Cancer as a breakdown of cooperation (and how science+internet = easier confirmation bias)

This post is going to be about a recent paper about cancer co-authored by my PhD advisor. But to explain why I’m excited about it, let me start at the beginning…

I love it when I’m writing about a topic I know so well that I can drop the references into place as quickly as can type (Smith et al. 2010). Sometimes that’s not the case (Smith & whathisname? 197-something).

But here’s my guilty confession: when I’m writing a research proposal (as I’m supposed to be doing right now), I sometimes type a sentence with a scientific “fact” that I know must be true, but I don’t know the citation off the top of my head. So then I go fishing for a supporting reference to confirm my pre-existing belief. (Yes, I know this is how the internet becomes full of misinformation. And yes I know this is exactly how people irrationally form beliefs and opinions about morality and just about everything else when they are not thinking like a proper scientist.) But, it’s really never that bad. For example, I might write the following:

Most studies on spatial memory have tested rats as subjects.

…then I pause. That’s true right? Or is it humans? It can’t be pigeons. Definitely not. What about bees? No, probably rats. Then I think: Can I just find someone saying that on Google Scholar and cite them?

or I might write,

While in South America, Charles Darwin observed a vampire bat feeding on a horse.

Now, I’m pretty sure that’s true. But I have no idea of where I learned that, so I’m not 100% sure it’s true. So I have to look it up. Ok, I just looked it up. Yes, it’s true (scroll to bottom).

As you might expect, I often learn that a supposed “fact” I believed has little or no evidence behind it. I actually learn quite a bit trying to confirm stuff that’s not right.

But it gets worse. Sometimes, when I’m getting dangerously close to the BS zone, I look for a review paper (a hypothetical one) on a whole body of scientific work that I just assumed must exist to support some generalization I think must be true in an area I don’t know much about. For example, I might write:

“Social evolution theory has provided useful insights into cancer by viewing cancerous cells as ‘cheats’ surrounded by cooperative and altruistic normal somatic cells.”

Ok, I’ve actually written and then tried to support this statement several times back when I started by PhD. At this time, I was just learning, and writing and reading about social evolution more generally. And I was always trying to explain why all these cool ideas –inclusive fitness theory, evolutionary game theory, and so on– would help to explain everything and make the world a better place — help save the environment, end war, cure cancer, fix the economy, and, of course most importantly of all, explain with the utmost rigor, why vampire bats regurgitate into each others’ mouths.

But I was seriously astonished that there wasn’t already a huge and obvious well-developed body of work more explicitly linking cancer and social evolution. I was expecting to find piles of books, and instead I recall finding only one. I remember searching for “social evolution” and “cancer” and very few relevant papers came up. But, I was pretty sure that my statement above is true. Or at least it should be true. How could it not be? But really, I had no idea if anyone had developed this obvious notion of cancer cells as cheats into a rigorous scientific theory that makes useful predictions. Of course, there were scattered papers here and there. But nothing truly integrative like what I was imagining. Why not? Cancer is surely one of the most relevant and important topics one could explore with evolutionary theory!

Well, as an academic reader and consumer of science, I can proudly say that my prayers have been answered! In the last few years, there has been a new research center and conference series, a recent special review issue about this topic here and just recently here.

I learned all this just now because C. Athena Aktipis, and colleagues including my PhD advisor (while on his sabbatical) recently published a paper in one of these issues entitled, Cancer across the tree of life: cooperation and cheating in multicellularity

which was just picked up by this NY Times Article.

which was then picked up by this middle school science teacher who writes songs about science:

And my old advisor just emailed us to tell us this story. And my friend and fellow lab alumnus Kyle replied:

Ah, the old “sabbatical-collaboration-to-published-paper-to-popular-press-coverage-to-nerdy-song-parody” sequence. What a tired cliche. 

So I just had to share that with the world…But it doesn’t seem as funny now as when it happened. Oh well. More about vampire bats in the next blogpost after I finish this proposal.

2 thoughts on “Cancer as a breakdown of cooperation (and how science+internet = easier confirmation bias)

  1. a breakdown in cooperation can be “broken down” (see what i did there…) to a breakdown of communication. Communication becomes corrupted. That said, something can only be ‘hacked’ or ‘corrupted’ if it functions in a predictable manner in a deterministic system.

    Specifically what do we know about “social evolution”? That people are becoming more PREDICTABLE. People act less individually and more as a group. Hive mind mentality.

    That puts a system at risk of corruption by an outside pathogen.

    But there can also be an internal breakdown

    Because people have also started acting more the SAME. People start homogenizing. Like in any system, when all parts are equal you only get one thing– stagnation. Which leads to destruction

    On the flip side, Diversity = synergistic systems = growth. Processes within the system require many different kinds of complimentary pieces. Opposites. Inverses.

    Unless different parts of the system preserve their autonomous function as part of the whole– cooperation by default breaks down.1’s and 2’s can’t code when there’s only 1’s or only 2’s.

    To understand another thing, you have to know it’s opposite. That means there has to BE an opposite. Otherwise information gets lost in translation. There is a breakdown in cellular communication.

    In the same way there has been a breakdown in people communication. Communication is loosing its MEANING.People talking…but are they really saying anything? Can anything be said at all if there’s no one who can understand it?

    Information that’s not received ceases to be information — it’s just data. and that’s useless.

    As above, so below 🙂


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