Controversies in Disease Evolution Studies

Physical and biocultural anthropologists have long argued over the issue of indigenous responses to viral and bacterial pathogens of historical import, for example, measles, smallpox, and malaria. Most indigenous populations experience high morbidity and mortality from diseases introduced by explorers and settlers during early contact. The reasons suggested for heightened susceptibility of native peoples range from inability to form antibodies (Black, 1975) to the synergism of malnutrition, stress, and disease exposure in conditions of contact (Cook, 1976). Other researchers have attributed high mortality during epidemics to the collapse of social structure, community provisioning, and care systems (Neel, 1970). Psychological reactions involving apathy and hopelessness contribute to dehydration, malnutrition, and increasingly lowered resistance to secondary infection.

Evolutionary medicine has proposed explanations for an array of modern ailments ranging from obesity to lower back pain, asthma, otitis media, depression, and addictions. Allergies, for example, are thought to be related to originally adaptive responses to parasitic infections (Nesse & Williams, 1994). Even more problematic are evolutionary explanations for current behavioral aberrations, such as homicidal assault, sexual abuse and incest, depression, and infanticide. Intellectually it may be satisfying to link contemporary ills to past conditions, but the extent of genetic determinism is problematic.

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