Phenoptosis, the programmed death of organisms akin to cellular apoptosis, constitutes a type of Darwinian selection that enhances inclusive fitness. It provides a means by which senescent and pre-senescent members can self-terminate if they have incurred sufficient cumulative stress such that their continued survival detracts from inclusive fitness. Sepsis, vascular disease, menopause, cancer, and aging all represent examples of phenoptosis at work. We previously proposed that feed-forward autonomic dysfunction fundamentally drives phenoptosis in all its guises. Accordingly, we now postulate that osteoarthritis defines a type of biomechanical phenoptosis, mediated by feed-forward autonomic dysfunction, and manifested through joint destruction associated with fitness disadvantages. Biomechanical capability plays a significant role in evolutionary fitness, and sustained joint insults such as immobility or undue biomechanical stress may serve as proxies for inferior fitness. By both hindering an individual's ability to compete for energy and increasing that individual's vulnerability to predation, feed-forward joint destruction may facilitate adaptive phenoptosis among impaired or senile members. Empirical data suggests that contrary to common belief, heavy joint use does not necessarily cause osteoarthritis, whereas immobility and neuropathy can predispose to the condition. From a Darwinian perspective, another process mediated by sympathetic activity, the alarm cry of attacked prey, simultaneously promotes the escape of kin while attracting predators and scavengers. By effectively enabling the martyrdom of biomechanically-challenged individuals, osteoarthritis may serve to optimize system energy efficiency in a similar fashion. This framework may generalize to other situations where regenerative capacity dissipates in conjunction with maturation, typically leading to fibrosis. By allowing environmental pressure to sort the phenotypes, imperfect repair mechanisms may accelerate adaptation and optimize long-term inclusive fitness for all individuals. As the basis of competition shifts from biomechanical to cognitive skills, and as novel triggers for physical stress emerge, osteoarthritis may now represent a modern maladaptation.
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