Understanding variation in human fertility: What can we learn from evolutionary demography?

Rebecca Sear, David W. Lawson, Hillard Kaplan, Mary K. Shenk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

49 Scopus citations


Decades of research on human fertility has presented a clear picture of how fertility varies, including its dramatic decline over the last two centuries in most parts of the world. Why fertility varies, both between and within populations, is not nearly so well understood. Fertility is a complex phenomenon, partly physiologically and partly behaviourally determined, thus an interdisciplinary approach is required to understand it. Evolutionary demographers have focused on human fertility since the 1980s. The first wave of evolutionary demographic research made major theoretical and empirical advances, investigating variation in fertility primarily in terms of fitness maximization. Research focused particularly on variation within high-fertility populations and small-scale subsistence societies and also yielded a number of hypotheses for why fitness maximization seems to break down as fertility declines during the demographic transition. A second wave of evolutionary demography research on fertility is now underway, paying much more attention to the cultural and psychological mechanisms underpinning fertility. It is also engaging with the complex, multi-causal nature of fertility variation, and with understanding fertility in complex modern and transitioning societies. Here, we summarize the history of evolutionary demographic work on human fertility, describe the current state of the field, and suggest future directions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20150144
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1692
StatePublished - Apr 19 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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