Orac’s on it

I’m just a cell and developmental biologist (whines faintly that cancer is a cell and developmental disease…), but Orac is a real, genuine, bona fide cancer doctor, and he agrees with me that Paul Davies’ atavism theory of cancer is full of crap. He leads you through Robert Weinberg’s authoritative papers on known causes of cancer to show that the idea that cancers are regressions to an ancestral state is nonsense.

I’ll add that I’ve taught a couple of classes on cancer biology and have gone over Weinberg’s The Biology of Cancer, and there’s a lot of developmental biology in there — every time he writes about transcription factors or signaling molecules, it’s all old familiar stuff from fish and fly development. When I see someone like Davies making analogies to evolution, though, I get a sense of deja vu. Once upon a time, people like Haeckel and other natural philosophers looked at how markers (in their case, morphological markers rather than molecules) changed during development and got all excited and claimed that they were recapitulating their evolutionary history. It took someone like Karl Ernst von Baer to come along and say, “You daft wankers, they’re repeating embryological patterns; this is what you see as you develop from the general form to the specific.”

It’s the same story here. Cancer is recycling genes and pathways that are retained because they’re developmentally significant, not because they’re a relic from greatgreatgreatgreat grandma, carefully preserved inside a secret nook in the genome in case we needed to re-adopt a single-celled lifestyle.


  1. says

    Unrelated but related, let me put in a plug for Siddartha Mukerjee’s beautiful and clear “The Emperor of All Maladies” which is a history of humans’ interactions with cancer. It’s on the stderr “recommended reading” list which means that you can read it risk-free. I had 4 friends die of cancers (2 pancreatic! what are the odds!?) between 2015 and -6 and it brought the comfort of knowledge in the face of something mysterious and inevitable.

    Spoiler: Mukerjee doesn’t even deign to spit at Davies’ theory.

  2. says

    When I taught cancer bio, I used three texts: Weinberg’s, Emperor of All Maladies, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I tried to bring together the biology, the medical perspective, and ethics, so yeah, they had to do a lot of reading.

  3. Raucous Indignation says

    Two people dying of pancreatic cancer? The odds are no that high. Pancreatic is the eight most common cancer in the US by incidence, if I remember correctly. And only a very small percentage of those people are cured. So diagnosis rate is almost equal to the mortality rate. Given your age and how many people you know, Marcus? It’s a certainty you’ll have more coincidences like that in the future, I’m afraid.

  4. says

    Raucous Indignation@#3:
    Yeah, I was confusing the long-term survival likelihood with the incidence.
    It certainly was sobering. Several of my friends started asking me to research and summarize things for them, because they were having a hard time, getting bombed with well-meaning advice to see quacks, etc. By the way, I also found the 3D anatomy app for iPad to be extremely useful. When you’re looking at a blob on a scan and they’re waving and saying “we’re gonna cut all this stuff out…” it’s nice to be able to pull up a detailed anatomy and rotate and zoom.

    It’s a certainty you’ll have more coincidences like that in the future, I’m afraid.

    My dad once said that at my age, your friends and acquaintances start to drop away. Unless you’re the one who drops. At 85 he’s survived all of his enemies and most of his friends.

  5. Raucous Indignation says

    We have large wall mounted tablets in the exam rooms loaded with different illustrations. It allows me to pull up different anatomy for patients and then draw on it as I explain things. The patients seem to like it.

  6. gijoel says

    Haeckel’s law: the probability of someone quote mining Haeckel approaches one in any pseudo-science discussion about biology.

  7. Eric says

    Orac is a surgical oncologist. I feel due respect is needed here. Not a “cancer doctor”!

    Yes, we know who Orac is. Even so…