Some Thoughts about Evolution and Cancer

PS: This is a long article and in retrospect, may have more implications to Buddhism than I have explored.  I have decided to leave it as it is and perhaps explore these connections in other articles.

You know, evolution, the Theory of Evolution that is getting a lot of press time in US? Yeah, the one Darwin proposed as the manner human and the various types of animals came to exist the way they exist? That they evolve from earlier simpler forms and are evolving into more complex forms.

I’m not a scientist or a biologist. I never studied biology or anthropology and I’m not even good in Chemistry. I’m just a monk with no training in these fields. But I have an interest in science since young and of late, due to the sheer volume of online articles about the Theory of Evolution (TE), I cannot help but read a few and learn something more.

TE states that as species evolve different traits, the ones with traits that are more suitable for survival tend to be passed on to later generations through the genes, because their hosts survive. On the other hand, species with incompatible or loosing traits die out and these traits die out with the genes. In short, survival of the fittest, with the best evolutionary traits. See Evolution in wikipedia for more info.

Recently, I was thinking about how this may explain why human beings seem to be getting weaker and have more and more illnesses.

The different phenomena described by TE and the Law of Gravity, are not something created or formulated into existence. It was how it was. TE and the LoG merely codify or explain how such a phenomena work or function. With human beings, modern science influences strongly how we live and interact with the natural environment. With the physical traits of a human being, we are one of the weakest in the animal kingdom. Yet, with our inventions, we extended the distance and speed of travel possible, the height of flight … without technology, human anatomy has no means for flight! We also can swim deeper than any land animals, and build structures taller and bigger than any built by other species. (ok, collectively, the hive structure of a certain species of ants may be collosal and possibly bigger than man-made structures to date). We have even sent humans to moon, and our probes have explored deep stretches of space beyond our imagination. Surely, our brain is one of the key trait that is suitable for survival right? I wonder.

I’m not writing about how we will create weapons of mass destructions and annihilate ourselves. I’m pondering on how our development of science may have meant that certain other traits of human beings that are ill-suited for survival, physical survival, may have been shielded by our overwhelming brain power, and end up falling through the evolutionary filter for weak genes.

Consider a
radical scenario where human beings develop brain power but do not use it to increase its survival odds. According to TE, we would either a) die out or b) evolve other suitable traits to survive, and survive or c) evolve other traits that didn’t help and die out. Both a) and c) in such cases would mean that human beings didn’t make it. so what of case B? What happens in scenario B?

In this scenario, human beings that survive, must have developed traits that are suitable for survival. These would have been either physical traits such that would make humans stronger or at the least, more suitable for survival. As stated earlier, because we are considering a special case in which brain power is purposefully ignored, the traits for survival must be related to physical capabilities. We may evolve stronger anti-bodies or better resistance to cold or weather changes etc.

Compared to scenario A and C, where we either did not evolve or evolve in ways unsuitable for survival, we die out eventually. Without the support of our brain power to develop sciences, such as that in the medical field, those ill suited for survival would have died out, leaving behind those who evolve suitably.

Now let us come back to our world, the way things really turned out. We not only evolve brain power, we develop sophisticated sciences and technologies that enable us to do many things we cannot possible have done, including the ability to survive when we could have, would have and should have died out as a species, at least according to TE’s survival of the fittest.

Ok, that last line must have come as a shock for some, but think about it. Without science and technologies, many parts of the world would be inhabitable with our frail body and yet we have cities in the desert plains, boasting swimming pools and greeneries. Without science and technologies, many with illnesses or birth defects would have died out. But we have science and technologies. And this has allowed humans to survive as a species, and may well have included traits that would have been ill-suited for survival in the other scenarios.

I am not suggesting some supreme trait or gene that we should isolate and wipe out the weaker ones, that is genocidal. What I am saying is the possible irony that our attempts to increase our chances of survival through medical science and other forms of technologies, may have inevitably hampered our evolutionary tract in the physical department. Survival of the fittest still applies, but not necessarily fittest in the physical sense of the word. Fittest in the sense of a resultant quotient of fitness, including physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, technological, material, financial etc. So whereas in the natural world, survival would have weighed heavily on physical attributes, survivability of humans include other factors mentioned above and more.

This quotient, a Fitness Quotient or Survival Quotient (SQ? Did I coin in a new term? Not referring to the Singapore Airline here! ;)) determines how suitable a being or species may survive in the next hundred or thousand years. Beings with overly low SQ simply die out. Beings with super high SQ … hmmm … Buddha? In a way, because we are talking about survival, there may be a hard ceiling for survival in a certain environment. So to survive on earth, you may need a quotient of 100. So if a species have an SQ of more than 100, such a species would survive fairly well, but may be over ‘evolved’ or over-engineered its environment. It would be wasteful of resources to survive with overly high SQ. Beings with consistently low SQ below 100 would slowly die out over hundreds and thousands of years. In space or other galaxies, SQ may be higher or lower. Eg, astronauts in space would die out without the protection of all the various life-support systems. With our fragile body, we would not survive more than a few minutes in space. So we can say that SQ in space is higher than the arbitrary 100 on Earth, but with technology, we increase our overall SQ to make it
possible for us to survive in space.

Another thing that happens in space is muscular dystrophy and osteoporosis. This is due to the lack of gravity which means that the stress level in the muscles and bones experienced by the astronauts are much lower than that experienced by us on Earth. So while SQ is higher in some way, the demand on muscle and bones is lower. As a result, the muscles and bones in astronauts naturally compensate and degenerate. Coming back to earth, muscle dystrophy and osteoporosis is probably more prevalent in a city dweller who do not exercise regularly than a farmer in the country side. Extending this, we may consider how improvements in medical science could perhaps have reduced the need for our body’s immune system to develop further. A certain balance in the survival quotient is perhaps maintained naturally. The body’s requirement for physical fitness and resistance to viruses and harmful bacteria is lower because of improvement of medical science. This lowering does not result in our species dying out because the resultant SQ is still maintained, albeit through a higher reliance on technology through medical science.

Other simpler technologies like air-conditioning may over generations also reduce our tolerance towards changes in temperature, limiting our bodies to be suitable for a smaller temperature range than perhaps would have been possible otherwise. Our ability to manipulate our environment may well restrict us in the variety of environment we are able to live in naturally.

So should we drop medical science altogether? How about technology as a whole? I don’t think so. Without technology, you would not be reading this. Without technology, many cities and perhaps countries would be inhabitable. Despite the short history of modern technology, we have perhaps come a bit too far and become too intertwined with it to consider dropping it wholesale. Some may be able to live without technology and science right away, but for many, it is a matter of survival. We, humans, and technology have become a pair of siamese twins, in a somewhat symbiotic relationship. If human beings perish, technology would cease as well, unless technology become sentient and replace us. If technology were to die out suddenly, would we survive as a species? I think we can, but we would need to change our lifestyle and live differently. Not suggesting an Amish lifestyle here, but I think we have to strike a balance.

So, coming full circle, perhaps we have to contend with having weaker bodies due to our dependence on medical sciences and other modern technologies. Perhaps in a twisted way, that is why there is always some new bug or virus lurking around the corner just as we conquer one with our modern medical science. Are we doomed to contend with some form of aging, sickness and ultimately our human mortality as the Buddha expounded 2500 over years ago?

What do you think, dear reader?

Related articles:

Steve Hawking on a new stage of evolution
http://tkcollier.wordpress.com/2009/07/04/stephen-hawking-humans-have-entered-a-new-stage-of-evolution/
Muscular Dystrophy in astronauts
http://www.esa.int/esaHS/SEM6QJVHESE_business_0.html
http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=4530
Osteoporosis in astronauts
http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2001/ast01oct_1.htm
http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=19970

  • Excellent article, well researched. Yes we humans have increased our needs to a height that without them life would be difficult to live. Like mobiles, laptops – they have taken over our existence. Our life in terms of quality – the
    inner organs have become weak, we taken in so much of synthetic, like medicines for each & every possible illness, sickness that without them we cannot survive. If you look around what tools our forefathers used to use & see there style of living it is was serene & beautiful, all natural. We even now eat GMO foods, the depletion of forests, the imbalance of the eco. systems, damaging of wetlands, faster melting of Icebergs & Glaciers in the Artic & Antartic is also signs of survival heading towards disasters. All this man made, our greed, desire & want has destroyed the beautiful earth. We need to rethink our lifestyles in order to try to reverser the damage done by us humans, make our bodies stronger with the nature.
    I am seeing so much destructions of forest covers, trees, all that is green in the name of development here in the African Continent, & also in my home Country Kenya.
    With Metta
    Atula Shah

  • @Atula, thanks for your kind words. Wonder if any researchers in this field may have noted this as well?

    @All, thanks to a dear friend, the article seem to be slightly disconnected with the title, in particular, the total absence of the word “cancer” in the article itself. Rather than modify the article, I will just say here that cancer may well be the result of certain traits that would have, in a non-tech, non-medical evolutionary track, died out over time.

    If that is indeed the case, then it would be ironic that medical science in its attempt to remove illnesses, may have cured some, but inevitably, allowed certain traits to persists longer over generations and perhaps culminate into suitable conditions leading to cancer etc.

    Another link between evolution and cancer is the mutation factor in both cases. In evolution, variation of genes arises due to “two main ways: 1) Mutation of genes or 2) transfer of genes between populations and between species.” Further, “in species that reproduce sexually, new combinations of genes are also produced by genetic recombination, which can increase variation between organisms.” Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution

    Cancer itself has several causes and one such cause is also mutation.
    Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cancer

    So the same mutation mechanism that allowed species to evolve is also responsible for some forms of cancer. Quite a double-edged sword isn’t it?