Ongoing research programme

Family, health and demographic outcomes

I have a long-standing interest in the family, and how family influences child health and development and fertility. Some of this research programme was funded by an ERC Starting Grant, 2010-15, which involved working with Kristin Snopkowski, Cristina Moya and Susan Schaffnit. Click here for a summary of some of this ERC-funded research. Recently, I’ve started collaborating with Judi Aubel to bring grandmothers to the attention of public health researchers. See the Grandmothers and public health network webpage. This ongoing research programme also involves collaboration with long-term collaborators: David Coall, Paula Sheppard and David Lawson.

Click here for a slide deck with a summary of some of this work.

Health inequalities and life history theory

Why do health inequalities exist? Evolutionary life history theory may help us answer this question, by providing a theoretical framework which helps us understand how our behaviour and physiology respond to environmental conditions. I’m interested in applying this framework to further our understanding of how the social, economic and physical environment influence our reproduction and behaviour in both higher and lower income contexts. This framework promotes a compassionate approach to health inequalities, which focuses on changing features of the environment, rather than on individual behaviour change, as the solution to public health concerns. I’ve collaborated with Laura Brown on research on inequalities in the UK, and Jonathan Wells on research in Brazil.

Click here for a slide deck with a summary of some of this work.

One problem with applying life history theory to human affairs is that the current life history literature in the human sciences is very confused, with (at least) two quite distinct theoretical paradigms using the language of life history theory. Click here for an OSF page which includes a talk on ‘taming the confusion in the human life history literature’.

Evolutionary demography and public health

I’ve written a number of papers aimed at integrating evolutionary theory with demography and public health. This has involved collaboration with Mary Shenk and David Lawson (click here to see our edited volume on evolutionary approaches to fertility) ; with Jonathan Wells to promote a research agenda of evolutionary public health; and I’m currently co-editing a book on Human Evolutionary Demography, with Oskar Burger and Ron Lee. Chapters are being posted on the OSF:

Click here for a slide deck on the importance of interdisciplinarity research in the social sciences, illustrated with evolutionary demography.

As well as the above ongoing research agenda, I’m also currently, or have been, involved in the following research projects:

The Evolutionary Dynamics of Religion, Family Size, and Child Success

PI: John Shaver; Co-Is: Mary Shenk; Richard Sosis

Funder: John Templeton Foundation

“Across the world religious people have more children than their secular counterparts. In modern environments offspring number is inversely related to child success, yet children born to religious parents flourish. Currently we have little understanding of how religion impacts the number of children people have and child outcomes, and why these dynamics vary across religious groups. Moreover, processes of modernization greatly affect fertility, but it is unclear how these processes of social change affect religion’s influence on reproductive decision-making. To address these issues an experienced team of evolutionary anthropologists and demographers will systematically test competing hypotheses on data collected from 6,000 participants representing six religions, on three continents, in five societies, with differing degrees of modernization.”

Subsistence and fertility – a cross-cultural analysis

PI: Abbey Page; Collaborators Erik Ringen, Colette Berbesque, Jeremy Koster, Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, Heidi Colleran, Karen Kramer, Siohban Mattison, Brooke Scelza, Mary Shenk, Jonathan Stieglitz, John Ziker, Cody Ross, Katie Starkweather, Luis Pacheco-Cobos, Ryan Schacht, Sheina Lew-Levy, Adam Boyette, Shane Macfarlan, Christina Moya, Jennifer French

“The debate about the relationship between fertility and subsistence is an old one, and an example of a classic anthropological investigation into the relationship between food production, behaviour and demography. Anthropological and archaeological theory present hunter-gatherer fertility as ‘relatively low’ compared to other subsistence types. However, the evidence (based on cross-cultural averages) is mixed, suggesting a wide range of heterogeneity in fertility regardless of subsistence type. Despite inconsistent results the literature on the demography of small-scale societies still tends to assume hunter-gatherers have lower fertility compared to other populations. This may well be true, but we lack the evidence to support this statement due to theoretical and methodological shortcomings in previous research. This proposed research project seeks to re-open this classic question by investigating the relationship between fertility and subsistence at the individual level from a wide range of small-scale populations to overcome previous limitations.”

Infant feeding ideology, expectation and reality

PI: Abbey Page; Co-Is, Emily Emmott, Sarah Myers, Collaborators Sylvain Viguier

Funder: British Academy and Leverhulme Trust

“Public health messaging, by presenting breastfeeding as ‘natural’, ‘easy’ and ‘good,’ may be underpreparing women for the challenges of breastfeeding, as well as marginalising and stigmatising those who struggle to breastfeed or choose alternative methods of infant feeding. This messaging, we suggest, creates additional barriers to breastfeeding. However, we currently lack large scale, quantitative data able to untangle cause from effect; a reliance on retrospective methodologies has impeded understanding of how prior expectations interact with women’s real-time experiences that ultimately influence infant feeding decisions. We will address prior methodological limitations by developing and piloting an innovative mobile application (app), to collect daily data on women’s infant feeding experiences and decisions. The app will allow mothers to track their own feeding journeys, whilst facilitating exploration of breastfeeding narratives and feeding behaviour in unprecedented depth.”

Overcoming contraceptive discontinuation by overcoming side effects: paving the way for personalized contraception in Ethiopia

PI: Alex Alvergne; Co-Is & Collaborators: Rose StevensEshetu Gurmu, Tamrat Abebe, Jenny Cresswell, Chris Smith, Elizabeth Ewart

Funder: Wellcome Trust

“In the developing world, millions of women discontinue hormonal contraception due to the experience of debilitating physiological side-effects (e.g. excessive and irregular bleeding), yet the causes of these adverse effects are poorly understood. This project will be the first to test the hypothesis that side-effects are caused by unnecessarily high dosage of exogenous hormones in hormonal contraceptives (e.g. injectables) compared with women’s endogenous hormones, with the aims of accumulating primary evidence for optimizing contraception to communities and individuals. The research will focus on the use of injectables in Ethiopia, where unmet needs for contraception reach the highest levels in Africa.”

Adolescent sociality across cultures

Co-PIs: Emily Emmott & Masahito Morita; Co-Is & Collaborators: Laura Brown, , , Shingo Ito, Tetsuya Kawamoto, Ruth Mace, Mari Nozaki, Atsuko Saito, Yudai Tokumasu

Funder: ESRC

“Human sociality – the way we interact and cooperate with others around us – is thought to underpin “human uniqueness.” With our highly cooperative nature being an evolutionary puzzle, human sociality has been extensively studied. However, researchers have predominantly focused on Western populations, risking a biased scientific understanding. Further, observational and experimental studies have focused on children and adults, broadly overlooked adolescent sociality – an oversight given the significance of adolescence as a key  developmental period. Given how our social world can impact our health and behaviour, it is important for researchers to understand the nature and consequences of adolescent sociality. In this project, we will establish a long-term collaboration on adolescent sociality in Japan and the UK, with particular focus on adolescent social networks and communication.”