Evolution, Cancer, and Society

I would like to open this post with a quote from Governor Bill Richardson:

“I’m not a scientist.”

Well, I’m not a physical scientist, anyway. I am a social scientist, and as a social scientist, I believe that all of human history is a record of the tension between desire for individualism and simultaneous desire for society, for the collective. That tension has been at the heart of American politics since the Puritans, and remains one of the main sources of conflict between Liberals/Progressives and Conservatives today. This tension even exists within the progressive vision. Our most fundamental Progressive ideals are centered around an effort to create and maintain a delicate balance between the collective– without which individualism cannot thrive– and the individual– without which the collective has no meaning.

A new scientific study on the evolution of cancer shows that those two desires are at war on a microscopic yet fateful scale within the body of a cancer patient.

In our bodies, cells must replicate themselves many times. Sometimes, in the complicated process of copying each individual’s unique DNA code, there is a glitch, and a mutant cell is born. When this happens, the cell is programmed to commit cell-suicide (apoptosis). Cancer is when several mutant cells refuse to commit cell-suicide and begin to replicate themselves to form a lump of mutant cells that can take over our bodies if not cut out or killed with radiation.

Why does this happen? Whether the trigger is smoking, poor diet, or simply old age, the reason is the same: these mutant cells forget that they are part of a collective with the end goal of maintaining the health of the body they live in and start to think that it’s every cell for himself. In an April 2008 article in Harper’s Magazine entitled “Cancer: The Evolution of a Killer,” author David Quammen explains:

“Eight hundred million years ago there was no such thing as cancer. Virtually all living creatures were single-celled organisms, and the rule was Every cell for itself! Uncontrolled, undifferentiated cell growth wasn’t abnormal. It was the program of all life on Earth.”

But over time, cells “began to aggregate into colonial units and discover, by trial and error, how they could benefit from division of labor and specialization of shape and function . . . To enjoy those benefits, they had to set aside the old rule of absolute selfishness. They had to cooperate. They couldn’t cheat against the interests of the collective entity. (Or anyway they shouldn’t cheat, not very often; otherwise the benefits of collectivity wouldn’t accrue.) Cooperation was a winning formula. Primitive multicellular creatures, roughly along the lines of jellyfish or sponges or slime molds, began to succeed, to grow, to occupy space, and to claim resources in ways that loner cells couldn’t.”

The problem is that “uncontrolled cell replication didn’t disappear entirely. Sometimes a single atavistic cell would ignore the collective imperative; it would revert to the old habit—proliferating wildly, disregarding all signals to stop. It would swell into a big, greedy lump of its own kind, and in so doing disrupt one or more of the necessary collective functions. That was cancer.”

The evolution of human society follows this pattern of the evolution of cells: over time, we discovered that there was much to be gained from forming societies, specializing, and cooperating. And, like the evolution of multi-cellular organisms, our societies have gotten bigger and bigger, more complex, and more sophisticated. But, like the cells within our bodies, we still face the problem of individuals, or groups of individuals, or nations forgetting the “collective imperative” and aggressively pursuing what is in their own immediate best interest, rather than the “collective interest.”

Of course, while they may certainly benefit in the short term from pursuing their immediate interests, these individuals, or groups of individuals, bring the house down on top of themselves, just like cancer, which, for all its ability to resist extermination, is not very bright. It ignores the first rule of living as a parasite: DO NOT KILL YOUR HOST… at least until you can move to a new one.

If we are to view ourselves as parasites on planet Earth (although it sounds awfully over-dramatic, it is essentially true…), then we are behaving as stupidly as cancer. We ignore the collective imperative, but at our own peril: this is the only planet we’ve got. Like cancer, we can’t move to another host. Once we have killed our host, we die too.

This idea of the collective imperative isn’t The Communist Manifesto, it isn’t It Takes a Village, and it isn’t some hippie-dippy drivel. It’s biology. It’s in our history dating back to the beginning and it’s in our bodies. We have got to stop thinking “every cell for itself” when it comes to global warming, renewable energy, nuclear non-proliferation, poverty, war, and, well… disease!

…Because although cancer cannot now move beyond the host it is born in, just as we cannot now move to and colonize another planet, this may not always be the case. In the same article in Harper’s Magazine, Quamenn presents new studies which show that cancer, like everything else on earth, evolves and is evolving toward one day becoming an infectious disease, like influenza. Already, scientists have discovered cancer in Tasmanian Devils which spreads through exchange of fluids. And for centuries dogs have been affected by a not uncommon– but generally treatable–sexually transmitted cancer. If the ultimate goal of any cancer in any body is to multiply, spread, and perpetuate its existence, then the ultimate evolutionary success of a cancer would be the ability to jump from host to host. It would take just one cancer cell in any person anywhere to somehow acquire this ability; that cell would pass on the ability to its many replicas who would pass it on and pass it on and on and on and suddenly cancer is as contagious as a virus.

But the truth is that such a thing probably couldn’t happen for many many many many years. If after this long cells still cant survive outside their host bodies, it will take a long long time before any learn how to. And by that time, we will have developed a simple cure to cancer… or have all died in a nuclear holocaust…

However, the possibility exists and the threat is there. The point is that not only does the history of the evolution of cancer reminds us that we must think collectively if we are to remain on earth as individuals, but the possible future of the evolution of cancer does the same. We should think of the fight against cancer as a collective, preventive struggle. We should care if children are not being introduced to a proper diet even if we maintain a perfect personal diet; we should care that many people are massively over-weight even if we are not; we should care about cigarette smokers, even if we dont smoke; and we should care that 45 million Americans go without health insurance. We should care if not because we remember that we’re all in this together, then because the possibility is technically there, even though not immediately likely, that one person’s cancer anywhere in the world could become as prevalent as the flu.

So here’s a start:

1) Educate yourself and your friends. The following foods are very important in preventing cancer…

beans(lentils or chickpeas twice a week can reduce the risk of breast cancer by 20%)
carrots(a carrot a day seriously reduces the risk of lung cancer)
green tea
RED FOODS: red peppers, raspberries, strawberries, grapefruit, tomatoes, cherries, beets, etc, are all key in reducing the risk of cancer. Tomatoes are especially helpful in reducing the risks of prostate cancer.

The American Institute for Cancer Research has an extensive collection of healthy, cancer preventing recipes, here!

2) Make a donation. There are thousands of organizations to give to, but this one is local-ish (in Boston) and you can specify where your donation goes if you want to: Donate.


Universal health care is the ultimate realization of the collective imparative; one person’s health is everyone’s health. On this issue and on so many others like global warming and nuclear proliferation we cannot wait any longer… or else our greed will quickly destroy our host.