Paul Davies is not a medical doctor


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.

Comments

  1. handsomemrtoad says

    RE:

    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.

    LOL

    Back when I was involved in development of new medications for cancer, one of the hot strategies was to use monoclonal antibodies to block the action of growth factors (such as Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor (VEGF)) which simulate development of blood-vessels, so that solid tumors would be prevented from growing the COMPLEX vasculature which they need for circulation–like all other living tissue.

  2. anchor says

    A long time ago I bought a book by that guy. It was preposterous. I noticed through the ensuing years that almost no astrophysicists agreed with his preposterous views either.

  3. Blattafrax says

    So much to get worked up about, so
    little time…
    But let’s just assume he is correct for a moment. Just think of the opportunities we miss out on by not treating cancer as some primaeval cell variety. Loads… Errrm.

    Oh, there’s no actual benefit to this view? Right… Back to what you were doing then, cancer biologists. (And if anyone mentions the Warburg effect, acidification and low oxygen as if it mitigates PD’s views – yes, we did know about that already.)

  4. devnll says

    I was already pretty much done at:

    Over the course of several years spent pondering cancer, Davies has come up with a radical approach for understanding it.

    I’m not saying all radical new approaches are wrong (though most are) but if you want to overthrow decades of research by tens of thousands of people, you’d better have progressed your ideas a bit past one guy thinking about it – not researching or anything, just pondering – in his spare time for a couple of years.

  5. michaelvieths says

    To Davies and his team, which includes Australian astrobiologist Charles Lineweaver and Kimberly Bussey, a bioinformatics specialist at ASU

    He might not be a biologist, but his team really ought to know better. Dr. Bussey has a PhD in Medical and Molecular Genetics, according to ANU’s website.

  6. robert79 says

    It’s a running joke in some parts of the maths/physics community that I know that, if you can link your research to cancer, you’ll have a higher chance of getting funding.

    So those deep topological connections between partial differential equations and number theory… if you can argue that some of those PDEs describe the spread of tumours, then suddenly your abstract research suddenly has a very practical purpose that people are willing to throw $$$ at!

    It sounds like the joke flew over some folks heads…

  7. gijoel says

    This almost makes me wish Davies would go back to shilling god in physics. Almost.

  8. says

    “Tumors, says Davies, act like single-celled organisms.”

    That is a remarkably stupid thing to say. If tumors acted like single-celled organisms, there wouldn’t be tumors. There would just be individual cells. A tumor is a complex tissue with blood vessels, differentiated layers, and even stem cells. That’s one of the major challenges in doing research with immortalized cancer cell lines — the process of culturing and passaging them makes them rather different than tumors that grow in vivo.

  9. Ichthyic says

    …btw, I asked the exact same question a couple of years back.. just saying I agree it does not seem at all obvious that it even SHOULD be a thing on the surface.

  10. Ichthyic says

    *sigh*

    I’m saying I understand WHY unclefroggy would wonder if astrobiology was a real thing or not.

    seemed pretty clear to me.

  11. unclefrogy says

    as far as my understanding there has only been one biology ever discovered, the one here on earth anything else has got to be speculation based on what we know of earth. so what else could they study?
    uncle frogy

  12. Ichthyic says

    that, I will leave you to google yourself.

    suffice to say it’s not nothing.

  13. says

    If tumors acted like single-celled organisms, there wouldn’t be tumors. There would just be individual cells. A tumor is a complex tissue with blood vessels, differentiated layers, and even stem cells.

    Yup. For instance, one of the hallmarks of cancer is angiogenesis (the ability to influence the surrounding microenvironment to stimulate the ingrowth of new blood vessels to supply its oxygen and nutrient needs). A single celled organism has no need for blood vessels and hence no need to be able to stimulate a blood supply so that it can keep growing.

  14. jamiejag says

    @Ichthyic, #17

    …I mean, when is the last time you did an autopsy on a Klingon, eh?

    Wouldn’t that be astroPathology?

  15. colinday says

    #5#6
    @michaelveiths

    Dr. Bussey has a PhD in Medical and Molecular Genetics, according to ANU’s website.

    Are you accusing her of being an asshole?

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