Evolution of the human birth canal

Philipp Mitteroecker (Corresponding author), Barbara Fischer

Publications: Contribution to journalArticlePeer Reviewed

Abstract

It seems puzzling why humans have evolved such a small and rigid birth canal that entails a relatively complex process of labor compared with the birth canal of our closest relatives, the great apes. This study reviewed insights into the evolution of the human birth canal from recent theoretical and empirical studies and discussed connections to obstetrics, gynecology, and orthopedics. Originating from the evolution of bipedality and the large human brain million years ago, the evolution of the human birth canal has been characterized by complex trade-off dynamics among multiple biological, environmental, and sociocultural factors. The long-held notion that a wider pelvis has not evolved because it would be disadvantageous for bipedal locomotion has not yet been empirically verified. However, recent clinical and biomechanical studies suggest that a larger birth canal would compromise pelvic floor stability and increase the risk of incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse. Several mammals have neonates that are equally large or even larger than human neonates compared to the size of the maternal birth canal. In these species, the pubic symphysis opens widely to allow successful delivery. Biomechanical and developmental constraints imposed by bipedality have hindered this evolutionary solution in humans and led to the comparatively rigid pelvic girdle in pregnant women. Mathematical models have shown why the evolutionary compromise to these antagonistic selective factors inevitably involves a certain rate of fetopelvic disproportion. In addition, these models predict that cesarean deliveries have disrupted the evolutionary equilibrium and led to new and ongoing evolutionary changes. Different forms of assisted birth have existed since the stone age and have become an integral part of human reproduction. Paradoxically, by buffering selection, they may also have hindered the evolution of a larger birth canal. Many of the biological, environmental, and sociocultural factors that have influenced the evolution of the human birth canal vary globally and are subject to ongoing transitions. These differences may have contributed to the global variation in the form of the birth canal and the difficulty of labor, and they likely continue to change human reproductive anatomy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)S841-S855
JournalAmerican Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology
Volume230
Issue number3
Early online date18 Jul 2023
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2024

Austrian Fields of Science 2012

  • 302017 Obstetrics
  • 106056 Biological anthropology

Keywords

  • biocultural evolution
  • bipedality
  • cesarean delivery
  • childbirth
  • evolutionary medicine
  • human evolution
  • obstetrical dilemma
  • pelvic floor disorders
  • pelvis
  • relaxin

Cite this