Developmental responses to early-life adversity: Evolutionary and mechanistic perspectives

Evol Anthropol. 2019 Sep;28(5):249-266. doi: 10.1002/evan.21791. Epub 2019 Sep 9.


Adverse ecological and social conditions during early life are known to influence development, with rippling effects that may explain variation in adult health and fitness. The adaptive function of such developmental plasticity, however, remains relatively untested in long-lived animals, resulting in much debate over which evolutionary models are most applicable. Furthermore, despite the promise of clinical interventions that might alleviate the health consequences of early-life adversity, research on the proximate mechanisms governing phenotypic responses to adversity have been largely limited to studies on glucocorticoids. Here, we synthesize the current state of research on developmental plasticity, discussing both ultimate and proximate mechanisms. First, we evaluate the utility of adaptive models proposed to explain developmental responses to early-life adversity, particularly for long-lived mammals such as humans. In doing so, we highlight how parent-offspring conflict complicates our understanding of whether mothers or offspring benefit from these responses. Second, we discuss the role of glucocorticoids and a second physiological system-the gut microbiome-that has emerged as an additional, clinically relevant mechanism by which early-life adversity can influence development. Finally, we suggest ways in which nonhuman primates can serve as models to study the effects of early-life adversity, both from evolutionary and clinical perspectives.

Keywords: developmental constraints; developmental plasticity; glucocorticoids; maternal capital; microbiome; predictive adaptive responses.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Biological*
  • Animals
  • Anthropology, Physical
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Birds
  • Female
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Growth and Development*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mammals
  • Maternal Health
  • Microbiota
  • Models, Biological*
  • Stress, Physiological


  • Glucocorticoids