Documenting the Coming Singularity

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Downside of Natural Selection: Cancer

Most people don't really understand the point of natural selection and evolution. The common misconception is that natural selection's goal is the continuation of the species. In other words, we believe that traits that are advantageous to an individual will be propagated in order for the species to survive. In fact, natural selection doesn't care about the individual or the species. It cares only about the genes.

Richard Dawkins' 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, explained this concept.

The phrase "selfish gene" in the title of the book was coined by Dawkins as a provocative way of expressing the gene-centric view of evolution, which holds that evolution is best viewed as acting on genes, and that selection at the level of organisms or populations almost never overrides selection on genes. More precisely, an organism is expected to evolve to maximise its inclusive fitness – the number of copies of its genes passed on globally (rather than by a particular individual). As a result, populations will tend towards an evolutionarily stable strategy.

So what's the downside? According to Jarle Breivik, an associate professor at the University of Oslo, Norway:

“Cancer is a fundamental consequence of the way we are made. We are temporary colonies made by our genes to propagate themselves to the next generation. The ultimate solution to cancer is that we would have to start reproducing ourselves in a different way.”

Although DNA repair is favourable to the organism; it may not be favourable to the individual cell. The theory was developed in several science papers, including an invited Commentary in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, and may be illustrated as the effect of alternative strategies in a car race.

“Deciding when to stop for repairs and when to keep on going is a difficult challenge. Making repairs assures an optimized vehicle, but it also consumes valuable time and resources. At first thought, it may seem obvious that a damaging environment calls for more repair. Paradoxically, however, the effect may be exactly the opposite. Imagine that you are racing through a war zone with constant bombardment. Stopping for repair can then be a fatal strategy, and it is better to keep on going with flat tires and a screaming engine than to stop for repairs,” says Breivik.

This illustration thus explains why genetically unstable cancer cells are favoured in hostile environments—such as in the lungs of a heavy smoker. The model may also be described mathematically and has been experimentally confirmed in cell cultures and animal models by leading research groups in the field.

“Cells exposed to particular carcinogens die if they have the relevant repair mechanism, while genetically unstable cancer cells continued to grow,” Breivik explains.

But this hypothesis, that finding a therapeutic solution to cancer is impossible, doesn't mean that it can't be solved by any other means. In fact, Breivik suggests that the goal of radical life extension will simply have to find a better substrate in which to place ourselves:

He argues that cancer therapy is an attempt to counteract the natural decay of the body. If we think about it, however, it is not really the body we care about. After all, most people are more than happy to trade in a defect organ for a new one.

“It's the mind, our thoughts and consciousness that we desperately want to preserve. If we look at technological developments as a whole, that may be exactly what’s happening. The ongoing revolution in information and biotechnology may be interpreted as the mind’s liberation from the genes. It’s difficult to imagine the alternative, but if I could see a thousand years into the future, I would be very surprised if earth is still dominated by two-legged creatures with a limited life span,” says Jarle Breivik.

This will sound familiar to anyone interested in the coming singularity. I say onward, and let the devil take the hindmost!

(Via ScienceDaily)

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