Skip to main content

Evolutionary medicine expert joins ASU faculty

Dr. Randolph M. Nesse, M.D.
January 16, 2014

Editor's Note: The Center of Evolution, Medicine and Public Health kicks off its inaugural lecture and symposium series Jan. 17. For the schedule, click here.

Randolph M. Nesse, one of the world’s preeminent researchers and teachers in the field of evolutionary medicine, joins the Arizona State University faculty this semester.

Nesse is settling into his academic home in the School of Life Sciences, in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, where he is foundation professor and founding director of a new Center for Evolution, Medicine and Public Health. The center will be part of the Biodesign Institute research network.

Before joining ASU, Nesse was professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Michigan, where he also was research professor at the Institute of Social Research and director of the university’s Evolution and Human Adaptation Program.

“ASU was attractive to me because the university has great faculty working in this area – in the School of Life Sciences, Biodesign with its superb Center for Evolutionary Medicine and Bioinformatics led by Sudhir Kumar, the School of Human Evolution and Social change, and in departments like psychology – as well as a strong partnership with the Mayo Clinic,” Nesse said.

“The university is innovative, forward-thinking and is perfectly positioned to be the preeminent place in the world for changing how we think about human health. It is my vision that people from all over the world who are interested in evolutionary medicine will come here to study.”

Nesse said it was at an academic meeting with ASU professor Robert Page, now university provost, and Manfred Laudbichler at which the path to ASU was initially set.

“Randy’s dream was to teach evolutionary medicine to doctors, to change the way they treat patients, and we were fascinated by what he was doing,” said Page. “We were building these programs with Mayo and we thought ASU would be the perfect fit for Randy’s vision.

“We need to look at different ways to advance the research enterprise at ASU. So we are looking for opportunities to make big leaps, to grab that emerging wave before it has crested. Evolutionary medicine is poised to be huge, and we want to be the place to put it on the map. Randy will help make that happen.”

According to Nesse, his early work on the origins of biological aging and the neuroendocrinology of anxiety soon led to a fascination with evolution. He collaborated with George Williams on several early works in Darwinian medicine, including “The Dawn of Darwinian Medicine” and the book "Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine."

Evolutionary medicine, or Darwinian medicine, is the application of modern evolutionary theory to understanding health and disease. The goal of evolutionary medicine is to understand why people get sick, not simply how they get sick. Modern medical research and practice has focused on the molecular and physiological mechanisms underlying health and disease, while evolutionary medicine focuses on the question of why evolution has shaped mechanisms that leave us susceptible to disease.

Nesse’s primary current research focus is on how natural selection shaped the capacity for high and low moods and the mechanisms that regulate mood and anxiety. His work emphasizes the utility of negative emotions in certain situations, and how a signal detection analysis (the “smoke detector principle”) can help to explain why anxiety and other aversive emotions are, like fever and pain, expressed so often when they do not seem necessary.

He is particularly interested in the utility of low mood in disengaging effort from unreachable goals, and whether inability to give up large unattainable goals might help to explain the prevalence of depression. This proves valuable in his work as a practicing physician specializing in psychiatry, a field that is just beginning to recognize the utility of the well-developed evolutionary principles that are the foundation for the study of animal behavior.

Nesse has taken on the mission of publicizing the diverse additional contributions evolution could make to medicine if doctors learned evolutionary biology as a basic medical science, and the ways this can improve human health. This has involved extensive writing, lecturing and helping to organize the growing evolution and medicine community. 

Nesse is also president of the Evolution, Medicine and Public Health Foundation, which sponsors two publications, The Evolution & Medicine Review, which he edits, and Evolution, Medicine, & Public Health, an Oxford Press open-access journal edited by Stephen Stearns, with a team of 89 associate editors, that publishes original, rigorous applications of evolutionary biology to problems in medicine and public health. As Nesse says, “The field is entering a phase of exponential growth that will be much faster and better, thanks to ASU.” 

Nesse holds a bachelor of arts from Carleton College and a doctor of medicine from the University of Michigan Medical School.