One of the major developments in cancer research in recent years has been the construction of models that treat cancer as a cellular population subject to natural selection. We expand on this idea, drawing upon multilevel selection theory. Cancer is best understood in our view from a multilevel perspective, as both a by-product of selection at other levels of organization, and as subject to selection (and drift) at several levels of organization. Cancer is a by-product in two senses. First, cancer cells co-opt signaling pathways that are otherwise adaptive at the organismic level. Second, cancer is also a by-product of features distinctive to the metazoan lineage: cellular plasticity and modularity. Applying the multilevel perspective in this way permits one to explain transitions in complexity and individuality in cancer progression. Our argument is a reply to Germain’s (2012) scepticism towards the explanatory relevance of natural selection for cancer. The extent to which cancer fulfills the conditions for being a paradigmatic Darwinian population depends on the scale of analysis, and the details of the purported selective scenario. Taking a multilevel perspective clarifies some of the complexities surrounding how to best understand the relevance of evolutionary thinking in cancer progression.
Financed by the National Centre for Research and Development under grant No. SP/I/1/77065/10 by the strategic scientific research and experimental development program:
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