Is Evolution Relevant For Medical Research?

It’s a question about naturalism impact on the medical field that I asked in yahoo once. It was part of the research I was doing for this post. I framed the question around the topic of human viruses and vaccines. And I got some interesting responses one of which was very hostile towards me claimed…

“If you think that microbes evolve unpredictably, then you’ve never taken a single decent course in evolution. Every year flu viruses are tracked, predictions are made based on their evolution, and vaccines are produced based on those predictions.

“Last I checked, they haven’t been wrong in a while…Genetic engineers use evolutionary principles to make new antibiotics, to design new drugs, and much more. Diagnostics uses evolution in identifying new pathogens and characterizing them quickly based on phylogeny. Evolution permeates through every discipline of biology, and is even used in physical sciences.”

This is a typical of example of someone at war with an issue and the person presenting the issue. As a result, he was trying to “smote” me with his explanation which is full of many holes. Does any really believe the predictions of a flu virus strains are perfect and it’s been awhile since they been wrong? Does anyone believe if you get a flu shot, that means you are protected from all strains or variants of the flu?

The answer is without question, no in fact if this person was a doctor he would be eventually sued for malpractice making such a claim as a result of some people still getting the flu even when they had the shot.

I do believe microbes can and do evolve unpredictably. While it’s true some strains can be predicted others are not. Mutations can change using less information, or pre-existing information from other sources. There is no way, scientist could predict all these patterns perfectly!

Not only that, what does evolutionary biology really have to do with the predictions of the viruses? Even this computer game of folding proteins is having more of an impact to help understand biochemistry, and I must point out, nothing of this game deals with evolution…

Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor also makes an outstanding point on this issue, he states…

“Evolutionary explanations are merely stories appended to the proximate (scientific) explanations. They contribute nothing to the scientific understanding of the disease beyond the contribution of the proximate explanations.”

“Evolutionary stories are ad-hoc and generally untestable guesses, and offer no meaningful framework for science. The proximate explanations (anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, microbiology, etc.) are the framework for science.

“Strategies for disease treatment and prevention depend on data from the relevant medical sciences, not on speculative stories about origins.”

Many Medical schools do not even teach evolution for medical practice. Some may say evolution is more like a history lesson than advancing science in medicine. So is evolution relevant for medical research? The answer is obviously, no!

19 thoughts on “Is Evolution Relevant For Medical Research?

  1. Considering that pretty much the entire field of Biology falls down if you discount the Theory of Evolution and the field of Medicine is all about affecting biological organisms … yes, it does matter. Quite a lot.

  2. Really? So if you needed laser surgery on your leg, how did the theory of evolution help your doctor understand then preform the task? Macro-evolution is not observable. While you may believe evolution is observable but not while it’s happening, that lack of it’s observation in action doesn’t help modern medicine no matter if one believes it’s history is based on it or not.

    The only thing, that may be considered as a contribution is eugenics which gave scientists the idea to test new medical methods on animals first. However, even when the testing is successful with animals, it doesn’t always relate to success with humans. That is why once it passes a series of tests with animals first, then humans need to be tested and if the results turn out to be satisfactory, it becomes a full blown medical procedure. However, the new medical procedure could be stopped later if new health problems come up that are related to the new method or medication.

  3. Really? So if you needed laser surgery on your leg, how did the theory of evolution help your doctor understand then preform the task?

    How do you think the cells on that leg came about in the first place? Changed from what they once were to their diseased form? Bacterial infection, evolved from a simpler form and more resistant to attack, could very well be the source.

    So called ‘super bugs’ which have evolved resistances to antibiotics are a considerable problem in modern medicine. The way the human body is changing, which is measurable just over the past couple of centuries, has also had a considerable impact on the application of medicinal practices.

    Macro-evolution is not observable.

    Evolution has been observed many times across many different species. Evolution happens with a lot of little changes over almost geological amounts of time. You could never expect, for example, a dog turn into a horse in a labratory. That being said, new species have been observed and verified. A new species of mosquito evolved from an old one in the London Underground, The apple maggot fly, Faeroe Island House mouse, Goatsbeard Wildflowers and so on. The examples of new species emerging are many indeed.

    While you may believe evolution is observable but not while it’s happening

    It’s always happening. Just like landmasses are constantly moving thanks to plate tectonics but just too slowly, in most cases, to be observed with the naked eye.

    The only thing, that may be considered as a contribution is eugenics which gave scientists the idea to test new medical methods on animals first.

    Check your history books. The idea of eugenics existed a considerable time before Darwin ever went for his little sailing trip.

  4. Disease in general from what your discussing in particular comes from mutations. As a result, mutations then cause the production of malformed proteins. Mutations basically lead to a loss of genetic information which is a viable explanation on why the proteins are malformed. However, mutations are also able to obtain previous information from other bacteria to fight the medication but it’s not newly information created by the mutation itself.

    Another way mutations fight medication is ceasing from creating a particular enzyme which the medication interacts within the cell, thereby creating a poison. This poison created in the cell of the mutation causing the disease, proceeds to kill the bacteria.

    So the mutation survived but not by more information but less. No enzyme, no poison is created by the medication, the bacteria doesn’t die. Two questions comes to mind, which one has the advantage, if you take the medication away, does the mutation which doesn’t produce the enzyme have the advantage or the one that does produce the enzyme?

    I’m not saying all mutations are harmful, some in fact don’t even change the protein at all. One of the reasons for that is, the human body has DNA repair mechanisms, quality control mechanisms, and so on. The problem comes in when the protein is altered with incomplete or inaccurate information.

    There is no evidence of observing macro-evolution in bacteria. The bacteria is not changing into a new species before our eyes. As a result, the theory of macro-evolution doesn’t have any relevance to modern medicine like creating vaccines.

  5. Disease comes in many forms, from cancerous mutations of healthy cells to bacterial infections. Bacterial infections, in particular and as stated, have a lot to do with the Theory of Evolution since those little suckers are evolving immunities and resistances on a continual basis.

    As for your later statements about no macro evolution in bacteria. From (a highly regarded and fully referenced to peer reviewed research sight):
    Many organisms have been observed to acquire various new functions which they did not have previously (Endler 1986). Bacteria have acquired resistance to viruses (Luria and Delbruck 1943) and to antibiotics (Lederberg and Lederberg 1952). Bacteria have also evolved the ability to synthesize new amino acids and DNA bases (Futuyma 1998, p. 274). Unicellular organisms have evolved the ability to use nylon and pentachlorophenol (which are both unnatural manmade chemicals) as their sole carbon sources (Okada et al. 1983; Orser and Lange 1994). The acquisition of this latter ability entailed the evolution of an entirely novel multienzyme metabolic pathway (Lee et al. 1998). Bacteria have evolved to grow at previously unviable temperatures (Bennett et al. 1992). In E. coli, we have seen the evolution (by artificial selection) of an entirely novel metabolic system including the ability to metabolize a new carbon source, the regulation of this ability by new regulatory genes, and the evolution of the ability to transport this new carbon source across the cell membrane (Hall 1982).

    Entire new metabolic systems and functions … and you think it has no impact on the field of medicine? Absurd.

  6. If bacteria grows at “unviable temperatures”, what does that have to do with medicine? As far as E. coli and it’s ability to eat citrate. E. coli already has enzymes that can use citrate and can digest it. Nothing new there from 30,000 which only only one of a dozen lines of cells had any impact. It didn’t have the ability to get the food where it could digest it.

    Ever since Darwin’s day, biologists have debated the mechanisms, but not the fact of evolution. Regardless of the experiment of E. Coli, being able to eat citrate, it has no value to modern medicine.

    One more thing on claiming to see macro evolution in progress or in the fossil record, David Raup who was head paleontologist for Chicago’s natural Museum said…

    “In years after Darwin, his advocates hope to have find progressions. In general they have not been found…” Evolution and the Fossil Record in Science, July 17, 1981, p289

    We currently have over 200 million fossils on record. There should be more transitional forms of animals than the actual animals themselves. For example, if a mouse were to turn into a bat, animal A shows it’s arms are much longer than his legs. He will needs these longer arms to grow wings..

    Animal B looks something like a mouse, but it’s fingers are now longer along with the arms.

    Animal C start to has it’s muscles enlarged in new locations on it’s arms. A flying animal needs strong muscles for movement of the wings.

    Animal D obtains membrane on each arm. The membrane isn’t perfected to the point where the animals can fly yet.

    Animal E is half mouse and half bat

    I’m not saying mice turn into bats, but you get my point. All those changes or at least a few more than the species itself should be found in the fossil record, and they are not! In fact there is not one transitional form of a bat in the fossil record. You can take a land animal to a whale, where are all the in-between species that go from a land animal to a whale? There should be a ton of them since that is a dramatic change. However, they are not observable.

    Regardless on where the animals came from which is what macro-evolution is mainly about, this discussion is not relevant to modern medicine.

  7. Of course the E Coli experiment has an impact on modern medicine; you seem unable to make any sort of logical connection between the fact that bacteria are constantly evolving and it is therefore the job of modern medicine to keep one step ahead of it. It’s not a hard connection to make.

    As for the matter of transitional fossils, your ignorance on the matter is showing quite a lot.
    Talkorigins has that rather nicely shown to be false as shown here:
    and here:

    They specifically show Bat and Whale evolution, so you can drop that line of argument right now.

    You’ve also failed to refute how the entire field of Biology (which is what medicine is all about) simply falls down completely without the Theory of Evolution. It is what, to put it simply, what modern biology uses as a cornerstone.

  8. You fail to provide what sort of impact it would provide for medicine or medical treatment by mutating bacteria(E Coli) between 20,000 and 30,000 future generations. It’s a lab experiment trying to duplicate some part of evolution. Or as Science Daily puts it, “more understanding of evolution.” The human body is way more complex than what was done in that E Coli experiment.

    You can’t observe macro-evolution either from the past nor the present and certainly would have major problems predicting future results in a course of tens of thousands of years if not billions of years of what mutations might do.

    That is why modern medicine doesn’t need evolution!

  9. The E Coli experiment clearly shows that bacteria (which is a major source of infection and generally what our skin and immune system battle all the time). That’s generations of bacteria change some of their fundamental survival mechanisms to suit changed conditions/environment and you fail to see how that helps/informs medicine?

    We’ve seen, as another example, entirely different strains of influenza form from resistances being created to existing treatments and medicines. That’s part of the Theory of Evolution at work right there. And you still can’t see it?

    You can’t observe Macro-Evolution either from the past nor the present

    Pardon? It has been observed, both in bacteria and macro-organisms. You seem to have not done even the most basic of research into the field and here you are proclaiming it as false.

  10. The E Coli experiment by the way, took 20 years using trillions of cells to try and get results under a controlled setting. It didn’t shed any light for medicine, we already knew before the E Coli experiment was even finished that mutations change as I stated before on how that works.

    I say it again, that experiment was not for medicine rather it was trying to understand macro evolution which doesn’t have impact on future treatments of medicine.

    The very reason why you picked bacteria in the first place, it’s the only think you can debate about mutations. When someone dislocates their shoulder, the doctor generally knows how to move your arm to pop it back in. Evolution had no impact on that medical procedure either.

  11. Sure, it did. How else do you think the shoulder joint became the way it did? That’s right, it came along and changed in a few ways from the common ancestor human kind and other primates share. In other words, it’s another example of how the Theory of Evolution informs biology and thus informs medicine (let’s face it, medicine is pretty much purely about biology and biology is built on the Theory of Evolution).

    I say it again, that experiment was not for medicine rather it was trying to understand macro evolution which doesn’t have impact on future treatments of medicine.

    Was the experiment run as a medical experiment? No and I never said it was. It was run as a biology experiment. The same type of experiment is what a lot of drug companies run to test their products. Hm, drug companies … what do they often make again? Oh, that’s right … medicine.

  12. Matt, believing human bones changed over time in the distant past, didn’t teach doctors how to treat a dislocated shoulder.

    In a book called; The Evolving World: Evolution in Everyday Life (Harvard, 2006)…States the following…

    “…if truth be told, evolution hasn’t yielded many practical or commercial benefits. Yes, bacteria evolve drug resistance, and yes, we must take countermeasures, but beyond that there is not much to say.

    “Evolution cannot help us predict what new vaccines to manufacture because microbes evolve unpredictably. But hasn’t evolution helped guide animal and plant breeding? Not very much. Most improvement in crop plants and animals occurred long before we knew anything about evolution, and came about by people following the genetic principle of ‘like begets like’.

    Even now, as its practitioners admit, the field of quantitative genetics has been of little value in helping improve varieties. Future advances will almost certainly come from transgenics, which is not based on evolution at all.”

    Matt, the author of the book is an evolutionist, and he is honest and correct about evolution’s lack of impact on the medical world! There wouldn’t be any negative impact if evolution was removed from medicine. Testing animals would still continue, studying the human body would still continue. In fact, The only thing that would be missing is the speculation on the history of origins…That would lead to more time in studying more about modern medicine.

  13. Matt, believing human bones changed over time in the distant past, didn’t teach doctors how to treat a dislocated shoulder.

    No and I never said it did. It does, however, provide more information about which treatments are better than others due to the structure of that particular joint.

    Take the lower back, as another example, we know that it has to bare a huge weight load each and every day. It does so because the human body simply isn’t well suited to balance out the weight load associated with almost exclusive two legged movement – the spine far better handles four extremities sharing the load. That information comes straight from the Theory of Evolution and sheds a lot of light on potential back problems.

    You bring forth a source which states Evolution doesn’t help all that much in medicine so here’s one who says it does:
    Ken Miller (Biology professor at Brown University and practising Roman Catholic) says: “Any theory that can stand up to 150 years of continuous testing is a pretty darn good theory. We use evolution to develop drugs. We use evolution to develop vaccines. We use evolution to manage wildlife. We use evolution to interpret our own genome. Every one of these uses of evolution is a test, because if the use turns out to be inadequate, we would then go back and question the very idea of evolution itself. But evolution has turned out to be such a powerful, productive, and hardworking theory that it’s survived that test of time.”

    Here’s another nice article on how Evolution informs and shapes modern medicine:

    Berkley has a handy list of such articles here, for your reading pleasure:

  14. Matt,

    Your trying to prove evolution again, with the lower back rather than trying to prove how it helps medicine. That is me like saying, there is no evolutionary explanation of a human foot, it’s unique, nothing else like it. As far as the dislocated shoulder, no doctor needs evolutionary theories to relocate the shoulder. What theory or explanation in evolution do you believe helped or helps treatment for a dislocated shoulder? Is it the medication part or what?

  15. I don’t need to prove evolution, science has pretty much done that already (as much as it has proved any other scientific concept). I’m merely pointing out examples of where it has informed and directly guided medical knowledge.

    You know, exactly like those links I supplied do time and again.

  16. You can’t prove either one. You used the lower back to try and find bad design which is trying to prove evolution. Your concept doesn’t help improve bad backs. Things go wrong with the spine when you abuse it such as not keeping yourself fit, overload on it, or have an accident. The spine is well made, it’s like an arch of a bridge, it adds strength. Because of that arch a man can lift more than a Gorilla with it’s outwardly curving spine.

    Experts on spines disagree with your evidence of using evolution to treat lower backs. Reducing the lordosis only makes the problem worse. So it’s not surprising that treating back pain with postures and exercises that restore the lordosis, work very good!

  17. Your reading comprehension needs work. Go back, read what I typed again.

    I used the spine example to indeed show bad design of the human body (and that’s only one of many such examples). And yes, the Theory of Evolution does tell us a lot about just what the spine is capable of since it tells us directly how it was formed and what parts of it are still weak based on comparisons on our genetic ancestors – comparing modes of movement and so on.

    How do I know this? My own father had his spine shattered in a work place accident and I saw him go through various treatments including surgery (which involved drugs … oooh, there’s the input of Evolution again) to various forms of physical therapy (and there we go again).

    Evolution has been proven as much as any other scientific concept you care to mention. You just need to ask the scientific community about that one, pretty hard to argue against. Every prediction the Theory has been made has been shown to be true, from the finding of certain forms of chromosomes, transitional fossils, DNA, diversification of species and so on. Got any problems with it?

    Now, despite the huge amounts of information I linked to, are you still trying to say that the Theory of Evolution has had no impact on modern medicine?

  18. Antitheistic evolutionist Jerry Coyne who I quoted before also disagrees with your contention and he is part of the scientific establishment in which you want me to refer to because you assume what I believe is all coming from creationists…

    “If truth be told, evolution hasn’t yielded many practical or commercial benefits. … Even now, as its practitioners admit, the field of quantitative genetics has been of little value in helping improve varieties.”

    Jerry Coyne who is an outspoken critic against creationism and is beloved by the likes of PZ Meyers and Dawkins, yet even he knows evolution has had no benefit in modern medical research and to be able to predict random mutations for medications that occur presently in the body is not telling the truth. It’s like a flu shot, the treatment doesn’t cover all types variants of the flu, that is because it can’t predict them.

  19. And he’s welcome to his opinion (though I must admit I am not familiar with Jerry Coyne). That’s a great thing about science, it encourages and loves debate like this.

    Sadly, his opinion is just that: an opinion. And one that runs contrary to what the scientific consensus actually is. I have listed various areas where the Theory of Evolution has helped mankind in medicine and other areas already, so it seems it’s an open and shut case unless you can rebuke them.

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