How a Creationist Thinks About Cancer

By George Johnson | July 18, 2013 2:49 pm

The Garden of Eden. A detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” Wikimedia Commons.

In my previous post, on the inevitability of cancer in a world dominated by entropy, I described how the cells in a body are constantly dividing, copying with each division every letter and punctuation mark of their genetic information. “Only a creationist could believe that errors do not happen along the way,” I wrote. Mistakes that slip through the cell’s elaborate proofreading mechanism accumulate, and in the right combination these changes — mutations — can lead to cancer.

Something seemed a little fishy to me about the first part of that sentence, and a reader pointed out my mistake. Though creationists do not believe in evolution, they do believe in genetic mutations. While they play no part in the origin and development of the species — these were laid out in advance by God — mutations can give you cancer. They are among the wages of sin befalling mankind since Eve bit the apple in the Garden of Eden.

Here is how David Demick, a pathologist in Nebraska, put it in an article on the Institution for Creation Research website:

the tragedy of cancer is the result of ongoing genetic deterioration in our body cells, and as such is a manifestation of the Edenic curse of decay and death.

Creationists — and fundamentalist Christians in general — pick and choose among the science that is consistent with their beliefs. And while they reject evolution and the Big Bang theory, they embrace the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which holds that the entropy of the universe is constantly increasing. There can be temporary pockets of order — life, civilization — but in the long run order gradually gives way to disorder. For a creationist the equations of thermodynamics are a mathematical description of the fall from grace that began with original sin.

I’ve been trying to track down a quote from Garrison Keillor that went something like this: “To a fundamentalist there is no such thing as progress.” It’s all been downhill since Genesis, and the decay won’t stop until the Second Coming.

Related post: The Most Powerful Carcinogen Is Entropy

  • Buddy199

    Let the religon bashing begin!

  • mhollis

    Actually, it’s not an apple. It is “the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” which is to say, judgement.

    Apples are good food.

    But you can’t pick and choose bits and pieces of science. You either have to accept science or believe in the world of make-believe. Which is “creationism” in a nut-shell (heavy on the nut).

    • Hominid

      I take your point, but such categorical dichotomies – ‘you either have to accept science or believe in the world of make-believe’ – are dangerous because they are so often misunderstood. There is good science and bad science. Perhaps more importantly, science is limited in the questions it can reasonably answer – and I’m not talking only about metaphysical questions.

  • forwardthinker1

    Ugh. The plus side is that many (if not all) signs right now are pointing to decline in religious belief. Eventually, maybe sooner than we think, we will regard the dominant religions of today the same way we look back at the religions of the Ancient Greeks or Egyptians: a curious and amusing artifact of the past, when people who lacked hard scientific knowledge had to explain the world around them with myths.

    • Hominid

      Rational people have been there for centuries already. The irrational – most of mankind – will always be enamored of grand conceptions of the supernatural.

      • http://stonesnbones.blogspot.com/ Dr. GS Hurd

        Plus, there are a variety of emotional and/or neurological states which people experience that are commonly thought of as “spiritual.” These do need to be recognized and placed into a context that can be managed. A recent trend seems to be to stimulating these experiences as a recreation.

        • Road2Surfdom

          If a trait, quality or characteristic confers benefits, it persists. Faith in a supreme being is a remarkably consistent and persistent featue among humans. What benefit could it provide?

          • http://stonesnbones.blogspot.com/ Dr. GS Hurd

            As I mentioned above, we experience a number of cognitive states which need to be organized so not to be too disruptive. They are hard to find these days, but you could read my articles on altered states of consciousness. Mythologies also serve to reduce stress by “explaining” uncontrollable events like natural disasters, and offering imaginary ways that they can be controlled.

            Lastly, there are advantages to social animals to have stable roles and institutions. Rebellions and anarchy are very expensive socially, and materially. Social structures “ordained by gods” are advantages to ruling elites.

          • Road2Surfdom

            So we are in agreement. Believing provides an advantage.

  • Dwayne J. Stephenson

    Reminds me of the article on conservopedia that argues that the Noah’s Ark story is true, that the earth is young (like 10k years or so) but then embraces continental drift as a means of explain how the kangaroos ended up in Australia. The problem with that being, of course, that if you think continental drift happened, you have to seriously move your creation timetable back a notch, and you still have a big problem trying to explain how pangaea split into the modern continental order in the time between Noah’s flood and today.

    • Hominid

      Not to mention the odds that all the roos were on one side of the rift.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Religious Nut

    There are those in the “religious” category that believe that science and religion can and should exist side-by-side. It saddens me when I see the “absolute” division between the two and recognize that the problem (or perhaps better termed as difficulties) is both causal and reactionary on both sides. I like to say that no man (person) is meant to know the mind of God or all of His ways. There are those things that will never be revealed to us. The fundamentalist views of the 10,000 year timeline (for example) are, quite frankly, filled with holes. However, the scientific view that God and all religious belief are the stuff of myth and legends (to use much friendlier terms than I’ve heard before) is misguided as well. God uses science to create and modify the Universe and uses belief to speak to each of us in His own way; a way that has meaning to each of us. Just because you can’t hear His “voice” doesn’t mean He’s not there, and I believe many things are done for us that we will never know. Thank you.

    • m12345

      What is god telling you to do today?

    • http://stonesnbones.blogspot.com/ Dr. GS Hurd

      Theistic evolution is the idea you have sketched. The interpretation of scriptures (regardless of origin) is structured by the discoveries of science.

    • Hominid

      Gibberish!

  • Krissy

    I agree with the previous comment.I have been in medicine my entire adult academic and professional life and I can assure you or you can check the statistics that most physicians are in fact Christian,Muslim,Jewish or some other religion that believes in a creator.We spend decades not only in the study of human biology but watching,diagnosing and treating the human construct,the human being.The more we find out the more we marvel @ what an unusually complex creation UH-OH I said it CREATION.A creation has a CREATOR and to continue to deny that is to show a personal bias or prejudice.

    • Deacon Razorblades

      Being in medicine does not make you a scientist and being a physician doesn’t necessarily mean you are a evolutionary biologist or that you understand evolution all that well. This is a poor attempt at an appeal to authority.

    • Kirk Holden

      One could make the case that a large fraction of physicians in the pews are responding to the spiritual call of “a higher power” that works only through the jiggering of physical laws. That is, most college post grads (including physicians) would lean toward “Thor caused the Big Bang 13.7Bya as an uncaused causer”. This is far enough from the definition of “creationist” in the world at large – a dimwit who denies the age of the Earth and the evolution of species by natural selection. So, which is it? Are you a young earth moron or a modern human of average intelligence? Either/both are religious.

    • http://stonesnbones.blogspot.com/ Dr. GS Hurd

      When I was a professor of medicine I attempted to teach my residents to both respect the religious beliefs of their patients, and to regulate their own parochial presumptions so to not distort their clinical practice. I helped found a seminar on “Religion and Psychiatry” which had two major goals; that patients with religious ideation were not considered obviously insane, and to try and repair the terrible training of “pastoral counseling” programs.

      A shared sense of spirituality can be medically useful, so long as a parochial faith does not interfere with best practice. Denial of evolution is obviously an impairment to rational thinking and medical practice.

    • Hominid

      I’ve taught med school & trained residents for over 30 years and can assure you that, while science is the foundation for the medicine, physicians are NOT scientists any more than engineers are. I was always amazed at how many religious physicians denied the reality of evolution and did not understand it.

      • http://stonesnbones.blogspot.com/ Dr. GS Hurd

        And, denial of evolution leads to many practical clinical errors. Misapplication of antibiotics is the most obvious.

    • John McIntire

      Evolution by natural selection has the very neat ability of giving an *appearance* of design/creation with no single all-powerful omniscient Creator needed as an explanatory variable. Discarding what doesn’t work (evolution) is what does the “designing,” and gives the illusion of intentional creation.

  • jbelsfield

    My son (14) said to me the other day: “I think religious people must be stupid, because science is obviously right”. I was shocked, and explained to my son that science teaches us how to do stuff, but religion teaches us how to live a good life. There should be no incompatibility between the two. Creationism is just another scientific theory, which has a particular weakness in that it relies on the intervention of an indefinable omnipotent consciousness. More work needed on that theory, definitely, but it’s not confined to fundamentalist Christians, it’s actually what the majority of the world thinks, from aboriginal peoples to, well, fundamentalists of all persuasions. The theory of evolution also has a particular weakness in that it’s mainly focussed on what happened in the past. You can no more prove that dinosaurs evolved than you can prove that ancient Britons worshipped a mother goddess … or not. Getting angry with creationists doesn’t help, it just makes them more militant. Leave them alone and they’ll wither without the water of publicity.

    • Deacon Razorblades

      Creationism is not a theory. We can watch evolution occur in lab environments and with long studies being performed along with the countless fossils and genetic information collected that points and shows a cumulative change over time between species.

      • jbelsfield

        Deacon Razorblades: correct me if I’m wrong, but nobody has observed an actual instance of speciation. What happened in the distant past is just speculation. It could just as well have been aliens beaming down and injecting new chromosomes into organisms. Unlikely I admit, but you don’t KNOW that didn’t happen, and to claim you DO know with absoloute certainty just ain’t right. Anyhow, a proof that evolution happened in the past doesn’t mean creationism isn’t a theory, it just means the theory of creationism is wrong.

        • Deacon Razorblades

          There are actual peer reviewed articles documenting speciation occurring that are readily available by looking on the web. I’m not claiming anything with absolute certainty, but the evidence points to a diverse world of life produced through naturalistic methods such as evolution. Also, you are using the same arguments and logic that creationists tend to fall on without actually having any knowledge on said subject when they don’t have any substantial evidence to support their “theory”.

          Once again, creationism is NOT a theory, at best it is merely a hypothesis, but even then I wouldn’t call it that because it relies on a supernatural entity while science relies on the purely natural. By relying on a supernatural entity and methods you immediately withdraw it from any sort of scientific testing and rigor, subsequently removing it from having any scientific merit.

          • jbelsfield

            Well, at the time, only a few centuries ago, when the bible/q’ran/[any other holy book] were the most trusted sources of information available, creationism was a theory with gold-plated credentials. But as you say, and I’ve already stated my agreement, it’s a theory with some serious weaknesses, especially when compared with evolution, though it’s about as good as the aliens one. There are those who still pursue the mission of Wilhelm Reich, who went mad trying to place supernatural phenomena on a scientific footing. They probably won’t succeed (imho), but if they do, we’ll all look silly won’t we!

          • Deacon Razorblades

            You need to stop calling it a theory in the scientific sense because it’s not. In order for it to be a theory it needs to stand up to the same rigors that the theory of gravity, theory of relativity, atomic theory, theory of special relativity, and the theory of evolution have. Creationism is not some theory that is weak, it simply isn’t a theory at all and will never be a theory because of the supernatural elements that it is based off.

            When people state that creationism is a theory in the scientific sense they are attempting to paint in the same light as other currently accepted theories that have withstood rigorous reproducible experimentation and prediction. Creationism hasn’t even begun to do so and people calling it a theory are being fallacious.

          • jbelsfield

            Ah, but *which* scientific sense? Newton’s theory of gravitation is now discredited, superceded by relativity, but it’s still useful for some people, as evidently creationism is still useful for some people. Also, the philosophical paradigm prevailing at Newton’s time was different to now. At what stage should one stop calling an explanation that was once accepted by everybody ‘a theory’? I think the answer might be ‘when it’s politically expedient’. I’m interested that this is a much hotter topic in the USA than the UK, and that emotions run high on the subject in the US. I think it might be because a lot of power is wielded by creationists in the USA, whereas in the UK we generally dismiss creationists as harmless buffoons.

          • Deacon Razorblades

            Newtons theory of gravity wasn’t discredited. It’s still being used today. Einstein found that newton’s theory of gravity didn’t work at extremely large scales, thus the theory of relativity. Being useful in the scientific sense and in a religious sense, that is creationism, is not the same kind of useful.

            Emotions run high in the US because this nonsense that creationists are trying to get peddled into our schools reduces the number kids that will get into the STEM fields, which we are actually falling behind on. It also attempts to make this image that their is some sort of controversy concerning evolutions credibility when in actuality there isn’t.

            Creationists are not harmless, they have an agenda, they have money, and they want to have a theocracy. We can’t have that and it needs to be cut off at the school level, because those children growing up believing that drivel tend to grow up into adults who believe in that drivel repeating this same process with their children.

          • Scott

            I think the key difference is that it cannot be funded by the government (public education). Otherwise, I have no qualms. Homeschool your kids and brainwash them whatever you want, that should be your right.

          • Deacon Razorblades

            Agreed.

          • Hominid

            Newtonian laws of motion and his calculus of gravitational properties have NOT been ‘discredited’ at all – they’ve been encompassed by a broader mechanical theory. Theism has not been established nor fitted to any explanatory, predictive theory. To suggest there is any equivalence is nonsense.

          • http://stonesnbones.blogspot.com/ Dr. GS Hurd

            Only a few centuries ago the life expectancy of most people was about 45 years. Only a few centuries ago your religious colleagues were burning old ladies as witches. Only a few centuries ago physicians were bleeding their patients to death.

            I don’t want to go back there with you.

          • Hominid

            And TODAY – right now – religionists are torturing and murdering people in the thousands for their ‘transgressions’ against The Prophet and Allah!

          • Hominid

            Creationism cannot be a scientific theory or an hypothesis because it relies on the existence of a supernatural being – the creator. For creation to be a valid scientific proposition, the creator would have to first be proven to exist.

        • http://stonesnbones.blogspot.com/ Dr. GS Hurd

          You are wrong!

          I have compiled a list of dozens of recent examples (and not so recent) of observed emergence of new species from old. See “stonesnbones: Emergence of New Species”

          http://stonesnbones.blogspot.com/2009/03/emergence-of-new-species.html

        • Hominid

          Speciation is a false construct (in fact, ‘species’ cannot be defined other than operationally). Evolution is a continuous and constant PROCESS with NO distinct categorical events that takes place with such gradualness (generally thousands of years) that one cannot expect to ‘see’ it in his lifetime (or, for that matter, several lifetimes).

          • http://stonesnbones.blogspot.com/ Dr. GS Hurd

            In the abstract, all life is a cloud of genes wrapped up in some tissue. However when sitting in the field, or lab with a pile of samples and needing to sort them, the species concept is indispensable.

          • Hominid

            We humans are above all else categorizers – it’s a valuable survival strategy, but it leads to the erroneous notion that our categories are real. Scientists must always think in terms of continua and probabilities rather than discrete bins.

    • http://stonesnbones.blogspot.com/ Dr. GS Hurd

      Creationism, in any of its disguises, is not a scientific theory. There are many sorts of religious bases for creationism that are seemingly alike in that they reject science. But godidit is not a testable hypothesis regardless of which gods are invoked.

    • Hominid

      Gibberish!

  • ttaerum

    Of course, without cellular apoptotsis we have cancer. And apoptotis is by definition – death. So we are faced with a paradox – we must have death so we can have life.

    And even to comply with the imperative, “be fruitful and multiply” requires death if the organism is to not fill the earth until they pile high into the sky… Hence the paradox exists at both the cellular and the organism level.

    A fundamental paradox of nature is, for life to exist – to be fruitful and multiply, there must be death.

    • http://stonesnbones.blogspot.com/ Dr. GS Hurd

      Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus wrote a poetic argument for evolutionary change. It was not particularly convincing as it lacked both a mechanism, and significant data. I was struck by his argument against immortality- the immortal is incapable of change and as the universe is constantly changing, the immortal will exist largely in a misfit agony.

    • ttaerum

      And yes, I am talking to myself. I think there are fundamental misunderstandings about evolution, creation and Genesis. You’ll note that creationism is an “ism” – a belief. When you wish to refer to evolution as a belief it’s called evolutionism. I’m always surprised given the length of time there’s been this discussion that people haven’t picked up on that.

      Given what we know about DNA, given the mechanics of meosis, given the many different ways in which polynucleotides can replicate, join, split, I’m guessing scientists will be creating new species in the next year or so. Since a “new species” is largely defined by what can reproduce with its own self, all you need to do is first make a cow that cannot reproduce with regular cows but only with clones of itself. Then, like the Platypus, you throw in some genetic matter from a fish (a vestigual gill? – just like human appear to have a vestigual gene to produce ascorbic acid). You might want to mess with the introns for good measure. And kazzam… new species… Given what we know about epigenetics, it’s hard to say what it will look like. And, since the process is largely chemical/”mechanical”, it’s not hard to argue this kind of thing could have occurred over millions of years by evolution.

      So I think there is a place for creation and evolution – but not creationism and evolutionism.

      • http://stonesnbones.blogspot.com/ Dr. GS Hurd

        Humans like all the anthropoid primate lineage shares the identical broken L-gulono-γ-lactone oxidase (GLO) gene. Darwin’s common descent explains this perfectly. Creationism has no explanation at all.

        • ttaerum

          Great point. Then again, you have to ask yourself, in contrast to evolution, what is creation attempting to explain? If by creationism you are referring to Genesis, there simply not enough space in a very small chapter to explain much at all. In fact, there’s not enough material in that very small chapter to create a theory unless you impose a lot of assumptions on to it – something few people seem to realize. It simply cares that there is a God behind creation and we need a calendar – a fundamental requirement of all religions with a beginning and an end. And what an amazing calendar… but I digress.

          But evolution (and I) care very much about GLO. There are so many incredibly interesting characteristics in the living. And what a language – in codons first and then an alphabet with 20 or so characters as aminos acids that create the most beautiful sentences – just amazing!!! It’s almost enough to make a person believe…

    • Hominid

      The absurd made to sound profound. There’s no ‘paradox’ here at all.

      • ttaerum

        And yet the profound is absurd and that is what makes a paradox… It’s unfortunate that you have nothing to actually contribute.

  • Lyapunov

    What a terrible article… This is a perfect example of a straw man argument.

  • Lyapunov

    What a terrible article… This is a perfect example of a straw man argument.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Pioso

      Those of you here debating the validity of creationism – you will not convert people that actually believe in ghosts, not to. Wasting your time! Most religion has little to offer other than justifications for vile, rude, uncivil behaviors to non-believers from the beginning of man’s ability to reason and understand his world, which by the way, should have dispelled the Ark upon its first reading.

  • Cjones1

    As I recall, a Belgian Catholic Priest, George LeMaitre, came up with the research that validated a Big Bang construct for the creation of the universe. Of course his detractors labeled it the Big Bang in ridicule…but he was right and new detractors attempt to construct parallel dimensions. Let there be light!

  • RogerSweeny

    There are different varieties of creationists, and some do believe in a version of evolution. Genesis 1 says that in the beginning, God created all living things “according to their kinds.” Genesis 6:9-9:17 tells the story of Noah, commanded by God to build a 3-deck ark three hundred cubits long, fifty cubits wide and thirty cubits high–then to fill it with a male and female of every kind of creature.

    Given the accepted value of a cubit as 1.5 feet, there is no way to fit all of today’s species into that ark. So some creationists say “kind” does not mean species. Rather it is more like a Linnean family. Noah did not take two of each species of crow, raven, rook, jackdaw, jay, magpie, treepie, chough, and nutcracker. Rather, he took two ur-corvids. After the flood waters receded, the two founding ur-corvids then radiated into all the corvids we know today, rearranging genes that had mostly been there since the beginning.

  • SocraticGadfly

    It’s all about original sin. Creationists use that to justify about anything that the old “problem of evil” points out.

  • Curious

    Interesting. My brother, who is a True Believer and Creationist, just came down with a very deadly form of cancer and I was wondering how he would be able to align the disease with his beliefs. It’s good to know that he can maintain his delusion at this point. I’m just sad that he indoctrinated his children with anti-science, though.

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Fire in the Mind

Whether a subtle new pattern shows up in an experiment on the Higgs boson, an epidemiological report about a suspected cancer cluster, or a double-blind trial purporting to demonstrate ESP, it can be maddeningly difficult to distinguish between what we see and what we think we see. "Fire in the Mind" takes a look at the big questions behind today’s science news.

About George Johnson

George Johnson writes about science for the New York Times, National Geographic Magazine, Slate, and other publications. His nine books include The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine's Deepest Mystery (August 2013), The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments, A Shortcut Through Time, and Fire in the Mind. He is a winner of the AAAS Science Journalism Award and has twice been a finalist for the Royal Society science book prize. Co-founder and director of the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, he can be found on the Web at talaya.net. Twitter @byGeorgeJohnson.

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