The Science News report, Enter the Virosphere, covers a researcher’s discovery that shakes up the current biological 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 to survive? I imagine “messed up heads” comes 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 preconception of human supremacy.
At least some scientists are finally getting around to accepting the fact that viruses are alive. The real question 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 to everything: If _(you name it)_ doesn’t fit your model for what is a true _(you name it)_ is, it can’t be real. Models and names blind us.
The similarities between viruses and higher life forms are not readily apparent and so don’t attract much notice. To be sure, nature conceals its mysterious sameness (#56) by making superficial differences much easier to notice. Thanks to biology, perceived differences readily stimulate neurons. For example, quickly differentiating a stick from a snake favors survival. Similarities, on the other hand, easily go unnoticed or bore us
Speaking of similarities and differences, history is replete with our tendency to make mountains out of molehill differences, e.g., skin color, religion, politics, gender, sexual orientation, age, beauty, skill, knowledge, social status, etc. Blowing differences out of all proportion to reality gives those who are not essentially different a sense of unique group identity around which to rally. A “we are this, they are not this” serves the tribal instinct.
What chance does a lowly virus have in being recognized as life? Surprisingly more than I would have thought before reading the article.