On the difficulty of defining disease: a Darwinian perspective.

R. M. Nesse

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


Most attempts to craft a definition of disease seem to have tackled two tasks simultaneously: 1) trying to create a series of inclusion and exclusion criteria that correspond to medical usage of the word disease and 2) using this definition to understand the essence of what disease is. The first task has been somewhat accomplished, but cannot reach closure because the concept of "disease" is based on a prototype, not a logical category. The second task cannot be accomplished by deduction, but only by understanding how the body works and what each component is for, in evolutionary detail. An evolutionary view of the origins of the body and its vulnerabilities that result in disease provides an objective foundation for recognizing pathology. Our social definition of disease will remain contentious, however, because values vary, and because the label "disease" changes judgments about the moral status of people with various conditions, and their rights to medical and social resources.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)37-46
Number of pages10
JournalMedicine, health care, and philosophy
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Education
  • Health Policy


Dive into the research topics of 'On the difficulty of defining disease: a Darwinian perspective.'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this