Evolutionary Medicine

Why do we get sick?

Biomedical science has improved the human condition and has a remarkable legacy of cataloging disease and mitigating its negative effects. Nevertheless, many questions about why we get sick continue to elude us: Why do we age? Why is cancer so common and hard to treat? Why are bacteria becoming drug resistant? And why are the genes that cause certain diseases so prevalent in human populations? These kinds of questions are being addressed by biologists, epidemiologists, veterinarians, and medical professionals in the field of Evolutionary Medicine. This course will give an introduction to Evolutionary Medicine and explore why understanding of our health requires the broader context provided by evolutionary theory. Charles Darwin struggled to explain the many sicknesses that afflict humans and other species. With advances in our understanding of evolutionary processes, including tradeoffs, constraints, mismatches, coevolution, and the key role social forces, we are beginning to answer questions about human health and disease that Darwin never could.

Topics covered will include:

  • Fundamental Principles of Evolutionary Medicine
  • Selection, genetic variation and human disease
  • Gene-culture coevolution; Gene-environment mismatch
  • Plasticity, epigenetics, and development
  • Biocultural perspectives in human health
  • Stress, inequality, and health
  • Hormones, Life history, Reproduction
  • Aging and Menopause
  • Kin selection, genomic conflict, imprinting, microchimerism
  • Cancer: A microevolutionary process
  • Host-parasite Co-evolution; Evolutionary Epidemiology
  • Evolution of Human Cognition, Mental Health and Susceptibility to Addiction

Required Textbooks:

Stearns SC, Koella JC. Evolution in health and disease. OUP Oxford; 2007.
Nesse RM, Williams GC. Why we get sick: The new science of Darwinian medicine. Vintage; 1996.


Articles will be posted on Canvas the week before readings are to be done.

More information about class structure and readings will be posted to Canvas and provided in the syllabus.

“Evolution is a tinkerer, an ad-hocker, and a jury-rigger. It works with what it has on hand, not with what it has in mind. Some of its inventions prove elegant, while in others you can see the seams and the dried glue.” - Writer and Science Journalist Natalie Angier