What are viruses for?

“There are more viruses on earth than there are stars in the universe.” (Katherine Wu)

That astonishing fact was unknown to the classic evolutionary biologists, who informed the young John Smith that life was divided into three domains: archaea (single celled creatures; bacteria (single celled also) and eukaryotes ( having cells with a nucleus, often multicellular,as fungi, plants and animals including homo sapiens). This was incomplete, because it ignored the strange life of viruses, which are unable to exist independently and must therefore find hosts. There is a finicky argument that anything unable to live independently is not really life, but many biologists now teach that life exists in (at least) four domains, including viruses.

This discovery means that viruses cannot be understood as an obscure corner of life, whose existence might have been limited to animals other than humans. (Some pious souls have defended the creator God on the grounds that he intended viruses for “animals” only but sinful human gluttony and carelessness, such as found in Chinese meat markets, or worse, in human sex with animals, transferred them to humanity.) No, it’s clear that viruses are a major domain of life, and that some classic diseases such as smallpox were caused by them. The common cold and various influenzas are common evidence of their use of human beings as their hosts. The so- called Spanish flu of 1918, which may have killed a quarter of the world population, indicates how significant their activity has been.

As if we needed that indication when we are in the middle of a pandemic which we are only just beginning to control by vaccination, he thinks. We know only too well what suffering an unregulated expansion of viral life can cause. Clearly a successful virus cannot be too successful, for if it kills its host species, it kills itself. In fact, once a virus has penetrated a cell of its host, it compels it to produce viral cells according to its own DNA or RNA., which may be compatible or not with the host’s continued existence. The host’s immune system will recognise and attack these cells, and may succeed. Vaccination boosts the host’s capacity to do so. If the virus only kills “weaker” individuals in its host population, it may be interpreted by evolutionary biologists as a “culling” process which in fact strengthens the host population, as for example, early statistics seemed to show in the case of Covid -19.

From an evolutionary perspective viruses are credited with spreading genetic information contained in their DNA with other creatures, “horizontally” that is, not by generational inheritance. Modern biologists rightly refuse to ascribe any purpose to any life form, other than that of the continuation of its species. Viruses are good at their way of achieving this, the way of symbiosis. Clever human beings have already worked out ways in which certain viruses called phages can be used to assist the survival of patients suffering from bacterial infection or cancer. The phages can be positioned to “eat” bacteria or cancer cells, either by training or gene editing. It may be that with the growth of antibiotic -resistant bacteria, these techniques will become more and more important.

John realises that these are some of the most general facts about viruses. They are of fairly recent origin because virology is a young branch of biology, which offers exciting scope for research. All this tells him that while the existence of viruses is a problem for humanity, understanding them is not problematic in principle, but proceeds by a mixture of established scientific disciplines. They can kill us, but we hope that as we gain more knowledge of them, they may help to keep us alive.

All these facts come from human sciences and common sense.

But add the conviction that viruses like everything are made by a benign creator God, and immediately there is chaos:

1. The most obvious theory is that the God uses the viruses and epidemics in general as an instrument of punishment of disobedient mortals. This theory is displayed in the Hebrew bible and in ancient Greek story and is only rational if we see all victims as sinful and God as a vengeful killer. Some believers are happy to do so: “God’s an awesome exterminator and you must have done something to offend Him.” Others however would see such a God as made in the image of Adolf Hitler and refuse allegiance.

2. A less obvious theory, is an expansion of the one set out in Job. It is certainly better to question a God who permits the suffering caused by viruses, than to make him a tyrant as above, but let’s remember the limits of our knowledge and understanding. The known universe is vast, and there may be more than one. Who can know the role of any living species in the story of the whole? Who can know the role of human suffering in the ultimate perfection of the creation. We are right to question but we should not expect to understand the answers. “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” God asks Job, who says, “Before I knew you only by hearsay, but now I have seen you with my own eyes. I retract what I said and repent in dust and ashes.” This is a profound theory but it rests on Job’s encounter with God. For those who lack such an encounter, like John Smith, the questions remain.

3. Another theory is to do with our sources of information about God. These are the sacred writings and writing is a human activity, so these writings are by human beings. Humans make mistakes, so it’s probable that there are mistakes in the sacred writings. Perhaps God is not as all-powerful a creator as the writings suggest. Maybe the materials of the universe are more recalcitrant, and God’s desire for perfection has not (yet) prevailed. This view recognises that “God” is a human invention, which may or may not point to a reality. When we are dealing with facts, like viruses, for which evidence is available, maybe we should ask about the evidence for God.

4. We can dismiss the issue as unscientific and therefore not worth consideration. The modern philosophers called logical positivists held this view, and the “new atheists” led by Richard Dawkins think something similar. In a world where beliefs without evidence have done much harm – think of Donald Trump and his cohorts- decent people should be rigorous about excluding nonsense. John Smith finds himself sympathetic to these angry atheists, because he is of a scientific cast of mind which demands evidence for the assertions people make. But he thinks that often the “God” imagined by them is a travesty of the one he worships; and that their view of what constitutes evidence is much too narrow. He would want them to look at the best expressions of faith in God, and to accept a greater range of human experience as evidence.

Still, for his own faith, he continues to find the activities of the corona virus very troublesome.

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