I know you could divide the female fertility period (~40 years, right?) by 9 months which would give something like ~50 kids (with no multiple kids per pregnancy). The limiting factor in this calculation is time but is there a biological upper limit as well?


1 Answer 1


How do you define the biological limit?

It very much depends on how you define a biological limit. If you prefer, it very much depends on how you define a human! Some women are completely sterile while others are highly fertile and there is genetic predisposition to that. How much "perfect" should the genotype of an individual be so that it is still considered as a human? There is genetic variance underlying fecundity that is important to consider. For example, in your calculation you took lifespan as a constant but it obviously is not a constant. Fecundity is reduced by all these small mutations segregating in the human populations that reduce the fecundity of any single human. There exist no human that is free from all deleterious alleles. Imagine a giant woman with 10 independent reproductive system! Would she still be a human? That was probably kind of a too extreme thought experiment. Imagine a woman that can have a reproductive lifespan of 100 years. Would it still be a human? The issue behind this question reminds me an old post (now closed, I can't find it anymore) that asked whether a leopard would run faster if it had more legs. Well... one can imagine something running faster than a leopard, but it would not be a leopard anymore. So how many changes from a leopard are we allowed to make to answer the question. So I had to chose a definition of what a "perfect woman" is. Or a definition of a woman that would set this so called biological limit.

The definition I am using to answer this question

In the below answer, I will assume that by biological limit you mean the expected fitness of a female that would live in the same environment than we live in today but would not carry any single of the deleterious locus that are segregating in the human population. In other words I assume that you accept that the "perfect woman", that is a woman that would not carry any single of the deleterious mutations that segregate in the populations will set this biological limit to woman maximal fecundity.

Mutation load Theory

The decrease in the mean fitness of an idealized population where no deleterious mutations would exist compared to the realized mean fitness of a population is called the mutation load. The mutation (in an infinite population) is a function of the genome-wide mutation rate only. Let the genome-wide mutation rate in human be $U=2.2$, the mutation load $L$ in the human population is equal to $L=1-e^{-2.2}=0.89$. The estimates are taken from this video. You may want to have a look to the video in order to have a better understanding of why $L=1-e^{-U}$ and what are the assumptions of these calculations. The main assumptions are 1) infinite population size, 2) multiplicity of fitness effects at different loci and 3) additivity of fitness effect between alleles at the same locus.

So what does mutation load theory predicts?

The above calculation means that segregating deleterious allele reduce the fitness of the average woman by 89%! If we assume that an average woman can have 10 babies (this number is just a random guess) if she wants to, then the maximum biological limit of a "perfect woman" (in a world where there is no more competition than the one in which we are living) is $\frac{10}{1-0.89}≈91$ babies!

According to wikipedia, the world record is 69 and is owned by Mrs. Vassilyev. It is reasuring to see that the observed world record (69) is lower than the the biological limit we just calculated (91). If we were to know the distribution of maximal number of babies per woman (not to be confused with the realized number of babies), we could calculate the probability to have 69 or more babies and compare this probability to the total number of females that has ever lived (or the total number of females that would have never had the idea to have so many babies). Always according to wikipedia, the world record for men would be 867 and is owned by Ismail Ibn Sharif. However, sounds possible to me (but I really have no idea) that some sperm donor may have overshoot this number today.

  • $\begingroup$ Did you mean reassuring 69 ? $\endgroup$
    – One Face
    Apr 5, 2015 at 11:14
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    $\begingroup$ With many typos and english mistakes I meant It is reasuring to see that the observed world record (69) is lower than the the biological limit we just calculated (91) I edited the answer. Does it make sense? Thanks $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Apr 5, 2015 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks! This is a very interesting approach to the question. Would be interesting to get an estimate of the number of babies for the average woman which would set a more accurate theoretical maximum. Btw isn't the perfect woman a Puerto Rican? Too bad she does not belong to the human genera :) (see PC3). This goes exactly along your thoughts. $\endgroup$ Apr 5, 2015 at 17:30

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