Cancer and the devil

>> Monday, August 11, 2008

Yet another item brought to my attention by Boing Boing: this time, it's an article from the April issue of Harper's that's just been posted online, David Quammen's "Contagious cancer: The evolution of a killer".

Quammen's article, which is absolutely fascinating, begins by riffing on a cancer epidemic that's been devastating the Tasmanian devil population for more than a decade. It seems that the devils are prone to quite a bit of social biting--particularly during breeding season. It's also the unfortunate case that there's very little genetic diversity among the devil population. These two points have allowed a strain of cancerous cell to be passed from devil-to-devil with increasingly fatal results.

We're not talking about a carcinogen. We're not talking about virally-induced cancer. We're talking about a cancerous cell in one Tasmanian devil being sloughed off into a second Tasmanian devil, and finding a home in the second devil (because of the lack of genetic diversity in the population, the second devil's immune system fails to recognize the cancerous devil cell as a foreign object and fails to react to it), and then malignantly reproducing--metastasizing between animals, if you will.

Besides whatever creepiness you associate with the idea of infectious cancer (it's not all that unheard of--Quammen notes that transmissible tumors have been studied in dogs since the 19th century and also offers a sort of freak show of other historic cases, including that of a medical student in the 1920s who inadvertently transfered cancerous cells during a mastectomy procedure from the patient's breast to his own hand and subsequently died), the subject also gives Quammen a good opportunity to meditate on evolution. A cancerous cell can be thought of as a loner that has rejected the ancient pact individual cells made with one another when they began to work together, aligning themselves into the first multicellular critters. Single cells found it advantageous to differentiate, specialize and cooperate--but the price of this arrangement was a certain degree of sacrifice and restraint. You would die as an organism if the cells in your lungs or liver could do what they're prone to do per the tendency of genes to reproduce copies of themselves ad infinitum; so it is that healthy cells contain elements of their own destruction, genetic triggers to self destruct and back-doors within their cell walls that allow other cells--elements of your immune system--to take them down if they start to get unruly. And so your lung or your liver maintains this peaceful and neighborly relationship with your bones or brain or heart. Usually. A cancerous cell is one in which the regulatory elements have been discarded through mutation or degradation; it's a cell that has gone feral, essentially, back to its instincts as an every-cell-for-itself individual organism. And that instinct is to breed.

It's appropriate that Quammen doesn't get into the obvious politics of all of this, although he does note that cancer research was held back by the fact that plenty of cancer researchers didn't bother with adding Darwin to their backgrounds and few evolutionary biologists took a scholarly look at cancer. (Tragically, some like the late, brilliant Stephen Jay Gould, have had occasion for more personal studies. Which I throw in mainly as a gratuitous pimp for my favorite non-fiction writer, who you should go check out if you haven't.) I will, however, go there and point out that here we have yet another example of how all science is a whole (because reality is a whole, and truths can't be taken in isolation), and so it is that an understanding of evolution facilitates an understanding of illness in a way that an understanding of creationism intelligent design "the debate" does not. (The religious right are calling it "teach the debate" this month, until the next round of lawsuits, no? It's so hard to keep track of these days.) Irrespective of whether the universe Big Banged or was toiled over for six days or was farted wholly-formed out a unicorn's ass, the final truth is that life undergoes a naturally selective process and evolves; cancer cells are a perverse example of this process in action. The cancerous cell has found an environmental niche--your lung tissue, your bone marrow, your mammary glands, your thyroid--and it reproduces to fill it; meanwhile, it is faced by the constant threat of predation--detection and consumption by your immune system, which evolved in symbiosis with your other organs to battle the threat of rogue cells (viruses, bacteria, parasitic single-cell organisms) whether they originate inside you or elsewhere.

There's no such thing as a "cure" for cancer and never will be: cancer is a biological process, and from an evolutionary point of view it turns out it's natural and inevitable (cells will be cells, after all). But it's also an ugly disease, and understanding how biological systems work is crucial to the treatment of the disease. It's likely that current treatments have had erratic success rates because they've been based on simple assumptions: that a tumor is little more than a clump of bad cells that sits there and grows until it's cut out or irradiated, instead of thinking of a tumor as a colony of individual vermin that will try to escape detection and elimination by the knife or X-ray much the same way a nest of cockroaches will try to avoid being gassed. Even the majority of schoolchildren who won't become oncologists will develop some form of tumor (malign or no) during the course of their lifetimes--and nearly all of them will either need treatment or will know somebody (perhaps a loved-one) who will be treated for cancer. Surely, knowing how things work might be of some use or comfort to them.

Or perhaps, cynically, this is another back door to religion proffered by those who aren't satisfied with teaching their own children their own beliefs on their own time: perhaps the hope is that people who don't understand how the world works will turn to a shallow form of confused faith in their times of trouble. If nobody understands what a cancerous cell is, maybe they'll just decide that cancer is God's will. Admittedly, I'm an atheist, but that seems as shallow a reason to believe in the divine as being terrorized into it by fear of Hell and damnation. It's hard to imagine why a Christian (or anyone else) would want to spread that kind of "faith." But oh well.

Anyway, Quammen doesn't go there--the political riffing is all me. Quammen is concerned with cancer, evolution, and Tasmanian devils, and it's a damn engaging read. Do yourself a favor if you haven't already read it, and go to it.

4 comments:

Jim Wright Monday, August 11, 2008 at 10:32:00 AM EDT  

Excellent post, Eric.

I read about the Tasmanian Devil epidemic in - I want to say SciAm - a while back.

Creationists like to haul out the old chestnut "There ain't no atheists in a foxhole," and yet I've met many, many atheists in foxholes. Strange, how I never hear the converse though, i.e. "There ain't no creationists when it comes to cancer," and yet creationists always seem to turn to science first when their diagnosis comes back positive. Oh sure, they pray and such, but they never depend on just that or accept "God's Will." Suddenly they're big believers in medicine and biology.

Of course, if they do end up cancer free after rad-therapy or etc, well, then they thank God, and go back to harping about how science is ruining the country. Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing a little more faith based medicine when it comes to creationists, think of it as evolution in action. :)

Eric Monday, August 11, 2008 at 12:40:00 PM EDT  

It's true: with the odd exception of the fundamentalists who refuse medical treatment for themselves and their kids on religious grounds (they get points, I guess, for consistency), the majority of ultra-religious types are more than happy to seek out scientific advice when they're sick. They get treatment for their cancers, antibiotics for their infections--things that would have been "'Tis God's will, child" only a century ago are routinely, "Can ya' give me somethin' for this, doc?"

And it's not just medicine. Physics tells us that the Earth has to be billions of years old and dry bones millions of years old to contain the ratios of radioisotopes they do; I have yet to hear a Young-Earth Creationist (YEC) deny the existence of fisson triggers in thermonuclear bombs. If the YECs are right, then we have a fundamental misunderstanding of radioactive decay, then truly God only knows what's going on in those warheads. (Will decay speed up? Slow down? Get all timey-wimey? Does this mean they could go critical at random, or are uselessly inert? One would think every YEC would be a member of SANE out of fear that all those bombs could go boom in their silos or might be the biggest boondoggle of taxpayers' monies in human history.)

Ditto for the speed of light and the age of the universe. If the YEC rebuttals of the state of science have merit, you'd think you might hear a YEC credit God with his excellent cell-phone reception ("He's speeding up the waves!") or blaming Him for the bad ("It's not Cingular's fault, God keeps slowing down the beams or stopping them halfway."). Still waiting for it.

Jim Wright Monday, August 11, 2008 at 12:45:00 PM EDT  

He's speeding up the waves!

Oh, that's going to be my new catchphrase of the day! Ha!

vince Monday, August 11, 2008 at 5:50:00 PM EDT  

Admittedly, I'm an atheist, but that seems as shallow a reason to believe in the divine as being terrorized into it by fear of Hell and damnation. It's hard to imagine why a Christian (or anyone else) would want to spread that kind of "faith." But oh well.

Eric, I'm a Christian that agrees with you. If you're going to believe in something just because you're afraid, it's a piss poor reason to believe.

Creationists like to haul out the old chestnut "There ain't no atheists in a foxhole," and yet I've met many, many atheists in foxholes. Strange, how I never hear the converse though, i.e. "There ain't no creationists when it comes to cancer," and yet creationists always seem to turn to science first when their diagnosis comes back positive.

Sad, but true. And they tend to cherry pick both their science and there theology.

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