Simulating the Grandmother Effect

We humans are long-lived for our size when compared with other mammals. One possible explanation is the grandmother hypothesis, suggesting that evolutionary selection favored survival to increasing age because older members of a social group can increase the survival chances of their grandchildren. As for all hypotheses there are arguments against it, but here researchers have created simulations to support the concept:

The simulations indicate that with only a little bit of grandmothering -- and without any assumptions about human brain size - animals with chimpanzee lifespans evolve in less than 60,000 years so they have a human lifespan. Female chimps rarely live past child-bearing years, usually into their 30s and sometimes their 40s. Human females often live decades past their child-bearing years. The findings showed that from the time adulthood is reached, the simulated creatures lived another 25 years like chimps, yet after 24,000 to 60,000 years of grandmothers caring for grandchildren, the creatures who reached adulthood lived another 49 years - as do human hunter-gatherers.

Based on earlier research, the simulation assumed that any newborn had a 5 percent chance of a gene mutation that could lead to either a shorter or a longer lifespan. The simulation begins with only 1 percent of women living to grandmother age and able to care for grandchildren, but by the end of the 24,000 to 60,000 simulated years, the results are similar to those seen in human hunter-gatherer populations: about 43 percent of adult women are grandmothers. The new study found that from adulthood, additional years of life doubled from 25 years to 49 years over the simulated 24,000 to 60,000 years.

The competing "hunting hypothesis" holds that as resources dried up for human ancestors in Africa, hunting became better than foraging for finding food, and that led to natural selection for bigger brains capable of learning better hunting methods and clever use of hunting weapons. Women formed "pair bonds" with men who brought home meat. Many anthropologists argue that increasing brain size in our ape-like ancestors was the major factor in humans developing lifespans different from apes. But the new computer simulation ignored brain size, hunting and pair bonding, and showed that even a weak grandmother effect can make the simulated creatures evolve from chimp-like longevity to human longevity.



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