cancer, genetic mutations, and evolution: randomness run amok

CANCER, GENETIC MUTATIONS, AND….
EVOLUTION

Cancer Genetic Mutations

“As natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.”  From page 577 of Darwin’s Origin of the Species

“At best, the mechanism of gene duplication shows how a hiker can get to the foot of a hiking trail, but never explains how the hiker finds the peak of the mountain, while doing a random, blindfolded walk. We don’t need to know that genes can make copies of themselves; we need to know how the duplicate gene evolves, step-by-step, into an entirely new gene.”  Dr. Stephen Meyer from “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,” Proceedings for the Biological Society of Washington

“What’s particularly scary about cancer is that researchers are still in the dark as to what causes cancer, how it triggers, and in many cases how to fight it. In spite of throwing billions upon billions of dollars at cancer research, we’ve only managed to marginally improve overall survival for some cancer types, including lung cancer and pancreatic cancer, over the past four decades.  Don’t get me wrong, researchers do have a good idea as to what can increase a person’s risk of getting cancer — smoking or long-term sun exposure, for example — but differentiating why some smokers live to be healthy well into their 90’s while a person who eats right and exercises regularly gets cancer in their 40’s has often stumped researchers and consumers alike.   From Sean Williams’ January 10 article, In Case You Missed it, This New Cancer Study is Terrifying

“The unknown and unpredictable element in happenings that seems to have no assignable cause.  A force assumed to cause events that cannot be foreseen or controlled.   An accidental or unpredictable event.  A risk or hazard; a gamble.”    Taken from Farlex’s free online dictionary for the definition of the word ‘Chance’.

Darwin’s view of evolution was that is was being driven by something he called “Natural Selection”.  Natural Selection is loosely defined as the process where certain traits / characteristics of an organism are passed on to successive generations, as long as said trait provides the organism with a better chance to reproduce — aka, Survival of the Fittest.  Darwin believed that this was a slow steady process, which, over the course of millions (billions) of years,had the power to turn amoebas into elephants (HERE).

After Gregor Mendel’s experiments with peas in the 1860’s (shortly after Darwin published his famous book), many scientists believed they had found the Holy Grail as far as determining the driving force for evolution was concerned —- random changes in genetic material which we today call “Genetic Mutations”.  However, genetic mutations provide us with an interesting dichotomy.  Although they are supposedly bringing us closer to the “perfection” Darwin described in Origins, things haven’t quite worked out as nicely as they do in the pages of a Marvel comic book (think X-Men, Spiderman, The Hulk, the Fantastic Four, etc, etc, etc here).  Plainly stated, the vast majority of genetic mutations are bad.  In the real world, genetic mutations lead mostly to things like birth defects and a wide array of diseases, one of which we will discuss shortly.

Don’t get me wrong.  There are some examples of genetic mutations that are beneficial.  The most common one is Sickle Cell Anemia and Malaria — people who carry the Sickle Cell trait tend not to get Malaria.  Some individuals and institutions will go out of their way to tell you how good genetic mutations are (Stanford’s Mutations and Disease article, for instance, says, “Few mutations are bad for you. In fact, some mutations can be beneficial. Over time.”    I would argue that this statement is mostly false.  After looking at lots and lots of research on the top over the past 15 or 20 years, I have yet to be convinced that there are more “good” genetic mutations occurring than “bad” ones (see Meyer’s quote from the top of the page).  Which leads me to the topic of Cancer.

Have you heard about the new study from Johns Hopkins’ Department of Oncology / Center for Cancer Genetics and Therapeutics?  The authors claim (using EVIDENCE-BASED MEDICINE of course) that the vast majority of CANCERS in America are nothing more than, “bad luck“.  Here are a couple of sentences from the abstract of a study published in this month’s issue of Science (Variation in Cancer Risk Among Tissues can be Explained by the Number of Stem Cell Divisions).

“These results suggest that only a third of the variation in cancer risk among tissues is attributable to environmental factors or inherited predispositions. The majority is due to “bad luck,” that is, random mutations arising during DNA replication in normal, noncancerous stem cells.”

I see a real dilemma with this approach to Cancer.  If it is true that it is basically a “random” event, it would mean that our CRAPPY DIETS of PROCESSED FOODS (try pronouncing the chemical names on a food label sometime) / SUGAR, RADIATION EXPOSURE, SMOKING, exposure to TOXIC CHEMICALS, HEAVY METAL TOXICITY, OVER-CONSUMPTION OF PRESCRIPTION DRUGS (and HERE), DESTRUCTION OF THE MICROBIOME, lack of EXERCISE, OBESITY, etc, etc, etc, don’t really mean much as far as our health is concerned.  In other words, if Cancer is mostly due to plain dumb luck (a purely random event), it really means that there is little hope — especially with what we are learning about EPIGENETICS.

According to the American Cancer Society (Cancer Facts & Figures 2014), 2014 saw, “an estimated 1,665,540 new cancer cases diagnosed and 585,720 cancer deaths in the US.  Cancer remains the second most common cause of death in the US, accounting for nearly 1 of every 4 deaths.”   Cancer rates aren’t going down folks; they’re exploding.   Yes, it’s true — there are more people surviving Cancer today, but there are also more people coming down with the disease than any time in our nation’s history — both for the first time as well as relapses.  This despite our national affluence, our scientific breakthroughs, and advanced level of health care.

Rather than leaving your health to ‘blind luck’, why not remove as much of the element of ‘chance’ from your life by doing the things that could potentially and dramatically improve your health?  HERE is where I would start looking. 

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