Maternal capital and the metabolic ghetto: An evolutionary perspective on the transgenerational basis of health inequalities

Am J Hum Biol. Jan-Feb 2010;22(1):1-17. doi: 10.1002/ajhb.20994.


There is particular interest in understanding socioeconomic and ethnic variability in health status. The developmental origins of disease hypothesis emphasize the importance of growth patterns across the life-course in relation to noncommunicable disease risk. The physiological components of cardiovascular risk, collectively termed the metabolic syndrome, derive in part from a disparity between the homeostatic "metabolic capacity" of vital organs and the "metabolic load" induced by large tissue masses, a rich diet and sedentary behavior. From an evolutionary perspective, the risk of such disparity is decreased by maternal physiology regulating offspring growth trajectory during gestation and lactation. Maternal capital, defined as phenotypic resources enabling investment in the offspring, allows effective buffering of the offspring from nutritional perturbations and represents the environmental niche initially occupied by the offspring. Offspring growth patterns are sensitive to the magnitude of maternal capital during early windows of plasticity. Offspring life-history strategy can then respond adaptively to further factors across the life-course, but only within the context of this initial maternal influence on growth. Maternal somatic capital is primarily gained or lost across generations, through variable rates of fetal and infant growth. I argue that the poor nutritional experience of populations subjected to colonialism resulted in a systematic loss of maternal capital, reflected in downward secular trends in stature. Accelerating the recovery of somatic capital within generations overloads metabolic capacity and exacerbates cardiovascular risk, reflected in increased disease rates in urbanizing and emigrant populations. Public health policies need to benefit metabolic capacity without exacerbating metabolic load.

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / epidemiology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / ethnology
  • Colonialism
  • Ethnic Groups
  • Female
  • Growth and Development*
  • Health Status*
  • Humans
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena