The dawn of Darwinian medicine

George C. Williams, Randolph M. Nesse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

294 Scopus citations


While evolution by natural selection has long been a foundation for biomedical science, it has recently gained new power to explain many aspects of disease. This progress results largely from the disciplined application of what has been called the adaptationist program. We show that this increasingly significant research paradigm can predict otherwise unsuspected facets of human biology, and that it provides new insights into the causes of medical disorders, such as those discussed below: 1. Infection. Signs and symptoms of the host-parasite contest can be categorized according to whether they represent adaptations or costs for host or parasite. Some host adaptations may have contributed to fitness in the Stone Age but are obsolete today. Others, such as fever and iron sequestration, have been incorrectly considered harmful. Pathogens, with their large populations and many generations in a single host, can evolve very rapidly. Acquisition of resistance to antibiotics is one example. Another is the recently demonstrated tendency to change virulence levels in predictable ways in response to changed conditions imposed incidentally by human activities. 2. Injuries and toxins. Mechanical injuries or stressful wear and tear are conceptually simpler than infectious diseases because they are not contests between conflicting interests. Plant-herbivore contests may often underlie chemical injury from the defensive secondary compounds of plant tissues. Nausea in pregnancy, and allergy, may be adaptations against such toxins. 3. Genetic factors. Common genetic diseases often result from genes maintained by other beneficial effects in historically normal environments. The diseases of aging are especially likely to be associated with early benefits. 4. Abnormal environments. Human biology is designed for Stone Age conditions. Modern environments may cause many diseases - for example, deficiency syndromes such as scurvy and rickets, the effects of excess consumption of normally scarce nutrients such as fat and salt, developmental diseases such as myopia, and psychological reactions to novel environments. The substantial benefits of evolutionary studies of disease will be realized only if they become central to medical curricula, an advance that may at first require the establishment of one or more research centers dedicated to the further development of Darwinian medicine.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-22
Number of pages22
JournalQuarterly Review of Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1991
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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