Who Would Connect “the Legacy of Darwin,” Medicine, and Eugenics?

Michael Egnor

P.Z. Myers and I finally agree on something! In a recent post, I described several actual Darwinian medicine “theories”:

‘Children Hate Vegetables Because of Ancestral Reproductive Advantage of Avoiding Toxins’ or ‘We Will Evolve Oiler Skin Because of Frequent Bathing’ or ‘X-Linked Color Blindness Evolved to Help Paleolithic Male Hunters See Camouflage.’

As I pointed out in my original post, these theories are real, and in fact represent the cutting edge of Darwinian medicine. Myers refers to these Darwinian medicine research projects as “silly”:

No, none of those very silly talks were given.

And he’s right. What he fails to note, however, is that these theories differ little in substance from the ephemeral corpus of Darwinian just-so stories. These silly stories are merely the application of silly mainstream Darwinian reasoning to medical practice. Perhaps it’s the application of this nonsense to something as tangible as medicine that makes the banality so obvious. The straight-faced assertion “polar bears evolved into whales by the mechanism of random genetic variation and natural selection,” a sort of ursine-baleen “chance and necessity,” doesn’t have the same risible punch as the “evolution” of childhood aversion to broccoli.

But, as always, Myers professes stupefaction at the topic of eugenics. Myers is shocked — SHOCKED — that I would presume that he was attending a conference on eugenics when he blogged about attending the symposium “Understanding evolution: the legacy of Darwin,” held in an old medical lecture hall. Who would ever connect “legacy of Darwin,” a medical lecture hall, and eugenics? Furthermore, to accentuate my culpability in this misunderstanding, Myers notes that he had posted the conference schedule a while back, which I missed. Sometimes my Internet Content Filter screens out Pharyngula, so it’s not always easy keeping up. I’ll have to dial down the ‘bigotry’ and ‘casual obscenity’ settings.
Myers notes:

No, it wasn’t a conference about eugenics, pro or con. No, it wasn’t about medicine. No, none of those very silly talks were given. No, since evolution contributes substantially to basic biology, all that stuff about how cells work and interact and change, evolution has contributed significantly to modern medicine — Egnor’s ignorance of the mechanistic underpinnings of what medicine does is no excuse.

Let’s take up Myers’ assertion that I have an “ignorance of the mechanistic underpinnings of what medicine does.” I’m a professor of neurosurgery and vice-chairman of my department. I’ve been teaching medical students and residents for twenty-three years, and I conduct basic science research on blood flow and cerebrospinal fluid flow in the brain. I’m not sure of Myers’ medical teaching and research activities, but perhaps I could learn from his personal contributions to medical education. My own experience with medical research and education is that medical practice is a very effective check on b.s., because in medicine ideas often have immediately obvious consequences. Some of these consequences are deadly. Eugenics was the consequence of the application of the Darwinian understanding of human origins to medical practice, and is the most shameful aspect of medical practice in modern times. I love my profession, and I harbor considerable ill-will for eugenic ideology that brought so much shame and disrepute to my profession and so much harm to countless innocent patients victimized by “Darwinian medicine” 1.0.
So whence this modern promotion of “Darwinian Medicine” 2.0? Ernst Mayr, a pioneer in evolutionary biology, asserted in 1982:

‘No biological problem is solved until both the proximate and the evolutionary causation has been elucidated. Furthermore, the study of evolutionary causes is as legitimate a part of biology as is the study of the usually physico-chemical proximate causes’.

Advocates of the renewed application of Darwinism to medicine insist that we need “evolutionary” explanations as well as “proximate” explanations to understand diseases and to properly conduct medical education, research, and practice. Of course, the proximate explanations are the actual scientific explanations; evolutionary explanations are fairy tales appended to the actual explanations. The purpose of the proximate explanations is to understand the science. The purpose of the evolutionary explanations is to provide jobs and grant money for evolutionary biologists — a kind of academic workfare for Darwinists-still-seeking-relevance.
We physicians and medical scientists haven’t forgotten the first application of Darwinian “science” to medical practice. Frankly, we’d be better off just paying Darwinists to leave medicine alone.
Like protection money.

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.