An adventure across the pond, and back into time to explore how culture and environment affect health

Well, what is Evolutionary Medicine?

Starting at a new school inevitably involves two things:  (1) the obligatory get lost, miss the bus and be late to your first class adventure and (2) awkward, scripted small talk till you finally make friends who can pronounce your name. The later is a bit more difficult for some; for example, my Chinese flat-mates promptly realized the futility of teaching me to actually say their names right and chose American names (Alex and Stella…), but I digress. The get lost story.

Well, just like any self-respecting student at a new school, I wanted to make a good impression on the first day. I picked out my outfit (not really, but just go with it), packed my backpack (definitely not), and looked up the bus schedule to get to school (actually did this one). However, just as any self-respecting student also knows, there are always confounding variables; in this case they came in the form of construction and a little bit of fine print on the bus schedule called “only on Saturday”. I skipped down to the bus stop blissfully unaware that 200 yards from the stop, I was to watch my good first impression chug off down the road a full 15 minutes earlier than I had expected. The fleeting idea of sprinting after it did flit through my mind but the construction site between me and it promptly put that one to rest. As I waited the extra 30 min for the next bus, I contemplated whether all was lost and I should just give up now. This unhappy thought was, however, happily discarded when I saw a friend waving to me from the window of the subsequent bus (and yes, she could pronounce my name).

This leads us to the next ubiquitous aspect of new schools and the point of this entire post. Small Talk. It’s difficult, it’s dreaded, it’s decried and yet part of every new experience in life. Luckily as students, its almost completely scripted for us. “Hi, I’m Neva, what’s your name?”

“Hi! I’m ___(insert name). What______ (insert one of three questions from below)?”

1. … country are you from?

2. … college are you in?

3. … program are you doing?

I don’t know if its because people usually guess the answers to the first two, but its always the third that I get, to which I respond, “I’m doing my masters in Evolutionary Medicine!” Exactly on script, I get one of two responses:

1. blank look with a half confused smile, “oh how lovely, that must be interesting”

2. raised eyebrows, “what in the world is that?”  (though said in a proper British accent)

Well what is evolutionary medicine? People seem to know what the two words mean on their own, but put them together and its another thing entirely. In its very simplest idea, evolutionary medicine is an attempt to see our bodies as products of both our history (including heredity) and our current environments. As Peter Gluckman, one of the major researchers in the field says in his book, The Fetal Matrix, evolutionary medicine recognizes that there is an

“increasing gap between evolutionary thought and human medicine with neither field sufficiently informing the other. Evolutionary biology books largely [avoid] human and disease theory. Conversely human biology has become dominated by genomic thinking and the new paradigms of gene-environment interactions have been little considered”

Evolutionary medicine is an integrative and holistic approach to looking at our bodies. It is a way to come up with alternative explanations and approaches to various diseases and conditions that have at times stymied modern medicine because of their adherence to a disease based model.

Below is a link to a great article on an example of evolutionary medicine at work. The article was published in Time Magazine last year and is called “Fetal Origins: How the First Nine Months Shape Your Life”,9171,2021065,00.html

If you are interested in reading more about topics like this, there is a great book by Wenda Trevathan called Ancient Bodies, Modern Lives. It is readable and fascinating for anyone interested. And with that I believe that I will say goodbye and save my story about my escape from the mad cow till next time!

Signing off from Durham,


Ps. The picture above is of the wonderful other five people in my flat. They are some of the first friends that I made here and as you will learn, provide some FASCINATING discussions. The anthropologist in me loves it.


One response

  1. Anna

    Neva this is awesome! so glad you started this so I can keep up with your adventures

    November 9, 2011 at 10:47 pm

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