The Rarity of Survival to Old Age Does Not Drive the Evolution of Senescence

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The evolution of senescence is often explained by arguing that, in nature, few individuals survive to be old and hence it is evolutionarily unimportant what happens to organisms when they are old. A corollary to this idea is that extrinsically imposed mortality, because it reduces the chance of surviving to be old, favors the evolution of senescence. We show that these ideas, although widespread, are incorrect. Selection leading to senescence does not depend directly on survival to old age, but on the shape of the stable age distribution, and we discuss the implications of this important distinction. We show that the selection gradient on mortality declines with age even in the hypothetical case of zero mortality, when survivorship does not decline. Changing the survivorship function by imposing age independent mortality has no affect on the selection gradients. A similar result exists for optimization models: age independent mortality does not change the optimal result. We propose an alternative, brief explanation for the decline of selection gradients, and hence the evolution of senescence.

Original languageEnglish
Book seriesEvolutionary Biology
Issue number1
Pages (from-to)5-10
Publication statusPublished - 1. Mar 2017


  • Age distribution
  • Extrinsic mortality
  • Selection gradient
  • Senescence
  • Survivorship


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