Darwin’s Contribution to Modern Science and Medicine

Back in February, to mark the 200th anniversary of the voyage of the HMS Beagle, the Journal of the American Medical Association ran an editorial on the importance of Darwin to medicine. Here is a portion:

The burgeoning recognition of evolutionary biology’s importance to medical science would have delighted Darwin, who as a teenager rounded with his father, an admired Shropshire physician. In fact, Darwin studied medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland, until his squeamishness toward the barbarous nature of that era’s medical practice and his zeal for natural history lead him to flee the medical field. But Darwin recognized that the human body can be understood at a fundamental level only by an exploration of its evolutionary past. Just as the study of political history is necessary to understand how societies have arrived at their present state, evolution illuminates the deep history of the human body that makes sense only in light of that history. Nevertheless, medicine and evolutionary biology seemed to follow separate trajectories for a considerable time after the publication of On the Origin of Species.3 However over the past decade, physicians have begun to perceive the relevance of Darwin’s work with the growth of an extensive contemporary literature focusing on evolutionary medicine. This new approach to medicine promises cogent explanations for and new approaches to such diverse phenomena as aging, obesity, diabetes, low back pain, and cancer.46

Evolution’s striking relevance to modern medicine can perhaps best be illustrated by its centrality to the new field of personalized medicine, which seeks to apply sophisticated genetic analysis to tailor health care to the individual. Despite its modern trappings, this new specialty rests firmly on one of Darwin’s most basic (and revolutionary) insights—individual variation. Before the publication of Darwin’s seminal work in 1859,3 species were considered immutable and fixed. Like the Platonic ideal of the perfect circle, each individual species was considered a reflection of an essential form. Each individual sea urchin, llama, and bark beetle was viewed as an approximation of an ideal; individual variations were seen as irrelevant and inconvenient blemishes, unworthy of study. The fact that humans were evidently different from one another was just more fodder for the idea (also overturned by Darwin) that human beings stand apart from the rest of biology. But instead of ignoring individual variation, Darwin sought it out and realized its crucial import as the raw material on which natural selection acts. Now, 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species,3 medical practitioners are following Darwin’s lead and scrutinizing the subtle genetic variations that make each human unique and when harnessed, hold the promise of revolutionizing health care.

Evolutionary theory is as relevant to the teaching of medicine as to medical practice. Just as the periodic table of the elements brings structure to the study of chemistry, an evolutionary approach to medical education provides a logic to understanding the human body in health and disease. Evolution explains why humans are the way they are, ultimately answering the most fundamental questions asked by medical students, ie, those that begin with why. Given the centrality of evolutionary theory to a deep understanding of the human body, it is possible to envision an entire medical curriculum built around evolution, from anatomy and molecular genetics to pathogen-host interactions.

Darwin’s work has withstood the test of time, despite those who still prefer mysticisim and superstition to modern science:

As in so many other areas, Darwin’s views have been vindicated and have profound implications for human health in the 21st century. Many maladies that result in patients’ most profound morbidity can be attributed to urges that evolved to maximize reproductive fitness but are now severely out of kilter with modern culture. For example, the alleles that result in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder may have been highly adaptive during most of evolutionary history when sitting still for hours with single focus was not advantageous for young children. Likewise, alleles that predispose to anxiety disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder would have had clear advantages on the savannah of the human species’ youth when to be laid back meant being dinner for a predator. The lust for fat and carbohydrates and to binge eat evolved when a lack of refrigeration meant that when a dead animal was found on the plains, humans were well advised to binge.

However, the Darwinian revolution was not confined to biology or even science. While Darwin decried the tendency of some social scientists and philosophers to overgeneralize evolutionary theory (ie, in the guise of “Social Darwinism”), his work would nevertheless shake the foundations of religion and philosophy and ultimately redefine nothing less than the conception of the place of humans in the world. Those engaged in fields from philosophy to economics must take account of Darwin’s theory as they ply their trades; it possesses a universality shared by only a handful of milestones in human intellectual history. Just as Newton unified the motion of the apple with that of the moon, if life is ever encountered elsewhere in the universe, it will likely have arisen through the simple but powerful mechanisms glimpsed by Darwin of variation, inheritance, and selection.

For better or for worse, Darwin pointed the way toward an understanding of the universe, which is materialistic and unmystical. This was immediately recognized with the publication of On the Origin of Species3 and lay at the root of the hostility with which his theory was met in many quarters. Indeed, Darwin was unsettled by the broad philosophical and theological implications of his theory, not least because of his beloved wife’s concerns that he would not join her in heaven. While it is a demonstrable fact that religion and evolution are reconcilable in the minds of many, including prominent and highly accomplished scientists, it is also undeniable that Darwin’s work represents a severe challenge to those who would cling to received tradition in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.

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25 Comments

  1. 1
    Helana Cauliffe says:

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  2. 2
    Helana Cauliffe says:

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  3. 3
    Merlyn says:

    The overwhelming contrary evidence is mostly blindness to the fact that their hypotheses are themselves hypothetical and not facts.  Virus mutate and this is not the same as production of a new species and neither is natural selection a meaningful change in genetics.  You’ve used the term Evolutionary Medicine very carelessly because what you are talking about is not evolutionary but genetic effects and that doesn’t make it evolutionary.  You have interchanged terms as though they mean the same thing, but do not. 

    Which came first, The chicken or the egg?  If you want to believe you came from an ape, so be it.  I for one didn’t and you can’t show me a shred of evidence that I am wrong and that you are right.   You need to read some real challenging literature from major books by those who oppose evolution.
    You might learn something and get your head out of the sand.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    It is clearly you who needs to review the literature as you show you do not understand even the basics of evolution, or understand how overwhelming the evidence is for evolution. You write, “If you want to believe you came from an ape, so be it.” While many creationists misinterpret evolution in this manner, evolution most definitely does not say that we came from apes or monkeys. Evolution describes how complex organisms evolved from simpler organisms, with humans and apes having a common ancestor. Before you can criticize evolution, which forms the very basis of modern biology, you at least need to understand what evolution is. There is no evidence against it–only nonscientific rants from people with a flat earth mentality.

    As to your claims that I used terms carelessly, it is you who fail to understand what the terms even mean. This is not even my use of the terms. This post consists of a portion of an editorial from The Journal of the American Medical Association. The scientific and medical literature makes it clear that evolution is a well-proven fact, not a hypothesis and certainly not hypothetical.

  5. 5
    Christoher Skyi says:

    Merlyn is both (sort of right) and wrong. People have difficulty with the theory (and it’s supporting evidence) of evolution because it is an incomplete theory, as most (but not all) theories are. 

    As an aside: Physics is the one science that, for the moment, is complete, in that just about any hypotheses generated from theory, i.e., a guess about one expects to observe, derived from the theory, in some specific circumstance.  In short, a theory predicts events in general terms, while a hypothesis makes a specific prediction about a specified set of circumstances. So far, almost all experimental observations support the current models in physics. It’s singularly impressive, and a real trumph of reason.

    Evolution, biology, climate change, psychology, neuro-cognitive psychology, just about any area of science you can name, is “incomplete.” And that’s good! That’s what keeps scientists and researchers employeed!

    So Merlyn “sees” that the theory of evolution has holes in it, blind spots, questions it can answer. What Merlyn doesn’t get is that the onus is on creationists to empricially demonstrate that divine creation is a better “theory”  in terms of it’s predictive power. There’s noting “wrong” with creationism — it’s just another theory, but it’s very VERY difficult to test, and any test you can do doesn’t really support the theory. 

    In the end, the value of any theory is the testable questions it asks, not the answers it provides. In science, the QUESTIONS are gold, are everything.  The answers are just what the questions purchase from the universe.

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    Science is incomplete and we are always finding more. We learn more about evolution every year. However that is not what people like Merlyn means in his criticism of evolution. They deny the entire science, including what is well proven. Evolution has repeatedly been tested and has passed. There really isn’t any science for creationists to test. They make a claim about a creator (which is untestable) while simultaneously putting out a lot of bogus literature which distorts evolution and all the evidence fore it.

    Physics complete? There are still a lot of unanswered questions in physics, as in any branch of science.

  7. 7
    Christoher Skyi says:

    Humm . . . complete wasn’t the best word. It’s internally complete in that just about any prediction it makes (assuming the instrumentality exists to make an accurate measurement) is largely confirmed and verified. Most of the experimental work in physics departments can be though of as “mop up” operations, i.e., cleaning the edges, testing new aspects of the theory, etc.

    It’s not complete in that it is the ANSWER to everything, i.e., it’s mathematics, models, “the theory,” can’t explain every good question we have.   This is the area of theoretical physics — pushing the models into new areas, e.g., trying to find the “mapping” between the very small scale quantum level of nature and the large scale (general relativistic) level of nature.  So far, they haven’t been really successful.

    Another limit is a simple limit of human reason best illustrated by the great mathematician Gödel:

    Gödel is best known for his two incompleteness theorems, published in 1931 when he was 25 years of age, one year after finishing his doctorate at the University of Vienna. The more famous incompleteness theorem states that for any self-consistent recursive axiomatic system powerful enough to describe the arithmetic of the natural numbers (Peano arithmetic), there are true propositions about the naturals that cannot be proved from the axioms.

    In short, any logically internally consist system/theory must necessarily fail to generate empirically true propositions.  In order for a theory to potentially generate all hypotheses that could be confirmed/verified in the real world, you have to introduce logical inconsistencies into the theory.

    Seriously post-modern thinking here.

    I’m probably not doing justice to the full story here, but in 1979, Douglas R. Hofstadter wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book :

    Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

    It’s *still* one of the top 2000-3000 best sellers on amazon.

    It was a stunning achievement, and it really explains well the relationship between the universe, our minds, and those tools we use to try to understand the universe, i.e., reason, mathematics, and science.

  8. 8
    Christoher Skyi says:

    What’s fascinating is that around the time Gödel was coming up with his incompleteness theorems,  physicists were discovering that there were limitations of predictability built directly into the  fundamental laws of nature:

    Limits to Predictability and Understanding, seen from a Physicist’s Perspective

    “Within classical mechanics, or rather classical physics in general, the possibility of a complete understanding in the sense illustrated before seemed within reach around the year 1900, or so. For sure, scientists were fully aware that any cause, or its effect, could be measured and determined
    with a finite accuracy only.

    However, physicists had for centuries seen the accuracy of their measurements increase almost unbelievably. On the distant horizon a nearly perfect accuracy could be imagined, one which allowed measurement of a given state of matter to arbitrary high (though finite) precision, with a subsequent prediction of future states with correspondingly high precision: what we could claim to be a complete understanding of nature. The emergence of quantum mechanics reduced this ideal to a shambles.

    As may best be illustrated by the model experiment known as “Heisenberg’s microscope”, we learned that a state of matter, let this be constituted by just a single electron, can be Limits to Predictability and Understanding, seen from a Physicist’s Perspective measured with finite accuracy only. Basic laws of physics set the limit to this accuracy as expressed in terms of Planck’s constant, and not human limitations in experimental accuracy. We might, for instance, claim to know the position of a particle to any precision, but only at the expense of
    a corresponding ignorance on its velocity. The product of the two uncertainties is larger than a certain minimum value, the relation known as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, stated here as

    Δx Δp > h ,

    where Δx is the uncertainty in the determination of the position of a particle (here for a one dimensional model) and Δp is the corresponding uncertainty in the particle momentum (mass × velocity), while h is Planck’s constant, where we in classical mechanics would set Planck’s constant to
    zero, thus allowing, at least in principle, Δx = 0 and Δp = 0 simultaneously.

    The consequences of the uncertainty relation for our ideas of “understanding” are profound: we will never be able to define a causal relationship accurately, since the input data will always be undetermined by the uncertainty principle, and consequently we will never be able to reach a complete understanding of a physical problem, at least not in the sense of the word as argued above.

    There is a profound epistemological difference between limitations of predictability caused by fundamental laws of nature, and those caused by practical problems like round-off errors. These realizations lead to a complete reformulation of physics, known as quantum mechanics. This is still an exact science, but its predictions do not concern individual states of matter or events but rather probabilities of states, where the probability density can now be predicted with accuracy. These predicted probability densities can be estimated experimentally, but no longer on the basis of a single set of observations obtained from just one realization of the experiment.”

  9. 9
    Fritz says:

    Christopher — the amusing thing in physics is that they have two really great theories that have been validated over and over again to increasingly amazing levels of precision.  Too bad they are mutually incompatible.

    As far as bio goes, there has been nothing, absolutely nothing, that contradicts evolution.  Or, perhaps more clearly, that contradict the common origin of terrestrial life.  All of modern biology and modern medicine relies on that.    (OK, you can have intelligent design interventions within that theory and you can also have Divine intervention in the kickoff from non-life to life).

  10. 10
    Ron Chusid says:

    While complete might not be the best word, I think I know what Christopher is getting at and will use it for lack of a better word. Biology, which I know far more about than physics, is certainly far from complete. I don’t see physics as anywhere near complete either, partially for the reason Fritz mentions. Perhaps if we had a unifying theory of everything things would be different. We also do not know what we do not yet know. (Besides, physics has not yet done the important things–tell us how to develop warp drive and transporters).

    As Fritz says, there is absolutely nothing which contradicts evolution. As creationists generally do not realize, evolution describes the development of complex organisms from simpler ones. It does not say how life first began. There is no contradiction between a creationist view that a creator was responsible for the first life and that evolution took off from there. Many religious scientists take such a view and see evolution as a description how God accomplished the development of complex organisms. Fundamentalists will have a problem with this view.

    The major problem is that those identified as creationists are not generally arguing that a creator is responsible for the first life form but are arguing that all of evolutionary science is incorrect because they object to their confused perception that evolution saying that man came from monkeys.

    The other problem is that this attributes to a creator what science has not yet established. Their are theories as to how the first life developed and in the future it might not be necessary to assume divine intervention.

  11. 11
    Fritz says:

    I honestly think it is counter-productive to go after the Intelligent Design people hammer-and-tongs.  After all, ID people agree with an ancient Earth.    They agree with a common origin for life.  They agree Earth is not the center of the universe.  Dinosaurs did not hang out with people.  If they need Deity sometimes tweaking the dice or dropping an asteroid, then, well, fine.  I can live with that.

    The real odd ones (and I work with some of them — nice people and all, but…) are the young Earth creationists.

  12. 12
    Ron Chusid says:

    Intelligent design is just another name for creationism. They  came up with a new name when the courts ruled they cannot teach creationism in school. They then took creationism text books and cut and pasted in ID for creationism. There is no difference between the ID people and creationists.

  13. 13
    Fritz says:

    Ron, there is a huge difference between the ID people and the young-earth creationists.  As I wrote — the ID people acknowledge deep time, they acknowledge a common origin of life, they acknowledge that human and animal life is intertwined.

    IMO the people who go after the ID believers with the same fervor as they go after someone who thinks that Adam rode a dinosaur are tactically misguided and, frankly, destructive.

  14. 14
    Christoher Skyi says:

    Well, in the end, the argument comes to whether or not ID is a “Science,” i.e., does it generate  Empirically testable and falsifiable questions (see Falsifiability)? 

    If it doesn’t do that, then it can’t “DO” science.  It’s similar to ta game: there are “rules” and uncertain outcomes.  It would be like if I showed up to play basketball with someone, but somehow, no matter what I did, my ball would always go in the hoop. There’s no “game,” there’s nothing to do. 

    If ID can come up with testable questions, it’s in the game. If it can’t, it’s not.  It can play another game, if it wants, but it can’t play the “science game” because it either can never lose or never win.

    The “game of science” is 1) asking a good question, 2) setting a good valid experiment, and the 3) letting the “universe” answer you, or talk to you, thought the experiment.  If the question is “does C02 cause warming?” The universe either answers “yes,” “no,” or “yes — but there’s other factors, only under these conditions.”  Sometime the question isn’t precise enough, or the experiment was botched somehow, and then like a bad connection, the answer you get from the universe just isn’t clear — you have no new information (and then you don’t publish, which is bad for your science career).

    What’s the point of asking the universe questions if the universe can’t answer them?  The “experiment” is the mechanism of communication with the universe.

  15. 15
    Ron Chusid says:

    Fritz,

    Again, ID is just another name which creationists, including young earth creationists, hide behind.

  16. 16
    Ron Chusid says:

    Fritz,

    Before you assume that the ID people are different from the creationists, check out the home page for the Discovery Institute. They are promoting intelligent design along with articles such as Why Darwinism is False. ID can include any variety of creationist, including young earth creationists. For example, Wikipedia’s first line of the entry on Paul Nelson: Paul A. Nelson, (born 1958) is a philosopher of science, American young earth creationist and intelligent design advocate. Nelson is also involved with the Discovery Institute.

  17. 17
    Fritz says:

    Good point, Ron.  I was talking about a subset of the ID people.  I think the concepts of deep time and of common ancestry are far more important than whether Deity sometimes puts a thumb on the scale.

  18. 18
    Ron Chusid says:

    The term Intelligent Design is intentionally vague but is just a front for creationism. The issue isn’t whether a deity was involved at some time. All advocates of ID, whether or not they are young earth creationists, are arguing that evolution is not valid. Part of ID is to deny common ancestry, although they might have different ideas in terms of  time scale, saying an intelligent designer made humans as they now are. Some (the young earth creationists) might be nuttier than others, but they are all opposing established science.

  19. 19
    Fritz says:

    According to the Discovery Institute (hey, might as well ask them what they think, right?), many ID supporters agree with common ancestry.

    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2007/05/_most_people_including.html

  20. 20
    Ron Chusid says:

    They just make charts like this to try to pretend ID does not mean what it means. Try to find an actual proponent of ID who does agree with common ancestry. The whole point of hiding behind the ID label is to promote creationism and oppose evolution while pretending you are not one of those crazy creationists.

  21. 21
    Fritz says:

    Behe appears to.  He clearly believes in Divine tweaking, but seems to believe that there is a common origin and an old Earth.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Behe

    And Denton:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Denton

    Note that I am *not*, repeat *not* defending their positions.  But they certainly seem different than the “Adam riding a dinosaur” crowd.

  22. 22
    Ron Chusid says:

    I haven’t read their views yet. Maybe some ID people do believe in a common origin but whenever I’ve seen people actively promote ID it has been to attack evolution, with many of them also being young earth creationists.

  23. 23
    Ron Chusid says:

    Fritz,

    I just stumbled across this item on Behe and Intelligent Design.

  24. 24
    Fritz says:

    Oh yeah — I had followed the ‘Expelled’ wackiness on some science blogs.  I never said the guy made sense — I only stated that he and others (not all others) in the ID community acknowledged deep time and common origin.  And to me those are the most important things for the vast majority of people to acknowledge. 

    Many times in the history of science the effect of scientific progress has been to require the intervention of Deity to retreat a bit farther into the background.  What I find unique in this current instance is that there is a strong determination to not allow the theists to retreat into Deity operating even farther into the background but instead have some sort of final conflict.   I don’t find that to be either necessary or wise.  In battle you want your opponent to have somewhere to retreat *unless* you have overwhelming force at your command.  People fight with much more ferocity when retreat is cut off.

  25. 25
    Ron Chusid says:

    But there is not a “strong determination to not allow the theists to retreat into Deity operating even farther into the background.” It is common to grant the argument that evolution could have been initiated by God. Evolution does not say how life first began, as I noted above. There are religious scientists who do see study of evolution as a ways of understanding how god accomplished the task of spreading complex organisms around the planet.

    There is no opposition to this view as, at least for now, there is no hard evidence either way. As word it, this is a retreat which is commonly left open. This view is far different from what is promoted by the ID people who are using this as a back door to both deny the validity of evolution and support the teaching of evolution in the schools. They are intentionally misleading in some of their statements to give the appearance of being far less radical than they are.

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