Sex Differences in Life History

Human life histories are unusual among primates, our closest relatives. If we followed the "typical" primate pattern (in which many phenomena vary with size), women would nurse their children until about age 7 years, and then their daughters would have their first children at about age 8 or 9 years (review in Low, 2000). Human distortions of "typical" primate patterns appear to be linked to our extreme sociality. Any glance at census data suggests that there are also significant sex differences in human life history. Women live longer than men and have greater life expectancy at birth. In this, humans are like most mammals, in which males engage in risky competition for mates, and females specialize in expensive but risk-averse post-natal care; females tend to mature significantly earlier, to be less aggressive, and to live longer than males (Low, 2000). Of course, there are social reinforcements of these patterns (Geary, 1998; Low, 2000), but the differences follow the general mammalian pattern and occur across a wide spectrum of human societies. Patterns of senescence—the failure of systems (and system repair) with age—differ between the sexes only in reproductive senescence; menopause is more regular and defined in females than is age-related decrease in male reproductive function.

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