder consisting of unique environmental effects and small effects from education and religion. We discuss mechanisms that could be maintaining such a high heritability for fitness. Most likely is that selection is now acting on different traits from which it did in pre-industrial human populations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)423-435
Number of pages13
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2001


  • Fitness
  • Genetic correlation
  • Heritability
  • Humans
  • Life histories
  • Natural selection
  • Twins


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