Evolutionary medicine expert joins ASU faculty


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. Dr. Randolph M. Nesse, M.D. Download Full Image

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.

Sharon Keeler

Does religion turn weak groups violent?


January 16, 2014

Although David was famously successful at slaying Goliath, most people wisely avoid picking fights with more-powerful opponents.

But new research by a team of Arizona State University faculty has uncovered one factor that increases the likelihood that weak groups will engage in conflict with stronger groups, despite the likelihood of defeat. That factor is religious infusion, or the extent to which religion permeates a group’s public and private life. Download Full Image

“Under normal circumstances, weak folks don’t try to beat up on stronger folks,” says Steven Neuberg, a psychology professor at ASU and the lead researcher on the project. “But there’s something about a group being religiously infused that seems to make it feel somewhat invulnerable to the potential costs imposed by stronger groups, and makes it more likely to engage in costly conflict.”

Their findings are published in the January issue of Psychological Science, the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology. Their work was also written about in the Huffington Post last summer.

The study Neuberg and his team undertook, part of the Global Group Relations Project, spanned five continents and included nearly 100 sites around the globe. The countries included in the project together account for nearly 80 percent of the world’s population.

“Our sites include the most populated countries of the world – China, India, USA, Brazil – as well as a wide range of others,” says Carolyn Warner, an ASU political science professor and a co-principal investigator on the project. “This breadth and diversity is rarely the case in studies of religion and conflict.”

Most research on group conflict employs one of two methods – the case study, which closely examines a particular location or situation in which conflict occurs – or a quantitative analysis of data pulled from existing studies.

For this project, researchers recruited a large, international network of social scientists with expertise on the sites selected for study. These “expert informants” responded to an Internet survey, answering a wide range of questions on a host of social, political, religious and psychological variables about the groups being studied.

Neuberg and his team examined the data to learn how religion might shape intergroup conflict around the world. They focused on two factors known to increase conflict: incompatibility of values and competition for limited resources.

They found that religious infusion was an important factor in predicting conflict in both situations. In cases where two groups held incompatible values, the groups tended to exhibit increased prejudice and discrimination against one another only if religion permeated their everyday lives.

More surprising, however, is the finding on how religious infusion affects groups competing for limited resources and power. Only the disadvantaged groups that are religiously infused are more likely to engage in violence.

“That’s a surprising finding, because the advantages and power held by the other groups should deter the weaker groups,” says Neuberg. “Remember, these weaker groups are likely to get clobbered, at least in the short term.”

Disadvantaged groups, as defined in the study, are those lacking access to sufficient food, water and/or land, as well as political power and educational and economic opportunities.

Religious infusion is not tied to specific religions or sets of beliefs. Any religion can be highly infused in a particular society.

“What we don’t want people to walk away thinking,” says Warner, “is that religious infusion is always bad or always makes group relations worse. Not all religiously infused weak groups engage in conflict. And high-power groups, when they’re religiously infused, aren’t increasing their aggression against low-power groups.”   

So why would weak, religiously infused groups attack stronger powers? Some data from their project suggest that religious infusion may increase the motivation of weak groups to enhance their standing. Other data raise the possibility that religiously infused groups may have some advantages in mobilizing the resources they do have.

Warner and Neuberg will explore these possibilities, and the cause-and-effect relationship of their findings, in follow-up research.

“The amount of intergroup conflict in the world is costly and has huge and significant implications for national security and worldwide economic security,” says Neuberg. “To be able to better understand why this conflict occurs and predict it beforehand increases our chances of reducing its likelihood in the future. That should be important to all of us.”

The Global Group Relations Project grew out of an interdisciplinary faculty seminar series sponsored by ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, a research unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that examines the role of religion as a driving force in human affairs. The center provided Neuberg and his colleagues with a seed grant to develop a proposal to the National Science Foundation, which funded the project.

Other faculty involved in the project included Ben Broome (Hugh Downs School of Human Communication), Roger Millsap (psychology), Thomas Taylor (School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences), George Thomas (School of Politics and Global Studies), Michael Winkelman (School of Human Evolution and Social Change), and Juliane Schober (School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies). Graduate students who worked on the project included Stephen Mistler, Anna Berlin, Eric Hill, Gabrielle Filip-Crawford, Jordan Johnson, Hui Liu, and Prasun Mahanti.

Story by Barby Grant