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Biomedicine in museums

Minisymposium on "Evolutionary Medicine", University of Copenhagen, Friday 15 December, 2006

Preliminary announcement:
The Faculty of Health Sciences and the Faculty of Natural Sciences at the University of Copenhagen are planning a joint half-day symposium on “Evolutionary Medicine”, Friday 15 December, 2006. Keynote speakers include professor Randolph Nesse (Univ of Michigan) and professor Stephen Stearns (Yale Univ). Their talks will be followed by a panel discussion with a number of scientists and scholars interested in evolutionary aspects of medicine.

The background for the meeting is, as Gert Brieger wrote a couple of years ago (“Bodies and borders: A new cultural history of medicine”, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, vol. 47, 402-21, 2004), that “evolutionary biology … has not played much of a role in medical thought in the 20th century”. It has rarely been part of the medical curriculum, not even today when basic biology training is a sine qua non for medical students.

In the last decade, however, an increasing number of books and articles have stressed the importance of modern evolutionary theory for medical thinking and practice, e.g., P. W. Ewald, Evolution of infectious disease, 1994; H. Fabrega, H., Evolution of sickness and healing, 1997; and R. M. Nesse and G. C.Williams, Why we get sick: The new science of Darwinian medicine, 1995; and Stephen Stearns, ed. Evolution in health and disease, 1999. These and other contributions suggest a theoretical perspective on health and disease which seems to reconfigure the entrenched positions of public health as “social science” and biomedicine as “biological science”, and promises to add some new and interesting conceptual bridges between population-oriented public health studies and individual-centred medical research.

The symposium is organized by Koos Boomsma, director of the Danish National Research Foundation Centre of Social Evolution, and Thomas Söderqvist, director of the Medical Museion, both University of Copenhagen. Further details about the symposium will be published later.

Why is this theme interesting for Medical Museion?

Our interest in evolutionary medicine is primarily meta-medical. From a history of recent medicine point of view the emergence of a new evolutionary medical discourse is interesting because it invites questions like: Why has medicine throughout the 20th century continuously adopted organism-centred biological sciences (physiology, biochemistry, cell and molecular biology) while at the same time neglecting population-centred biology (ecology, population biology, evolutionary biology)? Why have public health studies and epidemiology to a large extent eschewed population biological and evolutionary approaches? Is medicine’s lack of interest in an evolutionary perspective related to a collective anxiety of opening an alleged Pandora’s Box of eugenics? Which new intellectual, cultural and political sensibilities have paved the way for the new interest in evolutionary medicine? Which are the discursive strategies used by proponents of the new perspective? How have students of social science-based public health and biomedical scientists, respectively, reacted to the new signals? Which professional interests are at stake?

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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