On 11 August 2014, Michael R. Gillings published a paper in Evolutionary Applications entitled “Were there evolutionary advantages to premenstrual syndrome?” There is a strain of thinking that is common in the general public, but is also frequently found among academic researchers that I call adaptionism. This line of thinking assumes that, if a biological phenomenon exists, it must be there as the result of natural selection – i.e., be adaptive. This makes things like PMS seem like a great, evolutionary mystery to be “solved”.
Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) affects up to 80% of women, often leading to significant personal, social and economic costs. When apparently maladaptive states are widespread, they sometimes confer a hidden advantage, or did so in our evolutionary past. –from the abstract, Matthew R. Gillings (DOI: 10.1111/eva.12190)
I could spend pages on the problems with this approach to such a question. Fortunately for you and I, Kathryn Clancy, who is far more knowledgable on the relevant evolutionary anthropology than you and I, gutted this paper for The Daily Beast earlier this week:
…the fact that PMS is heritable and variable tells us nothing about whether women with PMS have more children than those who don’t, and this is the true test for adaptation. This crucial point—the third and most crucial condition for natural selection—is absent from the paper.