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The Cancer Journal - Volume 5, Number 3 (May-June 1992)


Thus spoke Neanderthal

It is more or less accepted that Neanderthal man (Homo sapiens Neanderthalis) was unable to speak or, at least to speak in the same way as us and as Cro Magnon man, in an articulate, rapid language. Furthermore, most anthropologists agree that Mr Neanderthal could not have courted Mrs Cro Magnon and could not therefore presume to be an ancestor of the readers of The Cancer Journal (Homo sapiens sapiens). But, would you believe it, this may all have to change. Neanderthal man may not be an extinct species after all. It is probable that he was able to speak and therefore able to exerce his charm... so, if we look hard enough we may find that he is one of our ancestors and that we owe him all due respect and affection. Perhaps we would never have denied him this respect if as good scientists we had questioned the dogmatic viewpoint which removed his powers of speech.

Another unavoidable truth which has provided a good living for a number of doctors and biologists concerns the multiplication of neurons. All mammalian cells are capable of multiplying themselves, at different rates, from the birth to the death of the animal, all except the neurons, the number of which, once determined in the foetus, can only decline. It seems that this is not true. It may be true.

Are we going to accept these new "thruths". Are they really the truth? How can we know? Now that the Catholic Church has rehabilited Galileo and that Copernicus has become respectable, to whom can we turn to find out where to place the frontier between truth and error. Perhaps to an Ethical Committee.

"Also Sprach Zarathustra"

This is may be not such a silly idea. What does scientific ethics have to say ? Or, rather, what does it not say, what should it say. In science there is no thruth which is not approximative and temporary. Those whose behaviour (ethos) does not include a regular dose of scepticism do not have the right to call themselves scientists. So much for the prophets, gurus, wise men and other descendants of Neanderthal and Cro Magnon men who dispense "scientific facts" in the media, at conferences and to the powers-that-be. They are not of our party and we are not of theirs. They are in error and they lead those who believe them into the same mistake.

For ethics teaches us that although we cannot say the real truth, we can at least avoid some errors and faults by casting intelligent and methodical doubt. The first target of the doubt should be those things which seem most certain. Philosophers have written this before me. But who reads philosophers these days? How does Descartes or Leibnitz affect the Dow Jones index? Marx is no longer quoted.

This is pity because Neanderthal man's speech, and the multiplication of neurons and the multiplication of Neanderthal man's neurons are merely examples of a general phenomenon which could work to the advantage of cancer patients.

Readers, do not forget to cast doubt on what you have just read.

Jean-Claude Salomon
e-mail: salomon@tribunes.com