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Frequency-dependent female genital cutting behaviour confers evolutionary fitness benefits


Female genital cutting (FGC) has immediate and long-term negative health consequences that are well-documented, and its elimination is a priority for policymakers. The persistence of this widespread practice also presents a puzzle for evolutionary anthropologists due to its potentially detrimental impact on survival and reproductive fitness. Using multilevel modelling on demographic health survey datasets from five West African countries, here we show that FGC behaviour is frequency-dependent; the probability that girls are cut varies in proportion to the FGC frequency found in their ethnic group. We also show that this frequency-dependent behaviour is adaptive in evolutionary fitness terms; in ethnic groups with high FGC frequency, women with FGC have significantly more surviving offspring than their uncut peers, and the reverse is found in ethnic groups with low FGC frequency. Our results demonstrate how evolutionary and cultural forces can drive the persistence of harmful behaviours.

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Figure 1: Predicted probabilities of having a cut daughter by mother’s FGC status and country at different ethnic FGC frequencies.
Figure 2: Predicted probabilities of having a cut daughter by mother’s FGC status at different ethnic FGC frequencies.
Figure 3: Correlation between ethnic FGC frequency and the percentage difference in average number of surviving offspring for women aged 40–49 yr with FGC compared to women without FGC.
Figure 4: Predicted number of surviving offspring by mother’s FGC status and ethnic FGC frequency.


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We would like to thank F. Jordan, D. Lawson, A. Samarasinghe and C. Uggla for their helpful comments on previous drafts, and R. Parker for MLwiN guidance.

Author information




J.A.H. and M.A.G. conceived and designed the study, J.A.H. performed data analysis, and J.A.H. and M.A.G. wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Janet A. Howard.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Tables 1–6; Supplementary Figure 1 (PDF 355 kb)

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Howard, J., Gibson, M. Frequency-dependent female genital cutting behaviour confers evolutionary fitness benefits. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0049 (2017).

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