Many great minds have contributed to the field of evolutionary medicine, from explorers and ethologists to biologists, psychologists, geneticists and more.
The amount that humanity has learned, about evolution and the role it plays in medicine, has done much to change how we understand the world.
While recognizing that any list ranking those with the greatest impact on any field is subjective, here are ten names that everyone needs to know—six who helped build the foundation of evolutionary medicine and four who are making ongoing contributions to this science.
1. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) – The word “Darwinism” says everything about the man who started it all. His works are freely available online for those interested in learning more about the father of evolutionary theory and the man behind the concept of natural selection.
2. Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) – This Scottish scientist is widely credited for discovering penicillin’s antibiotic capabilities, which began the research into antibiotic properties of natural and man-made compounds that continues to the present day.
3. Julien Huxley (1887-1975) – This English evolutionary biologist was a strong proponent of natural selection, as well a leading figure in popularizing the concept of “evolutionary synthesis,” a phrase he coined in the mid-20thcentury to describe the union of ideas from several biological specialties that had become separated, notably genetics, cytology, systematics, botany, morphology, ecology and paleontology.
4. Nikolaas Tinbergen (1907-1988) – This Dutch ethologist and ornithologist shared the 1973 Nobel Prize for his discoveries in organizational and individual behavioral patterns in animals. For evolutionary medicine purposes, his main contribution was the distinction between evolutionary and proximate mechanisms, a way of inquiry to determine both the proximate and functional causes for behavior.
5. John Bowlby (1907-1990) – This British psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst pioneered the study of attachment theory as part of his studies on how familial interaction patterns affected social and pathological development. He argued that an infant and young child should have a warm, affectionate and continuous relationship with a mother figure, otherwise negative and irreversible mental health consequences could result. He had a great influence on later research about the caregiver-child relationship.
6. George C. Williams (1926-2010) – An evolutionary biologist, Williams wrote the 1957 tract “Pleiotropy, Natural Selection, and the Evolution of Senescence” that spearheaded the development of the gene-centric view of evolution a decade later.
7. Randolph M. Nesse – One of the foremost researchers in evolutionary psychology and evolutionary medicine today. With George C. Williams, he co-authored the book “Why We Get Sick” in 1995, and is currently Director of the Evolution & Human Adaptation Program at University of Michigan. He has been a vocal advocate of making evolutionary biology a basic part of the medical school curriculum.
8. Paul W. Ewald – Ewald has broken new ground in investigating the causes of human illness. He is a proponent of the theory that many common diseases result from slowly acting infections, which can be the result of the presence of germs (viruses, bacteria or protozoa), rather than by genes alone. He continues to conduct groundbreaking research into the evolutionary process of infections in his current job as Professor of Biology & Director of the Program on Disease Evolution at the University of Louisville.
9. Dr. Rainer H. Straub – Working in the Department of Internal Medicine at Germany’s University Hospital Regensburg, Straub has come into prominence for, among other things, his research on the effects of psychological stress on physical health.
10. Richard Dawkins – Dawkins is perhaps the most prominent evolutionary biologist of the modern day. He popularized the gene-centric view of evolution. Though he’s best known today for the atheist tract “The God Delusion,” he’s unquestionably a leader in his field, and he also coined the term “meme” to describe how evolutionary principles could be expanded to explain the thread of more intangible concepts like ideas, cultural messages and even Internet graphics.
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