Darwin in Medicine: Why Evolution is relevant for research and medical practice

WORKSHOP – April 19-23, 2022 – Erice, Sicily, ITALY

The purpose of this interdisciplinary course is to understand why and how the evolutionary perspective is relevant for medicine, both in terms of research and practice (i.e. why we need “Evolutionary Medicine”).

Although there is controversy about to what extent modern human populations have deviated – genetically and behaviorally – from our hunter-gatherer ancestors, growing evidence suggests that humans have continued and still continue to evolve. However, when clinicians are asked about the relevance of evolutionary theory in their disciplines, many express interest but find the approach more or less irrelevant for everyday practice. This is a profound misconception of what evolution may tell about disease development and counter-strategies.

The misconception, in part, resides in the belief that human evolution has been slow and that anatomical and physiological characteristics of our species (i.e. our bauplan) have changed very little in the last 80,000 years or so.

A more detailed look, however, reveals that changing ecological contingencies have turned into risk factors for somatic disease and psychological disorders. For example, adaptations to the past environments including nutritional requirements, exposure to pathogens, social issues etc. have now turned into “epidemics” of autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, several forms of cancer, depression, anxiety and other psychiatric conditions. Taken together, we believe that the understanding of evolutionary processes in medicine is not just an academic exercise, but imperative to better understand, diagnose, prevent, and treat medical conditions.

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