In his essay (2011) on the history of Darwinian (or evolutionary) medicine, Jonathan Fuller describes potentially relevant interests and insights that preceded the famous paper by Nesse and Williams (1991) that is widely regarded as having catalyzed the resurgence of interest in applying evolutionary concepts and principles to medicine. For example, the author describes aspects of Aristotle’s biological thinking as well as elements of the medical concepts of Hippocrates that anticipated some features of evolutionary medicine while possibly also impeding full acceptance of the evolutionary perspective on medical phenomena. Fuller also mentions the writings of individuals such as A. C. Allison and Paul Ewald relating to infectious disease as relevant examples of pre-1991 applications of evolutionary thinking to medically-relevant problems.
There is, however, another medical field with a relatively long history (going back at least a century) of applying evolutionary principles and concepts to understanding phenomena of interest, immunology (Silverstein, 2003), which Fuller mentions only in passing. (more…)
By Fabio Zampieri
Quarterly Review of Biology 84 (4) 2009, p 333-355.
This is the first comprehensive treatment of the history of evolutionary approaches to medicine. It provides the fascinating and long-needed context for recent new work on the topic, and it uses publication patterns and other data to establish the fundamental discontinuity between 19th century Medical Darwinism and modern Darwinian Medicine. This will be of interest to all in the evolutionary medicine community
Contemporary Darwinian medicine is a still-expanding new discipline, one of whose principalaims is to arrive at an evolutionary understanding of those aspects of the body that leave it vulnerableto disease. Historically, there was a precedent for this research; between 1880 and 1940, severalscientists tried to develop some general evolutionary theories of disease as arising from deleterious traitsthat escape elimination by natural selection. In contrast, contemporary Darwinian medicine usesevolutionary theory to consider all the possible reasons why selection has left humans vulnerable todisease.
Diseases, human history and co-evolution with pathogens
Peter Gluckman and Tatjana Buklijas
Liggins Institute, The University of Auckland, New Zealand
Leprosy and kuru may at first glance seem to be diseases with little in common, except, perhaps, their large historical significance, declining prevalence and the fact that both affect only humans. Although leprosy is chronic and poorly contagious, in medieval Europe and the Middle East the appearance of the sick and the stigma of the disease provoked so much fear that unprecedented social strategies were invented to exclude them from communities. In the West, leprosy began to disappear by the 1700s-possibly because of the plague’s selective effect against the immunologically weak. Yet long after Hansen’s description of Mycobacterium leprae in 1873 and despite the availability of effective treatment, this obligatory parasite adapted almost exclusively to humans remains prevalent. Kuru, in contrast, probably first appeared in the early twentieth century within the Fore linguistic group in the highlands of New Guinea who consumed their dead relatives at mortuary feasts. As the ritual was mostly performed by women and children of both sexes, men remained mostly unaffected. By the time the physician and anthropologist D. Carleton Gajdusek first described the disease in the Western medical press (1957), the numbers of affected were falling because of the decline in cannibalism. But the real sensation came a few decades later when kuru was shown to be transmitted through infectious protein particles that were named prions. (more…)
Do worms protect us against autoimmune diseases? The epidemiological evidence is strongly suggestive. Ethiopian, Brazilian, Venezuelan, and Gambian adults have less asthma when infected with nematodes; Gabonese schoolchildren with schistosomiasis have fewer allergic reactions to dust mites than do those who are not so infected, and children living on farms in Germany have fewer allergies than children living in cities (Wilson & Maizels 2004). One of the most debilitating autoimmune diseases, multiple sclerosis, is virtually absent in Roma, Inuit, and Bantu, is rare in the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Asia, and is rare in the tropics generally. And in the developed world, (more…)
One July 1, 1858, a pair of papers presented to the Linnean Society in London announced the discovery of natural selection to the scientific world. One was by Charles Darwin, the other by Alfred Wallace. Neither man was present at the meeting, which was packed with business items.
At the end of the year, the President of the Linnean Society made his report: “The year which has passed has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear.”
If only their papers could have been disseminated via an open-access web publication!
On the 150th anniversary, we launch The Evolution and Medicine Review, in hopes that faster better communication can help evolutionary applications to medicine and public health to catch up to those in other disciplines. We hope to help bridge the gap. For details, see About the Evolution and Medicine Review.
For an interesting commentary on the Darwin Wallace affair, and for the source of the wonderful quote in this post, see Darwinmania! by Olivia Judson.
For details of the meeting, see The reading of the Darwin and Wallace papers:an historical “non-event” (pdf), a 1971 paper byy J. W. T. Moody.
For copies of Darwin’s and Wallace’s papers, see the Linnean Society website. They make good reading