What Evolutionary Biology Offers Public Health

By Nesse, Randolph M. | Bulletin of the World Health Organization, February 2008 | Go to article overview

What Evolutionary Biology Offers Public Health


Nesse, Randolph M., Bulletin of the World Health Organization


Evolution is the foundation of biology, and biology is the foundation of medicine and public health, so you would think that evolutionary biology has already been applied to every possible aspect of health. Remarkably, this is not the case. (1) With the exceptions of population genetics and methods for tracing phylogenies, other applications are very recent developments, q-here are few evolutionary biologists in schools of medicine or public health, so news about advances in this field is often slow to arrive.

The publication of a new edition of Evolution in health and disease (2) offers a good opportunity to take stock. For instance, work on diseases of pregnancy continues to accumulate evidence that diabetes and hypertension of pregnancy may be related to evolutionary conflicts between interests of the maternal and paternal genomes and the fetus. Imprinted genes that influence these conflicts have profound implications for in vitro fertilization policies. Life history theory explains how selection has shaped rates of ageing and its relationship with reproduction. The evolutionary reasons why we remain vulnerable to cancer are better separated into aspects of modern environments, and tradeoffs that explain why selection cannot make better protective mechanisms.

The epidemic of obesity can be interpreted in terms of the evolutionary forces that shaped dietary preferences and appetite regulation mechanisms, along with the possibility that selection has shaped adult physiology to cope with the nutritional environment as indicated by intrauterine conditions. Antibiotic resistance, that stalwart example of natural selection, turns out not to be so simple; mathematical models are needed to create optimal strategies to avoid resistance, and the speed with which resistance fades after antibiotics are withdrawn remains uncertain.

These advances are not well known in medicine and public health but word is spreading. Eight major international conferences in the past year have brought together evolutionary biologists and medical researchers. In 2008, the American College of Epidemiology will devote its annual meeting to "The Dawn of Evolutionary Epidemiology". The United States National Academy of Sciences will hold a Sackler Symposium on evolution and medicine in 2009.

There are many questions to be asked about why selection has left the body vulnerable to disease. (3) Why are our coronary arteries so narrow and prone to plaque? Why hasn't natural selection found a different, safer route for childbirth, or at least enlarged the pelvic opening? Why do we have third molars, given the trouble they cause? Why can't our bodies create better defences against bacteria? Why is the endothelium so vulnerable to inflammation? …

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