• Open Access

How evolutionary principles improve the understanding of human health and disease

Authors


Peter D. Gluckman, Centre for Human Evolution, Adaptation and Disease, Liggins Institute, The University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand.
Tel.: +64 9 9236634; fax: +64 9 3737497; e-mail: pd.gluckman@auckland.ac.nz

Abstract

An appreciation of the fundamental principles of evolutionary biology provides new insights into major diseases and enables an integrated understanding of human biology and medicine. However, there is a lack of awareness of their importance amongst physicians, medical researchers, and educators, all of whom tend to focus on the mechanistic (proximate) basis for disease, excluding consideration of evolutionary (ultimate) reasons. The key principles of evolutionary medicine are that selection acts on fitness, not health or longevity; that our evolutionary history does not cause disease, but rather impacts on our risk of disease in particular environments; and that we are now living in novel environments compared to those in which we evolved. We consider these evolutionary principles in conjunction with population genetics and describe several pathways by which evolutionary processes can affect disease risk. These perspectives provide a more cohesive framework for gaining insights into the determinants of health and disease. Coupled with complementary insights offered by advances in genomic, epigenetic, and developmental biology research, evolutionary perspectives offer an important addition to understanding disease. Further, there are a number of aspects of evolutionary medicine that can add considerably to studies in other domains of contemporary evolutionary studies.

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