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Viruses are People Too!

By Anjeanette Roberts - July 26, 2018

Although I wore a custom-made T-shirt in college that said, “Viruses are people too!”, I didn’t expect anyone to take me seriously . . .

One of my pet peeves is when people endow viruses and cells with humanlike abilities and characteristics—a process known as anthropomorphizing. I used to tell my students at the University of Virginia how imprecise and unscientific this is. Viruses and cells do not choose, plan, or scheme. In other words, they are not volitional. They do not evade attack, restrain abnormal or deleterious mutations, or preserve their own existence.

Anthropomorphic diction is whimsical but it often obstructs discovery of or belies actual scientific mechanisms. Genes are not selfish. Viruses are not clever. Cells do not seek their own survival. Yet such language is widespread and difficult to avoid in currently published scientific works. And now, some scientists are not only confusing the narrative of life on Earth by anthropomorphizing cells and microbes, but others are also trying to redefine life more broadly.

Why Anthropomorphize?

The strong trend toward anthropomorphism exists at least in part because cells and invading microbes appear clever and selfish. The “dance” between an organism’s cells and invading microbes is extremely intricate and complex. It’s hard to miss the choreography; therefore, it’s relatively easy to get sucked into talking about microbes and cells in humanlike ways. But such a relationship is really just an excellent example of Nobel laureate Francis Crick’s admonishment to biologists that naturalists must constantly remind themselves that the apparent design in nature is not real. Invoking anthropomorphic language only exacerbates the apparent “design problem.” But such exquisite design is only a problem for naturalism without a designer. One cannot rationally nor scientifically skirt naturalisms design problem by imputing volition to nonvolitional entities. Naturalists impart nonvolitional components power to direct outcomes because they deny the presence of natures brilliant choreographer.

When naturalists use anthropomorphic language, they convey that nonteleological (nonpurposeful), naturalistic evolutionary processes have failed to account for relatively rapid changes observed in the complexity and diversity of higher-level, multicellular life since the Cambrian explosion (about 540–500 mya). Unguided variation and natural selection are incapable of accounting for the complexity and diversity of life on Earth. Therefore, many scientists who are committed to account for all things through secondary causes alone, fall back on language that suggests purpose and volition coming from within the systems components. But such teleology and volition do not exist in Darwinian evolution. If any scientists claim that life’s history resulted from undirected evolutionary processes, they shouldnt use verbiage that implies intention or purpose of any kind.

Created Life Has Meaning and Purpose

The word “teleology” has its roots in the Greek word telos, meaning “end” or “purpose.” Naturalistic (Darwinian) evolution says that not only does evolution not have any predetermined end or goal in mind, but it is also a process that, all along the way, has no purpose driving it forward. Darwinian evolution has, at the heart of it, nonteleological processes that are driven by nonteleological mutations.

In stark contrast, the Christian worldview not only endows individual lives but also all of creation with purpose and meaning. Cells and organisms adapt by design—excellent design, in fact—well actually, incomparable and unfathomable design! The omniscient God engineered design throughout the created order—fine-tuning the whole universe and the specifics of Earths planetary system. But this brilliant Creator has finely tuned and balanced intricately interdependent ecological systems and endowed individuals and populations with untapped complexities for adaptation and flourishing as well. Its a brilliance that anticipated and foreknew the types of environmental challenges, stresses, and pressures that would affect given organisms, and thus, purposefully endowed them with the mechanisms to survive and thrive and adapt. The elegant and robust complexity and adaptability observed at cellular and organismic levels do not come volitionally from within, but intentionally from without by extremely insightful engineering.

Recognizing and acknowledging true—not merely apparent—design in creation is a far more rational and scientific account for extreme complexity and diversity and novelty across the various phyla than is intriguing language that imparts wills and foresight to molecules, genes, or cellular entities. The progressive creation model at RTB not only acknowledges the role of God in designing, creating, and engineering a diversity of organisms (albeit with shared architectural structures and molecular building blocks), but it also rightly emphasizes that this is obvious everywhere we look. Nature is endowed with purpose. Nature is replete with design. It shouts the glory, brilliance, and presence of the Creator. Nature is a revelation of God.

All of nature shares and supports a unity of purposethat those made in Gods image would find him, discovering his great care and love for creation and his deepest desire for reconciliation with him. And, once reconciled, reborn, and filled with his Spirit, that these empowered image-bearers would deeply care for creation and especially our fellow human beings. Life is about reconciliation with God, with one another, and with creation. Life is replete with purpose and meaning.

Why Redefine “Life”?

I believe a desire to endow viruses and cells with active, driving roles in a new goal-oriented (teleological) evolutionary theory (not Darwinism) motivates some researchers (at least in part) to argue in favor of characterizing giant viruses as a new domain of life. In a recent Nature Communications article, researchers identified elements in genomes of giant viruses that share characteristics similar to eukaryotic cells.1

The report of two Tupanvirus strains adds to the growing number of giant viruses.2 It seems that Tupanviruses contain an extensive array of translational apparatuses required for protein synthesis. The genomes, 1.44–1.51 Mb (millions of base pairs) linear double-strand DNA coding for 1276–1425 predicted proteins, encode up to 70 tRNA, 20 aaRS (enzymes), 11 factors for all translation steps, and factors related to tRNA/mRNA maturation and ribosome protein modification. Although the functionality of these encoded molecules has yet to be assayed, these viruses, like other giant viruses, contain many more genes than the largest viruses that predate them.

Giant viruses, first discovered in 2003, dont just encode more genes—they encode genes that add complexity that has only been previously observed in living cells. Some mimiviruses (another type of giant virus) harbor short, virophage-like sequences of DNA.2 These virophage-like DNA segments in the mimivirus genomes have a similar layout to the CRISPR/Cas9 system of bacteria. When these DNA segments are disrupted experimentally, virophage can successfully attack the now defenseless mimiviruses. This finding suggests giant viruses have components of immunity similar to those seen in prokaryotic cells.

Another recent publication reports the identification of histone-like orthologs (inferred from sequence similarities) in the cytoplasmic replication factories of Marseilleviruses.3 These histone-like protein domains demonstrate shared similarities with histone proteins in eukaryotic cells and suggest increased complexity in these giant viruses genome structures and gene regulation. All of these findings—the extensive protein translational components, viral immune systems, and histone-like domains similar to those of chromosomal remodeling proteins in eukaryotes—lead some researchers to argue in favor of reclassifying these viruses as a new domain or branch in the tree of life.

These discoveries add significantly to the growing complexity captured in the viral landscape. Although such diversity is absolutely stunning and marvelous, it still falls significantly short of the simplest known cells. Viruses, even giant viruses, fail to qualify as life on many levels, not merely complexity. All viruses fail to consume nutrients or produce energy for metabolic processes. They do not produce waste, grow, or develop. They do not reproduce themselves. They absolutely require living cells in order to replicate. They require the cell’s machinery, resources, and energy for viral replication. Viruses that have increased complexity may provide more of their own machinery, but they still require additional cellular machinery, resources, and energy.

So Why Even Suggest Changing the Standard of Life?

I suspect it is a philosophical, not a scientific move, even if the scientists making the arguments are ignorant of such a distinction. If we concede to lower lifes bar to include cell-dependent giant viruses, there’s no clear barrier between the replication of these giant viruses and far simpler viruses containing less than half a dozen genes. One could effectively drive the evolutionary story “forward” by continually lowering the standard of life. Having gone this far, even self-replicating molecules should be living because they can accomplish self-replication, which giant viruses (and all other viruses) fail to do. And if life can be redefined to mere molecules, then whos to argue that living molecules cant direct their own destiny? Well, a rational person or scientist could, and, in my opinion, should.

Back to Reality

Volition and life are not characteristics necessary for molecules, or viruses, or cells in a world rightly understood as the masterpiece of a brilliant Creator who has engineered and endowed living things with extremely complex capacities for adaptation. Volition and life at a molecular, viral, or cellular level are so irrational as to venture toward nonsensical. If we define self-replicating molecules as living entities and infuse them with teleological powers as well, the evolutionary problem would be solved, but the nature of reality and the nature of science would be fundamentally challenged. The order provided by secondary cause-and-effect relationships within nature that allow successful scientific inquiry would dissolve into chaos as volition and subjectivity of selfish molecules comes to fruition.

Thankfully, I was not alone at the University of Virginia in strongly encouraging students and colleagues to stop anthropomorphizing viruses and cellular processes. At least one of my other virology colleagues shared the same pet peeve. Although I wore a custom-made T-shirt during my university days that said, “Viruses are people too!” I certainly wasn’t expecting anyone to take me seriously—certainly not scientists.

Life is not a happy accident of unguided secondary causes. It is the pinnacle and intent of all of creation. Nature points us to the personal Creator God of Christianity.

Lets Talk
  • Do you think viruses should be reclassified as living entities? Why? And what do you gain by such reclassification or inclusion?
  • Do I overstate the harm in using colorful language that anthropomorphizes cells and organisms?
  • Connect with me on Facebook or Twitter to comment or share.

For more on CRISPR/Cas9 see my other blog post.

Portions of this article come from a previous TNRTB, published on May 28, 2016 under the title “Are Evolutionists Lowering the Standard of Life?”

  1. Jônatas Abrahão et al., Tailed Giant Tupanvirus Possesses the Most Complete Translational Apparatus of the Known Virosphere, Nature Communications 9 (February 27, 2018): 749, doi:10.1038/s41467-018-03168-1.
  2. Jordana Cepelewicz, New Giant Viruses Further Blur the Definition of Life, Abstractions (blog), QuantaMagazine, March 5, 2018, https://www.quantamagazine.org/new-giant-viruses-further-blur-the-definition-of-life-20180305/.
  3. Anthony Levasseur et al., “MIMIVIRE Is a Defence System in Mimivirus That Confers Resistance to Virophage,” Nature 531 (March 2016): 249–52, doi:10.1038/nature17146; Ewen Callaway, “CRISPR-like ‘Immune’ System Discovered in Giant Virus,” Nature News, February 29, 2016, doi:10.1038/nature.2016.19462.
  4. Albert J. Erives, “Phylogenetic Analysis of the Core Histone Doublet and DNA Topo II Genes of Marseilleviridae: Evidence of Proto-eukaryotic Provenance,” Epigenetics & Chromatin 10 (August 26, 2017): doi:10.1186/s13072-017-0162-0. See also, “Giant Viruses May Play an Intriguing Role in Evolution of Life on Earth,” Science Daily, February 7, 2018, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/02/180207102751.htm.

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