Cancer and Evolutionary Theory

I see. I hadn’t even seen the ShadowofOz post, and I hope people here take you up on that invitation. I was referring to the belittling reference to you as a “computer scientist,” as if you aren’t an accomplished MD/PhD evolutionary theorist with a strong record of teaching and publishing but instead, you know, maybe just a couple of notches above their friendly neighborhood tech support computer geek. Outrageous to me, but you took it in stride. Kudos to you, sir.

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I do acknowledge that I am not an accomplished evolutionary theorist. I’m just a lowly computational biologist =).

Though, I am pleased to report that my first paper on evolutionary theory actually is under review right now. Hopefully it pans out. If it does, I’ll be sure to let you know.


Thanks for the plug, Joshua.

There are many reasons for hackles to rise in conversations like this, of which the commonsest is human irrationality, of course. But some hackels, if not justified, are understandable.

For example, much mileage has been made here and elsewhere from ID’s refusal to outlaw Young Earth Creationism (including calling ID “IDcreationism”), and one sees a tendency to see such failure to distance itself from YEC as meaning ID is “really” closet fundamentalism. You’ll not be unaware (I hope) of how Eddie, for example, has had throwaway comments about his “biblical literalism” made when he’s defending ID… despite not even self-identifying as Evangelical.

But by the same token, it’s not in the least surprising if Evolutionary Creation proponents like yourself get tarred by the Open Theism brush (or at least questioned about it, as seems to have been wayne Rossiter’s actual intention).

After all, BioLogos was co-founded by Karl Giberson, an Open Theist, and Francis Collins, now diplomatically silent on all things EC, is known to have been a keynote speaker at an OT conference. John Polkinghorne, much cited at BioLogos as a senior doyen of theistic evolution, is an Open Theist, and Thomas Jay Oord was given a platform here only a month or so ago.

And where Open Theism itself is not embraced, both in the early theoretical foundations (think Van Till, Haught, Peacocke etc etc etc) and popular outworkings of Evolutionary Creation (ie here), some form of “Open Process Theism” is so prevalent that amongst the Evangelical community it has often come to be seen as the hallmark of theistic evolution.

Conversely, the more othodox views of providential evolution I’ve highlighted on The Hump (such as those of Asa Gray, B B Warfield, Charles Kingley, Alfred Russel Wallace and more contemporarily David Wilcox or yourself) have received near-zero attention by writers at Biologos.

And when some of us have raised a quizzical eyebrow (or actually, several score of quizzical eyebrows over the last several years) at the lack of any attempt to distance the Evangelical basis of Evolutionary Creation from Open Theism, the commonest response has been complete disengagement, which might be interpreted as “evasion”, and the strongest response, “Open Theism is a legitimate approach.”

So ID has scientifically suspect YEC bedfellows, and EC has theologically suspect Open Theism bedfellows - only in my experience the former are both more open about it, and more ready to justify theirs on the basis of their principles. It’s just a fact of life that we all get flak on the basis of whom we count as our co-belligerents: that’s primarily why The Hump of the Camel is not just a mirror-site of BioLogos.

One more point, on your own surprise at Rossiter’s response: I personally think that for you to list “ID is pseudoscience” amongst one of the settled scientific truths of evolution was - not to put too fine a point on it - asking for it. Pronouncements on pseudoscience are sociological, not scientific, statements. One may say that most studies of astrology have not confirmed specific claims (which leaves open the questions of researcher’s worldview commitments, study design and many other things). But “Astrology is pseudoscience” is no more a scientific finding than that a majority of biologists to say “Evolution shows there is no need for God.”

We all need to be careful about pouring petrol on troubled waters - that is, those of us involved in building bridges rather than sending tanks across them.


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@Eddie Remind me once again that Evolution News and Views does not intentionally stoke the anti-science attitudes of its readership. Every time I visit their site, I forget. The response to a published scientific paper is to compare its hypothesis to material that belongs in Marvel Comics and superhero movies?



I would agree that cancer cells evolve. “Cancer” uses a cellular mutation to against the ultimate health of the organism. This causes the organism to use its natural defenses against the bad cells. The bad cells in turn use their natural defenses including evolutionary change against the organism’s defenses. The one that better adapts to the changed situation wins, as with evolution.

A cancerous cell is not evil per se. It is bas because in the end it leads to a negative result. False religion is not bad per se. In many ways it may resemble good religion, but if it ends up with false values and a negative result, it is false and evil.

Jonathan Wells has replied to your suggestion here:

I quote his concluding remarks:

"My view (then as now) is that cancer cells contain hundreds or thousands of genetic mutations, which contribute substantially to the progression of the disease, but that cancer does not begin (as DNA reductionists claim) with an accumulation of single mutations. Instead (as many cancer biologists think) it starts with malfunctioning centrosomes that affect whole chromosomes. Had Swamidass carefully read what I wrote on this topic he would have known this.

So my (rhetorical) question is: Given Swamidass’s (and BioLogos’s) professed commitment to “gracious dialogue,” why did he engage in this gratuitous drive-by shooting?"

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I guess I was quoting a paper he wrote. I’d love to know how it was taken out of context. He writes, verbatim (without even my emphasis)…

This seems to say that Wells thinks ID precits that cancer originates in something other than DNA mutations.

That being said, he does offer an alternate framing of that here…

My view (then as now) is that cancer cells contain hundreds or thousands of genetic mutations, which contribute substantially to the progression of the disease, but that cancer does not begin (as DNA reductionists claim) with an accumulation of single mutations. Instead (as many cancer biologists think) it starts with malfunctioning centrosomes that affect whole chromosomes. Had Swamidass carefully read what I wrote on this topic he would have known this.

This maybe true in some cases (though very doubtfully all). With that I will take him at his word, that I misrepresented his meaning. Sorry about that. I was just trying to honestly represent what he wrote. I provided the link to his work for those that doubt me. Sorry for the confusion.

Perhaps he could clarify (1) how all these cancer biologists discovered the role of centrosomes without resorting to ID, (2) why they do not (as far as I know) endorse his turbine hypothesis, and (3) why cancer that clearly originate by mutational means first do not falsify ID. According to wells, it still seems like he thinks ID predicts that cancer does not originate in mutations.

Yeah, this is not what I did. If you read the original post, and the quote, I was describing what is considered settled science. Moreover, that was a quote from a long time ago, not really relevant to the conversation now. I understand ID disagrees with this designation, but is entirely dispassionate and accurate to say that the NAS, AAAS, and federal courts have settled on the determination that ID is psuedoscience. We do not have to agree or disagree with this determination to recognize the reality. Of course, ID wants this to change, as I would too if I was an ID advocate. It really should not be controversial to recognize the obvious fact they are, as yet, unsuccessful in this goal.


Here is my final set of comments to Walter…

Hello All. Thanks for the interesting conversation. Walter, in particular, thanks for drawing attention to my thoughts about evolution. That is kind of you, and does a lot of good in getting the word out about my take on evolution. Even from this conversation, a lot of people are responding positively, and they would never have met me if not for you. Thanks.

I can’t help but notice the lovely coincidence of Dr. James Tour (one of the signatories of The Dissent from Darwinism) updating his statement about evolution/creation yesterday, to be more accurate about the science of theistic evolution Efforts like yours really help in clarifying the stakes here, and encourages the Church to embrace all who follow Jesus. Once again, thanks.

This will be my last couple content posts on this blog for a couple reasons. Most importantly, the comment system here is not really working terribly well with multiple threads. It is really hard to follow the conversation. Less important, but still significant, it seems like the goal is debate rather than understanding, and the accusations of dishonesty are tiresome. I understand that we disagree, but avoiding those ad hominems would be nice.

For clarity, I’ll break my final responses into a few separate posts. I would love to continue the conversation with you at BioLogos (, which uses a much better comment system. If I do post anything of direct relevance there (like a response to a specific comment), I might post a link here BioLogos to respond.

I should have written:

Efforts like yours really help in clarifying the stakes here, and encourages the Church to embrace all who follow Jesus, even if they believe in evolution.

And a response to his question: what did God do?

Well, I would say I believe what Scripture says. He did it all:

Colosians 1:19. “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.”

How much was was by primary cause? How much was by secondary cause?

Proverbs 25:2. “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”

I know He did it all. How much did creation do on its one? I do not know because the Bible does not tell me. I’m sure this will be a frustrating answer to you, but I do not know how to speak with confidence about God’s action independent of what He reveals to us in Jesus and in Scripture.

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And finally, my quote of James Tour (which is sadly no longer on his website)…

Continuing the discussion from Why Science Uses Methodological Naturalism:

I have been labeled as an Intelligent Design (ID) proponent. I am not. I do not know how to use science to prove intelligent design although some others might. I am sympathetic to the arguments on the matter and I find some of them intriguing, but the scientific proof is not there, in my opinion. So I prefer to be free of that ID label. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662,, one of the finest scientists, mathematicians and inventors that the world has ever enjoyed, and also among the most well-respected and deepest thinking Christian apologists, wrote in his Pensees 463,

“It is a remarkable fact that no canonical [biblical] author has ever used nature to prove God. They all try to make people believe in him. David, Solomon, etc., never said: ‘There is no such thing as a vacuum, therefore God exists.’ They must have been cleverer than the cleverest of their successors, all of whom have used proofs from nature. This is very noteworthy.’”

As Kreeft ( points out in his commentary on Pascal’s Pensees,

“If the Scripture does not use nature to prove God, it can’t be the best strategy. Notice that Pascal does not say that there are no good proofs of God or that none of them begin with data from nature. Elsewhere, he specifies merely that such proofs are psychologically weak, but he does not say they are logically weak. More important, they are salvifically weak, [meaning that] they will not save us. If nature proved God clearly, we would not have to search for him with all our hearts.”

Pascal further writes in his Pensees 429 ,

“This is what I see that troubles me: Nature has nothing to offer me that does not give rise to doubt and anxiety; if there is a God supporting nature, she should unequivocally proclaim him, and that, if the signs in nature are deceptive, they should be completely erased; that nature should say all or nothing so that I could see what course I ought to follow.”

Though 350 years since Pascal penned his dilemma, as a modern-day scientist, I do not know how to prove ID using my most sophisticated of analytical tools. I share Pascal’s frustration. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if, when scientists had obtained the first molecular resolution images of human DNA, it had self-assembled (a thermodynamic process) into the Hebrew script to say, “The God of Heaven and Earth was here.”? But it did not, and I suppose that the wonder would have elicited no love from the skeptic anyway. Therefore, God seems to have set nature as a clue, not a solution, to keep us yearning for him.“theory”-and-the-christian-creationist-and-his-“science”/

I can’t obviously speak for Jonathan Wells to your questions but suspect that as to where it might be levelled you took him out of context was not including everything he said in the same paper under ‘TOPS and Cancer’ which seems to lay out the same position as he states in the EvN article.

What I think is ironic but also a silver lining is that even if scientists are approaching the subject of cancer from different, even contradicting, starting positions, - naturalism, theistic evolution, ID - that the subject is being carefully scrutinised and the only beneficiaries of that can be those who contract cancer.

Thanks for your response.

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90 posts were split to a new topic: A plethora of thoughts on Intelligent Design

Hey Matt. Thank you for bringing that article to our attention. I’m glad to be corrected in how I represented Wells. Certainly did not mean to be rude. I was just trying to bring in relevant parts of the ID movement. It is too bad they felt it was a “drive-by”.

@Jonathan_Burke you have been immortalized by @Rational_Theist_Matt:

@Rational_Theist_Matt I want to thank you for braving the forum here. It is clear you are in a different camp than us, but I will request that everyone treats you with respect here. I’ll think through your google plus post, and if you are still interested maybe make some comments.

However it will be a while before I get to it. It has been an intense 48hrs of posting, and I have some other things I need to get to.

Once again, it is nice to meet you. I am always looking for friends across the divide.

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Hi Dr Swamidass

Given I am currently a theistic evolutionist, if I’m in a, ‘different camp than us’, it is down to having a different view of TE rather than rejecting TE in favour of ID.

I find ID an interesting endeavour and not necessarily in conflict with my TE and the article you refer to is part of a new project to critically examine the factual content of claims by ID and specifically EnV.

Since I am not an expert in the sciences, that is limited to whether they represent themselves and other in a fair, transparent and honest way with the meat of the dispute on what the science is left to experts like yourself and the scientists from ID.

Rather than engage with my posts, at least on the science, it might well be more profitable and interesting for everyone if you engage with those from EnV who have sought to address your comments in this forum such as Ann Gauger and Jonathan Wells which is a more equal engagement.



Welcome. You might get along with @eddie and @Jon_Garvey.

About your post, I think you missed what I meant by the original post. I didn’t realize this was going to get picked up by ENV, so in retrospect it could have been clearer. This is perhaps a clearer statement:

“People often ask if evolutionary theory is useful scientifically. Often they wonder if it is just an unnecessary add-on to science, that could be easily lopped off if most scientists weren’t atheists. It turns out, even if evolution is false, evolutionary theory is extremely useful in understanding cancer; in fact it appears to be indispensable. As this has played out, this clear fact turns out to be very inconvenient to those devoted to anti-evolutionism.”

I would love to. Please do invite them here. They are welcome and I would insist that everyone here treats them with respect. Unfortunately, it does not seem they are interested in this. Friendly conversation does not seem to be priority right now.

As for the substance of their posts, there isn’t much to address. They did not seem to read my response to @Jon_Garvey that addressed almost all the substance of both your post and their posts before they were even written: Cancer and Evolutionary Theory

Moreover, they seem to not know what I mean by molecular convergence, nor do they seem to care to find out. It is too bad, because the science here is really amazing. This is what is giving a lot of us a great deal of hope about understanding how cancer works.

Sadly, there are really obvious errors in their articles. @BenKirk points out some of the obvious ones…

I think the claim that we do not discuss any mutations in the paper is telling. It is obviously false. There are several paragraphs of texts and more than one Figure that does just this. If they do not care to get something so clearly obvious from the paper correct (and presumably not controversial), I’m not sure if this exchange has been really about science at all. That is sad, because I would love to talk to them about the science. It is pretty amazing.

That being said, I really respect those of you that have turned up for real dialogue here. Having frequently commented on Uncommon Descent, I know how hard it can be to deal with a “hostile crowd”, though I hope we treat you with more kindness than I experienced at UD.

Hi Dr. Sawmidass

A few comments on your reply:

  1. I do not regard it as an accurate representation of the position of ID to describe them as ‘devoted to anti-evolutionism’. Their view is that, whilst accepting the fact of evolution, they do not find the current theory, as proposed in established science, to give the best account for everything found in biological organisms. That is no more a rejection of the fact of evolution or the whole of the theory than that of many theistic evolutionists, possibly even yourself given comments you have made above, where God is very much involved in the process of evolution to necessarily bring about human beings. This view is contradicted by established science in presenting the process as mindless, purely natural, and where, if there had been a different environment or selection or mutation human beings might well not have appeared on the planet as a species.
  2. Given they have engaged with other scientists and critical audiences and are eager to engage science on their hypothesis I’m confident that leading proponents of ID would be happy to civily engage with you if that invitation was extended to them in a different environment. I doubt this would be such an appropriate environment or any other similar forum.
  3. I concur with you that your comments made to Jon_Garvey warrant further reply but on the same footing I also think Ann Gauger’s EnV warrants direct engagement from yourself.
  4. I don’t regard the first EnV article to be very challenging or indeed to have that intention as did Ann Gauger’s article. It is indeed sloppy to claim no discussion of specific point mutation when they are present and that is something EnV ought to acknowledge or challenge. I have amended my Google+ critical analysis of this to include the observation.

“In some discussion on the forum Swamidass has pointed me to one criticism of the EnV article in claiming the paper doesn’t discussion specific point mutation when it clearly does. That seems to be a legitimate criticism and one I believe EnV ought to acknowledge or challenge”.


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This new paper shows that you are a crude evolutionary empiricist. :grin:

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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