Should medical educators clutter the busy course schedule that medical students must master with additional instruction in evolution? The clamor to do so is not new. While many physicians surely believe in evolutionary claims, most don’t find that those beliefs enhance their day-to-day ability to care for sick people in any practical sort of way. Recently there has been some media attention directed to those who crusade to make medical students learn not only how everything in the human body works but also the evolutionary history of how each human innovation evolved through the ages. Will teaching medical students more evolutionary beliefs, if it ever catches on, produce better physicians?
Where’s the Harm?
Other than the obvious problems of crowding out basic science courses that have genuine relevance to the practice of medicine, is there any harm in teaching more evolution to medical students? History would say “yes.” Erroneous beliefs that certain mysterious “vestigial organs” were useless evolutionary leftovers, for instance, led many physicians to destroy them needlessly. Countless appendixes were removed unnecessarily on the Darwinian assumption that they were useless leftovers from our ape-ish heritage, ignoring clear evidence that the appendix functions as part of the immune system. Likewise, the thymus glands of many children were needlessly irradiated by physicians who thought the thymus—an important component of a child’s developing immune system—was a useless evolutionary vestige.
Dr. Benjamin Carson, who is a professor of neurology, oncology, plastic surgery, and pediatrics, the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, and co-director of the Craniofacial Center there, is a creationist. He told the National Science Teachers convention, “Evolution and creationism both require faith. It’s just a matter of where you choose to place that faith.”10 Despite a flap last year from evolutionists who objected to him speaking at Emory University’s commencement on the grounds that such a non-evolutionist “did not understand science,” Dr. Carson has done brilliant work on behalf of children with craniofacial deformities. Dr. Carson’s work depends on observable science, not evolutionary conjecture. In his field, his understanding of embryological developmental errors that produce birth defects is not hampered by his “refusal” to believe that embryologic development recapitulates an evolutionary past. He understands human anatomy and development and has developed innovative ways to relieve human suffering. That’s what physicians do. They deal in the here and now.
The presumptions of evolutionary biology do not need to be taught to pre-medical and medical students as if they are factual. Future clinicians do well to discern that what can be tested and observed is qualitatively distinct from evolutionary mythology. The lessons of the past—the recent past, that is—have shown how evolutionary presumptions can derail sound medical judgments. The areas in which evolutionary biologists claim to be able to contribute to medical education actually have nothing to do with evolution. Rather, the ordinary observable processes of natural selection, comparative anatomy and physiology, microbiology, molecular genetics, epidemiology, and population genomics are able to serve practicing and academic physicians without any evolutionary overlay. Evolutionary instruction can contribute nothing useful to the future of medical care nor can it equip clinicians to stop the scourge of antibiotic resistance or relieve the burden of disease on the humans and animals living on earth.
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