The evolution of failure: explaining cancer as an evolutionary process

Christopher Lean, Anya Plutynski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)39-57
Number of pages19
JournalBiology and Philosophy
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • cancer
  • multilevel selection
  • Darwinian populations
  • tumors
  • by-product of selection


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