Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Evolution and Gravity: Everyday Processes

I usually avoid joining in or even reading "debates" over evolution. Growing up in a rural state in a rural school system, I heard plenty of florid verbiage implying that "believing" in evolution made you a godless atheist, and during my grad school years, many academics in authority positions proclaimed that anyone who believed in any sort of god was stupid and unfit for employment in the sciences. Besides this sort of useless name calling, I heard sufficient acrimony among evolutionary biologists of different persuasions to make me heartily sick of academic debate as well.

Recently, though, I enjoyed an article by Janis Antonovics, an evolutionary ecologist particularly fond of quantifiable data rather than vague statements about "selfish genes" and "god delusions." In Evolution by Any Other Name: Antibiotic Resistance and Avoidance of the E-Word, he quantified the differences between biomedical and ecological literature on the use of the word "evolution." Medical researchers shy away from the use of the word "evolution" in their papers on antibiotic resistance, while microbiologists in evolution and ecology departments talk freely about "the evolution of antibiotic resistance." Having worked in both sorts of environments, I can agree with his conclusion that biomedical researchers omit the word "evolution" to avoid controversy. Antonovics asserts that failure to call the development of antibiotic resistance "evolution" keeps the research from benefiting from evolutionary modeling methods. He closes the paper with this astute observation:

Nowadays, medical researchers are increasingly realizing that evolutionary processes are involved in immediate threats associated with not only antibiotic resistance but also emerging diseases. The evolution of antimicrobial resistance has resulted in 2- to 3-fold increases in mortality of hospitalized patients, has increased the length of hospital stays, and has dramatically increased the costs of treatment. It is doubtful that the theory of gravity (a force that can neither be seen nor touched, and for which physicists have no agreed upon explanation) would be so readily accepted by the public were it not for the fact that ignoring it can have lethal results. This brief survey shows that by explicitly using evolutionary terminology, biomedical researchers could greatly help convey to the layperson that evolution is not a topic to be innocuously relegated to the armchair confines of political or religious debate. Like gravity, evolution is an everyday process that directly impacts our health and well-being, and promoting rather than obscuring this fact should be an essential activity of all researchers.

Antonovics J, Abbate JL, Baker CH, Daley D, Hood ME, et al. (2007) Evolution by Any Other Name: Antibiotic Resistance and Avoidance of the E-Word. PLoS Biol 5(2): e30.


Elizabeth said...

Working in an antibiotic resistance lab, I often feel the absence of the work evolution in the literature. While it pains me, since I am trained in evolution and microbiology, I often wonder if it is to avoid controversy or because they don't want to mention the word evolution because they don't know enough about evolutionary theory. In any case, I loved the post. Dawkins annoys me too.

Rebecca Clayton said...

How nice to hear from you!

The Selfish Gene came out when I was in grad school, and even then, I was amazed that someone could get so much career milage out of the "chicken and the egg" conundrum.

The last place I worked in microbiology was very publicity-conscious, and actually employed publicists to decide what words to use.

Many researchers in medicine are chemists by training, and just don't know a lot about evolution or ecology. The fact that people get emotional about "evolution" does nothing to encourage them to consider these topics.