A recent Science News report, Enter the Virosphere reports on a researcher’s discovery that is shaking up the current paradigm. Apparently, he had actually found a gigantic virus—one so large and possessing such a peculiar mixture of traits that it is challenging the very notion of what it means to be alive. One researcher commented, “I think the discovery really messed up the heads of a lot of people”. Still another says, “The virus definitely seems to have its own agenda”.
Doesn’t all life share the obvious “agenda” of striving diligently in order to survive? I imagine “messed up heads” come from a specie-centric ideal of what ‘will’ (free or otherwise) means. Acknowledging that a human and a virus both have a will to survive really messes with our sense of human superiority.
At least some scientists are finally getting around to accepting the view that viruses are alive. The curious thing for me is why we haven’t regarded viruses as being alive all along. Cultural biases obstruct the ability to see nature as it is. If ‘it’ doesn’t pass our model for what life ‘should be’, then it can’t be living. Naturally, this bias applies across the board: If __“X”__(you name it) doesn’t fit our model for what a true __“X”__ is, it can’t be real.
The similarities between viruses and higher life forms don’t attract much notice. Indeed, Nature conceals what chapter 56 calls mysterious sameness that is not readily apparent. Sameness is more mysterious because the surface differences are easier to see. Thanks to biology, we are much more aware of differences; sensory differences stimulate neurons. Similarities, on the other hand, easily pass us by unseen, bore us, or put us to sleep.
Speaking of similarities and differences, history is replete with our tendency to make mountains out of molehill’s differences, e.g., skin color, religion, politics, gender, sex orientation, age, beauty, skill, knowledge, social status, etc. Amplifying these differences give those who are less different a sense of group identity around which to rally. This serves the tribal instinct well; we are this, they are not this.
What chance then does a lowly virus have in being recognized as life? Surprisingly more than I would have thought before reading the article.