Saturday, October 4, 2014

Evolution and Medicine and the Challenge of Thinking Clearly about Adapation

This blog has been quiet while I made a move from being a professor at the University of Michigan Medical School to Arizona State University, where I now lead a new Center for Evolution and Medicine.   I remain fascinated by how hard it is for people to think clearly about evolution and adaptation, but I need to change my focus to evolution and medicine, so that probably means a new blog at a site with a less interesting name.

However, much of the fascination of evolutionary medicine comes from realizing that a lot of things that seem like problems are actually useful traits shaped by selection.  Fever, cough, pain and anxiety are just a few examples.  The problem is that the human mind seems wired to classify things in terms of their functions, so people think up functions even for dire diseases like cancer and schizophrenia.  And this leads some whose minds tend towards generalization and stereotyping to criticize the whole effort to apply evolution to medicine.  So human a response!  But it is hugely problematic for a field where sober thinking about adaptive significance is so lacking and can be so helpful.  

The solution is simple.  Don't generalize about evolutionary medicine.  Judge each hypothesis based on the evidence for and against it.  This turns out to be difficult.  My students find it hard even after a full course.  I wrote a paper that offers a cookbook approach to avoiding the main mistakes.  Ten questions for evolutionary studies of disease vulnerability, Evol Apps, 2011  Some have found it helpful. 

But I think I will follow my own advice and switch soon to blogging about specific hypotheses.  

In the meanwhile, do come to the March 19-21  inaugural meeting for the International Society for Evolution, Medicine, & Public Health!  


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