What do evolutionary biologists do?
I was getting a routine blood test last week and was asked by the nurse, what I did for a living. I always find it difficult to answer this question because the lay person generally has little exposure to biology and so tends to jump to conclusions very quickly about either the usefulness of this kind of research or suspects I am trying to prove a long running debate between evolutionists and creationists. After a short pause I answered to the nurse that I was doing a PhD in evolutionary biology. She fell into the latter category and asked me if I spent my time looking for fossils, that could answer the origin of life question once and for all.
Evolutionary biologists are genuinely not interested in “proving evolution” anymore, that debate was resolved a long time ago principally by Charles Darwin. Since Darwin, evolutionary biology has grown as a field of research because it is incredibly useful for understanding life on earth. Using evolutionary approaches to science, we have been able to identify our position in the tree of life, understand how selective breeding can be used to produce better crops/livestock to support the human population, and understand why we have an appendix even though it doesn’t do anything and is inclined to kill us without intervention. So essentially evolutionary biologists use the fundamental principles of evolution to understand the relationships, interactions and functions of living things.
In no other field has understanding evolution been more important than in medicine. Viruses and bacteria can rapidly evolve even within an individual person. So evolutionary biologists have used amazing techniques to develop countless treatments for human diseases including antibiotics (which have probably saved your life at one point) and vaccines (which have definitely stopped you from getting countless debilitating diseases such as small pox and polio) but have also allowed us to understand the genetic basis for many diseases.
So how does understanding the evolution of a placenta (my research) fit into this? Well the placenta is an exciting organ because unlike the heart, liver or almost all other organs in the human body it hasn’t been around for very long. This is because our ancestors only 230 million years ago, laid eggs. And a placenta would have no purpose in an egg laying animal because embryos develop in nest not inside their mother. Further, placentas have evolved independently in countless other groups of animals, such as reptiles (e.g. Australian blue tongue lizards), fish (e.g. guppies), and amphibians. This gives us the exciting opportunity to discover how organs evolve.