A wide array of proto–oncogenes and tumour suppressor genes are involved in the prevention of cancer. Each form of cancer requires mutations in a characteristic group of genes, but no single group controls all cancers. This lack of generality shows that the control of cancer is not an ancient, fixed property of cells. By contrast, it supports a dynamic evolutionary model, whereby genetic controls over unregulated cell growth are recruited independently through evolutionary time in different tissues within different taxa. The complexity of this genetic control can be predicted from a population genetic model of lineage selection driven by the detrimental fitness effects of cancer. Cancer occurs because the genetic control of cell growth is vulnerable to somatic mutations (or ‘hits’), particularly in large, continuously dividing tissues. Thus, compared to small rodents, humans must have evolved more complex genetic controls over cell growth in at least some of their tissues because of their greater size and longevity; an expectation relevant to the application of mouse data to humans. Similarly, the ‘two–hit’ model so successfully applied to retinoblastoma, which originates in a small embryonic tissue, is unlikely to be generally applicable to other human cancers; instead, more complex scenarios are expected to dominate, with complexity depending upon a tissue's size and its pattern of proliferation.