Skip to comments.Does Medicine without Evolution Make Sense? (Evolution is irrelevant to medicine in particular)
Posted on 05/03/2007 5:29:50 PM PDT by SirLinksalot
Catriona J. MacCallum
Citation: MacCallum CJ (2007) Does Medicine without Evolution Make Sense? PLoS Biol 5(4): e112 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0050112
Published: April 17, 2007
Copyright: © 2007 Catriona J. MacCallum. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Catriona J. MacCallum is Senior Editor at PLoS Biology. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
It is curious that Charles Darwin, perhaps medicine's most famous dropout, provided the impetus for a subject that figures so rarely in medical education. Indeed, even the iconic textbook example of evolutionantibiotic resistanceis rarely described as evolution in relevant papers published in medical journals . Despite potentially valid reasons for this oversight (e.g., that authors of papers in medical journals would regard the term as too general), it propagates into the popular press when those papers are reported on, feeding the wider perception of evolution's irrelevance in general, and to medicine in particular . Yet an understanding of how natural selection shapes vulnerability to disease can provide fundamental insights into medicine and health and is no less relevant than an understanding of physiology or biochemistry.
One reason that evolution doesn't figure prominently in the medical community is that although it makes sense to have evolution taught as part of medicine, that doesn't make it essential. As explained at a meeting on evolution and medicine I recently attended in York, United Kingdom (the Society for the Study of Human Biology and the Biosocial Society's 2006 symposium, Medicine and Evolution), medicine is primarily focused on problem-solving and proximate causation, and ultimate explanations can seem irrelevant to clinical practice. Crudely put, does a mechanic need to understand the origins, history, and technological advances that have gone into the modern motor vehicle in order to fix it?
Randolph Nesse (University of Michigan) and colleagues think otherwise , and have been campaigning for evolution to be recognized and taught as a basic science to all medical students (see also the Evolution and Medicine Network, http://www.evolutionandmedicine.org). It has been more than 10 years since he and George Williams published their classic book Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine . Other landmark texts linking evolution to health have been written since then, with new editions on the way , and the research field is blossoming. Still, as Nesse mentioned at the start of the York meeting, there are only a handful of medical schools in the United States and in the United Kingdom with an evolutionary biologist listed as such on the faculty.
The most obvious examples of evolutionary biology's importance to medical understanding are related to infectious disease . As Jon Laman (Erasmus University, The Netherlands) pointed out at the meeting, the immune system provides the perfect platform to explain the medical relevance of the exquisite evolutionary relationships between pathogens and their hosts. Understanding how virulence evolves, for example, can help predict the potential, sometimes counterintuitive (and controversial) negative consequences of imperfect vaccination [8,9]. But evolution can also tell us that the origin of HIV was precipitated by a jump across the primate species barrier  and enables us to predict the imminent arrival of avian flu and the mutations most likely to be responsible for that evolutionary leap from birds to humans . Where epidemiological and population genetic processes occur on the same time scale, the emerging field of phylodyamics can also inform us about the timing and progression of pathogen adaptation more generally .
The relevance of evolution to medicine is, however, much broader. Participants at the York meeting discussed not only how vulnerability to cancer is an inevitable but unfortunate consequence of imperfect human engineering and natural selection (Mel Greaves, Institute of Cancer Research, UK), but how life history theory can potentially explain patterns of pregnancy loss (Virginia Vitzthum, Indiana University), how a comparative approach applied to different human cultures and different primates can improve rates of breastfeeding (Helen Ball, University of Durham), whether clinical depression has an adaptive origin (Lewis Wolpert, University College London), and if suicide attempts are really just evolutionary bargaining chips in intense social disputes (Ed Hagen, Humboldt University).
As with any emerging field, ideas change and the science is challenged. The thrifty gene concept that some populations (e.g., from Polynesia) are particularly susceptible to type 2 diabetes and heart disease because of past selection pressure specifically during times of famineno longer enjoys the support it once had . Tessa Pollard (University of Durham, UK) explained that the so-called Syndrome X is now considered to be the result of more general exposure to a rapid change in lifestyle as Western society encroached on these populations during the mid-20th century. The relationship between changing environment, diet, and susceptibility to disease, however, is also far from clear. Many diet-related conditions that typify industrialized populationse.g., obesity, hypertension, and tooth decayhave been explained as resulting from an evolutionary mismatch between our over-refined, fat-filled contemporary diet and the environment to which humans were once ideally adapted. Sarah Elton (Hull York Medical School, UK) cautioned that while this analogy (the environment of evolutionary adaptedness) has been useful as a research tool and has led to public health campaigns for better diets (more seeds, nuts, fish oil, etc.), recreating such a typical Stone Age diet as a benchmark can be misleading. Human ecology in the past was at least as variable as human (and other primate) ecology is today.
Surprisingly, an evolutionary framework to study human variation can be seen as counterproductive. George Ellison (St. George's Medical School, UK) provided an example, although not concerning evolutionary medicine, about a statistically flawed study leading to spurious conclusions about regional variation in IQ (which I won't promulgate here). However, bad papers are published in all subjects and are a failure of scientists and the peer-review system, not the science. These should not provide an excuse to dismiss the relevance of evolution to medicine (or to any other life science). Even at a very basic level, medical students can draw insights from evolution they cannot obtain from other core sciences on their course. Paul O'Higgins (Hull York Medical School) noted that it is much easier for medics to learn the nerves involved in the brachial plexus (the nerves supplying the arm) if they first understand the origin of the pentadactyl limb.
It is not the case, however, that all clinicians fail to see the relevance of evolution. Gillian Bentley (now at University of Durham) conducted a series of interviews with leading biologists and clinicians when she was based at Imperial College London. What was surprising was not the positive endorsement of evolution by the geneticists and evolutionary biologists but the enthusiasm of practicing medical doctors for the topic, whether involved in the active birth movement or dealing with major trauma in intensive care. Indeed, several local clinicians attended the York meeting and helped lead the discussions.
Ironically, the hardest task in adding evolutionary/Darwinian medicine to medical curricula may well be soliciting support from medical students. Although Paul O'Higgins thought a comparison of the brachial plexus to the pentadactyl limb was helpful, not all his students agreedcomplaints were lodged that he was forcing evolution on them. That lack of support was also reflected in the participation of only three medical students at the York meeting (albeit enthusiastic ones), despite being widely publicized. It is not clear whether this is because medical students are more overburdened than most or because of a more deep-rooted resistance to the subject, reflecting wider political and religious prejudice against evolution. But evolutionary medicine isn't and shouldn't be controversial, and the best way to challenge prejudice is through education. As the oft-quoted Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in 1973, Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution . The time has clearly come for medicine to explicitly integrate evolutionary biology into its theoretical and practical underpinnings The medical students of Charles Darwin's day did not have the advantage of such a powerful framework to inform their thinking; we shouldn't deprive today's budding medical talent of the potential insights to be gained at the intersection of these two great disciplines.
1. Antonovics J, Abbate JL, Baker CH, Daley D, Hood ME, et al. (2007) Evolution by any other name: Antibiotic resistance and avoidance of the E-word. PLoS Biol 5: e30 doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0050030. Find this article online
2. Nesse RM, Stearns SC, Omenn GS (2006) Medicine needs evolution. Science 311: 1071. Find this article online
3. Nesse RM, Williams GC (1994) Why we get sick: The new science of Darwinian medicine New York: Vintage Books. 290p p.
4. Ewald P (1994) Evolution of infectious disease Oxford: Oxford University Press. 298p p.
5. Stearns SC, editor (1998) Evolution in health and disease Oxford: Oxford University Press. 315p p.
6. Trevathan WR, Smith EO, McKenna JJ, editors (1999) Evolutionary medicine Oxford: Oxford University Press. 480p p.
7. Frank SA (2002) Immunology and evolution of infectious disease Princeton (New Jersey): Princeton University Press. 348p p.
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9. Mackinnon MJ, Read AF (2004) Immunity promotes virulence evolution in a malaria model. PLoS Biol 2: e230 doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0020230. Find this article online
10. Keele BF, Van Heuverswyn F, Li Y, Bailes E, Takehisa J, et al. (2006) Chimpanzee reservoirs of pandemic and nonpandemic HIV-1. Science 313: 523526. Find this article online
11. Nicholls H (2006) Pandemic influenza: The inside story. PLoS Biol 4: e50 doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040050. Find this article online
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With most of the scientists with relevant background driven off or banned, what is the purpose of a thread like this except for hearing the echo chamber?
Written by someone that doesn't know how to fix cars. Good mechanics would know these things and be familiar with even small changes made from year model to year model.
Didn't you read the article? Here's the summary:
As the oft-quoted Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote in 1973, Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. The time has clearly come for medicine to explicitly integrate evolutionary biology into its theoretical and practical underpinnings The medical students of Charles Darwin's day did not have the advantage of such a powerful framework to inform their thinking; we shouldn't deprive today's budding medical talent of the potential insights to be gained at the intersection of these two great disciplines.
You simply do not get it.
This is a political Forum, and there is room for dialogue on a number of subjects, but in the end, it is also a Conservative forum.
You can call people who have alleged relevant backgrounds conservative if you like, but for real, they ain't conservative, and out here they ain't relevant.
I have been around the block, and the so called relevant backgrounders are worse than any mob names that you could ever hurl at FReepers.
Those so called "relevant" types, were in many cases, intolerant, smug, arrogant, and BS artists who have not likely done half the reading that this here particular High School dropout has ever done.
No offense intended.
I would never use a doctor whom I knew to be ignorant of, or at odds with, the basics tenets of evolution.
Doc, Don't bother, they've made their choice.
Weep not for the departed.
Thanks for the ping. IMHO, the med student’s curricula are overloaded in the first place with other government mandates and mandates from the accrediting bodies. I can’t say about other states, but in NY professional licences are issued from the NY State Dept. of Education.
In Ohio they’re issued by the state medical board, in Florida too I think, although I never paid much attention.
I want my doctor to know what is, NOT what MAY have been. Useless crap, clutters the mind! Now a mutant may be something new, but I don’t think there are to many running around except in the movies(X-men)!
Well, personally, I think medical science, like all science, is limited to what man can accomplish. But GOD is greater than man, and greater than all man’s sciences.
Medicine, and medical community, is great, but it can only do so much. Jesus, on the other hand, can heal us of all our diseases. When man can’t find the cure, God is always there.
False. Ph.D.s are required to contribute something original to the existing body of knowledge in their field.
MDs are simply required to learn (by rote) as much as they can in four years. They do no research, and make no original contributions.
Evolution has no clinical relevance...
That seems not to be the case. Read the article.
...there simply isn't room in the curriculum to replace medically relevant subjects with Darwinism.
You gave yourself away with the "Darwinism" comment. That is a term favored almost entirely by anti-evolutionists. Scientists rarely use the term, but anti-evolutionists must think they can get more mileage out of using a loaded term. Must be one of their talking points.
Ever seen the term "Einsteinist" or "Newtonist"?
Comparing what little we know to all that there is to know, I assert that next to nothing in biology makes sense, either in light of, or in spite of, evolution.
The plain fact is that neither statement in any way alters the biological processes themselves, neither alters any man's ability to observe those processes, learn their progression, to understand what happens, and in what order. Whether the man is a humanist, an Islamist, a Moonie, or a Scientologist is entirely irrelevant to the ability to observe, record, and relate the particulars of that which was observed. And it is also irrelevant to the man's ability to identify processes that he does not yet understand, to determine the need for deeper study, and to devise specific methods by which to advance that study. To assert that a belief in evolutionary theory would suddenly transform the man from scientific incompetence to Nobel Prize stature is patently absurd.
At some point, it must be conceded that a macro-scale framework is nearly entirely unneccessary to the complete understanding of micro-scale events. In fact, it may be a time-wasting tangential distraction. Who needs an origins theory to comprehend the internal processes of a cell? The cell is being studied in the present tense, and its behavior will not change in any way regardless of what theory of origins is subsribed to by the brain connected to the eye looking into the microscope. Ninety-nine percent of all scientific research and discovery could be carried forward with complete success in an absolute vacuum of any origins theory whatsoever, and it's high time that everyone just sat back for a minute and acknowledged that. There's been far more heat than light generated in the bickering about origins over these last many decades, and that energy would be much better invested in hard research studying the myriad present-day, observable, physical things we do not fully understand.
Perhaps if everyone took that approach, our progress in hard data would eventually reveal the truth in an inescapable fashion, WITHOUT all of the mudslinging, name-calling, backstabbing, slander, accusation, smug elitism, career wrecking, and downright devilry we currently face.
None of that is "science"; it's little more than a mob of so-called "grown ups" demonstrating the misapplication of that label by having a bloody row in the sandbox of life. And, make no mistake, I include parties on all sides of the fray in my indictment; there's guilt enough to go around.
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