Evolutionary medicine: Read all about it, but hurry

By James DeGregori and Michael Antolin

The journal Evolution: Education and Outreach (EVOO) had dedicated the December issue to evolutionary medicine, with articles on how evolutionary theories are critical for understanding human disease and why thorough classroom instruction in evolution is essential. The publisher Springer has made the journal freely available through the end of December. Many of the articles are written for a broad audience and should be of interest to specialists and non-specialists alike.

The special issue was edited by Kristin Jenkins of the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center and Michael Antolin of Colorado State University, and in part follows a symposium organized for the 2011 annual meetings of the Society of the Study of Evolution held June 19 in Norman, Oklahoma. The purpose of that symposium broadly overlaps the EVOO special issue: to make biologists who teach evolution at every level from secondary school to medical school aware of how much biomedical science gains from understanding human evolution and our continued vulnerability to disease. An additional goal is to increase understanding and acceptance of evolutionary science in biomedical research and to help doctors become better practitioners.

Articles include a perspective of both the historical unity and conflicts between medical and evolutionary science, why incorporating evolutionary ideas into medical education will enhance the education of health professionals, and an analysis of why so many reject evolution. Additional articles describe how evolutionary theories can be used to understand the origins of cancer and to better design therapies, how understanding our evolutionary history can help explain modern health problems (such as type-II diabetes and obesity), and how appreciating viral evolution can be used to design safe and effective vaccination strategies. Finally, several articles describe a framework for courses on evolution and medicine (from high school to medical school), arguing that teaching the evolutionary origins of disease is not only important for training medical practitioners in prevention and treatment, but will also enhance curriculum by providing fascinating and motivating insights into physiology and diseases.

An accurate and interesting portrayal of the importance of evolutionary biology is essential for convincing the public that teaching evolutionary science in school should be a priority. For many who would otherwise have no religious or political reason to oppose evolution, the question may be one of relevance, beside merely knowing natural history and appreciating biodiversity. It can be effective to teach students, especially pre–health-profession students, why evolutionary science is so important for health and medicine, given the personal impact of these topics. While the public often has the image of evolutionary scientists as stodgy old professors examining dusty fossils or pinned insect specimens in poorly lit museum basements (with apologies to some of our stodgy colleagues), this issue of Evolution: Education and Outreach provides a sampling of one very modern and highly relevant field of evolutionary science: evolutionary medicine.

James DeGregori is with the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Michael Antolin is with the Department of Biology, Colorado State University, and Director of the Shortgrass Steppe Research and Interpretation Center .