Wild Diagnosis: Human Health and the Animal Kingdom

Devon Keeley's picture

CAMBRIDGE – On Monday evening Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, co-director of the Evolutionary Medicine Program at the University of California Los Angeles and visiting professor in Harvard University’s Department of Human and Evolutionary Biology, hosted a compelling lecture on the importance of comparative perspectives to deepen scientific understanding of both physical and psychological illnesses in humans and animals.

Dr. Dan Lieberman gave a brief introduction to Natterson-Horowitz and spoke to how he first got to know about her work when he read her best-selling book Zoobiquity: The Astonishing Connection Between Human and Animal which explores how taking a more interspecies approach to diseases can aid in their understanding and treatment.

Lieberman also noted that he is a “firm believer that evolutionary medicine will become a very important field” but that it is still struggling. Primarily because of the work it takes to “convince the traditionally conservative field of medicine to start thinking about health and disease in a different way.”

Natterson-Horowitz is at the forefront of this field of medicine and has recently been elected president of the Society for Evolutionary Medicine and Public Health. She taught a class at Harvard this past fall 2017 in Evolutionary Medicine and is currently teaching a course called “Coming of Age in the Modern World.”

She begins the dialogue by saying that “we are in the midst of a medical crisis.”

As a general cardiologist with training in cardiac imagery, Natterson-Horowitz shared her experience of getting into the world of animal cardiology, and how it shifted her approach to medicine from a from a more “homosapien-centric point of view” to one that is comparative and integrative.

She shared the stories of her working with zoologists and her animal patients, including work such as performing an echocardiogram on a chimpanzee, finding a heart murmur in a California Condor and draining fluid from the heart of a lioness named Cookie.

When speaking to her work on animals she noted that “it was thrilling”, not just to work on animals, but to see the parallels between conditions and diseases and to find that humans and animals were both vulnerable to many similar diseases and conditions.

During the hour-long discussion, she explored five different conditions that overlap in both humans and animals including cancer, heart disease and obesity. She explained the effectiveness of Prozac for anxiety and compulsions in both dogs and humans and emphasized that “there is no dividing line between animal and human medicine.”

To begin this integration and spark conversation, she started ‘Zoobiquity Conferences’ where she brings together human doctors and veterinarians to discuss the similarities of diseases and conditions.
Natterson-Horowitz concluded her presentation by urging the audience of professors of medicine and aspiring medical practitioners to shift their perspective, take human medicine and integrate it with veterinarian medicine and evolutionary biology. She continues, “by doing that we can begin asking different questions which will lead to novel hypothesizes and investigation, which may result in insights leading to prevention strategies and possibly, even, cures.”
A live-stream of the discussion is also available for viewing on the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture Facebook page.