Sunday, April 19, 2020

Boundaries in the age of Covid: Part 5

Today I was pondering the relationship between viruses and humans.

Can viruses evolve? 

Maybe. I am not a virologist, nor an evolutionary biologist. But I'll give it a shot and say that I think the (conceptual) boundary that remains firm between us (as humans) and them (viruses) is that they can't replicate by themselves the way we can - they need hosts. If the hosts have naive immune systems/no antibodies, the virus wins and the host likely dies. If the immune system of the host rejects the virus, it will quiet down, become a relatively ignorable squatter. Be put-up-withable.
The plus side is (from my human point of view) that viruses are not smart. Not that humans are particularly, either, but we can at least alter our own behaviour more flexibly from one moment to the next. We have agency, sort of. Flatten the curve. Slow down the tsunami of viral replicative explosion.
Damn though, this virus is like velcro, the way it can jump inside human cells. 

Can viruses become less lethal over time? 

A virus doesn't care about anything. Literally. It has no agenda at all. It doesn't know that it's lethal or not lethal. It wouldn't care anyway.
It's not even a living organism, because it can't replicate by itself. We can't either - we need some cooperation from others. 
But what I mean is, the virus can't find some other virus it finds cute, form a relationship, settle down and raise baby viruses the way humans do.
It can't get fat then divide itself into two like bacteria can and do.
Self-replication is an inherent descriptor of "life", the basic unit of which is a self-replicating cell. Viruses can't. They are pesky parasites instead. 

So there is this boundary between life and not quite life. 

Viruses might evolve a bit, as in change over time, but they don't"evolve" so much as they "emerge." Then get passed from one species to another, passively and unintentionally.

Think: immune systems of indigenous peoples of the Americas were naive to exposure to measles and smallpox viruses. 

Lest we forget, entire populations of humans were thus obliterated. 
Their immune systems were swamped. They had no immunity. The viruses likely weren't all of a sudden "stronger" or "more lethal" in and of themselves - they had bigger impact because they found a bunch of multicellular beings to infect with immune systems that had no ability to resist, not enough time to adapt, learn to resist, resist, and thereby preserve biological integrity of hosts.
Let's hear it for true adaptive agents - immune cells in our fancy human bodies.  We can help our immune systems adapt as a collective, by stages. Little by little. Thank goodness we as humans are at least smart enough to be able to recognize a signal from the top of the troop calling us to attend to and follow simple rules and admonitions to stay safe.
So after thinking about it for awhile today, my provisional conclusion is that viruses stay the same mostly and the arena in which they operate changes, either in their favour or against it.

It's like we're all in a massive swimming pool stretching farther than the eyes can see. We each have an inflated sport ball. Our job is to keep that ball underwater somehow until the pool is drained.
The ball is our life.
The pool is our arena.
Our agency is to hold the ball underwater.
We do not know when or how the pool will drain.
We don't know how big the pool is. 

We don't know the drain rate.
We do not know how long it will take.
Just hold that ball down.
Yeah, it's going to take a bit of behaviour change, some effort, some cooperation.
Everybody all together now.
Hold it down.
Hold it down.
Hold it down.
You can do it.
You can do it longer.
Please continue to do it.

Look, the curve is flattening.
Look! It's trending down now.... a little.
Keep holding it down.

Epidemiologists are saying, we're winning. Keep doing what you're doing.


1. Viral evolution, Wikipedia

2. How the corona virus works inside your body
3. Hold the line


Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

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