Using Geographic Distance as a Potential Proxy for Help in the Assessment of the Grandmother Hypothesis

Engelhardt, Sacha C.; Bergeron, Patrick; Gagnon, Alain; Dillon, Lisa; Pelletier, Fanie (2019). Using Geographic Distance as a Potential Proxy for Help in the Assessment of the Grandmother Hypothesis. Current Biology, 29(4), pp. 651-656. Cell Press 10.1016/j.cub.2019.01.027

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Life-history theory predicts that selection could favor the decoupling of somatic and reproductive senescence if post-reproductive lifespan (PRLS)provides additional indirect fitness benefits [1, 2]. The grandmother hypothesis proposes that pro-longed PRLS evolved because post-reproductive grandmothers gain inclusive fitness benefits by helping their daughters and grandchildren [3, 4]. Because most historical human data do not report direct evidence of help, we hypothesized that geographic distance between individuals may be inversely related to their capacity to help. Using an exceptionally detailed dataset of pre-industrial French settlers in the St. Lawrence Valley during the 17th and 18th centuries, we assessed the potential for grandmothers to improve their inclusive fitness by helping their descendants, and we evaluated how this effect varied with geographic distance,ranging between 0 and 325 km, while accounting for potential familial genetic and environmental effects[5–9]. Grandmothers (F0) who were alive allowed their daughters (F1) to increase their number of offspring (F2) born by 2.1 and to increase their number of offspring surviving to 15 years of age by 1.1compared to when grandmothers were dead. How-ever, the age at first reproduction was not influenced by the life status (alive or dead) of grandmothers. As geographic distance increased, the number of offspring born and lifetime reproductive success decreased, while the age at first reproduction increased, despite the grandmother being alive in these analyses. Our study suggests that geographic proximity has the potential to modulate inclusive fitness, supporting the grandmother hypothesis,and to contribute to our understanding of the evolution of PRLS.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


08 Faculty of Science > Department of Biology > Institute of Ecology and Evolution (IEE)

UniBE Contributor:

Engelhardt, Sacha Christoph


500 Science > 570 Life sciences; biology




Cell Press




Niklas Ingvar Paulsson

Date Deposited:

12 Mar 2020 15:38

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 15:37

Publisher DOI:


PubMed ID:





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