Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 27, Issue 6, pp 785-810

First online:

Cancer cells and adaptive explanations

  • Pierre-Luc GermainAffiliated withUniversità degli Studi di Milano, European Institute of Oncology (IEO) Email author 

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The aim of this paper is to assess the relevance of somatic evolution by natural selection to our understanding of cancer development. I do so in two steps. In the first part of the paper, I ask to what extent cancer cells meet the formal requirements for evolution by natural selection, relying on Godfrey-Smith’s (Darwinian populations and natural selection. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009) framework of Darwinian populations. I argue that although they meet the minimal requirements for natural selection, cancer cells are not paradigmatic Darwinian populations. In the second part of the paper, I examine the most important examples of adaptation in cancer cells. I argue that they are not significant accumulations of evolutionary changes, and that as a consequence natural selection plays a lesser role in their explanation. Their explanation, I argue, is best sought in the previously existing wiring of the healthy cells.


Cancer Adaptation Natural selection Explanation Darwinian populations