Presented by Ajit Varki, University of California, San Diego
September 6, 2016
Dr. Ajit Varki, Executive Co-Director of CARTA, has long maintained that an evolutionary perspective has much to offer in understanding human health and disease. Why? Because the biological aspects of medicine are rooted in understanding the evolution of our species, and those of other organisms that interact with us in health and disease. Thus, to paraphrase Dobzhansky, “nothing in the biological aspects of medicine makes sense except in the light of evolution.” And yet evolutionary biology is largely missing from the conventional medical curriculum, something Dr. Varki and others are committed to correcting.
All of the “basic sciences” that medical students are required to learn (anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, pharmacology, etc.) became an established part of their curriculum a century ago, with cell biology and genetics evolving later from these disciplines. At the time this initial revolution in biomedical sciences was taking place, evolutionary biology had yet to come of age as a recognized discipline. In fact, back in the early 1900s, even basic questions about evolution could not be addressed. Mendel’s laws of genetics were just being rediscovered; there was very limited understanding about mechanisms of inheritance; and, no knowledge of what genes were made of. Thus, the teaching of evolution (the key discipline underlying all of modern biology) missed out in becoming part of the medical curriculum, a situation that remains largely unchanged, despite appeals and efforts by many proponents.
Fortunately, a major curriculum re-organization was recently achieved at UC San Diego’s medical school. Dr. Varki was able to impress upon the new curriculum organizers that medical students have committed their lives to learning about and caring for one single species – so it makes perfect sense to begin their education by first knowing where that species came from, its relationships to other animals, and its evolutionary propensities for disease. The organizers agreed and the very first medical school lecture at UCSD is entitled "Understanding Human Evolution: Implications for the Theory & Practice of Medicine".