Although the field of medicine experienced major advances in the 20th century, it also embraced mistakes and outright atrocities caused by the introduction of evolutionary thinking. Setbacks to the profession are bad, but thousands of patients "treated" with Darwinian medical principles suffered needlessly, experiencing confusion, painful surgery, and even death.
Darwinism Promoted the Medical Practice of Eugenics
In the most egregious example, many physicians advocated the promotion and practice of eugenics. In a quest to improve the overall genetic composition of the human race, eugenicists selectively bred biologically "superior" people and forcibly eliminated genetic defects by sterilizing, aborting, or euthanizing "inferior" people.
This practice can be laid squarely at the feet of Darwinian medicine.1 Many lives were destroyed through the first large-scale manifestation of Darwin's belief that "the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world."2
How Eugenics Gained Medical Support
The methods eugenicists used to gain scientific prominence served as a prototype for introducing subsequent evolutionary ideas into medicine. New scientific journals such as the Annals of Eugenics and Eugenics Quarterly provided forums for peer-reviewed intellectual discussion. The major peer-reviewed science journals of the day also promoted eugenics.
The scientific and academic consensus, including prominent faculty from Harvard University and Johns Hopkins Medical School, promoted eugenics as the opinions of science's most progressive thinkers.3 International Eugenics Congresses were held in 1912, 1921, and 1932, attended by some of the world’s leading scientists. Supporters were given high academic honors, while dissenters were marginalized.
These actions gave eugenics an appearance of scientific respectability, followed by medical acceptability. What was the result? In the United States, over 70,000 victims were sterilized, including 8,000 procedures in Lynchburg, Virginia, alone.4 In many other countries, most notoriously Germany, untold thousands more suffered the horrors of eugenics.
Darwinism Advocated Needless Surgical Procedures to Remove "Vestigial Organs"
Even if patients were fortunate enough to be deemed "fit," they still might not avoid the surgical knife. Because of Darwin's The Descent of Man, the appendix became widely regarded as a worthless rudimentary organ left over from man's herbivorous ancestors. This led to a decades-long fundamental flaw in Darwinian medicine: the expectation that people would be better served without certain organs, even perfectly healthy ones.
By the mid-20th century, thousands of "prophylactic" surgeries had been performed based on assumptions such as "the sooner [vestigial appendages] are removed the better for the individual."5 A 2007 Duke University Medical School press release challenged this naïve view: "Long denigrated as vestigial or useless, the appendix now appears to have a reason to be--as a 'safe house' for the beneficial bacteria living in the human gut."6
In response to Duke's discovery, a biochemistry professor stated that this possible bacterial function "makes evolutionary sense."7 The medical fate of the appendix remains uncertain, but fortunately, published medical advances now advocate that the removal of tonsils be contingent on meeting evidence-based medical criteria8--a feature totally lacking in Darwinian medicine.
Darwinian Prejudices Have Hindered Medical Research
Darwinian medicine's concept of vestigial organs has also retarded medical research, since there is little incentive to study "useless" structures. This mistaken belief has permeated even the cellular and molecular levels. Stanford University reported in 1998 on certain white blood cells that heretofore had been largely ignored by immunologists. Why? The "natural killer" (NK) cells were "thought by some to be an archaic remnant of the primitive mammalian immune system."9 The appendix's function, NK cells, so-called "junk" DNA, and other areas of profitable medical research continue to be held back by the smothering assumptions of Darwinian medicine.
Darwinian Medicine Courses Lack Medical Significance
Ignoring Darwinism's bad medical track record, some scientists stridently advocate the introduction of a new course in medical school: Darwinian Medicine. Two vocal proponents, George Williams of State University of Stony Brook and Randolf Nesse of the University of Michigan, assert:
Evolutionary biology… has not been emphasized in medical curricula. This is unfortunate, because new applications of evolutionary principles to medical problems show that advances would be even more rapid if medical professionals were as attuned to Darwin as they have been to Pasteur.10
Pasteur's contributions to medicine, which were completely independent of evolutionary assumptions, are legendary. He directed research into areas that have undeniably saved millions of lives.
Compared to Pasteur's seminal research, the Darwinian approach to medicine and its derived explanations are insignificant. Cornell evolutionary biologist Paul Sherman advocates an approach that examines whether symptoms are "useful adaptations" or true pathologies.
For example, a mild fever…is often the body's natural response to infection. Studies show that a mild fever leads to faster recovery times....With this knowledge...a doctor may suggest riding out a mild fever as the most expedient cure for an illness....[Sherman] noted that a Darwinian medicine approach adds to the doctor's toolbox to offer a wider range of treatments, including advising a patient in some instances to help the body's evolved system do the healing.11
Cutting-edge Darwinian theories on illness include: 1) X-linked color blindness evolved to help male paleolithic hunters see camouflage; 2) the itch associated with insect bites evolved so people would avoid being bitten; 3) myopia may result from an interaction between genes and the close work characteristic of literate societies; 4) salivation, tearing, coughing, sneezing, vomiting (particularly "morning sickness"), and diarrhea evolved to expel noxious substances and microbiologic agents; and 5) humans' natural repugnance toward garbage, feces, vomitus, and purulence is an evolved defense against contagion.12
But the Darwinian method amounts to little more than making observations of signs and symptoms and appending unsubstantiated evolutionary stories as window dressing. Trite explanations are published in collaborative peer-reviewed journals in articles that contain only a tiny fraction of the scientific rigor of medical articles featured in the Journal of the American Medical Association or the New England Journal of Medicine. These "insights" are hardly on a par with the significance of Pasteur's work.
Darwinian Medicine Has No Clinical Value
Darwinian medicine adds nothing to the doctor's toolbox. For instance, the only Darwinian aspect to Sherman's interpretation of the observed infection-fever interaction is his fully inexplicable assumption that fever is an evolved response. Most physicians already knew what fevers to treat.
Such explanations fail accepted scientific standards since they cannot be tested. Moreover, serious medical researchers would not invest time in them since their medical contribution is negligible. Even putative beneficial observations of natural selection such as bacterial resistance to antibiotics and the heterozygotic advantage of sickle cell disease are not based on Darwinian medicine, but were observed through the relevant basic sciences of microbiology and molecular genetics.
Darwinian Medicine Has No Predictive Value
It is also important to note that none of the Darwinian explanations integrate (much less are based on tests of) the phylogeny or actual physical evolutionary development of the organism itself. Given the long time to develop new drugs, a real test would be a Darwinist prediction--based solely on human evolutionary phylogeny--of a new, presently unobserved disease for which pharmaceutical companies should start developing a treatment. So far, no such predictions have been forthcoming.
This failure, coupled with increased needs to teach new medical research, is possibly why evolutionary medicine is currently squeezed out of every American medical school’s curricula. "Add to this the fact that the field has failed so far to provide clinically useful findings and you see why medical schools lack interest," admitted evolutionary medicine proponent Stephen Lewis.13
Many of the giants in medicine--Edward Jenner, Gregor Mendel, Louis Pasteur, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain, Selman Waksman--did pioneering work (including in genetics and antimicrobial resistance) while either rejecting Darwinism or ignoring it altogether. Darwinian medicine is a sham. It stands on the backs of real researchers, dresses up their major medical insights with evolutionary stories, and then claims them as its own, while diverting grant money away from bona fide medical research.The legacy of Darwin’s ideas to medicine ranges from irrelevant to disastrous. But beyond the wasted time, talent, and resources of the medical community, Darwin's most lasting legacy to the field may well be the suffering of those whom medicine was originally meant to heal.
- Weikart, R. 2004. From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Edwin Black documented America's selective breeding and forced sterilization program in War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race.
- Darwin, C. 1901. The Descent of Man. London: John Murray, 241-242.
- Chesler, E. 1992. Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Wieland, C. 1997. The Lies of Lynchburg. Creation. 19 (4): 22-23.
- Rabkin, W. The Pros and Cons of Tonsillectomy. South African Medical Journal. 8 January, 1955, 30.
- Appendix Isn't Useless at All: It's a Safe House for Bacteria. Duke Medicine press release, October 8, 2007.
- Appendix May Produce Good Bacteria, Researchers Think. Associated Press, October 5, 2007.
- Clinical Indicators Compendium. American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Available online at entnet.org.
- Weidenbach, K. Natural-born killers: An immunologic enigma solved. Stanford Report. Stanford University news release, January 14, 1998.
- Williams, G. and R. Nesse. 1991. The Dawn of Darwinian Medicine. The Quarterly Review of Biology. 66 (1): 2.
- Ramanujan, K. Intelligent design? No smart engineer designed our bodies, Sherman tells premeds in class on Darwinian medicine. Cornell University press release, December 7, 2005.
- Rannala, B. 2003. Evolving Health: The Origins of Illness and How the Modern World Is Making Us Sick. Journal of the American Medical Association. 289 (11): 1442-1443; Nesse, R. M. and G. C. Williams. 1994. Why We Get Sick. New York: Random House.
- Baker, M. Darwin in medical school. Stanford Medicine Magazine. Summer 2006.
* Dr. Guliuzza is ICR’s National Representative.
Cite this article: Guliuzza, R. J. 2009. Darwinian Medicine: A Prescription for Failure. Acts & Facts. 38 (2): 32.