NATURAL SELECTION IS NOT NATURAL PERFECTION. Living creatures have evolved some remarkably complex adaptations, but we are still very vulnerable to disease. Among the most tragic of those ills—and perhaps most enigmatic—is cancer. A cancerous tumor is exquisitely well adapted for survival in its own grotesque way. Its cells continue to divide long after ordinary cells would stop. They destroy surrounding tissues to make room for themselves, and they trick the body into supplying them with energy to grow even larger. But the tumors that afflict us are not foreign parasites that have acquired sophisticated strategies for attacking our bodies. They are made of our own cells, turned against us. Nor is cancer some bizarre rarity: a woman in the U.S. has a 39 percent chance of being diagnosed with some type of cancer in her lifetime. A man has a 45 percent chance.
These facts make cancer a grim yet fascinating puzzle for evolutionary biologists. If natural selection is powerful enough to produce complex adaptations, from the eye to the immune system, why has it been unable to wipe out cancer? The answer, these investigators argue, lies in the evolutionary process itself. Natural selection has favored certain defenses against cancer but cannot eliminate it altogether. Ironically, natural selection may even inadvertently provide some of the tools that cancer cells can use to grow.
The study of cancer evolution is still in its infancy, with much debate about the mechanisms involved and much testing of hypotheses left to carry out. Some medical researchers remain skeptical that the work will affect the way they fight the disease. Evolutionary biologists agree that they are not about to discover a cure for cancer, but they argue that understanding cancer's history could reveal clues that would otherwise remain hidden. “Obviously, we always have that in the back of our minds in everything we do,” says Judith Campisi of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.