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The obstetrical dilemma hypothesis: there's life in the old dog yet


Haeusler, Martin; Grunstra, Nicole D S; Martin, Robert D; Krenn, Viktoria A; Fornai, Cinzia; Webb, Nicole M (2021). The obstetrical dilemma hypothesis: there's life in the old dog yet. Biological Reviews of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 96(5):2031-2057.

Abstract

The term ‘obstetrical dilemma’ was coined by Washburn in 1960 to describe the trade-off between selection for a larger birth canal, permitting successful passage of a big-brained human neonate, and the smaller pelvic dimensions required for bipedal locomotion. His suggested solution to these antagonistic pressures was to give birth prematurely, explaining the unusual degree of neurological and physical immaturity, or secondary altriciality, observed in human infants. This proposed trade-off has traditionally been offered as the predominant evolutionary explanation for why human childbirth is so challenging, and inherently risky, compared to that of other primates. This perceived difficulty is likely due to the tight fit of fetal to maternal pelvic dimensions along with the convoluted shape of the birth canal and a comparatively low degree of ligamentous flexibility. Although the ideas combined under the obstetrical dilemma hypothesis originated almost a century ago, they have received renewed attention and empirical scrutiny in the last decade, with some researchers advocating complete rejection of the hypothesis and its assumptions. However, the hypothesis is complex because it presently captures several, mutually non-exclusive ideas: (i) there is an evolutionary trade-off resulting from opposing selection pressures on the pelvis; (ii) selection favouring a narrow pelvis specifically derives from bipedalism; (iii) human neonates are secondarily altricial because they are born relatively immature to ensure that they fit through the maternal bony pelvis; (iv) as a corollary to the asymmetric selection pressure for a spacious birth canal in females, humans evolved pronounced sexual dimorphism of pelvic shape. Recently, the hypothesis has been challenged on both empirical and theoretical grounds. Here, we appraise the original ideas captured under the ‘obstetrical dilemma’ and their subsequent evolution. We also evaluate complementary and alternative explanations for a tight fetopelvic fit and obstructed labour, including ecological factors related to nutrition and thermoregulation, constraints imposed by the stability of the pelvic floor or by maternal and fetal metabolism, the energetics of bipedalism, and variability in pelvic shape. This reveals that human childbirth is affected by a complex combination of evolutionary, ecological, and biocultural factors, which variably constrain maternal pelvic form and fetal growth. Our review demonstrates that it is unwarranted to reject the obstetrical dilemma hypothesis entirely because several of its fundamental assumptions have not been successfully discounted despite claims to the contrary. As such, the obstetrical dilemma remains a tenable hypothesis that can be used productively to guide evolutionary research

Abstract

The term ‘obstetrical dilemma’ was coined by Washburn in 1960 to describe the trade-off between selection for a larger birth canal, permitting successful passage of a big-brained human neonate, and the smaller pelvic dimensions required for bipedal locomotion. His suggested solution to these antagonistic pressures was to give birth prematurely, explaining the unusual degree of neurological and physical immaturity, or secondary altriciality, observed in human infants. This proposed trade-off has traditionally been offered as the predominant evolutionary explanation for why human childbirth is so challenging, and inherently risky, compared to that of other primates. This perceived difficulty is likely due to the tight fit of fetal to maternal pelvic dimensions along with the convoluted shape of the birth canal and a comparatively low degree of ligamentous flexibility. Although the ideas combined under the obstetrical dilemma hypothesis originated almost a century ago, they have received renewed attention and empirical scrutiny in the last decade, with some researchers advocating complete rejection of the hypothesis and its assumptions. However, the hypothesis is complex because it presently captures several, mutually non-exclusive ideas: (i) there is an evolutionary trade-off resulting from opposing selection pressures on the pelvis; (ii) selection favouring a narrow pelvis specifically derives from bipedalism; (iii) human neonates are secondarily altricial because they are born relatively immature to ensure that they fit through the maternal bony pelvis; (iv) as a corollary to the asymmetric selection pressure for a spacious birth canal in females, humans evolved pronounced sexual dimorphism of pelvic shape. Recently, the hypothesis has been challenged on both empirical and theoretical grounds. Here, we appraise the original ideas captured under the ‘obstetrical dilemma’ and their subsequent evolution. We also evaluate complementary and alternative explanations for a tight fetopelvic fit and obstructed labour, including ecological factors related to nutrition and thermoregulation, constraints imposed by the stability of the pelvic floor or by maternal and fetal metabolism, the energetics of bipedalism, and variability in pelvic shape. This reveals that human childbirth is affected by a complex combination of evolutionary, ecological, and biocultural factors, which variably constrain maternal pelvic form and fetal growth. Our review demonstrates that it is unwarranted to reject the obstetrical dilemma hypothesis entirely because several of its fundamental assumptions have not been successfully discounted despite claims to the contrary. As such, the obstetrical dilemma remains a tenable hypothesis that can be used productively to guide evolutionary research

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, further contribution
Communities & Collections:04 Faculty of Medicine > Institute of Evolutionary Medicine
Dewey Decimal Classification:610 Medicine & health
Uncontrolled Keywords:General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology, General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
Language:English
Date:1 October 2021
Deposited On:24 May 2021 10:19
Last Modified:09 Sep 2021 01:06
Publisher:Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, Inc.
ISSN:0006-3231
OA Status:Hybrid
Free access at:Publisher DOI. An embargo period may apply.
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1111/brv.12744
PubMed ID:34013651
Project Information:
  • : FunderSNSF
  • : Grant ID31003A_156299
  • : Project TitleEvolutionary origin of major musculoskeletal disorders of modern humans
  • : FunderSNSF
  • : Grant ID31003A_176319
  • : Project TitleBirth and human evolution - implications from computer-assisted reconstructions

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