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Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

Humanity Goes Viral

Viruses are us.

pixabay at pexels
Source: pixabay at pexels

Lots of people want their work to go “viral”: to propagate everywhere and anywhere, to infect and affect the whole of humanity. Internet virality is one of the ways that information now spreads.

Biological information often operates differently from what you find on the internet. It’s a lot older (nearly four billion years worth), at least on this planet. Its origins, underpinnings, underlying systems, and processes stand remarkably less clear. Recently, people have been fascinated to discover their “genetic” origin. Friends come and tell me they’re surprised they are “part” American Indian, Samoan, Ashkenazi Jewish, or southern African.

So it may also come as a surprise to find out that you are heavily viral; at least 8 percent of your DNA. Most of that viral material comes from retroviruses; a group which includes AIDS. Add on the large number of bacterial genes inside you and you may need to recognize “illegal aliens” are a very large part of your genetic makeup, and have been for hundreds of millions of years.

So what are we doing with all our viral DNA and what does it want from us?

Germs and germ cells

An excellent article by Carl Zimmer (there are many more) tries to answer the question: What is all that viral DNA doing?

Quite a bit. Viral DNA in humans is now used produce syncytins: proteins critical to placentas knitting themselves together. Other viral genes appear critical to processes creating or fostering cancer. Most of their products, like the hemoprotein found in pregnant woman, are ubiquitous and we’ve no idea what they do.

What is known is that one viral “purpose” is to make more viruses, to reproduce and reproduce and reproduce. Unsurprisingly, many viral genes are found inside stem cells and “germ cells,” like eggs and sperm, that create the next generation.

So germs go to germ cells, the stuff we use to reproduce. Egg and sperm are great places to infect if you want to stick around for the entire survival of a species. Stem cells are also a good place for viruses to inhabit, as they can last a lifetime, and can differentiate, at least during the beginning of life, into pretty much anything.

Why do human cells and those of other animals tolerate such dangerous immigrants?

A different kind of tolerance

Quite often, human classification criteria get in the way of understanding biology. For many years, it was “impossible” that bacteria were causing human ulcers. How could such critters even survive all that acid stomach? Why would the fat cells around abdominal origins do anything except make fat? Aren’t fat cells kind of dumb?

Nowadays, we pay attention to the 40 trillion bacteria in our guts that help digest our food and apparently change our mood and immunity. We also show greater interest in our bellies that make up the body’s biggest endocrine gland, turning out hormones by the score.

Cells are often less finicky about immigrants than countries. Life is information, regenerating information. And whatever you got inside you, you tend to use. Thus, mitochondria, the energy “workhorse” of the cell, were once totally different organisms. They joined with our ancestors. Out of that came eukaryotic cells, and us.

If you’re going to have retroviruses living inside you, or bacterial genes, you probably want to "domesticate" them to your own purposes. For genes, like all information, possess different utilities with different contingencies.

Virality and sociopathy

People often describe viruses with especial horror. Viruses “have no soul.” They just make more of themselves and amorally propagate, taking over more cells, more territory. Viruses sound very much like sociopaths.

So why does humanity possess sociopaths, people whose lying and deceit prove so destructive to community and society?

Because, based on contingency and who knows what else, sociopathy probably possesses unexpected “uses.”

If evolution has any “purpose,” like viruses, it is for life to survive and to continue. At this stage, it appears that species have much more survival value than individuals. We are expendable, humanity is not.

So consider the usefulness of charismatic sociopaths. If early humanity was trying to survive volcanoes or hurricanes, charismatic, deceitful liars might have proven very helpful aiding community survival. Sociopaths may obtain special usefulness in conflicts like wars.

In the twentieth century, charismatic sociopaths like Stalin and Mussolini were lauded as great leaders who rebuilt their countries and made them strong and powerful. People loved them. They adored their tales of glory and rebuilding the nation. Millions willingly died for them. The “glory” proclaimed by these famous sociopaths led to murder, war, and annihilation.

The world consists of information. Information’s uses depend on circumstances and contingency. Viruses, like many charismatic, self-absorbed sociopathic leaders, are often highly effective. They “get their job done.”

Yet they can also prove utterly destructive. And life, a form of regenerating biological information, needs to survive. Eventually, viruses and sociopaths need to be controlled.

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About the Author

Matthew Edlund, M.D., researches rest, sleep, performance, and public health. He is the author of Healthy Without Health Insurance and The Power of Rest.