Article Review: How Cancer Shapes Evolution and How Evolution Shapes Cancer

LeonardRev. Dr. Leonard M. Hummel
Professor of Pastoral Theology and Pastoral Care
Gettysburg Seminary
Gettysburg, PA 17325

GayleWoloschakGayle E. Woloschak,
Northwestern University School of Medicine, Chicago IL;
Zygon Center for Religion and Science,
Lutheran School of Theology Chicago, IL;


Matias Casás-Selves, James DeGregori. “How Cancer Shapes Evolution and How Evolution Shapes Cancer” Evolution: Education and Outreach December 2011, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp 624–634


The journal in which this article appears states its intent to “promote[s] accurate understanding and comprehensive teaching of evolutionary theory for a wide audience.”  The article, written by two faculty in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics in the University of Colorado School of Medicine, itself provides a very comprehensive and easy to read summary of current basic science on cancer and evolution.  The work of Greaves that we posted before this article [Greaves M. Darwinian medicine: a case for cancer. Nat Rev Cancer. 2007;7(3):213–21.] and the foundational work of Randolf Nesse on evolutionary medicine [Nesse RM. How is Darwinian medicine useful? West J Med. 2001;174 (5):358–60)] provide the frame for their presentation.

Among the many current reviews on cancer and evolution, this work is distinguished by including a focus on the ways that multicellular populations themselves may have evolved to cope with the threat of unicellular evolution within individuals—i.e., cancer—among those populations. “The evolution of multicellular animals, particularly those like us with large bodies and long lives, necessitated the acquisition of potent tumor suppressive mechanisms, which operate at levels of individual cells, tissue organization, and the whole body to limit cancers” (633).  The authors also contribute to this literature by providing a glossary of terms and very lucid figures of the ways that cancers progress.  They also assist by confirming the therapeutic relevance of considering cancer to be a disease of evolutionary development: “by understanding cancer from an evolutionary and ecological perspective, we should be able to design more rational therapeutic approaches that manipulate cancer’s evolutionary trajectories for patient benefit” (633).  The authors succeed in demonstrating in clear terms the importance of evolutionary theory for understanding cancer.


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