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Why Study Genetics & Evolution?

Blue and purple strand of DNA with a red background

In a previous blog post, you learned about the field of Physical Anthropology. While there are many subfields, there are basically 4 main parts to Physical Anthropology: 

  1. genetics and evolution
  2. human adaptation and variation
  3. the primates
  4. the human fossil record

In this post, I’ll explore why we should study genetics and evolution. Yes, it’s part of Physical Anthropology, but why do we care? 

Why Studying Evolution is Important

Well, first, the more we understand evolution, the more we understand ourselves and how we came to be like we are today. And it’s not just about us—evolution tells us how ALL living things came to be. But, to understand evolution and how it works, you need to understand genetics. So, studying genetics and evolution can help us answer questions about ourselves.

Also, studying evolution can have a practical use to it. For example, say you get an infection and you’re prescribed antibiotics. In the image below, the circle represents your body, and the blue and red dots are the bacteria causing your infection.

Genetics and evolution. circle filled with blue and red dots.

You take the antibiotics, and it starts to kill off the bacteria. The diagram shows that the dead bacteria now have a black X mark on them, meaning they are killed.

Genetics and evolution. Circle with blue and red dots, and some blue dots have a black x over them

So, now a couple of days go by, and most of the bacteria have been killed. You’ll notice in the diagram that the red ones have not been killed. This is because a few of the bacteria causing your infection will have a mutation in their DNA that gives them resistance to the antibiotic. These bacteria are marked in red, and right now there are only 3 of them in the diagram below.

Genetics and evolution. Circle with blue and red dots, and some blue dots have a black x over them

But, now that it’s been a few days and most of the bacteria have been killed, you start feeling better and so you stop taking the medicine. Now, the resistant red bacteria are able to survive and reproduce and pass on their protective mutation to their offspring. So, you can see in the diagram below that the red bacteria are multiplying, and there are way more than the 3 we started with!

Genetics and evolution. Circle with many red dots and a couple blue dots

Bacteria multiply really really fast—you may have heard of E. coli because it causes a lot of infections. E. coli can reproduce every 20 minutes. So, a small group of E. coli bacteria can turn into over 2 million bacteria in 7 hours, and over 16 million just another hour later! 

After a little while, all the bacteria causing the infection in you will now have the mutation. The bacteria have evolved to what’s called a superbug, and can’t be killed by this antibiotic anymore. But, if you know about and understand evolution, you will know this could happen, and you would take your antibiotics until they’re gone. 

Genetics and evolution. Circle with all red dots.

Why Studying Genetics is Important

So, that’s an example of how studying evolution has a practical aspect to it. Well, studying genetics has a practical use to it, too. Almost all diseases have a genetic component, and so the more we learn about genetics, the more we can improve human health. 

Some diseases have a large genetic component and are called genetic diseases, like Cystic Fibrosis and Huntington’s disease. With other diseases, like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and psychiatric disorders, the genetic component is moderate. While these aren’t genetic diseases, we can inherit a predisposition to developing these diseases.

Infectious diseases also have a genetic component. You might think that infectious diseases only have to do with germs and stuff, but genetics play a role, too! For example, small differences in our DNA make us susceptible to diseases like cholera, malaria, and influenza. But, genetics can also have a positive role. For example, a small genetic difference makes some people actually resistant to HIV infection!

Also, genetics is affecting the way doctors prescribe different medications. This is because some genetic differences make certain medications work better in some people, but work less in others. This field is called pharmacogenomics. For example, people with Alzheimer’s disease have one of three genetic variants in a certain gene that affects how they will respond to drug treatment. As another example, genetic factors make some children with asthma respond to their drug treatment differently. As we learn more and more about genetics, doctors will be able to tailor treatments to people’s genetics so they will receive the most effective medications.

So, studying evolution is important because it explains who we are and why, and it helps us understand some things more so we can stay healthier. Studying genetics is important because it affects our health. Almost all diseases have a genetic aspect, and so more knowledge of genetics can help us find treatments for these diseases.

Want to Learn More About Genetics and Evolution?

Just take my Udemy course, “Exploring Genetics & Evolution Through Physical Anthropology: Anthropology 4U.”

Thanks for reading!