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August 27, 2012

No, It Is Not Neo-Darwinism, and, Yes, It Is Radical

The two most perplexing responses to my idea that lethal juvenile cancer played an essential role in the origin and evolution of all Bilaterians were from two respected scientists (one a biologist, the other, not) and were very similar in their conclusion. A fair summary of both views might read like this: “You are probably correct Mister Graham, but so what?”

Of course neither scientist used those words. The non-biologist said he thought I was correct but that my idea was simply another way of expressing Neo-Darwinism. The biologist, after stating no objection to my theory, said that I was wrong to consider it “radical.”

Perhaps the best place to begin considering whether or not my idea is radical is with the following sentence from my 1984 Letter to the Journal of Theoretical Biology:

“Those [Bilaterian] germ lines that created the most complex animals endured the most genetic losses to cancer and vice versa.”

I could have said the same thing less succinctly but more emphatically:

Those Bilaterian germ lines that “benefited” the most from intense selection pressure emanating from lethal juvenile cancer produced the most complex animals. We humans, as (arguably) the most complex of all Bilaterians, owe everything to this nightmarish disease; without the death in our lineage of uncountable millions of young animals we would not exist. Neither would civilization.

Let’s compare that statement to what the Index of the Second Edition of Evolution by Douglas J. Futuyma (apparently American universities’ most popular evolutionary biology textbook) says about “cancer selection”:  absolutely nothing.  Perhaps some reference to my idea is buried in the text but I don’t have access to Professor Futuyma’s book and with its listed retail price of $121.95 it will probably remain unread by me.  It is possible, of course, that because of the limited attention it has received, my idea could have escaped the notice of an author of an evolution textbook. Yes, that would be possible for other authors but I know it is not the case for Professor Futuyma who, while editor of the journal Evolution, read my manuscript proposing the theory and decided it was not worthy of publication. (I thank him, belatedly, for providing the amusing epigraph to Chapter Fourteen of Cancer Selection.)


In summary, here’s my comparison of the two theories as they relate to cancer and Bilaterian evolution:

Graham:  Lethal juvenile cancer (cancer selection) played an absolutely essential role in the origin and evolution of Bilaterians. If cancer did not exist and had not actually killed uncountable millions of developing animals none of the Bilaterians could have existed.

Neo-Darwinism:  Cancer did not play any role in Bilaterian evolution. If cancer never existed all animals could have come into existence in forms very similar to extant animals. They might not have acquired certain anti-cancer characteristics but, although such defenses might interest medically-oriented researchers, they are of no interest whatsoever to theorists attempting to understand Bilaterian evolution.
The theories summarized in those statements cannot both be correct. One of them must be wrong and I’m convinced it’s the widely-accepted conventional theory known as Neo-Darwinism. In my next posting I will propose a mental test that supports that view.