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Evolution essential knowledge for medical students

Media release
03 November 2009

Evolution essential knowledge for medical students

Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, former Director of The University of Auckland’s Liggins Institute, is one of a number of eminent international medical scientists and educators calling for evolutionary biology to be a core subject in medical schools.

The recommendation, published in the latest issue of the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, follows from the Academy’s Arthur M. Sackler Colloquium on ‘‘Evolution in Health and Medicine’’ held in April 2009 at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC.

The paper’s authors say “Better education about evolutionary biology and its applications in medicine will have substantial benefits for physicians, their patients, public health workers, researchers, and other health professionals.”

It concludes that it is as necessary for medical students to study evolutionary biology as it is for engineers to study physics. “One hundred and fifty years after publication of The Origin of Species, new advances demonstrate the utility of evolutionary biology in medicine, but few physicians and medical researchers have taken a course on evolutionary biology, and no medical school teaches evolutionary biology as a basic science for medicine,” claim the authors.

The paper recommends specific learning objectives for both premedical and medical curricula. It counters claims that courses are already overloaded by suggesting that evolutionary biology provides a framework that integrates the disparate knowledge students already learn from other basic sciences. The authors believe that this would encourage students to see the human body as the result of evolutionary processes and minute variations built up over hundreds of millions of years rather than as a simplistic “designed machine”. In turn, this more holistic view, appreciating the role of natural selection, would foster an understanding of why our bodies are vulnerable to disease.

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Professor Gluckman heads the Centre for Human Evolution, Adaptation and Disease at the Liggins Institute. His research group uses concepts from evolutionary and developmental biology to inform and interpret experimental and clinical research performed at the Institute and by its international collaborators.

Gluckman describes evolution by natural selection as the fundamental organising principle of biology. Without it, he says, it is not really possible to understand how an organism works, how its parts fit together. “Yet despite this, medicine has been slow to recognise its importance.”

Professor Gluckman says that he is keen to see evolutionary biology incorporated into local medical curricula alongside those at leading US universities such as Harvard, Yale and Johns Hopkins. To assist with this he has co-authored Principles of Evolutionary Medicine, the first text on this subject written specifically for medical students, which was published by Oxford University Press in July this year.

The paper’s leading author, Professor Randolph M. Nesse, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, was a guest of the Liggins Institute in February, when he delivered a popular public lecture entitled “Medicine without evolution is like engineering without physics.”
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