Evolution by Any Other Name

A little more than a week ago, word went around our circles here at The Thumb regarding a paper published on Public Library of Science on the use of the word evolution in medical journal articles. In essence, the authors compare the use of the word evolution in articles written by and published in journals generally read by evolutionary biologists versus physicians. Unsurprisingly, the evolutionary biologists mentioned evolution more by name, even if both groups appealed to the same concepts. Why physicians don’t use the word evolution to describe implications or the concept of evolution is the issue.

Other authors (PZ Myers, Orac, and Sequiteur, among others) have dealt with the topic, but it hasn’t appeared here on PT yet, so I thought I’d just ditto Orac’s opinion with a few thoughts of my own. Find them below, after the jump.

When I was a surgery resident up at the University of Minnesota, I was privileged to work under an attending who had deadpan, cutting sarcasm. (Think Scrubs’ Doctor Cox but with a flat affect.) When I was presenting a patient in flourid fluid overload, I described her as having lungs that were filling with fluid. His response to this was that, “This was the sort of explanation I would expect to hear if you were a guest on Oprah,” his point being that the patient was suffering from pulmonary edema and that I should name it using the language that big, grown-up doctors use.

Now I knew perfectly well what pulmonary edema was and I could have answered as much or comprehended had this been some sort of passive activity like a multiple choice test or lecture or something. But until I was presenting the patient in front of that wonderfully cynical attending, I didn’t really think of the pathophysiology of “lungs filling with fluid” as “pulmonary edema.” (Sound silly in retrospect, but there it is.)

I’ve noticed the same sort of thing when I’m trying to speak a foreign language. I can read Spanish decently well, but until I try to speak it, I just don’t formulate language the way a native speaker does - until I’m put in the posiiton of doing so. I knew the words, but until I had to say them, I just didn’t make the connection. So it was with me and “pulmonary edema,” - I just didn’t make the connection until that great Scrubs-like moment when I was the humbled object of that attending’s joke.

I think this is more or less the issue at stake here. Despite the poor example set by a few, Okay, maybe a minority of them would be able to define genetic drift, but they generally put their support foursquare behind science rather than pseudoscience. So when I read studies like the one in PLoS, I don’t see this as the pervasive effects of creationism. Like Orac, I see this as a minor finding, one that could be remedied completely by encouraging learners to do the same thing I did with regard to pulmonary edema: call evolution by its name.