Making evolutionary biology a basic science for medicine

Randolph M. Nesse, Carl T. Bergstrom, Peter T. Ellison, Jeffrey S. Flier, Peter Gluckman, Diddahally R. Govindaraju, Dietrich Niethammer, Gilbert S. Omenn, Robert L. Perlman, Mark D. Schwartz, Mark G. Thomas, Stephen C. Stearns, David Valle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

162 Scopus citations


New applications of evolutionary biology in medicine are being discovered at an accelerating rate, but few physicians have sufficient educational background to use them fully. This article summarizes suggestions from several groups that have considered how evolutionary biology can be useful in medicine, what physicians should learn about it, and when and how they should learn it. Our general conclusion is that evolutionary biology is a crucial basic science for medicine. In addition to looking at established evolutionary methods and topics, such as population genetics and pathogen evolution, we highlight questions about why natural selection leaves bodies vulnerable to disease. Knowledge about evolution provides physicians with an integrative framework that links otherwise disparate bits of knowledge. It replaces the prevalent view of bodies as machines with a biological view of bodies shaped by evolutionary processes. Like other basic sciences, evolutionary biology needs to be taught both before and during medical school. Most introductory biology courses are insufficient to establish competency in evolutionary biology. Premedical students need evolution courses, possibly ones that emphasize medically relevant aspects. In medical school, evolutionary biology should be taught as one of the basic medical sciences. This will require a course that reviews basic principles and specific medical applications, followed by an integrated presentation of evolutionary aspects that apply to each disease and organ system. Evolutionary biology is not just another topic vying for inclusion in the curriculum; it is an essential foundation for a biological understanding of health and disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1800-1807
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue numberSUPPL. 1
StatePublished - Jan 26 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Curriculum
  • Darwinian
  • Education
  • Evolution
  • Health

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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