Natural selection and sex differences in morbidity and mortality in early life

J Theor Biol. 2000 Jan 7;202(1):65-76. doi: 10.1006/jtbi.1999.1044.


Both morbidity and mortality are consistently reported to be higher in males than in females in early life, but no explanation for these findings has been offered. This paper argues that the sex difference in early vulnerability can be attributed to the natural selection of optimal maternal strategies for maximizing lifetime reproductive success, as modelled previously by Trivers and Willard. These authors theorized that males and females offer different returns on parental investment depending on the state of the environment. Natural selection has therefore favoured maternal ability to manipulate offspring sex in response to environmental conditions in early life, as shown in variation in the sex ratio at birth. This argument can be extended to the whole period of parental investment until weaning. Male vulnerability in response to environmental stress in early life is predicted to have been favoured by natural selection. This vulnerability is most evident in the harsh conditions resulting from pre-term birth, but can also be seen in term infants, and manifests as greater morbidity and mortality persisting into early childhood. Malnutrition, interacting with infection after birth, is suggested as the fundamental trigger mechanism. The model suggests that whatever improvements are made in medical care, any environmental stress will always affect males more severely than females in early life.

MeSH terms

  • Bacterial Infections / mortality
  • Environment*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant Mortality*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Premature
  • Male
  • Morbidity*
  • Nutrition Disorders / mortality
  • Selection, Genetic*
  • Sex Ratio*