I have sometimes written that evolutionary biology doesn’t have much practical value in medicine or other areas impinging on humanity’s material well being. Here is one example of what I’ve said. However, my friend and colleague David Hillis at The University of Texas in Austin — who played a big role in trying to make the Texas State Board of Education teach real science — has taken exception to my view. I asked him to let me know how he thought that evolutionary biology had been of use in medicine, and he wrote me an email with his answer, which he’s given me permission to post. He’d wants to emphasize that it’s an off-the-cuff response rather than a comprehensive reply, which of course I appreciate; but I think it’s worth posting:
OK, here are just a few examples from the thousands that are in the literature, off the top of my head:
Using positive selection to identify the pathogenic mechanisms of HIV in humans: PNAS 102:2832-2837 (one of many such studies that are now appearing and are using positive selection in pathogens to identify pathogenic mechanisms).
Using phylogenies and positive selection to predict which currently circulating strains of influenza are most likely to be closely related to future flu epidemics: Science 286: 1921-1925.
Using evolutionary analyses to track epidemics in human populations: many examples that have wider health implications, but our study of transmission in a forensic case was an interesting example with a specific legal application; PNAS 99:14292-14297.
Using evolutionary analyses to identify new disease outbreaks: new examples in every single issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Using phylogenetic analyses to identify whether polio outbreaks are from native circulating viruses or from reverted, escaped vaccines (which tells health workers which vaccines to use in these areas to eradicate disease): see review in Bulletin of the World Health Organization, Vol. 82, No. 1.
Identifying changes in sodium channel genes that are under positive selection for TTX resistance, which has led to understanding the function of human diseases that are caused by the corresponding substitutions in human sodium channel genes: Mol. Biol. Evol. 25(6):1016–1024. (I included this one to show that all of the examples are not from virus work; this is the original evolutionary work from Manda Jost and Harold Zakon, with our collaboration, but there has been follow-up on the understanding of human diseases that are produced from these same mutations, now that they have been replicated by in vitro mutagenesis)
This just scratches the surface. I think there are now more papers that use evolutionary methods and analyses in the human health literature than all other areas of biology combined. I think it is crazy to not acknowledge the numerous and important human health applications of evolutionary theory and methods.
Well, this is good enough for me — I gladly retract my earlier opinion that evolutionary biology hasn’t been of much use in medicine. Thanks, David.
NOTE: In the comments to this post, one reader asks whether David’s examples aren’t just genetic, having nothing to do with evolution? David has posted a response.