, Volume 32, Issue 1, pp 75-90
Date: 08 Dec 2010

Research traditions and evolutionary explanations in medicine

Abstract

In this article, I argue that distinguishing ‘evolutionary’ from ‘Darwinian’ medicine will help us assess the variety of roles that evolutionary explanations can play in a number of medical contexts. Because the boundaries of evolutionary and Darwinian medicine overlap to some extent, however, they are best described as distinct ‘research traditions’ rather than as competing paradigms. But while evolutionary medicine does not stand out as a new scientific field of its own, Darwinian medicine is united by a number of distinctive theoretical and methodological claims. For example, evolutionary medicine and Darwinian medicine can be distinguished with respect to the styles of evolutionary explanations they employ. While the former primarily involves ‘forward looking’ explanations, the latter depends mostly on ‘backward looking’ explanations. A forward looking explanation tries to predict the effects of ongoing evolutionary processes on human health and disease in contemporary environments (e.g., hospitals). In contrast, a backward looking explanation typically applies evolutionary principles from the vantage point of humans’ distant biological past in order to assess present states of health and disease. Both approaches, however, are concerned with the prevention and control of human diseases. In conclusion, I raise some concerns about the claim that ‘nothing in medicine makes sense except in the light of evolution’.