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Evolutionary ecology of senescence and a reassessment of Williams' 'extrinsic mortality' hypothesis

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Original languageEnglish
Number of pages12
JournalTrends in Ecology & Evolution
Early online date8 Mar 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 8 Mar 2019


The evolutionary theory of senescence underpins research in life history evolution and the biology of aging. In 1957 G.C. Williams predicted that higher adult death rates select for earlier senescence and shorter length of life, but pre- adult mortality doesn’t matter to evolution. This was subsequently interpreted as predicting that senescence should be caused by 'extrinsic' sources of mortality. This idea still motivates empirical studies, even though formal, mathematical theory shows it is wrong. It has nonetheless prospered because it offers an intuitive explanation for patterns observed in nature. We review the flaws in Williams' model, explore alternative explanations for comparative patterns that are consistent with the evolutionary theory of senescence and discuss how hypotheses based upon it can be tested. We argue that focussing on how sources of mortality affect ages differently offers greater insight into evolutionary processes.

    Research areas

  • comparative biology, demography, fitness, life history evolution, mortality, SENESCENCE

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