The evolutionary significance of human brown adipose tissue: Integrating the timescales of adaptation

Stephanie B. Levy*, William R. Leonard

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


While human adaptability is regarded as a classical topic in anthropology, recent work provides new insight into metabolic adaptations to cold climates and the role of phenotypic plasticity in human evolution. A growing body of literature demonstrates that adults retain brown adipose tissue (BAT) which may play a role in non-shivering thermogenesis. In this narrative review, we apply the timescales of adaptation framework in order to explore the adaptive significance of human BAT. Human variation in BAT is shaped by multiple adaptive modes (i.e., allostasis, acclimatization, developmental adaptation, epigenetic inheritance, and genetic adaptation), and together the adaptive modes act as an integrated system. We hypothesize that plasticity in BAT facilitated the successful expansion of human populations into circumpolar regions, allowing for selection of genetic adaptations to cold climates to take place. Future research rooted in human energetics and biocultural perspectives is essential for understanding BAT's adaptive and health significance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)75-91
Number of pages17
JournalEvolutionary Anthropology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2022


  • circumpolar
  • cold stress
  • development
  • human energetics
  • metabolism
  • phenotypic plasticity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology


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