The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts. Cancer, Evolution, and the Nature of Nature: Part 2

By Perry Marshall

June 17, 2021 | 1 Comment

Today I offer a simple explanation of cancer. It’s far bigger than just cancer because it’s a basic truth of all life:

The problem with cancer cells is that they are doing what they want to do. All the chemotherapy in the world will only strengthen their resolve to do it with more gusto. 

Cancer is not essentially about malfunctioning genes or broken parts. Those things are real, but they are symptoms, not the problem. If you want to cure cancer, start by making cancer cells want to go back to being a cooperative part of you. 

In other words, curing cancer is not a matter of fixing broken parts. It’s actually more like persuading the parts to cooperate.

This might seem like common sense, yet in most of the medical profession, talking about cancer cells (or any cells) as though they are living beings with wants and desires will get you dismissed. What most people don’t notice, though, is that somewhere in the tree of life we still have to start admitting that there’s a point at which life is a “being” and not just a “thing.” 

As my friend Doug Mitchell, a Medical Doctor, said: “If all the cells in my body are just wind-up toys, it gets hard to explain how *I* am not just a wind-up toy.”

Some people do believe we are wind-up toys (Sam Harris for example). But the funny thing is, people resent it when you treat them like wind-up toys. If you don’t believe me, try it. 

Next time you have a disagreement with someone, try saying “Yeah, well your genes probably programmed you to be a republican / bricklayer / ill-mannered slob. It’s not like you have a choice in the matter, so what’s the point in explaining anything to you?” 

Then watch how they react.

I don’t know about your friends, but all the folks I know like to be treated in conversations and daily life as though they have genuine thoughts, opinions and choices.

This isn’t only about humans. It extends to all life, and there has always been a great number of biologists who, despite fads, dictums or political correctness, agree that all things from single cells on up are agents with the ability to choose and act and construct their environments. Frankly I think this is the only perspective that actually makes sense.

The problem is that it’s hard to square with the “Newtonian science” view of the world, which for 300 years has presumed that everything in the universe is simply an outgrowth of fixed universal laws. The more “educated” you are about science, the harder it is to see the world any other way. 

Yet the “Newtonian” view has never managed to explain how life works or where it comes from, and for a century, its failures have grown more apparent with each passing year. The list of things it fails to account for is endless. (Start with “where does code come from” – it only gets worse from there.) 

It’s time for a new view. But it’s really the old view! It reaches back to the ancient Greeks. My place is simply to add rigor to what we’ve already known for 2500 years.

Several of my own contributions to the world turn cause and effect on its head. My re-working of the 80/20 Principle appeared in Harvard Business Review in 2018 with new mathematics. Most people won’t care much about the math, which is entirely understandable. But a quick look at the Amazon reviews of 80/20 Sales and Marketing demonstrates a great number of people who suddenly saw the world in a whole new way. 

Once you see it, you can’t un-see it. 80/20, rather than being a ‘biz school rule of thumb’ is a fundamental law of cause and effect. It’s everywhere and it’s fractal, meaning there’s an 80/20 inside every 80/20. Thousands of entrepreneurs have used the 80/20 Curve to find holes in pricing strategies, make their businesses more profitable and make simple changes that make a big difference.

Similarly, Biology Transcends the Limits of Computation transforms the conventional understanding of cause and effect. Except this addresses the relationship between life and the non-living matter that it is constructed from.

At first glance this may seem heady and philosophical. But it has everything to do with how we treat disease. My mom struggled with bipolar and mild schizophrenia. She spent 30 years of her life slicing pills into tiny little pieces, spiraling into either mania or depression if she took a smidgen too little or much. 

Everybody knows we have an epidemic of opioid abuse; one of my colleagues overdosed a few years ago at age 38 after a long battle with addiction. Everyone knows the pharmaceutical industry is hardwired to hook us on a lifetime subscription to some drug or another. 

Yet when I’m not feeling well, a $95 trip to my acupuncturist solves the problem much of the time – as several friends who’ve suffered from chronic pain and fatigue can attest. I don’t know that we understand why Chinese medicine works. But that doesn’t keep it from working very well, thank you very much. 

“Holistic” medicine (acupuncture, chiropractic, functional medicine) is the red-headed stepchild of the medical profession. Cynics accuse these fields of being “woo woo.” But would there be 50,000 chiropractic clinics in the United States, with most patients paying out of their own pockets, if their treatments didn’t work? Witness “wisdom of crowds” in action.

The holistic view asserts that the body is a marvelous, self-regulating, intrinsically purposeful entity; systems within systems that support the whole. It has a particular way it wants to be, and mostly takes care of itself. The holistic view is emphatic that the body is not a machine. In all healing, the body does the heavy lifting. We just assist with our meager efforts.

The “reductionist” (non-holistic) view insists life is nothing more than a machine, that the whole is merely a sum of its parts. And if we study the parts closely enough, we will automatically understand the whole. 

The non-holistic view has the advantage that all of the “parts” are (at least allegedly) quantified and measurable. This view is no doubt successful. Nobody can appreciate this more than an engineer like myself, because reductionism works even better in engineering than it does in medicine.

The processor chip that runs your phone or computer was perfectly modeled on a computer before it was built and it works in the real world exactly the way theory said it would. With 99.999% accuracy.

But any engineer also understands that analysis is not design. All the analysis in the world will never build you an airplane. So engineers more than most people appreciate that reductionism only gives you half the story. 

This is why one is hard pressed to find any drug that actually cures any disease. Drugs manage symptoms. They are band-aids. Rarely do they deal with root causes.

This is why there has long been a war in science. What I’m going to show over the next several installments is that reductionism is not “wrong” as though people who use it need to apologize for their mistakes. Within its proper purview, it works extremely well. However, it is very incomplete, and living things cannot be fully understood without thinking in terms of wholes. 

The news is that there is now hard proof for this, and it is mathematical. It says the “bottom-up” view of the world contains an inherent contradiction. It shows that biology does nine specific things that computers by definition can never do. Machines die no matter how hard we try to keep them alive. Life stays alive no matter how hard we try to kill it.

This new paper which I published in Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology offers a mathematical proof that accounts for a 100 year impasse in science and how we can escape from it, by unifying six major scientific questions under a single framework.

These questions are:

  1. How is it possible that cancer cells out-maneuver any therapy we throw at them?
  2. Where did life come from?
  3. Where did the genetic code come from?
  4. What is consciousness and where does it come from?
  5. How can we create AI that is genuinely smart and doesn’t need constant babysitting?
  6. Given that Microsoft needs thousands of talented programmers to issue software updates, how is it that bacteria and viruses evolve with zero help from anybody? 

I don’t believe these are six questions. They are one question. The question is: 

What is choice and where does it come from?

Where do novelty and creativity come from? (Not just in evolution but in anything, including art, literature and technology.)

Or to phrase it a different way: How does any whole – a whole cell, a whole organism – exercise control over its own parts in order to maintain itself, survive and thrive?

Not only have these questions evaded the finest minds in history, answers to any of the above will be a Nobel Prize level breakthrough. Much rides on this, because the US government alone has spent a quarter trillion dollars on its war on cancer, and not improved patient outcomes by much. 

Real AI doesn’t even exist yet. (We can and should be asking whether we really want real AI in the first place; that’s debatable.) But if you’re concerned about that, this paper should alleviate some of your concerns because it proves computers in their current form will never achieve it. 


Perry Marshall

NASA Jet Propulsion Labs uses his 80/20 Curve as a productivity tool. His reinvention of the Pareto Principle is published in Harvard Business Review. His Ultimate Guide to Google Ads is the best-selling book on internet advertising. A business strategist and electrical engineer, Perry founded the largest science research award in history. The $10 million Evolution 2.0 Prize will be judged by scientists from Harvard, Oxford, and MIT. Seeing that existing financial incentives favor prolonging cancer rather than curing it; and realizing the medical profession has incorrectly defined the disease in the first place... he chose to apply entrepreneurial thinking to the problem.


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