Do cancers reveal the genetic history of mankind?

| November 29, 2012 |
cancer cells (credit: The Guardian)

Why has cancer proven so resistant to cures, why is it so widespread, and why has the War on Cancer gained such precious little ground? One argument is that we’re looking at cancer all wrong. Rather than a motley collection of cells gone berserk, they might better be seen as “ atavisms” evolutionary throwbacks to the dawn of multicellular life, when single cells began cooperating and forming rudimentary aggregations. Basically: early life was akin to tumors, and cancer is just what happens when some switch gets flipped and the cells of body “revert” to this tumor-state. This idea was first formally proposed by physicists Paul Davies and Charles Lineweaver in 2011 in a paper in Physical Science, and Davies has been pushing it since.

Most recently, Davies published a version of this idea in  The Guardian, arguing again that cancer can only be properly understood as an evolutionary time-machine.

This idea has drawn ire from mainstream evolutionary biologists, and Davies’s latest article ignited a new spate of highly critical responses. Chief among the critics is PZ Myers, author of Pharyngula, who eviscerated the idea that cancers are evolutionary throwbacks. He called the idea “embarrassing” for its fundamental misunderstandings of modern biology. In particular, “peculiar notions about molecular biology that allow them to imagine whole invisible networks of primeval genes lurking as atavisms beneath the polished exteriors of urbane and civilized modern cells.” There is no “layer” of primordial genes somehow hidden from the forces of evolution, yearning to be set free as tumors.

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