Cancer cells and adaptive explanations

Pierre Luc Germain

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)785-810
Number of pages26
JournalBiology and Philosophy
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2012


  • Adaptation
  • Cancer
  • Darwinian populations
  • Explanation
  • Natural selection

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • History and Philosophy of Science
  • Philosophy


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