Evolutionary Medicine: Learning How Our Bodies Act

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One common use of Evolutionary Medicine is to explain some of our bodily functions, revealing how and why they have developed as they have.

A lot of actions that we think of as inconvenient or annoying can be attributed to how the human body evolved to combat threats over time.

It might not be in the way everyone would like it—who wouldn’t rather have bullet-proof skin instead of pain receptacles?—but it all serves a purpose.

One obvious example is vomiting. Nobody who’s ever thrown up considers that to be a tremendous thrill.

But as a way of expelling toxins from the body, it is brutally effective. While that too-old fish may taste terrible on its way back up, it’s a lot better in the long run than if it keeps sitting in your system.

Why do we experience pain? Darwinian medicine teaches that it’s the human equivalent of the early warning system. The fact that pain is experienced it at all says that something is wrong, and the severity of it is a clue to how serious the injury or illness is.

In fact, if pain could not be felt, a dangerous situation would arise; our health could be at risk without us knowing it.

And why is that important? Because a lot of time, when a doctor is consulted or Dr. Google is used to look things up on the Internet, we’re looking for ways to mask symptoms that may be our body’s way of signaling serious problems. By treating the symptom, rather than analyzing what it might mean, there’s a chance of doing more harm than good.

Evolutionary Medicine also can explain why the human body reacts to stress, evoking responses that would have been very helpful against the threats ancient caveman faced.

It also indicates why such responses may have a negative effect on many people today; the constant daily stresses of the boss’s office aren’t the same thing.

Evolutionary Medicine questions the wisdom of fighting some fevers, since that is the body’s way of fighting infection, and sometimes aggressively combating that temperature rise can slow recovery. For almost every ailment experienced today, Evolutionary Medicine has something to say.

Many folks jump when they hear a strange or unexpected noise, or they may instantly take an aggressive posture when startled. That’s annoying when it just turns out to be the cold hands of a child trying to get attention.

But odds are good that we respond that way because if we guess wrong, and that noise turns out to be a predatory animal (in the past) or an intruder (today), being wrong can have severe consequences.

How is this different now? When people complain about symptoms, the natural response is to treat those symptoms. In many cases, that’s fine. When experiencing a headache, ransacking the medicine cabinet for a stray aspirin is a better idea than sitting around suffering and making everyone nearby miserable.

The human body is not a machine. Although this was the prevailing attitude from the time of Rene Descartes, evolution is not designed to make everyone into a star athlete or supermodel.

The process of natural selection has left us with maladjustments as well as adaptations; it’s designed for survival, not perfection. Biological systems evolved under the constraint of tradeoffs that also produced specific compromises and vulnerabilities.


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Osi Cavemen

OSI is a great admirer of nature. She loves all the trees, plants and wildlife, even the ugly ones. Her thirst for earth knowledge is relentless.

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