How Viruses Are Misunderstood

Humans only see viruses when they hurt us, like an ant only notices the foot. But they are much more than that.

Right now, you have 380 trillion viruses all over your body and they’re not hurting you at all. Across all humanity, we carry more viruses than there are stars in the known universe. If we include my son, who still licks tables, it would be a multiverse.

Viruses are the oldest biological entity on the planet and they exist in balance with everything else. We’re the ones messing that up.

Right now you don’t notice the universe of viral activity in your very own body because they are perfectly balanced with 38 trillion bacteria. Every year you shit out your entire weight in bacteria, and viruses help keep that all in balance. Get rid of viruses and bacteria and you’ve gotten rid of life. In a very real sense, humans are just the latest handbags for higher beings.

We view viruses as invading us, but in reality, we are invading them. We torture cows, or steal habitat from bats, or crowd human beings together. Viruses create a necessary balancing of those conditions and, frankly, they’re not doing enough. We view viruses as some abstract threat without seeing the whole ecosystem. This is a wrong view of them, and of us.

God is a programmer

To have any understanding of viruses we have to first get down from our pedestal — the idea that we are created in God’s image — and look at God’s actual creation.

If God was a programmer, 90% of her code would be viruses, 10% bacteria, and human beings would be one random Docker (a virtual server) she’d spun up and forgotten about. We’re about as relevant as the server rack you’re reading this webpage from. Which is to say, we’re not important at all.

God really hasn’t thought of us that much. We’re named human_final_final_final.exe, and buried in some subfolder that gets automatically wiped every 100 million years.

In a very real sense, God is using us to backup viral code more than to create anything new. A full 8% of your genome is of viral origin, compared to less than 2% that codes for anything even vertebrate. An even smaller fraction is uniquely human.

We like to think we’re the pinnacle of evolution, but that’s a joke. Compared to humans, viruses are like gods. Once we stop futilely trying to kill them, we can begin to understand.

What are viruses?

The main thing, from our perspective, is that viruses are invisible. That’s why we only notice when we’re hacking up our lungs. To really understand them, you’ll have to use your imagination.

Just hold out your hands and imagine trillions of viruses crawling all over them. Then turn your palms up to the sky. 800 million viruses fall from the winds, every day, across every square meter of this planet. Open your eyes and see a world positively swimming in code.

If it helps, imagine the Matrix.

In the Matrix, the code was actually sushi recipes

The Matrix, once Neo sees it, is a universe of code. Everything is crawling with code. That’s what viruses are.

Viruses are essentially loose code. They are RNA or DNA, packaged in a casing so flimsy that simple soap destroys it. This free-floating code cannot reproduce on its own, which is why scientists call it non-living, but it’s certainly not dead. Personally, I call them living, out of respect.

I say respect, because we are in essence looking at the source code of life. This code is omnipresent, it literally gave birth to you, and it is ancient. To me, a proper reaction to viruses is not fear. It’s awe.

Everywhere

Micrograph of a stained seawater sample. On average there are more than 10 million virus particles per millilitre in coastal seawater

Viruses are truly everywhere. As mentioned, there are an estimated 10³¹ viruses on Earth compared to roughly 10²³ stars. That’s 100 million times more. It’s an unimaginable number. If you stretched these viruses out, they would span the Virgo Supercluster, the 100+ galaxies that form our local group. Also unimaginable.

This is why I use the term gods. The microcosmos is as big as the cosmos. Gods are traditionally how we understand power on this scale.

Everyone

See the syncytiotrophoblast in blue, viral code literally kept your mother from killing you

Viruses are literally inside of your DNA. They’re inside everyone. As mentioned, 8% of your DNA is of viral origin. And this isn’t just latent. This is code that literally gave you life. It was essentially a virus that held you in your mother’s womb.

What this alien DNA is doing in us varies, but one example shines above all others, and it is in the formation of the placenta.

Syncytium in the placenta make up a highly specialized and essential tissue. These are the spindly fingers from the growing placenta that invade the wall of the uterus and provide the interface betewen the mother and embryo, where liquids, waste and nutrients are exchanged. It’s also a tissue that suppresses the immune system of the mother, to stop her body from automatically rejecting the growing child as an alien presence.

The genes that drive those placental cells to form are not human at all. Primates acquired them from a virus around forty-five million years ago; in the virus, the genes also encourage fusion of the host cell with the virus itself. (The Book Of Humans, pg 169).

This is poetic and amazing, that a virus taught us how to host the little virus we call a baby. This has happened multiple times across mammals, from different viruses. Without this viral code, your mother would have rejected you like a bad burrito.

This type of code sharing is ubiquitous across nature. We call evolution a tree, but this is almost entirely inaccurate. Evolution proceeded for billions of years before sex, and still proceeds through promiscuous, horizontal code-sharing. Viruses are like God’s command line, cutting across all species.

Every time

Viruses are also, from our perspective, immortal. They have been around since the dawn of life and likely before. Every domain of life has viruses, meaning that our last universal common ancestor (LUCA) likely did as well. It seems likely that God was experimenting with this free-floating code before discovering bacterial and animal Dockers at all.

Viruses are the source code of life, they gave us life inside our mother’s womb, and they literally fall from the sky, but we only notice them when they give us death. But this should only be the beginning of our understanding, not the end.

The circle of life

The reason viruses kill us is not because viruses, it’s because we upset the balance they preserve in the world.

If we lived in balance with the Earth, viruses would be in balance with us, as they have been in balance with all creatures for billions of years. It is us who have upset that balance — through rampant deforestation, caging and torture of domesticated animals, and hunting of the wild. We have pushed life against the wall, and complain when something microscopic pushes back.

We are the root cause of viral diseases, not viruses. As I’ve said, viruses are ubiquitous, mostly harmless, and often beneficial. Things like coronavirus are a result of human actions, and getting rid of viruses does not solve the problem.

We have to address the root cause, and find balance.

To me, that starts with respect. Viruses are older than us, wiser than us, and they’re trying to communicate with us in the only language all life understands. Death.

We should humble ourselves and listen.

Written by

A writer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He/him. indi@indi.ca. Videos: tiny.cc/indication and podcast: anchor.fm/indication. patreon.com/indication

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store