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Dr. Humburg Sets Me and Galen Straight

My recent post here about the irrelevance of Darwinism to the practice of medicine seems to have gotten under the skin of a medical resident at Penn State. Dr. Burt Humburg, blogging at Panda’s Thumb, unleashed a tirade, including a very clever word play on my name in the title of his post (Egnorance: The Egotistical Combination of Ignorance and Arrogance) and his very serious doubts about my competence and integrity. Burt has also been involved in the Kansas evolution struggle. You might say he has a dog in this hunt.

What set Burt off was my observation that the hypothesis that ‘random heritable variation and natural selection is responsible for all biological complexity’ is not of value in the practice of medicine. It does seem fairly obvious. Doctors don’t use Darwinism, at least not since eugenics lost its luster.

Burt rambles a bit, but his main point seems to be that Darwinism is the basis for all comparative anatomy, comparative physiology, comparative pharmacology, etc. He points out that a host of medical miracles would have been inconceivable had evolutionary biologists not told us of the similarity between non-human species and human beings. No Darwin, no insulin. No Darwin, no surgery, no antibiotics, no heart drugs, because we wouldn’t have known to try our therapies on laboratory animals first! It seems that I had been taking comparative medicine for granted, without giving proper credit to its true founders.

Of course we can do comparative physiology, comparative anatomy, and comparative pharmacology without Darwinism. We can do comparative pharmacology because humans have many genetic and physiological similarities to other mammals, such as mice, monkeys, or guinea pigs. It’s simple to observe that mammals are built upon a common blueprint, and that life shares certain similarities. We can learn all of this without Darwin, and regardless of whether these cross-species similarities are the result of common descent or design upon a common blueprint, any non-Darwinian scientist can observe the similarities between humans and other species. This brings us to Galen — who himself made such “comparative” studies millennia before Darwin.

Human dissection was forbidden in the second century A.D., so Galen dissected animals (his favorite subjects for dissection were Barbary apes). His extrapolations to human anatomy were the basis for western medicine and surgery until the 16th century, when Vesalius first dissected humans. If Dr. Humburg is upset with me for my 20 years of failing to credit evolutionary biologists for comparative medicine, imagine his ire with Galen! Two thousand years of ingratitude!

Who knew that evolutionary biologists deserve credit for all of comparative medicine? It looks like Galen and I owe evolutionary biologists, and Dr. Humburg, an apology.

Michael Egnor

Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics, State University of New York, Stony Brook
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and is an award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.