It’s never going to die. Paul Davies keeps promoting this garbage.
Behold, a script!
Cancer is a disease that is ripe for quackery. It’s complex, difficult to treat, and can be lethal, so there’s both a lot of motivation to find a “cure”, and a lot of variability that allow frauds to flourish. So, for instance, people peddle the “black salve”, a horrible caustic paste that you smear on the lumps formed by tumors, and it eats away at the tissues causing ghastly lesions, but doesn’t actually do anything specific against cancer. There’s the Miracle Mineral Solution, MMS, which is simply bleach, and people are injecting it, drinking it, giving themselves enemas with it, in the misbegotten belief that it will adjust their blood pH and make cancers go away. It doesn’t work. It does make people sicker, though. Another recent fad is Jilly Juice, which is just fermented kale in an extremely salty solution, and which is supposed to not only cure cancer, but regrow amputated limbs. Do I need to say it? It doesn’t work.
That’s just a small sample of the quack nostrums sold by frauds, and the one thing they have in common is that they target sick, desperate people. Today I’m going to talk about a different kind of cancer quack, one who doesn’t target the sick directly, but instead manipulates cancer research funding agencies to leech off their revenues.
I am speaking, of course, of the physicist Paul Davies, much beloved of the National Cancer Institute and the Templeton Foundation.
Once upon a time, about 15 years ago, the NCI put out a call for proposals from outside the usual ranks of biomedical researchers on how to approach cancer. It was an interesting idea — I am all in favour of interdisciplinary angles, they often promote novel approaches — and Paul Davies leapt in with a wild ass idea that skirted right past 150 years of research in evolutionary biology and medicine to resurrect a discredited early 19th century hypothesis. It was a terrible proposal. I have no idea how anyone at NCI could accept such a gobsmackingly stupid idea, but they did, and Davies has been dining out on it ever since, regularly pumping out ludicrous papers that ought to have been scuttled by the editors at quite good journals, and certainly shouldn’t have survived peer review. The real mystery is how Davies has bamboozled so many people who ought to have known better.
Here, in summary, is his explanation for cancer. I’ve made a video about his atavism theory of cancer before, so I’ll refer you to that.
Basically, he has adopted Haeckel’s recapitulation theory, the idea that we develop as embryos by repeating our evolutionary history in utero — we go through a fish stage, a reptile stage, an early mammal stage, etc. before reaching our modern human development at birth. It is totally wrong. It was reject in the 19th century, and genetics put the final nail in its coffin. But here are Davies own words on his theory.
A century ago the German biologist Ernst Haekel pointed out that the stages of embryo development recapitulate the evolutionary history of the animal. Human embryos, for instance, develop, then lose, gills, webbed feet and rudimentary tails, reflecting their ancient aquatic life styles. The genes responsible for these features normally get silenced at a later stage of development, but sometimes the genetic control system malfunctions and babies get born with tails and other ancestral traits. Such anomalous features are called atavisms.
Except of course, for the little problem that this theory was falsified long ago, and so isn’t a good foundation to build an explanation for anything on. That doesn’t stop Davies, though: in fact, he goes even further and claims that cancer is a reversion of modern human cells to a pre-metazoan state, that cancer cells have actually gone back in time, reactivating ancient biochemical pathways that were once part of the toolkit of single-celled protists. Cancer cells are like little pre-Cambrian amoebae or paramecia, just trying to resurrect their primeval free-living lifestyles.
It’s nonsense. Flaming gaseous vapour.
Your cells don’t contain a protistan toolkit. Every gene and pathway has been modified by evolution, and we’re not keeping spare copies of ancient unused genes awaiting a re-awakening.
His model is like suggesting that if I poke around in the engine of the Honda Fit parked in my driveway, somewhere under the electronic ignition system, I might find a carburetor waiting to pop out, ready to go, that my car is somehow preserving the old components of a ’57 Ford beneath its 21st century exterior. Even deeper than that, that there is a very hungry horse hiding in the engine block, ready to gallop out and take over if the more modern systems fail.
That’s not how industrial evolution works, and it’s also not how biological evolution works.
Davies quite literally thinks that IS how biology works, though.
The genes of cellular cooperation that evolved with multicellularity about a billion years ago are the same genes that malfunction to cause cancer. We hypothesize that cancer is an atavistic condition that occurs when genetic or epigenetic malfunction unlocks an ancient ‘toolkit’ of pre-existing adaptations, re-establishing the dominance of an earlier layer of genes that controlled loose-knit colonies of only partially differentiated cells, similar to tumors. The existence of such a toolkit implies that the progress of the neoplasm in the host organism differs distinctively from normal Darwinian evolution.
These “layers” don’t exist! When my car malfunctions, I don’t get a horse, and when my cell cycle regulators fail, my cells don’t turn into little choanoflagellates, ready to swim away. I get cancers, which are not autonomous colonies of ancestral cell types.
Davies’ theory is so outrageously wrong, it should have been dismissed long ago. How is it that Davies and his collaborators continue to publish worthless papers year after year, and get funding? I have an explanation. That initial glance of attention from the NCI had one success: it fed his monstrous ego, which has now gone cancerous and is expanding catastrophically.
As he writes on the Edge website (yes, he still maintains an association with John Brockman in these post-Epstein days):
My personal belief is that biologists tend to be uncompromising and reductionistic because they’re still feeling somewhat insecure with their basic dogma, whereas physicists have three hundred years of secure foundation for their subject, so they can afford to be a bit more freewheeling in their speculation about these complex systems.
That’s astonishingly egotistical. It’s so extreme an example of the arrogance of physicists that you’d think it a caricature, but no, he really does believe he knows better than biologists, and that his lack of understanding of how biology works justifies his “freewheeling” overconfidence and trust in obsolete theories.
Davies has been plugging away at this dead theory for years now, regularly publishing his claims without a speck of evidence to back them up. He recently published a new book and has been on the interview circuit babbling about it, and once again, his hubris rises to the fore. So here he is lying about what contemporary cancer research is:
Yes, I think cancer researchers are a very good example of how over conservative thinking in biology has not led to a lack of progress, but the progress has been much less rapid…I think there’s been this naive view that if we just throw enough money at the problem, we’ll discover a pill that will make it just go away, and that’s never going to happen. We have to be much more subtle in our approach to treating cancer
That is astonishingly dishonest. I’ve taught cancer biology, I know cancer researchers, and never do they even suggest that there will be a pill to cure cancer. NEVER. This is so far from the mainstream view of cancer that either he has never talked to a cancer biologist, or he is willing to shamelessly lie about their views to make himself look clever.
Now why would he do this? It’s probably about money. He complains that he hasn’t been paid enough for his wild-ass guesses.
I was funded by NCI, which spends 5 billion dollars a year on cancer research, but when I look at how that’s spent, a lot of it is just spent on same old, same old mainstream research, very little on imaginative new approaches. The approach that I’m outlining in the book certainly has received some funding, but it’s a tiny fraction, so there is this deep conservatism in the cancer research community.
I would rather say that fact that this unqualified ass has been funded at all suggests the opposite, that the cancer research community is maybe a little too willing to listen to “imaginative” (a word that apparently means “evidence-free and disproven”) ideas. Any conservatism in the cancer research community is more a product of awareness that people’s lives hang in the balance, and that we should be testing ideas with evidence that they work. But then, I get the impression that Davies will accept all kinds of hare-brained stuff. Here, for instance, after decrying the idea of a pill to cure cancer, he promotes a pill.
So one of the most efficacious cancer drugs, it’s well known in the cancer community, is aspirin, but you know, it’s virtually free over the counter, and so getting clinical trials for something like aspirin is not easy. There have been some, but…
And some people say it isn’t.
Well, I believe it is.
Here’s the deal. It’s true. Aspirin has been suggested to be a drug that might reduce the incidence of some cancers, such as colorectal cancer. Note that it is not a treatment for cancer, but something that a few studies have found to reduce the frequency of some kinds of cancer, which is great. That “conservative cancer research community” has been quite willing to test it, and yes, there have been studies that have shown mixed results. For instance, the ASPREE trial had some unexpected outcomes.
Numerous studies have suggested that people who regularly take low doses of aspirin may have reduced risks of being diagnosed with or dying from cancer. But new findings from a randomized clinical trial, called ASPREE, suggest that the same may not hold true for older adults.
The study included approximately 19,000 generally healthy people who were 70 years of age or older. Those who took 100 mg of aspirin daily were no more likely than those who took a placebo to be diagnosed with cancer. They did, however, have a greater likelihood of being diagnosed with an advanced cancer and of dying from cancer, the ASPREE research team reported August 11 in JNCI.
Oopsie. It’s telling that Davies does not know about the subtle complexities of effects of aspirin on cancer, and can conclude that interview by claiming he believes it is efficacious. Belief isn’t how we settle these matters.
I began this video by saying that at least Davies goofy cancer beliefs don’t directly affect people with the disease, that he’s just milking the funding agencies. I have to amend that a little bit, There are a few quacks who have run with the Davies hypothesis and are treating cancer patients with “atavistic oncology”. I’ll refer you to a post by David Gorski that jumps on one proponent of the idea, a Dr Arguello.
…what, exactly, is Dr. Arguello’s “atavistic oncology”? It’s a post I’ve been meaning to do for probably years now; so now is as good a time as any. It’s also because the hypothesis that cancer represents an “atavism,” the reawakening of ancient genetic programs seen in our single-celled ancestors billions of years ago, pops up periodically and sounds plausible. Unfortunately, virtually every example of this hypothesis is riddled with misunderstandings of evolutionary biology that render the hypothesis at best highly implausible.
David is so much more polite than I am. It’s worse than highly implausible, it’s been falsified. But this guy is so convinced of Davies’ idea that cancer is a reversion to ancient cells prior to the evolution of multicellular animals that he is treating cancer patients with antibiotics and antivirals, which makes no sense at all.
OK, enough. I’ll stop there and let the kindly appreciation of these sweet people on Patreon soothe my outraged soul. I’ll also remind you all that I’m also starting a new YouTube series called Evo-Devo Diary this week, and I can pretty much guarantee that Haeckel will get a mention when I review the history of the discipline. I won’t be touting his science as foundational, though, but rather as an unfortunate mistake that sidetracked evolution and development down a dead end for a few decades, But at least Haeckel’s memory lives on in the minds of some cancer quacks! I’m sure he would be dismayed.
So, yeah, click the ol’ like and subscribe buttons, and also that little notification bell. I’m not sure exactly when that video will be out, but I’m aiming for mid-week. Don’t miss it!