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Human Evolution: brain, birthweight and the immune system









The Royal Society, London, 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London, SW1Y 5AG


Scientific discussion meeting organised by Emeritus Professor Eric Barrington FMedSci FRS, Professor Graham Burton FMedSci and Professor Ashley Moffett. 

Event details

The complexity of the human brain is unique. However, the large size at birth poses risks to mother and offspring due to constraints on pelvic architecture imposed by bipedalism. This tension will be explored in the light of new concepts in the relationships between evolution of the brain, the placenta, the immune system at the maternal-fetal interface, and genomic imprinting.

You can download the draft programme (PDF) and abstracts and biographies of the speakers will soon be available. Recorded audio of the presentations will be available on this page after the event and the papers will be published in a future issue of Philosophical Transactions B.

Attending this event

This event is intended for researchers in relevant fields and is free to attend. There are a limited number of places and registration is essential. An optional lunch is offered and should be booked during registration (all major credit cards accepted).

Participants are also encouraged to attend the related satellite meeting, Human evolution: brain development in relation to placental function, which immediately follows this event.

Enquiries: Contact the events team

Schedule of talks

Session 1: Evolution of the brain and the biomechanics of the human pelvis

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Professor Jean-Jacques Hublin, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany

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Dr Laura Gruss, Radford University, USA

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Professor Mark Maslin, University College London, UK

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Primate pelvic anatomy and implications for birth

Professor Wenda Trevathan, New Mexico State University, USA


The pelvis performs two major functions for terrestrial mammals.  It provides somewhat rigid support for muscles engaged in locomotion and, for females, it serves as the birth canal.  The result for many species, and especially for encephalized primates, is an “obstetric dilemma” whereby the neonate often has to negotiate a tight squeeze in order to be born.  For most monkey species, birth is a challenge that occasionally results in death when the size of the neonate is too large to successfully deliver.  (Great ape females have spacious birth canals and give birth to small neonates, providing an exception to the pattern of difficult births in primates.)  On top of what was probably a baseline of challenging birth, locomotor changes in the human lineage resulted in even more potential complications.  Few adaptations in human evolution have had greater impact on human biology and culture than bipedalism.   Almost every part of the human skeleton was altered, as well as aspects of cardiovascular, circulatory, respiratory and endocrine function.  One of the most profound changes occurred in the birth process and the state of infant development at the time of birth. Negotiation of the bipedal pelvis requires a series of rotations, the end of which has the infant emerging from the birth canal facing the opposite direction from the mother.  This pattern, strikingly different from what is typically seen in monkeys and apes, places a premium on having assistance at delivery.  Furthermore, due to constraints provided by maternal metabolic limits to gestating the energetically expensive human fetus, as well as anatomical, placental, and immunological factors, human infants are born with slightly more than a quarter of the brain size they will achieve in adulthood, approximately half that of most other primates.  The high degree of dependency at birth and an inordinately slow rate of growth of human infants and children place demands on mothers and other caretakers that appear to far exceed those of other mammals, including our closest primate relatives.

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Session 2: Nutrient delivery to the fetus

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Professor Graham Burton FMedSci, University of Cambridge, UK

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Professor Jonathan Wells, University College London, UK

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Professor Lorna G. Moore, University of Colorado, Denver, USA

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Dr Mick Elliott, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, USA

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Session 3: Placental invasiveness and maternal-fetal immunology

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Dr Anthony Carter, University of Southern Denmark, Denmark

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Professor Ashley Moffett, University of Cambridge, UK

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Dr Derek Wildman, Wayne State University, USA

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Professor Peter Parham FRS, Stanford University, USA

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Session 4: Genetic links between the brain and the placenta

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Professor Azim Surani CBE FMedSci FRS, Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute, University of Cambridge, UK

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Professor Gudrun Moore, Institute of Child Health, University College London, UK

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Human Evolution: brain, birthweight and the immune system The Royal Society, London 6-9 Carlton House Terrace London SW1Y 5AG UK