From an evolutionary perspective, both atavism and somatic evolution/convergent evolution theories can account for the consistent occurrence, and astounding attributes of cancers: being able to evolve from a single cell to a complex organized system, and malignant transformations showing significant similarities across organs, individuals, and species. Here, we first provide an overview of these two hypotheses, including the possibility of them not being mutually exclusive, but rather potentially representing the two extremes of a continuum in which the diversity of cancers can emerge. In reviewing the current literature, we also discuss the criteria that should be applied to discriminate between the two competing theories and to determine their relevant contributions to oncogenesis and cancer progression. Finally, we deliberate on the potential applications of this conceptual framework in developing novel treatment strategies.
Keywords: atavism; cancer; comparative oncology; convergent evolution; somatic selection.
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