The Lowly Virus


I went to the doctor yesterday hoping for a bacterial infection. No such luck. Looks like a virus. The problem with viruses is that you can’t kill them with antibiotics. AntiBIOtics are for killing living things like bacteria, fungi, and protists. Contemporary textbooks define living as having 6 qualities:

1. they are made of at least one cell

2. they grow

3. they respond to stimuli

4. they are adapted to their surroundings

5. they obtain and use energy

6. they can reproduce 

Viruses are basically DNA or RNA wrapped in a protein coat with legs for landing on cells and shooting their genetic material inside. So they definitely fail #1. They also don’t really grow larger after being built in the host’s cell, so #2 is also grounds for dismissal. Viruses fit the bill for categories 3 and 4 (4 is especially troubling as retroviruses such as HIV can change their genetic code faster than we can keep up with it). So that leaves 5 and 6. Viruses are not considered able to do either, because they rely entirely on the host for energy and the means of reproduction. 

This got me thinking about the interdependence of different species on one another. Can I really obtain and use energy by myself? Or is my gut flora essential to that process? Can I really reproduce without eating foods rich in folic acid? I wouldn’t want to try. Does my reliance on these plants and microbes make me less of a living thing? No. All living things are the result of a “counterpoint” between themselves and other species as described by Elizabeth Grosz in Chaos, Territory, Art. Sure, the virus is not a cell and it doesn’t grow, so it is clearly not defined as living, but the other criteria with which we dismiss the lowly virus are faulty. There is no life in a vacuum.

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