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August 21, 2012

Speeding Neutrinos, Cold Fusion ... and Cancer Triggers?

Earlier this year I submitted a little essay to The New York Times for consideration by their Op-Ed editor. When The Times didn't accept it I sent it to the Science Editor of The Guardian who also declined. Although the matter of hyper-fast neutrinos was subsequently resolved (the neutrinos were disqualified) my point remains valid: the discovery of cellular oncogenes ought to have shocked the evolutionary biology community, compelling at least a few of them to take a hard look at their theory. 

The following is that essay. It's been slightly edited, mainly to include relevant links. 

The world’s physicists' community has been rocked by the report from Italy that researchers have clocked neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light. Many physicists have expressed skepticism, but the researchers have rechecked their measurements and claim they are accurate. Time will tell if those findings are ultimately accepted. We intrigued bystanders can only wait for the ultimate outcome: either those observations were somehow flawed or basic physics theory needs tweaking, if not a major revision.

The speedy neutrinos remind me of another alleged finding that shocked physicists: the 1989 report that two American scientists (Martin Fleichmann and Stanley Pons) had produced nuclear fusion at room temperature.

As reported in The New York Times, announcement of that claim was followed by a "frenzy" of activity in "hundreds of laboratories." At Yale, graduate students labored night and day in an underground bunker placing five tons of lead bricks around sensitive detectors and tiny plastic bottles, in order to shield their experiment from stray radiation. Researchers at the University of Washington and at MIT also worked frantically to confirm the Fleichmann-Pons finding. One MIT theorist pulled an all-nighter, trying to develop a mathematical explanation for the discovery.

What drove all that activity was not only the realization that cold fusion had great potential practical significance, but that, like the speedy neutrinos, it defied accepted theory. 

As it turned out, no other investigator duplicated the Fleichmann-Pons findings and most physicists eventually lost interest in cold fusion.

But the reactions of the physicists to both the reports of speedy neutrinos and cold fusion were eminently sensible: something that conflicted with accepted theory seemed to have been observed. In both cases the findings demanded rigorous investigation.

Although we would expect all scientists to react similarly whenever a discovery conflicted with theoretical expectations, something similar occurred in biology, also in the 1980s, but unlike the physicists those biologists who ought to have been disturbed by the discoveries -- the evolutionary theorists -- have ignored it completely.

I'm referring to the discovery of oncogenes--cancer triggers--in all the normal cells of humans and other animals.

Unlike the professional evolutionists, one science journalist, writing anonymously in 1981 in The Economist, understood the implications of the discovery: 

... what on earth are [oncogenes] for? Nature would not have evolved genes specifically intended to produce cancers. There would be no advantage whatever in that. Yet it looks as if [oncogenes] have an old evolutionary origin and have survived natural selection to climb right up the evolutionary tree of species.

That journalist was correct. Cancer triggers in all normal animal cells made no sense--no sense at all--according to accepted evolutionary theory.

But one evolutionary theorist, a rank amateur, began arguing in 1978, in unpublished papers he mailed to prominent biologists, that cancer triggers in all normal animal cells must exist. They had to be there, he claimed--years before their discovery--because conventional theory lacked an evolutionarily effective quality control mechanism operating at the level of individual somatic cells.

That amateur theorist was me.

My idea that cancer could have played a major role in animal evolution by killing off young animals in which the genetic program was not expressed with utmost precision in all somatic cells was eventually published in two Letters in the peer-reviewed Journal of Theoretical Biology in the mid-1980s. By that time I had no need to postulate oncogenes in all normal cells; their discovery had been widely reported, earning Varmus and Bishop a Nobel in 1985. In 1992 an expanded book version of my theory received a positive review in Nature.

My proposal has now gained some support among laboratory researchers; it’s been cited in more that twenty scientific papers.

But the evolutionary community continues to ignore both the discovery of cancer genes and my proposed explanation for their historical role; cancer is not even mentioned in the index of the most popular college evolution textbook.

Perhaps physicists, once they resolve the problem created by those neutrinos, could offer biologists some pointers on the significance of important discoveries unexplained by accepted theory.

 Comments and questions to the author ... are welcomed here.

 At this site you will find links to additional material including my original Letters to the Journal    of  Theoretical Biology and  the 1992 Nature review of my book.

© 2012 by James Graham

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