Why does evolution not make life longer for humans or any other species?

Wouldn't evolution favour a long life?

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    $\begingroup$ Evolution has no "goal". It is "simply" the survival of the fittest under a given condition. What should be the advantage of living longer? Getting kids (=spreading the own genetic information) is done latest until the mid-40s after that we have not much biological meaning. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 7:44
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    $\begingroup$ In addition to @Chris, not only does evolution not have a "goal," evolution doesn't necessarily mean "make us better!" It's absolutely possible to evolve negative traits. $\endgroup$
    – Brian S
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ A longer life span would eventually mean either less reproduction or more overcrowding. It seems to me that the former would slow down evolution and make us less adaptive as a species, and the latter is simply suicidal. Of course evolution didn't sit down with Excel and figure all this out. But evolutionally, immortality isn't all it's cracked up to be. :) $\endgroup$
    – cHao
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ I note that the question is incoherent in at least two ways. First, you've used "longer" without saying "than something". If we replace "longer" with "longer than 100 years", or "longer than elephants", or "longer than lifespan 10000 years ago" we'd get three different answers. Second, the question presupposes that evolution does not make life longer. Evolution has made life longer for humans than for many other species. Asking "why does X not happen?" when X does happen means the question cannot be sensibly answered. I would clarify your question. $\endgroup$ Commented May 2, 2014 at 21:34
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    $\begingroup$ @gwho It's a comment, not an answer. Besides that, our muh longer life is occurring only for a very short time period (less than 100 years), so evolutionary we haven't adapted to that. I might happen. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Nov 30, 2014 at 8:52

8 Answers 8


Why do we age is a classical question in Evolutionary Biology. There are several things to consider when we think of how genes that cause disease, aging, and death to evolve.

One explanation for the evolution of aging is the mutation accumulation (MA) hypothesis. This hypothesis by P. Medawar states that mutations causing late life deleterious (damaging) effects can build up in the genome more than diseases that cause early life disease. This is because selection on late acting mutations is weaker. Mutations that cause early life disease will more severely reduce the fitness of its carrier than late acting mutations. For example, if we said in an imaginary species that all individuals cease to reproduce at 40 years old and a mutation arises that causes a fatal disease at 50 years old then selection can not remove it from the population - carriers will have as many children as those who do not have the gene. Under the mutation accumulation hypothesis it is then possible for mutations to drift through the population.

Another hypothesis which could contribute to aging is the antagonistic pleiotropy (AP) hypothesis of G.C. Williams. Pleiotropy is when genes have more than one effect, such genes tend to cause correlations between traits, height and arm length probably have many of the same genes affecting them, otherwise there would be no correlation between arm length and height (though environment and linkage can also cause these patterns)... Back to AP as an explanation for aging, if a gene improves fitness early in life, but causes late life disease it can spread through the population via selection. The favourable early effect spreads well because of selection and, just as with MA, selection can not "see" the late acting disease.

Under both MA and AP the key point is that selection is less efficient at removing late acting deleterious mutations, and they may spread more rapidly thanks to beneficial early life effects. Also if there is extrinsic mortality (predation etc.) then the effect of selection is also weakened on alleles that affect late life. The same late-life reduction in the efficacy of selection also slows the rate at which alleles increasing lifespan spread.

A third consideration is the disposable-soma model, a description by T. Kirkwood of life-history trade-offs which might explain why aging and earlier death could be favoured. The idea is that individuals have a limited amount of resources available to them - perhaps because of environmental constraints or ability to acquire/allocate the resources. If we then assume that individuals have to use their energy for two things, staying alive via repair and maintenance (somatic-maintenance) and making offspring (reproductive-investment), then any energy devoted to one will take away from the other. If an individual carries a gene that makes it devote all of its energy to somatic maintenance then its fitness will be very low (probably 0!) and that gene will not spread. If the level of maintenance required to live forever costs more energy than an individual can spare without suffering from low fitness (very likely) or can even acquire and efficiently convert in the first place (also very likely) then high-maintenance alleles will not spread (and aging & death will continue to occur).

To go a little further, it is common for sexes to age differently (this is what I work on) and one possible explanation is that the sexes favour different balances of the trade off between somatic-maintenance and reproductive investment, this can lead to conflict over the evolution of genes affecting this balance and slow the rates of evolution to sex specific optima. This paper provides a good review of the area.

To summarise, evolution has not managed to get rid of death via genetic disease etc. (intrinsic mortality) because the effect is only weakly selected against, and those alleles may provide some early life benefit, and resource limitation may also reduce the potential to increase lifespan due to trade-offs with reproductive effort. Adaptive evolution is not about the survival of the fittest but the reproduction of the fittest - the fittest allele is the one which spreads the most effectively.

EDIT: Thanks to Remi.b for also pointing out some other considerations.

Another thought is that of altruistic aging - aging for the good of the population (the population is likely to contain related individuals, you are related to all other humans to some degree). In this model aging is an adaptive process (unlike in MA where it is just a consequence of weak selection). By dying an individual makes space for it's offspring/relatives to survive (because resources are then less likely to limit populations). This will stop excessive population growth which could lead to crashes in the population and so, by dying earlier, an individual promotes the likelihood that its progeny will survive. Arguments of altruistic sacrifice are often hard to promote but recent work suggests that this is a more plausible model than once thought.

Evolvabilty theories also suggest that aging is an adaptive process. These suggest that populations, composed of a mixture of young and old, have biases in how well adapted the members of the population are - where younger individuals are better adapted (because they were produced more recently it is likely that the environment is similar to the environment they are favoured in). Thus by removing the less well adapted individuals from a population via senescence and freeing up resources for younger better adapted individuals, a population evolves more rapidly towards it optimal state.

  • $\begingroup$ +1 I bet I would never have got 5 upvotes to my answer if you'd had posted your answer earlier $\ddot \smile$ . You don't talk about some hypotheses of the kind "Because our body is not so flexible (most cells are specialized (not very totipotent anymore)) we can't heal from many damages. The population where old individuals free places (by dying) for the younger individuals which are more fit will thrive compared to populations that don't do this (lineage selection)". You may not be so far from giving an exhaustive list of hypotheses that would definitely would make your answer perfect! $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 14:36
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding your third consideration; there are 3 things that an organism can spend its resources on: reproducing, growing and maintaining. The third consideration only works if growing is cheaper than maintaining (since if an old organism reproduces and dies a new organism must grow to replace it). $\endgroup$ Commented May 3, 2014 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ On the other hand, living a bit longer than reproducing can also be good for fitness because then you can help your offspring along until they are old enough to live on their own. (So your 40/50 year example gene might still have a bit of negative selection.) $\endgroup$ Commented May 3, 2014 at 20:23
  • $\begingroup$ @RichardTingle I would include both growth and maintenance in somatic maintenance - this is how it is regarded in the literature on the subject $\endgroup$
    – rg255
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 23:14
  • $\begingroup$ @PaŭloEbermann yes, some kin/group selection arguments would reduce the negative effect of living long but it requires some social structure and group selection is generally weak so I chose not to delve to far in to that subject, but yes, if by living longer an individual increases the fitness of its offspring then there is a positive effect of long life via indirect selection $\endgroup$
    – rg255
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 23:17

This is a very good question.

There is a big ongoing field of research called "evolution of aging/senescence" that tackles this question. I won't give you a complete overview of the different hypothesis the could explain why we age but here is a fundamental concept that is to know.

We'll assume that there is some extrinsic mortality, mortality against which a lineage won't ever be able to escape and I think it is not an assumption that is hard to meet. Therefore, an allele that has age-specific effect such as decreasing the fecundity at age 3 will undergo a higher selection pressure and will faster get eliminated from the population than another allele causing the same decrease in fecundity but at age 4 because some individuals would have died between age 3 and age 4. In other words, natural selection is more efficient at lower age than at higher age. Now, imagine in humans an allele that increases the reproductive success of an individual at age 20 by decreasing the survival at age 78. This allele will easily spread in the population. Such alleles are said to have age-specific antagonist pleiotropic effect. And empirical studies have shown that alleles that have antagonist age-specific antagonist pleiotropic exist.

In short, it is because there is some extrinsic mortality that natural selection acts with a different strength at different ages allowing some deleterious allele at old age to fix in the population especially if those alleles have age-specific antagonist pleiotropic effect. You'll find in this book mathematical formulation and more complete discussion of this effect

Other hypotheses exist which are based on lineage selection, group selection or on the mutation-selection balance.


Because evolution isn't about individuals: it's about species. What matters to natural selection isn't how long you live, but how many grandchildren you have. A long lifespan can be an evolutionary advantage, but like any trait, it's only an advantage to the extent that allows you to reproduce more.

It would seem that a longer lifespan would be advantageous anyway, because it would give you more time to reproduce. However, for reasons we don't yet fully understand, it doesn't seem to work out that way in practice. Most organisms (assuming they live long enough) eventually reach an age where they stop reproducing. Even humans do this, and although we've managed to increase the average lifespan quite a bit over the course of recorded human history (to say nothing of the millennia before that), the average age at which people stop reproducing apparently hasn't changed very much.

Why not? What makes this an evolutionary advantage over having more reproductive years? This is one of those things that we haven't really figured out yet. There are a number of competing theories, and the other answers here go into some of them. But the most direct way to answer your question is fairly simple: longer lifespans (and/or reproductive years) haven't given us, or our children, any more success at reproducing. Thus, there is no pressure on the species to live longer, and so it doesn't happen.

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    $\begingroup$ longer lifespans haven't given us more success at reproducing why do you say that? $\endgroup$ Commented May 5, 2014 at 6:51
  • $\begingroup$ Technically, evolution isn't even about species, but about aleles. Something can be an advantage to a gene, even if it provides no advantage to the species; for example retroviruses. $\endgroup$ Commented May 5, 2014 at 7:42
  • $\begingroup$ @MuhammadUmer: It's interesting, just because it seems so counterintuitive, but if you look at the period over which human lifespans have been increasing, the birthrates have actually gone down, not up. Nowadays, many of the nations with the longest life expectancies actually have some of the lowest birthrates, and vice versa. There probably isn't a direct causal link here -that is to say, the birthrate probably isn't dropping because people are living longer- but the fact remains that lifespans are going up in some parts of the world, but where that's happening, birthrates aren't going up. $\endgroup$ Commented May 5, 2014 at 12:07
  • $\begingroup$ First i don't think this effect among humans, that countries with highest expectancy have lowest birth rate, is the result of evolution. But could be a hint as to why it may happen in Evolution. Shorter the lifespan in the country the poorer the population..The reason recent study discovered that poor like to have many children while richer parents often opt for 1 or 2 max, is because value of the Amount of wealth that gets divided among children goes very high as parents get richer... $\endgroup$ Commented May 5, 2014 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ ...on the other hand poor man can have 10 children and they would still be relatively as rich as only 2 would have been. For rich the effect multiplies...if you were going to inherit 10 million if you were only one child...but if you had 9 other siblings you'd get only 1 million. Loss of 9 million. If you were poor, then instead of inheriting \$5000. you get $500 Both won't last more than a month. $\endgroup$ Commented May 5, 2014 at 14:52

Actually, genetically, there is no reason for animals to continue to exist after they have procreated.

If you look at salmon, they die immediately after procreating, which is probably the most efficient way to carry the best genes to the next generation.

In the case of mammals, they need to teach their offspring where to find food, where to find water and how to avoid dangers.

In the case of humans, that goes into the third generation, so most humans know their parents and their grandparents, and even they live with them in some cultures, since their experiences and ideas are taken as very important.

So maybe the question should be the opposite, why do we live to see our grandchildren grow?

Taking your same question to the opposite: why do people die? Why don't they live forever instead of reproducing? I can think of various reasons for this. Imagine a race that lives forever and another race who have a lot of children early on and then die. Now imagine a contagious disease that spreads among both populations. Which race has the most probability of survival?

Of course, the race that reproduces rapidly has a better chance.

And also, evolution works wonders for the race that reproduces rapidly instead of the race that lives forever. Meaning the number of years a species live has carefully been "designed out" by evolution.

Evolution would not work if it didn't stabilize around the best genes. And that's exactly what happens with humans. Most humans have the same traits: live around the same number of years, and have more or less the same abilities, most differences are almost irrelevant.

  • $\begingroup$ Another example for this line of argument: wired.com/2014/05/… $\endgroup$
    – Hans
    Commented May 2, 2014 at 20:12
  • $\begingroup$ There is an exception to the statement that animals dont need to live after they have procreated, and that's in most social mammal groups, the older patriarchs or matriarchs use their memory to guide the group away from danger and towards food. Especially with humans, where the oldest naturally occuring individuals are about 80-90 that help to guide the group, see native american tribes for example. In other social animal groups, the oldest individuals often have a role to play in guiding travel,i.e. elephants. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 23, 2014 at 23:19
  • $\begingroup$ I get what you're saying, but I must first object to "reason for animals to continue". This language is hard to avoid, but it does imbue a certain paradigm or assumption that genes are the purpose (there is no purpose in evolution), while the phenotype and the boday are carriers. It's a useful paradigm to analyze the essence of evolution, which are the genes, but that wording confounds and obfuscates clear thinking, which is necessary to tackle questions like these. $\endgroup$
    – ahnbizcad
    Commented Nov 30, 2014 at 2:00
  • $\begingroup$ Animals after reproducing can have a "purpose" if they reproduce more. having multiple kids. If they can extend their fertile years, that would be reproductively advantageous, and help with those genes surviving. This is naturally assumed when anyone asks "why don't we live longer" with some awareness of evolution. If we live longer, they are also assuming fertile years be longer as well. $\endgroup$
    – ahnbizcad
    Commented Nov 30, 2014 at 2:01
  • $\begingroup$ Here is an idea: if animals lived long past their fertile years, they would take up resources (less food, safe ground, etc), and leave less for the offspring which do/can reproduce. (Species may not compete for resources with vastly different species, but they certainly do compete with members of their own species.) Having a bunch of old, non-reproducing individuals would put a damper of the chances of survivability of their offspring. This is only one isolated effect to be superimposed with other effects which may take precedence or overshadow this effect. $\endgroup$
    – ahnbizcad
    Commented Nov 30, 2014 at 2:03

If you take the line of "The Selfish Gene - Richard Dawkins". Evolution doesn't care about individuals, it cares about genes. So as long as the genes are passed along reliably into the future, evolution may do it with 4 generations per 100 years or 100 generations per 100 years.

  • $\begingroup$ Lifeforms that we know tend to have a mature state towards which they rapidly develop, and then live for a while after that. What about a hypothetical lifeform, such that the longer an individual survived, the more successful it became? Suppose its tool of choice was intelligence, and it was a a whale with four human hands, and its brain kept growing and it became smarter and smarter every year... I guess there is still a limit at which it can't improve... But this thought experiment shows that if a lifeform can find a way to develop further during its life, its life expectancy will grow. $\endgroup$ Commented May 4, 2014 at 8:22
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    $\begingroup$ The evolutionary drive works on preferential survival of children. So in such a species such as you suggest, the children of older members would have to be preferentially selected over the offspring of younger members. $\endgroup$
    – user6571
    Commented May 5, 2014 at 8:22
  • $\begingroup$ We can arrange that. Just as in countries with higher IQ, the life expectancy is longer, because they can organise better healthcare for themselves, perhaps the growing brain will improve the medical skills of this hypothetical animal, and it would preferentially provide medical help to its own children first. (Assuming it's a universally benevolent species; if it's partially or fully malevolent, you can also imagine how the cleverer older individuals' children will be better off.) $\endgroup$ Commented May 6, 2014 at 4:43
  • $\begingroup$ This then becomes involved in politics and the organisation of healthcare. $\endgroup$
    – user6571
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 12:34
  • $\begingroup$ @user6571 I just commented OP to take a look at this book before even seeing your answer. Extremely good book on the subject. $\endgroup$
    – Dart Feld
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 19:08

There is no selection mechanism that would favor high age.

By the time it's apparent whether or not an individual can reach a high age healthily, they'll have ceased all reproductive activity.

Conversely, people who get cancer at 45 will have likely reproduced already.

  • $\begingroup$ This assumes an organism becomes long lived while still stopping reproducing early rather than the whole of life extending. $\endgroup$ Commented May 3, 2014 at 18:13
  • $\begingroup$ but shouldn't genetic variations result in individuals that are of higher age than average age at which they cease all reproductivity. Thus being at advantage..then why that advantage hasn't been represented among humans?..to me this conclusion is flawed. $\endgroup$ Commented May 5, 2014 at 6:54

To an extent it does; in that we live longer than our mouse-like ancestors. So the question becomes: why not keep extending it to immortality.

The key thing is that evolution cares only about the survival of your genes; so if you live for 1000 years or if 10 generations of your family have 1 individual's worth of your genes in each generation (each living for 100 years) this is equivalently successful.

But this assumes it's either-or that an organism can reproduce or live a long time, could it not do both? In principle it could but the resources of a particular niche are limited so in order to avoid mass starvation the reproductive rate must reduce as the average age of the individuals go up.

So this suggests having very long lived individuals is no better than having short lived individuals, but is it at least equal? Sadly not, if fewer new individuals are born then the rate of evolution of that species is reduced. A very long lived species is less able to respond to environmental changes. As such over an evolutionary timescale an extraordinarily long lived animal is likely to be outcompeted by a shorter lived species.

Of course there is a natural breakeven point; there is a considerable cost in bringing an individual from infant to reproductive adult so once they've got there it makes sense to keep them around for a while, but not indefinitely.


I am assuming that by longer life, you mean slower aging, because evolution can do little if a mountain falls on a person!

So, why don’t organisms have slower, or better, zero rate of aging?

The theory I am describing is based upon life history theory. Life history theory assumes that:

  1. Resources available to any organism are limited,
  2. Life processes like ‘reproduction’ and ‘repair and maintenance of the body’ are costly with respect to resource consumption, and resources directed towards one life process must be directed away from the other. Hence a trade off mechanism between the different life processes must exist.

Based on this data, one can infer that given a specie with a given death rate of extrinsic causes (causes beyond that of aging, like getting eaten), one can use a little mathematics to find the average life span of the organism if the organism does not ages. Simple…?

Now, given that the average life span of the non-aging specie is limited, do you really think that the optimum life strategy of the specie would be zero aging? Remember that to not to get old one needs to spend energy, and that all the energy gone in maintaining health will certainly be wasted in the form of dead bodies once the organism dies.

Hence, given a mechanism through which trade off of resources between life processes is possible, the organisms must invest a little more towards reproduction and a little less towards repair and maintenance? Why? Just to reduce the loss of resources in the form of dead bodies and to increase reproductive success, which is what gets counted in the end!

So, indeed, having zero rate of aging has disadvantages! It would be more advantageous if organisms age with a fixed specie specific rate.

Now, time to make few points clear:

  1. This theory assumes Life history theory to be correct. I am not saying- “hello there- this is the correct reason of aging!” I am saying- “This is the correct theory of aging if life history theory is correct!” So, if you do not believe in life history theory, then get busy trying to prove it wrong. The theory I have discussed stands on the shoulder of a giant. On the other hand, if you believe that the theory I discuss does not follows from Life History theory, then lets hear your argument.
  2. This theory also assumes that aging happens due to lack of repair and maintenance of constantly occurring body damages. The special thing about this theory is that it gives a non-altruistic mechanism through which aging can directly benefit the organism. Hence, this theory makes it easier for us to explain why aging got natural selection- because it has benefits!

I found this theory on this SE question, where the question has now been put on hold due to dubious reasons. Also, the OP mentions this book- Modern Biological theory and experiments on Celibacy, which, I think, was one of the reasons why the question was put on hold!


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