Could cancer be in itself a evolutionary process? Maybe in some way could it be a process of variation? Or would this idea be completely without support, if so, why?

I don't mean that each case would lead to evolution, but that within an entire group of organisms, it could lead to case of of individuals developing ways to resist what caused the cancer, maybe in cases of individuals beating the cancer or in cases of successive generations of off spring from individuals with cancer?

Could it be possible that in rare cases it could lead to the development of new organs or specialized cells?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Probably, I could imagine these rebel cells as Che Guevara comrades trying to destroy the Big Brother police state. Alex Jones except of the fact that he is a CIA tactician could be easily a virus ;) $\endgroup$
    – Derfder
    Jun 24, 2013 at 14:15

2 Answers 2


Interesting question. I believe it definitely is an evolutionary process. unicellularity breaking away from a multicellular life.

There are two examples that I can think of, which can support this argument:

  1. Hela cells: Hela cells have been classified as a different organism because they have the ability to grow outside the host indefinitely and their genome is different from Homo sapiens. Hela cells also have a new scientific name- Helacyton gartleri
  2. Transmissible tumors: two tumors have been known to infect other hosts and therefore can be called obligate pathogenic lifeforms. One is Devil Facial Tumor Disease which infects Tasmanian devils and gets transmitted by biting. Another is Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumor which infects dogs and spreads via sexual route.

Could it be possible that in rare cases it could lead to the development of new organs or specialized cells?

Cancer as of now has a pathogenic identity. It is a simplistic process which in a thermodynamic point of view can be described as maximization of entropy(disorder) and thereby increasing the stability [like the way solutes diffuse]. If a cancer has to give rise to a new functional organ then it has to be supportive of the ordered lifestyle which it is trying to break away from in the first place. It may adopt a pathogenic lifestyle initially and then may redevelop order. I don't know of any such evolutionary event but it may nonetheless be possible.


This very interesting question has been explored in a paper, linked this Berkeley page : "Another perspective on cancer: Evolution within" (the paper is at the bottom of the page).

From the site:

If one of those mutations (or a series of mutations) allows its bearer to evade cell death and reproduce more prolifically than others, it will pass that mutation on to its daughter cells, and cells bearing that mutation will increase in frequency over time. Like organisms in an ecosystem, cell lineages within one's own body compete for resources. A cell lineage that gains an advantage in that competition, accumulating mutations that allow it to grab extra resources and escape the body's control mechanisms, will proliferate and may evolve into a cancerous tumor.

The researchers also state that looking at cancer through the 'lens' of cellular evolution could be a major reason why a 'cure' eludes us.

Further, in this article "Connection between cancer development and Darwinian evolution explored", the authors state that:

He believes that many of our genes are constructed such that they protect against cancer in the first part of our lives, but that they are programmed for destruction as we get older.

Essentially, the article asserts that as we get better at prolonging our lives, that cancer is a means to shut down the body over a period of time. My understanding is (and I could be wrong) is that the increase in cancer incidents are an evolutionary way to put the brakes on the increasing human life span.

  • $\begingroup$ not exactly what i was asking, but i was already reading said paper. what it is talking about is the evolution of cancer in the body, about how cancer itself is evolution on the cellular level. what i am asking is in regards to whether it might also be connected to evolution in complex organisms as well $\endgroup$
    – John
    Jun 23, 2013 at 2:04
  • $\begingroup$ @John I added some more information with another article that link cancer to Darwinian evolution. $\endgroup$
    – user3795
    Jun 23, 2013 at 2:31

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