What if, the virus …

anup dhar

What is a ‘virus’? There appears to be global consensus on the virus as an invader of human ‘territory’. But, what if, the virus was a product, an excreta of the cell, of say, a cell in stress, a cell in extreme distress? What if, the virus was not always already present; lurking around the corner; waiting to “infect”, “invade” the cell? Waiting to leap into the human world, from an animal environ; waiting to migrate? What if, what we call the “virus” was not there in an a priori sense? What if, the virus is not the precursor of life? But the ruin of life? The remainder of life? What if, the virus emerges in an a posteriori sense? Out of cellular processes? What if, “it” – a strand of RNA or DNA – a fragment of genetic material – precariously poised at the cusp of life and death – is not the seed of future life; but the tombstone of the cell and cellular processes?

While there appears to global consensus as to where viruses come from (they come into human territory from the outside) there is much debate not just among philosophers of biology, as also among virologists, as to the ‘origin’ of viruses. Does it come from the outside; leading to the profusion of metaphors of ‘war’, ‘attack’, and ‘invasion’ (including metaphors of ‘intruder’, or an illegal immigrant into the human corporeal form) and the extremely negative representation of viruses – one-sided and lopsided – in popular and social media (which are actually large global capitalist enterprises)? Does the metaphorical core of ‘germ theory’, drawn largely from microbiology – germs that breach human boundaries/borders – hegemonize us? Or did it come from within – from within the cell? Can it still come from within? Is the process of it emerging from within, continuing; like continuing primitive or original accumulation? One can forward in the context of such self-doubts, “three main hypotheses”, with respect to the origin of viruses (see Wessner, D. R. 2010. “The Origins of Viruses”. Nature Education 3[9]:37):

1. The progressive, or escape, hypothesis: which states that “viruses arose from genetic elements that gained the ability to move between cells”
2. The regressive, or reduction, hypothesis: which asserts that “viruses are remnants of cellular organisms”
3. The virus-first hypothesis: which states that “viruses predate or co-evolved with their current cellular hosts”.

The progressive and regressive hypotheses both assume that cells existed before viruses. The third places the virus as prior to cells. Does the progressive and regressive hypotheses hold even today? Or is it a matter of the past? Can it happen in the present?

Pradeu, Kostyrka and Dupré’s philosophically rigorous “Introduction” to the book Understanding Viruses: Philosophical Investigations argue for a philosophy of virology distinct from the philosophy of microbiology. They also show how the issues raised by virology, in particular the question and understanding of “life, individual, organism and autonomy” could contribute to philosophy of biology.

This rumination is a reflection on Understanding Viruses: Philosophical Investigations

See Thomas Pradeu, Gladys Kostyrka, John Dupré. Understanding Viruses: Philosophical Investigations. Editorial introduction. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Elsevier, 2016.

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