How come evolution did not heal all illness?

Biomedicine helps us understand illnesses from a molecular point of view, while biological anthropology teaches us, through the theory of evolution, the fabulous story of the development of homo sapiens. In spite of millions of years of evolution and the development of biological mechanisms, why is it that humans are still ill? This question gives rise to a new discipline – evolutionary medicine – and may certainly lead to much speculation, but it allows to highlight the existing homeostatic relationship between health and illness. Thus, if some suffer from sickle-cell anemia, others benefit from it if they contract malaria, which explains that while our immune system protects us against many pathogens, some die from complications due to auto-immune diseases. More importantly, some socio-economic circumstances (nutrition, lifestyle, population displacements) can create evolving mismatches, taking us from health to illness – with many contemporary examples (lactose intolerance, cancers, etc.). In the clinical setting, as well as in our comprehension of biological systems, it is therefore important to consider the way in which taking into account the evolving history of the patient and the sociocultural context influence health and, by extension, the possibility of becoming ill.

Medicine and Humanities modules focus on philosophy, ethics, history, arts and literature as they relate to the practice of medicine. Prepared by specialists in medical and human sciences, these modules aim to provide a basis of support for knowledge and reflection so that students and health care professionals are able to develop their vision of disease and care from a bio-psycho-social perspective within a wider field of knowledge.

The author


A former student of anthropology at the baccalaureate and at the master’s level, Patrick Foucault was always interested by intercultural relations and the health of indigenous peoples. After completing his medical studies at the University of Ottawa and his residence at McGill University, he pursued his dream to go work in the Arctic territory – in Iqaluit – where he currently practices medicine.


Learning Objectives

A l’issue de ce module, le participant sera capable de

1 – Review key concepts of the theory of evolution and of human evolution

2 – Understand the possible links existing between the theory of evolution and illnesses

3 – Apply the concepts of evolutionary medicine to infectious diseases and cancers



Throughout the module, we invite you to PAUSE AND REFLECT in order to reinforce what you have learned. Take the time to write down your answers and ideas.
An answer is given by the expert to help you deepen and ground your reflection. It is not meant to challenge the value of your personal answer but is there to offer new directions.

We also invite you to take personal notes using the “Note Taking” tool on the right.

Subject matter expert: Patrick Foucault, MD
Concept Development and Project Management: Isabelle Burnier, MD, M.Ed
Editorial Committee: Jean Roy, MD, Diane Bouchard-Lamothe, M. Sc.S.
Programming and Graphic Design: Medtech, University of Ottawa
Production: avril2018