The Null Device

Cancer is man-made

A study of remains and literature from ancient Greece and Egypt suggests that cancer is a modern, man-made disease, one which was extremely rare in the ancient world. Which suggests that the fact that people these days can expect to get cancer if they live long enough is not due to an inherent cancer-proneness in human biology but rather due to other factors such as pervasive environmental carcinogens.
Finding only one case of the disease in the investigation of hundreds of Egyptian mummies, with few references to cancer in literary evidence, proves that cancer was extremely rare in antiquity. The disease rate has risen massively since the Industrial Revolution, in particular childhood cancer – proving that the rise is not simply due to people living longer.
Professor Rosalie David, at the Faculty of Life Sciences, said: β€œIn industrialised societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death. But in ancient times, it was extremely rare. There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer. So it has to be a man-made disease, down to pollution and changes to our diet and lifestyle.”

There are 10 comments on "Cancer is man-made":

Posted by: Greg Fri Oct 15 11:29:03 2010

For some people this will seem like a case "duh, of course", but the majority are in denial about the effects of chemicals, additives, pesticides and all that, so for that reason this could prove to be a very important finding.

Posted by: Fri Oct 15 16:03:53 2010

Um, what about skin cancer? The sun has been around longer than humans. It could be said that there has been a rise due to the anthropogenic destruction of the ozone layer, but my great grandfather had tumours the size of ping-pong balls cut off his arms long before CFC concentrations were at a level to cause the hole in the ozone layer.

Posted by: Derek R Fri Oct 15 17:53:47 2010

I don't doubt that there's more cancer now than before, but the article has too many factual errors to be taken seriously!

Posted by: Greg Fri Oct 15 20:31:46 2010

@Derek, the article is about a publication in Nature!


@Chris, recent research suggests that chemicals in sunscreen are causing the epidemic in skin cancer (see references >=13 in It's a modern epidemic - that's not to say that it never happened before, and I don't want to downplay your relative's distress - but the issue today is that cancer and several other once-rare serious diseases are becoming commonplace.

Posted by: Derek R Fri Oct 15 22:53:09 2010

Here's a bit of a rebuttal:

Posted by: Greg Sat Oct 16 00:07:20 2010

We'll have to agree to disagree. The momentum of research (not just this piece) is with the Nature article. The objections of the Telegraph readers (where they make sense) are pre-defended in the article. And all else being equal, one should tend to believe a scientist writing in Nature before a blogger in the Telegraph.

Posted by: Derek R Sat Oct 16 02:36:52 2010

Here's a better rebuttal from New Scientist:

The main reason I'm arguing is because of the author's claim that "nothing natural can cause cancer" which is sheer nonsense.

Posted by: Greg Sat Oct 16 05:24:00 2010

It's a matter of emphasis. The authors are attempting to focus attention on man-made causes of cancer - a worthy goal. Vested interests who wish to discredit this view are focusing on one badly-worded phrase in a press release, to the effect that there are no natural causes of cancer. In a pedantic frenzy, the critics are using silly examples like "natural radiation from radionuclides such as radon in rocks", to "disprove" the work. The critics also contradict themselves over skin cancer, counting it as caused by both natural UV and lifestyle. (And on this point, read those references on cancer-causing chemicals in sunscreen).

To ignore the point of the authors' work and write articles criticizing one phrase made outside the paper wastes everyone's time, or worse.

Enough arguing! Let's both make our lifestyle choices, and hopefully we won't wind up in a hospital ward.

Posted by: Sun Oct 17 03:43:43 2010

Regarding skin cancer; I was under the impression that exposure to the sun produces melanin, and that high melanin concentrations protect against damage from UV radiation. Over the long term, it's an evolutionary feedback look, with people in areas with low sun angles etc. not needing as much melanin, and people in areas with greater sun exposure having more. Over the short term, everyone knows that skin that's already tanned doesn't burn as quickly as skin that's pale as can be. All it takes for the current skin cancer epidemic to occur is for some whitefellas to move somewhere unsuitable for their skin (say, Australia). The lower occurence of such a cancer in the ancient world probably speaks more about the slower pace people moved around the Earth back then than much else.

Posted by: ianw Mon Oct 18 20:54:01 2010

as a recovering healthnut (I read a -lot- of non-scientific material 15-25 yrs ago) I'd like to add: some would say the factor in skin cancer not yet mentioned here is animal fat, and Ancient Greeks didn't eat butter. That said, I concur with Greg..