Proximate causes of the variation of the human sex ratio at birth

Early Hum Dev. 2015 Dec;91(12):795-9. doi: 10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2015.10.004. Epub 2015 Nov 6.


There is evidence that the human sex ratio (proportion males at birth) is the result of two processes. First, the sexes of zygotes (from which the primary sex ratio would be calculated) are thought to be partially controlled by the hormone levels of both parents around the time of conception. Second, this primary sex ratio is apparently modified downwards by male-sex-selective spontaneous abortion caused by high levels of maternal stress-induced adrenal androgens, thus yielding the sex ratio at birth (the secondary sex ratio). Since maternal stress is one cause of spontaneous abortion (and of other forms of reproductive sub-optimality), and since some forms of pharmacological treatment of maternal stress are deleterious to the foetus, best practice would suggest non-pharmacological treatment (e.g. psychotherapy, hypnosis or massage) for pregnant women who have a previous history of spontaneous abortion, preterm birth or low-birth-weight infants.

Keywords: Evolution; Maternal androgens; Maternal oestrogen; Maternal stress; Paternal hormones; Primary sex ratio; Psychotherapy; Secondary sex ratio; Spontaneous abortion; Testosterone.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Abortion, Spontaneous / etiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Parturition
  • Pregnancy
  • Sex Ratio*
  • Stress, Psychological / complications*