They aren’t even living things, not really. A biological virus, just like its aptly-named electronic analog, is just a string of code, genetic material covered in a coat of proteins and fats, the sole purpose of which is to hijack the workings of something it’s configured to invade. Magnified, it looks almost like a child’s toy, perhaps one of those rubber balls covered in suction cups. Compared to a bacterium, which is a full-fledged cell and bona fide organism that consumes nutrients, produces energy and outputs, and has the capacity to reproduce, a virus is a stripped-down virtual non-entity, by comparison a few blocks of unfinished marble set against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal. On their own, viruses are nothing much at all beyond little bundles of biological potential. They function only when they find a system they can break into and repurpose to their own ends.
Whereas the codes incorporated into the computer variety can take over the functions of their hosts for any number of shady purposes dreamed up by their devious creators, biological viruses are monomaniacs intent upon one thing, and always only one thing: running off copies of themselves. That’s really all they do. Some take over the machinery of living cells to manufacture duplicates which eventually become so numerous that they burst through the cell membrane, killing their host, and others insinuate themselves into the host’s own genetic code, and are copied when the cells themselves divide and reproduce. Either way is suitable. Whether they harm the organisms they penetrate, and how serious that harm may be, is really beside the point; the virus seeks only to replicate, and to that end it’s actually a more successful strategy, from an evolutionary perspective, to harm the host as little as possible. Sadly for us, not all viruses pursue the most successful strategy, especially when they jump from one species to another, and go to work within hosts that were previously unfamiliar with their kind. We reckon that many of the most dangerous ones to emerge over the past few years came from bats, within which they subsisted comfortably and innocuously. The miseries they inflict upon us when they make the leap across species is properly viewed, from a dispassionate perspective, as incidental, nothing more than collateral damage.
We’re not really sure how they first came to be. Maybe they sprang spontaneously out of the primordial raw material at more or less the same time the first true organisms appeared, billions of years ago. Maybe they were originally the castoffs of proper cells, little bits of genetic detritus that went rogue. For all we know they fell here from space, an idea which isn’t as crazy as it may sound.
Owing to their stark, unipurpose simplicity, they don’t usually participate in any constructive way within the ecosystems they plunder. Unlike proper micro-organisms, they don’t manufacture anything that’s useful to other entities, like oxygen, say, and they don’t band together to form more complicated, cooperative systems that might eventually develop into some sort of creature, or maybe things that other creatures could consume, or otherwise exploit. Compared to the ancient bacteria that eventually developed into multicellular organisms, viruses can therefore seem to be at a biological dead end, to the extent we conceive of evolution as a purposeful process, out of which creatures of ever greater sophistication and capability are supposed to emerge (which to be honest is just a human conceit with no basis in science).
Yet they do evolve, often very much to our detriment, and those that work their way permanently into the genetic codes of their hosts can play a significant role in the evolution of true living things. You and I were constructed from DNA that contains a fair quantity of genetic information that originated in viruses, of a sort classified within microbiology as endogenous retroviruses. Some of that once foreign coding may be harmful, and might be the culprit in diseases like cancer. Some, we think, is helpful, in effect domesticated, and winds up being used to manufacture substances our bodies can use. In that way some viruses can transmute over many millions of years into something benign, in effect ceasing to be viruses any longer. Most, however, just mutate in ways that change how, and to what, they’re infectious. It’s all very random.
So that’s it. Hard as it is to wrap your head around it, that’s what’s killing us. Something that might as well be a string of letters printed on a sheet of paper, looking for a photocopier. It seems meaningless, doesn’t it? The damnable things exist purely to exist. Nothing more.
Perhaps we humans flatter ourselves to imagine our own lives have any higher purpose.
I try not to let it depress me, how random it all is. Some bat leaves its cave somewhere, this time apparently in China, then somehow transmits some of its pathogenic hitch-hikers into something else that the virus, as luck would have it, can also use for reproduction. Maybe the cells of a pig will be compatible, or a chicken, or some other animal that people eat. This is how, eventually, something that used to sit inside the guts of an unlikely vector for human disease, like a nasty bug-eating thing with leathery wings that spends most of its time hanging upside-down in some remote cavern, can find its way into our systems. Once on board, it may give us head colds, or may drop us dead in our tracks, hemorrhaging blood out of every orifice, or drowning in our own bodily fluids. It may be the sort of virus that can only pass from person to person through intimate contact, or it might be the kind that can get sneezed out and then linger, biding its time, on a smooth surface where it can be scraped up by a random hand a few hours later. It may present immediately, or it may hang around in the host for a few weeks, producing no symptoms, but still grinding out copies that get passed on by the unsuspecting carrier. It’s all just a spin of an extremely dangerous biological roulette wheel, and so it has been since anything we might judge to be alive was making its blind way through the silt at the bottom of the first habitable sea.
Meanwhile here I sit, an almost inconceivably complex organism made of literally trillions of constituent parts – it was recently calculated that a human body may be composed of as many as 37 trillion individual cells – each one of them representing on its own a quantum leap beyond the sorry little strand of ribonucleic acid that somehow designed itself to work its way into my body. Big, fat, dumb, and happy, I may think of myself as special. After all, I can think, and feel, and have a conscious appreciation of what I am, and where I fit in the scheme of creation – I can look up at the stars at night, and wonder. No matter. It’s neither here nor there to the invaders if I cry when I listen to Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, or revel in the beauty of a sunset over the ocean. In fact nothing, nothing at all, not malice, or hunger, or even the drive to live, can be attributed to the minuscule clump of genetic material that will bring me down, so tiny that it takes an electron microscope to even see one. It’s just code. It’s barely even a thing. It isn’t even pitiless. It just is.
Kathy says I think too much, and as I shelter in my house, fearful of the cloud of COVID-19 that probably awaits me if I so much as set foot on the porch, I’m certainly afflicted by what the members of Spinal Tap called too much fucking perspective. On the one hand, waxing poetic, there is indeed grandeur to the cosmos, and endless wonder to be felt from the contemplation of its workings. On the other, taking a cold look at grim reality, the fact that I, a conscious multicellular being with hopes and dreams, the pinnacle of evolution, can be laid waste by a little bit of information in organic form too tiny to be discerned by all but our finest instruments, seems all the evidence I need that life isn’t really about anything. If it was, it’d have to make more sense than that, wouldn’t it?
I go back and forth, you know?