Cancer and Evolutionary Theory

To add…

Variation, propagation, selection and inheritance: These are the bases of biological evolution.

Cancer cells are clones. Much like bacterial cells form clonal colonies on agar, tumors are colonies formed from single cancer cells. As these cells replicate, additional variations accumulate, leading to further diversification of the population in the tumors. Over time, cells may separate and found new tumors elsewhere. Some of the changes acquired by subsequent generations of cancer cells support better growth, others, better propagation or bypassing of self-destruct signals. Vascularization, penetration though tissue boundaries and resistance to chemotherapy agents can also be acquired and honed by selection. The cells in say, later stage cancers, often have accumulated new traits compared to the cells found in earlier stages.

It is perfectly reasonable to approach cancer as a providing a lesson in evolution. That is why, for example, when we evaluate new therapeutics, we also try to identify both the cancer cell populations that are likely to respond and the probable pathways to resistance. In many cases, the targeted therapies work only for a limited duration. We can often knock down the more populous, susceptible cells and achieve a term of remission but resistant clones frequently take over and drive the next emergence of the disease.


Also, I found a few open access journal issues for those of you wanting to see more clealry the relationship between cancer and evolution. These are good reads.

So very interestingly this thread was picked up by the ID movement at UD and Dr. Rossiter’s blog…

I hope that some of us join us for the conversation here. If they do, please do treat them with respect.


And now ENV has decided to jump in.

I had no idea that they followed this thread! Apparently those here are noted as a “jocular” biologos crew. Interesting.

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And this one too…

Kinda missing the point entirely…


And yet another one…

I guess I am flattered that people care what I think so much. I should also positively note that (for the most part) the ID people are not resorting to many ad hominems against me. I do appreciate that. Though I do agree with @Argon

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[quote=“Jon_Garvey, post:18, topic:5673”]
But I’m still having some trouble getting my head round the concept of “tumours evolving” rather than “populations of organisms evolving new susceptibilities to damage.”[/quote]
Are you saying that the term “evolution” can only be applied to whole organisms?

If proteins evolve, why can’t tumors?

[quote] It sounds to me to be a metaphorical use of “evolution” that potentially functions to redefine mutations “deleterious to organisms” (the commonest type, because breaking stuff is easy) as “beneficial to tumours”
[/quote]Except that the other common type of tumorigenic mutation is gain-of-function, not “breaking stuff.” There are many fascinating fusion proteins as well.

Have you heard of oncogenes?

Wow. Ann Gauger recites the two classes (oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes) ***, but then discusses only p53 (a tumor suppressor gene) as an example of a gain-of-function oncogene!

*** (content deleted by moderator for lack of graciousness)

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It’s fascinating that they dropped your MD for the title. I suspect that Gauger wrote this one too.

ENV:As to the prediction that oncogenes accumulate point mutations to become cancer drivers, that’s interesting, but from reading the paper one sees no discussion of any specific point mutations…

This is just laughably false. The paper is full of discussions of large SETS of specific point mutations. Moreover, when real scientists read a paper, we know that most of the information is in the figures, tables, and online supplements, not in the text. It’s clear that the ENV author didn’t bother to really read the paper before writing about it.

or what their specific phenotypic effect is in any specific genes.

That’s not what the paper’s about. It’s written primarily for people who are already familiar with the genes discussed, unlike the ENV writer. And what does phenotypic effect IN specific genes even mean?

If Swamidass knows of examples that show “cancer regularly innovates with proteins of novel function,” his paper discusses none of those examples.

Of course not! That’s not the point of the paper. It’s already very well known. The paper was about identifying those and other important genetic changes.


They also leave out that I am a computational biologist with expertise in information theory, and a professor. The article text does clarify some. I think they maybe are just choosing the least relevant title to this conversation in the title.

That is okay though. I certainly am a computer scientist and this isn’t about titles.


I am glad that you called him out on this cheap shot:

“But he has been relentless in his assault on all views that allow for a Christian God to be directly active in the creation and evolution of biological life. In specific, he has targeted ID forms of those arguments, while entirely belittling those views considered more biblically conservative.”

So @Jay313 is referring to: Private Site

To demonstrate that I have been very clearly not been doing this, can you elaborate my position a bit for the newcomers @Jay313? Perhaps include some links to me defending YEC’s in other threads =).

I wrote…

I think in the meantime it is very important to correct this misstatement of my position: “But he has been relentless in his assault on all views that allow for a Christian God to be directly active in the creation and evolution of biological life. ”

I have NEVER made that case. I absolutely believe that the Christian God has been thoroughly active in the creation and evolution of biological life. I have never argued against this belief. I am not a deist in disguise. I am Christian that believes in God’s sovereign will over all things, including the creation of us all.

Moreover, I have bent-over backward to acknowledge the possibility of the special creation of man.

You write, “while entirely belittling those views considered more biblically conservative.” I would love to know (please send me a private email) where I have done this. I consider my point of view very biblically conservative, very much in the line of Martin Luther and Blaise Pascal.

I should emphasize that I certainly think that YEC can be a respectable position, and regularly refer to Kurt Wise and Todd Woods (and more recently John Sanford) as YEC’s that I respect. I also have a great deal of respect for the folks at RTB (including Hugh Ross, Jeff Zeerwink, Fuz Rana). Of course, I totally disagree with aspects of their science. But how does voicing and explaining these scientific disagreements constitute belittling their biblical views?

It is also interesting that the article(s) from Gauger ignore your response to @Jon_Garvey[quote=“Swamidass, post:19, topic:5673”]
If many ID arguments about neofunctionalization and molecular convergence being impossible are true (as many ID proponents are convinced), how do we explain neofunctionalization and molecular convergence in cancer? Clearly it is the same biological system, and we are seeing neofunctionalization and molecular convergence, and all the same genetic patterns in cancer tumors that we see in, for example, humans the the great apes.

In the case of evolution, we look at this data and some ID proponents conclude that it must have required God’s (thought they would say “designer”) direct intervention somehow (from tinkering to special creation).

In the case of cancer, the data looks very very similar. If the ID proponents are right aboutevolution, why would we conclude anything different here?

To take the theology out of it, i should have said,

or regularly require the direct intervention of [an intelligent designer] to initiate and be sustained. I’m not sure which option is harder to believe.

The point is not about theology (though it certainly raises theological questions) but is a question of how the ID scientific logic is applied in two places (evolution and cancer) where we have nearly identical genetic data.

And this:

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It’s all out there for anyone who cares to look. That’s the problem. Some can’t be bothered to check their facts.

Reminds me of an old joke from my journalism days. The NY Times’ slogan is “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” We used to say, “All the News that Fits.” We meant it literally (not enough space), but some of these quasi-news sites seem to understand it figuratively, as well.


All the news that fits our narrative?


Its probably worth pointing out that Johnathan Wells (an ID kingpin) might dispute this entire line of argument, saying that cancer is not a genetic disease…

TOPS then explicitly rejects several implications of Darwinian evolution.
These include: (1a) The implication that living things are best understood from
the bottom up, in terms of their molecular constituents. (1b) The implications
that DNA mutations are the raw materials of macroevolution, that embryo
development is controlled by a genetic program, that cancer is a genetic disease,
etc. (1c) The implication that many features of living things are useless vestiges
of random processes, so it is a waste of time to inquire into their functions.
Finally, TOPS assumes as a working hypothesis that various implications
of ID are true. These include: (2a) The implication that living things are best
understood from the top down, as irreducibly complex organic wholes. (2b) The
implications that DNA mutations do not lead to macroevolution, that the
developmental program of an embryo is not reducible to its DNA, that cancer
originates in higher structural features of the cell rather than in its DNA, etc. (2c)
The implication that all features of living things should be presumed to have a
function until proven otherwise, and that reverse engineering is the best way to
understand them.

[Note: apparently,Wells complains that this quote is taken out of context. Rather than getting into a protracted debate about what he has and has not said about this (see for example I’ll take him at his word that some how what he wrote here is not what he meant. I thought I was representing him accurately, but apparently I was not. Sorry.]

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How could he?

Well, praise God that they chose such an insulting way to refer to you in their title, so that you had the opportunity to show grace and let the spirit of Jesus shine through in your response to it.

If there’s anything I get out of the exchange, it’s that our Forum comments are very public and our tone here truly can and does shape people’s views about the attitude of evolutionary creationists. The last thing we want to do is give people reason to portray us as “snarky” and “crowing.” Of course, EC’s more hardened opponents may well cast us in that light anyway, but if we play our cards right, then the watching blogosphere will read our comments and say, “You know, I don’t think they’re crowing snarkily. I think those guys are gracious people. And they have better arguments, too.”


Clearly I have hit a nerve with them. This was a surprising response.

There is an opportunity here for us. I encourage those who are brave and want peace to engage in the comments of these articles. We have an opportunity in moments like this to show grace and engage with people on their “home turf”. I hope some of you take them up on this: Private Site

Observing this situation, it does not seem like they really understand our position. For example, I’ve just be assumed to be an Open Theist. This is a good opportunity to explain better. I, for one, will be pointing to @Jon_Garvey at the Camel’s Hump as an example of non-Open Theist evolutionists. They seem to be unaware you exist, and this guy has apparently just written a book about the theology of theistic evolution.

[Edit: They tell me now that they were just asking about Open Theism. This wasn’t an accusation (as I took it) but a question. Though I am not sure why, when I’ve been saying that I affirm God’s sovereign providence and will. Any how, sorry for the misrepresentation.]