Evolution provides the developmental context, the big-picture view, and the perspective of rationalism through which to examine all the empirical evidence we find for how the human body and brain function. It answers the questions of why, in addition to what and how.
Evolutionary Biology: The Key
As Theodosius Dobzhansky stated, "nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." However, most of our research in human medicine and physiology has focused on using empirical evidence to explain how our bodies work. Unfortunately, we have neglected the real power of Dobzhansky's insight: to understand why our bodies and brains work the way they do (which actually leads us to correcting some mistakes we've made about how they work).
Evolutionary biology provides answers for a surprising array of very important questions.
Science is performed by human beings, which means it is subject to innumerable flaws. Under even the best of circumstances, it is challenging to ensure that we never make mistakes, overlook variables, or inject biases into any stage of the scientific process, whether in planning studies, implementing them, interpreting the results, or in subsequent communication. By adding a lens of reasoning through which to interpret both our approaches and the results we obtain, we greatly increase our chances of correctly understanding the body, and of responding to and caring for it effectively.
This is also an empowering moment. To realize that we've been looking at many diseases and dysfunctions incorrectly and responding to them ineffectively means that we have the opportunity and capability to correct this. In addition, it suggests a much better prognosis with regard to many of the ailments that have become major hurdles in developed countries.
The mechanisms which the human body uses in its development and maintenance were honed by natural selection during our evolutionary history (and make no sense in the context of non-evolutionary explanations). The key principles below help explain the function of many such mechanisms and can help us to understand why many "mismatch diseases" or "diseases of affluence" have resulted from either neglecting or misinterpreting these mechanisms.
Evolutionary Goals: Survival & reproduction
Genes are passed on by organism surviving long enough to successfully reproduce. Validity of reproduction is negated if the subsequent generation is not also invested with sufficient resources to survive and with capacity to reproduce.
Challenge #1: Determining what increases or decreases the likelihood of meeting the above goals, and responding appropriately
Strategy #1: Stay alive & reproduce (via evaluation of stimuli; reward/threat impulse mechanisms)
Challenge #2: Dealing with a scarcity of resources
Strategy #2: Conserve energy (build only as needed; hardwire in the brain as able)
Challenge #3: Building/managing/maintaining a system out of organic components that can achieve these goals
Strategy #3: Create tricks for managing systems (such as hormonal regulations, feedback mechanisms, growth and repair)
Challenge #4: Adapting to changing/varied circumstances and needs
Strategy #4: Be dynamic and have many ways to accomplish the same things (plasticity, balance of mobility & stability, redundancy, compensation patterns)
The Role of Health: Good health is not mandatory for reproductive success; however, good health improves odds of both survival and reproduction. Good health in an adult also increases the odds of being able to support highly dependent offspring. In a social environment, survival even after reproductive years increases the odds of descendants' survival; furthermore, the greater the health of even the non-reproductive living ancestor, the greater the contribution able to made to the survival of the descendants. While this does not guarantee effective selection for mechanisms that maintain good health, it certainly suggests it.
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