George Johnson writes about cancer as an evolutionary cheater.
The idea that life began in “primordial soup” with single-celled organisms is well-known. The truly remarkable thing is that those microorganisms learned how to cooperate with one another, developing specialized functions useful to the larger aggregation of cells.
“Each of these collectives,” writes Johnson, “is held together by a delicate web of biological compromises. By surrendering some of its autonomy, each cell prospers with the whole.”
Now, here’s where cancer comes in:
“But inevitably, there are cheaters: A cell breaks loose from the interlocking constraints and begins selfishly multiplying and expanding its territory, reverting to the free-for-all of Darwin’s pond. And so cancer begins.”
The cheating becomes truly destructive when, ironically, the cheater cells resist the entirely natural process of dying:
“In a healthy organism, a cell replicates only as frequently as needed to maintain the population and allow for modest growth. Cancer cells begin reproducing wildly, consuming more than their share of resources and spewing poisons that degrade the environment and reshape it to their own advantage.”
The cancer cells cease living for the good of the organism and begin living only for themselves. If that means damaging or destroying some of the cells around them, so be it. Individual survival at any cost is the cheater’s motto. Sounds a little like libertarianism, no?
Many cancer cells develop their own collective within the larger organism — cooperating with other nearby cancer cells, but not so much with the larger body. Some malignant cells develop specialized functions within their sub-collective. The cheaters come together in something resembling gangs.
So, the disease we’re seeking to overcome is a cheating, selfish aggregation of cells.
Makes it a bit easier to go after these cheating cells with all the therapeutic weapons in the oncologists’ arsenal, doesn’t it?
The ultimate irony is that, if the cancer succeeds in bringing about the death of the organism, it dies too. Ultimately, cheaters depend on others they can cheat.