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Egenis · Research

Health and disease in the light of evolution: a historical and epistemological analysis of the role of Darwinism in medicine

Pierre-Olivier Méthot

Start date


Affiliated staff

John Dupré and Staffan Müller-Wille


Tel: 01392 269142Fax: 01392 264676Homepages: , Staffan Müller-Wille and Email: pm250@exeter.ac.uk Building: Byrne House Room Number: FF10

Funded by

Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and ESRC (Egenis).


Located at the intersection of history and philosophy of medicine and biology, this study focuses on the influence of Darwinism on medical research and practice. As a starting point in my analysis, I make a conceptual distinction between ‘Darwinian medicine’ and ‘evolutionary medicine’. I argue that the former is an adaptationist programme committed to the gene eye’s view of evolution whereas the latter tries to articulate evolutionary explanations to other types of medical explanation and is better seen as an application of evolutionary biology to medicine. In order to study the conceptual and practical links between evolution and medicine I will particularly be looking at the concept of ‘virulence’ and at the problem of antibiotic resistance. The perspective on health and disease that I want to develop will draw on the work of Georges Canguilhem which, I argue provides an interesting avenue to depolarize some current debates in philosophy of medicine while also allowing one to integrate Darwin’s insights into a coherent philosophical account of health and disease.


The primary research questions are
  1. What are the historical and epistemological connections between evolutionary biology and medical practice?
  2. What is the role of evolutionary explanations in medicine and how do they relate to other types of explanation (e.g. causal, functional, pragmatic, etc.)?
  3. What are the philosophical implications of evolutionary biology on the distinction between health and disease?


Review and analysis of medical and philosophical literature of the concepts of health and disease and of their connections to evolutionary biology.


Méthot, P.-O., ‘French Epistemology Overseas: Analyzing the Influence of Georges Canguilhem in Québec.’ Humana.mente 9, 2009, pp 39–58. (PDF here.)

Méthot, P.-O. ‘Darwin et la médecine: Intérêt et limites des explications évolutionnaires en médecine.’ In Heams, Huneman, Lecointre, and Silberstein (Eds.) Les mondes darwiniens. Les sciences de l’évolution aujourd’hui, 2009, chapter 39. Paris: Syllepse. (Advert here.)


"General Summary" of the Workshop "Life of the Cell: Philosophy and History of Cell Research", presented at Egenis, April 24th, 2009.

"Comment penser les rapports entre la médecine et l'évolution? Une approche historique et épistémologique de la question" presented at the IHPST-Paris, December 11th 2008.

"Integrating Evolution to Medicine: An overview of the explanatory strategies" at the 8th Vienna International Summer University School in History and Philosophy of the Biomedical Sciences, University of Vienna, Austria, 8 July 2008.

“Organism, Environment and the Problem of Normality”, University of Exeter postgraduate conference, 28 May 2008

“Classification, Individuation and Pluralism in Biology and Medicine”, Egenis seminar, University of Exeter, 5 February 2008

Comment on Mohan Matthen’s talk entitled “Selection and Causation” at the second consortium for philosophy of biology (Université de Montréal, University of Toronto, Duke University, Paris-1 Sorbonne), IHPST, Paris, 11 May 11 2007

“What is a biological individual? Or, why 'Organism' and 'Individual' are not (always) synonyms”, 17e symposium of department of Biological Sciences at Université de Montréal, 25 January 2007 (in French).