Nothing can scare us quite as much as cancer. This disease, striking sometimes sensibly, sometimes arbitrarily, inspires despair and hopelessness to the same extent that its cure eludes us. Cancer researcher Mel Greaves illuminates what we know of its causes and the obstacles to research in Cancer: The Evolutionary Legacy
. The subtitle is intriguing, and Greaves backs it up with a detailed examination of the evolutionary biology of cancer cells. It turns out that we can profitably think about cancer as a tool in the struggle for survival and reproduction among all the cells within a body. Losing regulatory genes might be great for reproducing individual cell lines, but in the long run, they are, of course, devastating to the organism as a whole. Greaves's personal, almost chatty style helps the nontechnical reader through some of the complicated immunological and genetic issues, and it also humanizes a topic that can easily overwhelm us with awe. Slipping back a few centuries, he explores the history of cancer and our attitudes toward it, then looks at how it has changed in recent years to become more widespread and better understood. Though Greaves is careful not to promise a cure just around the corner, his experience lends the writing an optimism that most readers will find refreshing. Though we're still at the mercy of this terrible disease, it's good to know we have more than just natural selection on our side. --Rob Lightner
From Publishers Weekly
Setting forth a novel Darwinian theory of the origin of cancer, Greaves contends that cancer's development is a bizarre yet remarkably close parody of species diversification in evolution, embodying the basic ground rules of random genetic diversification and selection for survival, as cells that are driven by mutant genes that ignore signals to restrain their aggressive growth take over and cannibalize bodily systems. Director of the Leukemia Research Fund Center at London's Institute of Cancer Research, Greaves rejects the widespread view that the 20th century's cancer epidemic is due to environmental pollutants, chemicals, pesticides and manmade radiation. Instead, he insists that all cancers arise from a mix of causes, such as naturally occurring and synthetic toxins, chronic stress, overexposure to sunlight, cigarette smoking, gamma rays, DNA-damaging viruses, poor diet and spontaneous physiological changes caused by aging. Pursuing his Darwinian tack, Greaves also comes up with some maverick hypotheses about the causes of breast and prostate cancer. The good news, he says, is that 90% of modern cancers are preventable. Besides recommending changes in diet and lifestyle, he envisions advances in genetic screening to allow identification of the mutant genes that signal escalating malignancy. Though technical at times, Greaves's clean prose and historical asides make this book accessible to the general reader. 20 illus.
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