When Evolution Met Medicine

Where do evolution and medicine intersect? This question is being explored through the Evolutionary Studies (EvoS) Seminar Series.

On Monday, Feb. 13, the EvoS Seminar Series delivered its second installment with a talk from Dr. Randolph M. Nesse, a professor at Arizona State University, titled “Medicine without Evolution is like Engineering without Physics.”

The series, which is in its 10th year, has been themed for the past two years. This year’s theme is evolution and health related issues.

“We’ve had almost 100 speakers at this point, across the years,” said Glenn Geher, chair of the psychology department and founding director of the evolutionary studies program. “We bring in internationally recognized experts related to evolution. They talk about a lot of different topics and come from a lot of different backgrounds.”

Nesse’s discussion centered around the lack of evolutionary studies in the study of medicine. According to Nesse, medicine and medical studies are “still really in the 19th century with regards to evolutionary biology.”

In his research, Nesse found evolutionary medicine as “just the intersection of evolutionary biology and the practical applied field of medicine.” By adopting this mindset he hopes the medical industry, as well as medical education, can begin to “move into the 20th [sic] century.”

Nesse was contacted to be part of the seminar series due to his presence in the world of evolutionary medicine. 

“He’s, worldwide, the top-dog in the field,” Geher said.

Following his research on the neuro-endocrinology of anxiety, Nesse became aware of the lack of evolutionary studies in medical curricula. As a result, Nesse began studying the absent science, directly leading him into studies of aging and evolution.

As evolutionary studies have become more widely considered in the scientific community, EvoS programs, such as SUNY New Paltz’s own evolutionary studies program, have grown. 

Tom Nolen, professor of biology and associate dean of the School of Science and Engineering emphasized the merit of Nesse’s self-education in the evolutionary studies. 

“Our evolutionary studies program is meant to facilitate evolutionary theory and get people to look at it in ways in which they haven’t thought about evolutionary applications,” Nolen said. 

The EvoS Seminar Series works in conjunction with courses offered in the evolutionary studies minor. Students can also get involved with evolutionary studies research groups.

“I’ve been in the evolutionary research lab for about two and a half years now,” said Jackie Eisenberg, a fourth-year double major in psychology and communications disorders. “It’s kind of an unspoken rule to go to the seminar series because we are involved with evolutionary psychology research.”

Nesse’s efforts to break evolutionary studies into academic and medical curricula have laid the groundwork for a growing number of EvoS programs, with a few missteps along the way.

“He’s been trying to get evolutionary course work and theory into medical schools. He said he’s failed, but that’s why he has his organization. They’re trying to get the information out,” Nolen said. 

Through his organization, EvMedEd, Nesse hopes to spread evolutionary studies through medical academia by supplying educators with the resources to teach their students about evolutionary principles in medicine.