Why Isn’t Evolutionary Medicine More Popular Than It Is?

Michael Ruse in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

DarwinianmedicineYou have got a fever, your body aches, and you feel dreadful. What should you do? The traditional answer is: “Take two aspirin, drink lots of fluids, get to bed and call me in the morning if you don’t feel better.” Could it be that this is just the wrong advice? That the last thing you should do is reduce your temperature with aspirin or ibuprofen or whatever? Is it, to use a phrase, nature’s way of fighting illness? This is very much the position of a small group of biologists and medics who are pushing what has come to be known as “evolutionary medicine.” Crystallized about 20 years ago by a book – Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine – authored by the distinguished evolutionist George C. Williams and the psychiatrist Randolph Nesse, it claims that the force that caused us all, Darwin’s mechanism of natural selection, does not care about human happiness or even human health per se. What it cares about is survival and reproduction and it is prepared to go to great measures to achieve its ends. Too long has medicine focused only on proximate causes, the physiological and other reasons for ill health. What we must do also is look at end causes, what Aristotle calls final causes and what we might call ultimate causes, and put our bodies and their functioning in perspective – a perspective that in this day and age means Darwinian evolution brought about by natural selection. If selection found that fevers increase life expectancies and consequent reproductive success, then bring them on, no matter how unpleasant they may be. That evolution is important is probably accepted by every medical person today in some respects.

…However, going back further, fascinatingly and paradoxically, the person most responsible for keeping evolution out of medical education was Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s self-styled “bulldog.” Huxley was a fanatical evolutionist and preached it publicly on every occasion. But he was never that keen on natural selection and thought overall that evolution was too speculative – and of no real value – to biological education. As I discovered by looking at student notebooks, in a 165-lecture course on biology, he would give less than half a lecture to evolution, and selection got all of 10 minutes. As a master academic politician and system builder – and as one who incidentally started life with a medical degree – Huxley saw the medics as the source of support for his science and his students. After the total muck up in the Crimean War, when most soldiers died of disease and dirtiness and not battle, the medical profession realized that the time had come to stop killing and start curing. Huxley gave them the perfect solution. “I will educate people in basic biology and then you can take them and turn them into doctors.”

More here.