Metabolic acceleration and the evolution of human brain size and life history

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Abstract

Humans are distinguished from the other living apes in having larger brains and an unusual life history that combines high reproductive output with slow childhood growth and exceptional longevity1. This suite of derived traits suggests major changes in energy expenditure and allocation in the human lineage, but direct measures of human and ape metabolism are needed to compare evolved energy strategies among hominoids. Here we used doubly labelled water measurements of total energy expenditure (TEE; kcal day−1) in humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans to test the hypothesis that the human lineage has experienced an acceleration in metabolic rate, providing energy for larger brains and faster reproduction without sacrificing maintenance and longevity. In multivariate regressions including body size and physical activity, human TEE exceeded that of chimpanzees and bonobos, gorillas and orangutans by approximately 400, 635 and 820 kcal day−1, respectively, readily accommodating the cost of humans’ greater brain size and reproductive output. Much of the increase in TEE is attributable to humans’ greater basal metabolic rate (kcal day−1), indicating increased organ metabolic activity. Humans also had the greatest body fat percentage. An increased metabolic rate, along with changes in energy allocation, was crucial in the evolution of human brain size and life history.

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