I’ve wondered about this a long time.

The Evolution Of Menstruation

From the Abstract:

(i) menstruation occurs as a mechanistic consequence of hormone-induced differentiation of the endometrium (referred to as spontaneous decidualization, or SD); (ii) SD evolved because of maternal-fetal conflict; and (iii) SD evolved by genetic assimilation of the decidualization reaction, which is induced by the fetus in non-menstruating species. The idea that menstruation occurs as a consequence of SD has been proposed in the past, but here we present a novel hypothesis on how SD evolved. We argue that decidualization became genetically stabilized in menstruating lineages, allowing females to prepare for pregnancy without any signal from the fetus.

From PZMyers‘ explanation:

The mother and fetus have an adversarial relationship: mom’s best interest is to survive pregnancy to bear children again, and so her body tries to conserve resources for the long haul. The fetus, on the other hand, benefits from wresting as much from mom as it can, sometimes to the mother’s detriment. The fetus, for instance, manipulates the mother’s hormones to weaken the insulin response, so less sugar is taken up by mom’s cells, making more available for the fetus.

Within the mammals, there is variation in how deeply the fetus sinks its placental teeth into the uterus. Some species are epithelochorial; the connection is entirely superficial. Others are endotheliochorial, in which the placenta pierces the uterine epithelium. And others, the most invasive, are hemochorial, and actually breach maternal blood vessels. Humans are hemochorial. All of the mammalian species that menstruate are also hemochorial.

That’s a hint. Menstruation is a consequence of self-defense. Females build up that thickened uterine lining to protect and insulate themselves from the greedy embryo and its selfish placenta. In species with especially invasive embryos, it’s too late to wait for the moment of implantation — instead, they build up the wall pre-emptively, before and in case of fertilization. Then, if fertilization doesn’t occur, the universal process of responding to declining progesterone levels by sloughing off the lining occurs.

This is absolutely fascinating, and a novel way (the layman/economist in me suspects) to look at the issue. I’ve never understood how it could be evolutionarily better for us to go through that horror every month. (Yes, I said horror, it’s awful, I don’t care what anyone calls it or says about it.)

Now, I get it. Thank you, science.

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One Response to “I’ve wondered about this a long time.”

  1. I love PZ’s pure-science posts. He’s got a way of making the concepts easy to understand, that’s frankly brilliant.

    I was quite surprised to learn that menstruation isn’t common to all mammals. If I’d thought about it all I’d have assumed that it was.

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