He’s not a biologist either, and in fact has no training in the life sciences at all. He keeps saying things that are flat out wrong, yet somehow, he’s treated as a credible authority on cancer. Which means he gets a lengthy, credulous puff-piece in Newsweek in which he gets to claim a new theory on cancer: what we know about how it starts could all be wrong.
Over the course of several years spent pondering cancer, Davies has come up with a radical approach for understanding it. He theorizes that cancer is a return to an earlier time in evolution, before complex organisms emerged. When a person develops cancer, he posits, their cells regress from their current sophisticated and complex state to become more like the single-celled life prevalent a billion years ago.
Oh, also…Davies is not an evolutionary biologist, and he gets evolution all wrong, too.
The evidence that cancer is an evolutionary regression goes beyond the ubiquity of the disease. Tumors, says Davies, act like single-celled organisms. Unlike mammalian cells, for example, cancer cells are not programmed to die, rendering them effectively immortal. Also, tumors can survive with very little oxygen. To Davies and his team, which includes Australian astrobiologist Charles Lineweaver and Kimberly Bussey, a bioinformatics specialist at ASU, that fact supports the idea that cancer emerged somewhere between 1 billion and 1 and a half billion years ago, when the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere was extremely low.
I’ve been covering this bullshit for years, do I need to cover all the details again? In short:
A standard defense against damaged or infected cells is triggering cell death. It is not surprising that cancers that survive have mechanisms to defeat the most common defense. It is also not true that all mammalian cells are programmed to die; germ line cells are also effectively immortal. Cancer does not need to roll back a billion years to find a way around apoptosis and senescence, but only have to activate genes already present for in all cells for contemporary purposes.
Tumors can survive in little oxygen…but this is a capability of healthy cells, too. This is not an atavistic property. Go exercise; your muscles will be starved for oxygen, and those tissues will be under low oxygen tension. Your muscles don’t die under anaerobic exercise. Brain and retina cells also have high metabolic demands, they don’t die every time you think, but just carry on with glycolysis.
Simply put, cancer behavior is not explained by some mysterious regression to a billion-year old program of the old ways. It simply exploits properties that are inherent to healthy modern cells. Inventing some kind of bizarre cellular memory of being a free swimming protist does not work and makes no sense — it’s more of a 19th century idea that has been rejected by the evidence. All of his claims are better explained by recruitment of modern, existing molecular pathways, rather than by some mysterious hidden single-celled ancestor still lurking in your genome.
Many oncologists are skeptical that it ever will. Evolutionary biologist Chung-I Wu, at the University of Chicago, calls the atavistic theory “an extreme position.” Scientists have also criticized Davies’s reference to the discredited “recapitulation theory” that human embryos develop temporary vestigial organs—gills, a tail, a yolk sac—as support for the atavistic model. “I’ve been ridiculed by the biology community,” says Davies.
Yes. Ridicule is what he deserves. Haeckel’s theory was wrong, but it’s the only theoretical foundation for his claims. Haeckel also argued that evolution proceeded by adding new layers of programming on top of deeper layers, and that peeling back recent hereditary factors would expose older patterns of development. It’s not true. Development and evolution don’t actually work that way.
Like quacks everywhere, Davies falls back on the excuse of medical venality — the doctors are all paid off by Big Medicine or Big Pharma to promote methods that don’t work, to keep the cash flowing in by prolonging the suffering of their patients. It’s not just a lie, it’s an offensive lie — Davies has no respect for the hard-earned knowledge in oncology, so he promotes his bogus treatments that, he claims, will do an end run around the failed policies of modern medicine.
Ironically, Davies now gets paid by a branch of Big Pharma.
Davies is unfazed by the objections. “My feeling is, Who cares? The idea was to come in from the outside and lend a fresh perspective,” he says. Davies sees the criticism as largely rooted in territoriality and financial concerns. “Cancer is a multibillion-dollar industry that’s been running for decades. There’s a lot of vested interests out there.” After five years with the NCI program, Davies is now funded by NantWorks, a sprawling private health care company owned by scientist and billionaire investor Patrick Soon-Shiong (who made his fortune reworking the breast cancer drug paclitaxel to be more effective) to continue his work developing the atavistic model.
He hasn’t helped a single cancer patient, but he’s profiting nicely off of them, and further, is getting these ridiculous, clueless media promotions from credulous journalists. It’s a disgrace.
Paul Davies belongs in the ranks of medical frauds, like Dr Oz or Gwyneth Paltrow or Joseph Mercola.
And dear god, I just wish he’d learn a little goddamned humility. Being a physicist does not turn one into an omniscient god, master of all sciences.