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Evolutionary biology and evolutionary biologists: what a difference an ‘s’ makes

I have written in this blog that Darwinism is irrelevant to the practice of medicine. The truth of my assertion is, I think, fairly obvious, except to Darwin fundamentalists. Most of the Darwinists’ comments on my posts have been personal attacks on me, rather than carefully reasoned arguments. The thoughtful arguments that have been put forth are, I think, misguided, as I will discuss in upcoming posts.

The assertion that Darwinism is essential to medicine is usually is based on the argument that one or more of the following areas of science are dependent on Darwin’s theory:

  • 1. Comparative medicine, which is the study of the similarity and the differences between humans and other organisms.
  • 2. Medical genetics and molecular biology
  • 3. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics

In addition, a common Darwinist argument is that the presence on medical school faculties of scientists who study some aspects of evolutionary biology is evidence that evolutionary biology is indispensable to medicine. That argument is flawed, but it does raise an important issue. I’ll address that issue here, and I’ll address the other issues, one by one, in ensuing posts.

Many, even most, scientists whose work includes evolutionary biology are fine scientists. They have been my teachers, and many are now my colleagues and friends. They contribute to medical education in major ways. They contribute as anatomists, or as physiologists, or as microbiologists, or as molecular biologists. I hold them in high regard, and I am indebted to them for much of my own education.

These fine scientists do not, however, contribute to medicine by studying or teaching evolutionary biology. They contribute to medicine by their work in anatomy, or physiology, or microbiology, or molecular biology. The central assertion of Darwinism–that all biological complexity arises by random heritable variation and natural selection–is of interest to evolutionary biologists (and to those of us who disagree with it), but the assertion that randomness is the raw material for all biological complexity plays no role in medical education or research. Darwin’s assertion of randomness is irrelevant not only to medicine, but to much of biological science. Darwinism is, in Phillip Skell’s apt phrase, a narrative gloss applied to biology and highly superfluous. Teaching medical students about the anatomy of the brain or the molecular structure of DNA is very important. Teaching students about Darwinian speculations about the random origins of the brain or of DNA adds nothing to students’ knowledge of medicine.

In fact, most research and education in medicine involves the implicit assumption of design. The best medical research is the search for patterns recognizable as design, and the best teachers teach their students, implicitly or explicitly, to search for design and purpose in human biology. Evolutionary biologists who teach anatomy, and physiology, and microbiology, and molecular biology in medical schools contribute much to modern medicine by teaching those important subjects. Evolutionary biology itself, however, is superfluous to medicine.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
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 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.