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Pseudoscience attracts pseudoscience over evolution in medicine

One thing that’s become obvious to me over the last few years that I’ve been engaged in dealing with various forms of pseudoscience, alternative medicine, and conspiracy theories is that people who are prone to credulity to one form of pseudoscience, the paranormal, or other crankery tend to be prone to credulity towards multiple forms of crankery. For example, Phillip Johnson, one of the “luminaries” of the “intelligent design” creationism movement is also a full-blown HIV denialist who doesn’t accept the science that demonstrates that HIV causes AIDS. Another example is Dr. Lorraine Day, who is heavily into dubious alternative cancer therapies and is also a conspiracy theorist and Holocaust denier. More recently a creationist, Johannes Lerle, was jailed as a Holocaust denier in Germany, and crank supreme Larry Fafarman proudly claims himself to be a “Darwin doubter” and a “Holocaust revisionist.” In a similar vein, antivaccinationist Pat Sullivan, Jr. is also a “Darwin doubter,” while regular contributor at Bill Dembski’s home for ID sycophants Dave Springer (a.k.a. DaveScot) not only rejects the science of evolution in favor of the pseudoscience of ID, but is also a global warming denialist crank and encourages unsupervised experimentation with an unproven anticancer agent by desperate cancer patients.

The list goes on.

Now here’s yet another bit of evidence to support the attraction of crankery to crankery pointed out to me by Tara and a couple of readers, courtesy of PaV over at Uncommon Descent. This time around, it’s the ID crowd embracing Peter Duesberg, trying to link his aneuploidy hypothesis of cancer to an antievolution screed:

In this latest post at PhysOrg, it seems that Darwinism hasn’t helped, but instead hindered the fight against cancer.

Dr. Peter Duesberg, a molecular biologist at Berkeley,

proposed in 2000 that the assumption underlying most cancer research today is wrong. That assumption, that cancer results from a handful of genetic mutations that drive a cell into uncontrolled growth, has failed to explain many aspects of cancer, he said, and has led researchers down the wrong path.

And, in words that support Behe’s main thesis in “The Edge of Evolution”, Deusberg also adds:

“In this new study and in one published in 2005, we have proved that only chromosomal rearrangements, rather than mutations, can explain the high rates and wide ranges of drug resistance in cancer cells.”

Only someone who knows very little about cancer biology and cancer research could have said something so ignorant. A couple of months ago, I discussed Peter Duesberg’s chromosomal chaos hypothesis in gory detail. (Indeed, I was criticized for not editing the post down to a more manageable size.) It’s a concept that has some scientific merit and probably is a major mechanism of carcinogenesis and cancer progression in some tumors. However, unlike the way it’s being represented, it’s not actually that novel of an idea. Although attributing carcinogenesis to chromosomal aneuploidy is not itself pseudoscience, Duesberg pushes it to the border of pseudoscience by, in characteristic crank fashion, boldly declaring aneuploidy as The One True Cause of All Cancer (and scientists who don’t accept it as unimaginative, deluded, and unappreciative of his genius), in much the same way that he declares that HIV is Not The True Cause of AIDS. To him, it’s all or nothing. Cancer is either caused by all mutation or all chromosomal abnormalities. Never mind that chromosomal rearrangements frequently cause mutations. The end result is then derangements in gene expression, such that genes causing unregulated growth are turned on out of control and/or genes involved in growth suppression are turned off–often both. The bottom line is that Duesberg seems incapable of comprehending that both mechanisms, aneuploidy and mutation, probably play a role in carcinogenesis to different degrees depending on which cancer is being discussed.

In characteristic fashion, the Uncommon Descent article tries to invoke Duesberg’s chromosomal aneuploidy concept to how “Darwinism” has supposedly led cancer researchers in the wrong direction:

Think of the number of people who die each year of cancer as compared to the number who die from bacterial infection, and one can easily see that all the chest-slapping by the Darwinists about how RM+NS has given us anti-bacterial drugs can know pound their breasts in remorse at the “wrong path” mutational theory has led cancer researchers. This isn’t just a battle between the God-denying and the God-affirming segments of our global society, it’s about good science versus bad science, about reason versus myth.

Actually, in the developing world, bacterial infection is a major killer that’s easily on par with cancer. It’s utterly silly to belittle it as a source of human suffering. After all, infection was a a much more common cause of premature death than cancer 100 years ago, in the era before antibiotics. Child mortality due to infection was high, and, because cancer is, for the most part, a disease of aging, fewer people lived long enough to get cancer. Be that as it may, the above claim by the author of the article (PaV) is just plain idiotic. For one thing, bacterial chromosomes are very different from the chromosomes in eucaryotic cells, such as our cells. In bacteria, the DNA is usually all in a single circular chromosome that is not folded up into higher structures complexed with protein the same way that it is in eucaryotic cells.

The entire article left me scratching my head. PaV seems to be saying that, no matter what progress “Darwinism” has made in understanding bacterial resistance to antibiotics as evolution under the selective pressure (begging the question, of course, of how much he accepts evolution and selection as a major underlying mechanism of bacterial resistance), supposedly applying the same concept to chemotherapeutic resistance in bacteria has led oncology research in the “wrong direction.” How Duesberg’s concepts are linked to this I fail to see. Indeed, I suspect that Duesberg himself would be puzzled by this attempt to invoke his ideas about cancer to attack evolution. To see why, consider what Duesberg has said in the very article cited by PaV:

“The mutation theory of cancer says that a limited number of genes causes cancer, so cancers should all be more or less the same,” Duesberg said. The chromosomal theory, which he laid out in an article in the May 2007 issue of Scientific American, implies instead that, “even if cancers are from the same tissue, and are generated with the same carcinogen, they are never the same. There is always a cytogenetic and a biochemical individuality in every cancer.”

This is, as is frequently the case with Duesberg, a straw man about mutation and cancer. The mutation theory says nothing of the sort, nor is it necessarily a consequence of mutation theory that cancers should be “more or less the same.” Where Duesberg gets that idea, I don’t know. There are actually quite a few oncogenes and tumor suppressors that have been described that can result in cancer. In any case, Duesberg’s not entirely correct about tumors not being similar. In this era of the gene chip, where we can assay every gene in the genome simultaneously, what’s become apparent is that there is less heterogeneity in gene expression in cancers than one might expect. However, it’s when Duesberg wanders into drug resistance that we find why PaV decided to invoke his chromosomal aneuploidy concept:

Development of drug resistance in cancer is one of the strongest arguments for the aneuploidy, or chromosomal, theory of cancer, Duesberg said, and is one aspect of cancer that can be studied experimentally. Normal cancers typically take decades to develop, making it hard to link cause and effect and to prove or disprove either the mutation or chromosomal theories. Drug resistance, however, often occurs quickly. Many cancer patients are initially heartened when their cancer starts to respond to a drug, only to find the cancer suddenly stop responding and begin to grow again.


Duesberg counters that aneuploidy is simpler and can explain the common development of resistance to many unrelated drugs within the same cancer. He has shown in experiments that aneuploidy causes many gene disruptions such as breakage or translocation each time a cancer cell divides, providing an opportunity for it to develop resistance to many drugs. Gene mutation rates in cancer cells, however, are no different from mutation rates in normal cells, making it difficult to understand how several simultaneous mutations can occur in cancer to make them resistant to more than one drug.

Once again, it’s all-or-nothing thinking. Duesberg totally neglects mechanisms of drug resistance that can result in resistance to a wide variety of unrelated chemotherapy drugs through just one mutation. For example, resistance to a wide variety of drugs can occur through the increased production of P-glycoprotein (a.k.a. MDR1). Introduction of this gene into tumor cells can produce resistance to many different chemotherapeutic drugs. Resistance to many drugs does not necessarily require simultaneous mutations in multiple genes. Come to think of it, this idea sounds reminiscent of Michael Behe’s nonsense in The Edge of Evolution, where he claims a probabilistic limit to what mutation and evolution can do. In the same way, Duesberg is claiming that mutation without chromosomal rearrangement isn’t sufficient to explain multidrug resistance. Like Behe’s example of chloroquine resistance in malaria, Duesberg goes wrong by assuming that the multiple mutations must arise simultaneously.

I can see why ID’ers would be attracted to this idea.

The problem is, even if Duesberg were 100% correct, chromosomal aneuploidy is not evidence against evolution, as I’m pretty sure that Duesberg himself would agree. The reason is simple: Selection could just as easily act on chromosomal rearrangement. The reason, of course, is that, according to Duesberg, the reason chromosomal aneuploidy is a better explanation for cancer is because it supposedly destabilizes the genome and actually results in more mutations and changes in levels of more genes than random mutation alone. Indeed, if you accept Duesberg’s argument for the primacy of chromosomal aneuploidy and instability over random mutation in the development of cancer and drug resistance, that would actually be stronger evidence for the role of selection and evolution in drug resistance because, in Duesberg’s world, there would be more mutation and more variability in the expression of key critical genes controlling phenotype producing more raw material on which selection could act.

Indeed, PaV’s argument trying to link Duesberg’s aneuploidy concept in the service of ID is so risible that several commenters, who tend to be pretty sycophantic with regards to ID given that registration is required to comment and dissenters are often quickly banned, take him to task for his argument and even led to the irony of at least two commenters recommending my previous analysis of Duesberg’s work. Of course, no pseudoscientific nonsense is too ridiculous or dumb for that brain dead pit bull of ID, DaveScot to embrace wholeheartedly:

Cancer cells are broken cells. Information has been lost, not gained. Specifically the lost information breaks the apoptosis mechanism. There’s no evolution going on in cancer. Devolution is the apt term. That mutation is responsible for the onset of cancer in many if not most cases is well established. Exposure to sundry forms of ionizing radiation and chemicals definitely causes damage to DNA and raises the risk of cancer. The take home lesson seems to be that nothing good ever happens from DNA damage. No one to my knowledge has ever been exposed to radiation or carcingenic substances and come out better for it – only bad things happen. That isn’t evolution – it’s devolution.

As a cancer researcher, I can say that it caused my brain pain to read that, rather like below:

After all, what are the uncontrolled proliferation and invasion of cancer cells at the expense of host cells if not improved fitness leading to the preferential growth of cancer cells compared to normal cells? Indeed, modeling the increased fitness of tumor cells can be used as a measure of aggressiveness and has been tested as a means of predicting which precancerous esophageal lesions are most likely to progress to invasive cancer. Given DaveScot’s previous antics, it shouldn’t be surprising at all that he’s bordering on being an HIV denialist himself, just like Duesberg.

Perhaps the most hysterically funny take on this comes from our old pal Sal Cordova in the comments:

Regarding the Original Point by Pav, let me add, I can’t see a single case where the neo-Darwinian view has added to medical knowledge any more than what an ID view would have done.

Let’s see. “Darwinism” has helped us to understand the evolution of bacterial drug resistance, the development of cancer, and is increasingly useful in understanding other human diseases. What has ID contributed to medicine?


Worse, if you read the comments, you’ll find a fair amount of sympathy among ID advocates for Duesberg’s contention that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. No one quite comes out and says it, but there are several comments along the lines of “the fact that we haven’t cured AIDS yet suggests that attributing it to HIV has led us down the wrong path.”

In reality, this whole whine is nothing more than yet another application of that favorite gambit of cranks, the Galileo Gambit. Because we haven’t cured cancer yet, something must be wrong. Never mind that cancer is not one disease and that it is a very difficult foe that has been with us from the beginning. Because we haven’t cured it in the 36 years of the War on Cancer, we must be completely on the wrong track. To those liking alternative medicine, it’s obviously “allopathic medicine” that is to blame and our seeming lack of progress is “evidence” that alternative medicine is better. To the ID’er “Darwinism” is to blame. Because Duesberg is a maverick in the world of cancer (or, depending upon your point of view, a crank, given his all-or-nothing, either-or thinking with regards to gene mutation or chromosomal aneuploidy and cancer), he had been viewed as a “Galileo” figure by alternative medicine aficionado’s. It’s not surprising that antievolutionists would gravitate towards him in the same way.

After all, according to the Unified Theory of the Crank, it’s just another example of crank magnetism.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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