ARTICLE: Evolution, Medicine, and the Darwin Family

From the journal Evolution: Education and Outreach:

Evolution, Medicine, and the Darwin Family

Michael F. Antolin

Abstract The common scientific roots of evolution and medicine are deep, as these fields of science developed in parallel from the Enlightenment in the late 1700s to the modern genomics era. The influence of the medical sciences on the discovery of evolution in the 1700s and 1800s is typified by how the medical family of Charles Darwin, including his grandfather Dr. Erasmus Darwin and father Dr. Robert Waring Darwin, directly and indirectly guided Charles’ scientific development and eventual discovery of natural selection. In particular, in the 1700s, Erasmus Darwin was a prolific writer, legendary doctor, and published extensive descriptions of both the process of adaptation and common descent among all of life (including humans). The influence began with Charles’ years in medical school at Edinburgh and is recorded in Charles Darwin’s own letters and notebooks. Despite scientific overlap, evolution and medicine have remained distant from each other, in part because of the same religious and political reasons that many oppose the view of a world changing via evolution. But evolution also has been limited in its influence on the biomedical sciences because of abuses and misunderstanding. The three issues discussed here are (1) typological application of medical “constitutions,” (2) teleological thinking in how adaptations evolve, and (3) the misapplication of evolution during the eugenics period up to the 1940s. The modern-day surge of interest and synthesis between evolutionary biology and the biomedical sciences, medical practice, and public health can build on a long legacy that spans more than two centuries. The large role played by the Darwin family of doctors can bring this history to life, can be used to illustrate potential pitfalls as the synthesis moves forward, and may be of interest to students both as undergraduates and in medical schools.

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