Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Essential Housekeeping

First of all, I'm very pleased to have so many interesting comments from new visitors. It's great to hear from people who have something to add to what I say, but it's also great to hear from people who don't necessarily agree with me about one issue or another, or who wish to challenge ideas presented here. That's the only reason for doing this -- to promote discussion.

An essential rule for me is that the discussion civil, and respectful, which for the most part it has been. That means commenters need to be respectful to each other as well as to me. For example, it is true that scientists do not believe that people are descended from apes. However, that is a very common misconception and people who hold it are not fools, they've just gotten the wrong information somehow. It's great to point that out -- that's what we're here for, to get the story straight -- but please do it nicely. After all, every one of us has one or another mistaken belief or recollection.

For the record, people are not descended from apes. Rather, chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestor, from which our lines diverged sometime a little more than 5 million years ago. If you go to the zoo and watch the chimpanzees (or the closely related bonobos) our kinship is obvious. Of course there are also many differences, the most important being that we can talk -- and by extension, read and write. That is indeed a remarkable capability, one virtue of which is the existence of this blog. so let's keep doing it.

Second, people may ask why a site devoted to health and health care policy is spending so much time on evolution. The answer is that this discussion arose in the context of health literacy -- by which we mean how well people can learn and understand information that's essential to staying healthy, and to working effectively with their doctors and other health care professionals to make decisions and take action to keep themselves healthy and treat disease.

In this era of drug resistant pathogens, understanding evolution is important very directly and specifically. But it's also important more broadly, because it is the central organizing principle of biology, and you really can't understand biology properly without understanding evolution. It is essential to the health of individuals, and the general well-being of people in society, which we call public health, that people understand biology, psychology, and sociology. Health is generated at the intersection of biology, psychology, and biology. In shorthand, we say that it is a bio-psycho-social phenomenon. Therefore, I talk about all three here. And I also talk about ethics, because we can't think about how to improve public health and welfare if we don't think about right and wrong -- we need an idea of the right, or the good, to define health and welfare and evaluate our means for getting there.

So, here's the plan for the next few days. First, I'm going to repost one of my greatest hits, which is about cosmology, and recounts one of humanity's greatest intellectual voyages. That puts life on earth, and the story of evolution, in context. Next, I'll pause to answer some of the questions and challenges from commenters. (If you're out there waiting for my answer, don't worry, you're on the list.) Then, I'll talk about the origin of life; more on the origin and consequences of sexual reproduction; then more on human evolution and some of the ways in which our evolutionary origins are relevant to some of the important contemporary challenges in public health.

I hope that some of you who are skeptical of all this will stay with us, as well as people who know as much or more about these issues as I do. For the record, I have made a serious study of biology, but my degrees are actually in environmental and social policy. If I make a mistake, I want to be corrected. If people have questions, I want to try to answer them. If people disagree, I want to hear about it.

And thanks for visiting.

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