Making sense of biology

Evolution provides us with the "why" in biology, which is critically important in today's world, writes Joseph L. Graves Jr., Professor of Biological Sciences at North Carolina A&T State University and the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

I am a lineal academic descendent of the Russian-born geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who said in his famous 1973 essay: "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." No truer words have ever been penned in our field. Evolution holds the same position in biology as cosmology does for physics. It provides us with the "why" or ultimate explanations for our discipline. Why can tell us a lot about how things happen, but if we start with how things happen, we may never understand why they happen. As the human species moves forward in the 21st century, it has never been more important to understand why.

These insights would have been impossible without research in evolutionary science.

For example, answering Why are multidrug resistant microorganisms so common? can inform us how we might prevent their spread. As early as the 1940s, evolutionary biologists warned that widespread use of antibiotics would guarantee that microbes would evolve resistance to them. Penicillin was introduced in 1943 and by 1945 resistance was observed. Methicillin was introduced in the 1960s and by the 1990s 35% of all Staphylococcus strains were resistant. Evolution explains why this happened. Natural selection favors genetic variants in the bacteria that can grow and reproduce in the presence of the antibiotic. From why we can also learn how we might slow down this process. For example, researchers have shown that bacteria are often exposed to forces that reduce their growth, such as antibiotics and bacteriophages (viruses). If evolving resistance to one (bacteriophage) causes susceptibility to the other (antibiotic), then the evolution of resistance can be slowed down or possibly eliminated.

These insights would have been impossible without research in evolutionary science. Other examples of the importance of evolutionary science to solve crucial problems abound, including investigating the biology of aging, finding cures for diseases such as cancer, assessing the role of the microbiome in maintaining an individual's health, and understanding how genetic diversity can contribute to personalized medicine. Furthermore, evolutionary science is being utilized in engineering and computer science. Evolutionary and genetic algorithms are machine-learning tools that can solve particularly difficult problems (e.g. cybersecurity, or unanticipated software conflicts). Therefore, as a nation, we cannot afford the ongoing attacks on evolutionary science. Furthermore, these attacks on the teaching of basic science widen the opportunity gap between those who have benefited the most from our society and those who have been underserved by it. To allow this to continue erodes the search for scientific talent and places the position of the United States as a leader in scientific research in serious jeopardy.

Joseph L. Graves Jr.
Short Bio

Joseph L. Graves Jr. is the Interim Dean and Professor of Biological Sciences, Joint School of Nanosciences and Nanoengineering, at North Carolina A&T State University and the University of North Carolina Greensboro. His research concerns the evolutionary genomics of adaptation, particularly as relevant to postponed aging and bacterial responses to nanomaterials. He has also written extensively concerning biological concepts of race in humans. His books on the biology of race are The Emperor's New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium (Rutgers University Press, 2001) and The Race Myth: Why We Pretend Race Exists in America (Dutton Press, 2005). In 1994 he was elected a Fellow of the Council of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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