An Evolving Tale of Good & Bad Viruses

Virus is a scary word to use in the context of human health (and of computers). It's always a bad and destructive thing, whether deadly or merely troublesome. Or is it?

In this interview with biochemist Michael Behe, professor of biological sciences in Lehigh, University in Pennsylvania, I've learned a bit about coronavirus and other viruses and why they can be such a threat. Behe is also a Senior Fellow for the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture and a noted author on the topic of Intelligent Design and evolution. (His latest book is Darwin Devolves.)

A virus is "a sub-microscopic piece of DNA or RNA, a piece of genetic material." It is one-ten-thousandth to one-millionth the size of the human genome. It has a shell on the outside made of protein. It is NOT alive.

"It needs to get into a cell in order to reproduce. The information it carries in its DNA or RNA highjacks the machinery of the cell, and the cell reproduces the virus for it and sends copies of the virus out to infect other cells. That process oftentimes wrecks the host cell and that's what causes the damage."

Behe notes we have no idea how viruses arose in the first place. Problems occur especially when a virus common in one species (sometimes with the help of a mutation) jumps to another species. Since the new host species is not familiar with it, the host lacks effective immunities and antibodies. Some experts believe the Wuhan coronavirus can now be traced to a bat sold in a food market in Wuhan. (Chinese markets are stuffed with every imaginable wild animal.)

The Wuhan Virus belongs to a larger class of viruses, coronaviruses, some of which cause the common cold; and we're all aware that, so far, there is no cure for the common cold! So, it's not an easy matter to just "fix" the COVID-19 sickness. Also, while COVID-19 is 90 percent similar in DNA to those causing the common cold, the 10 percent difference is significant; so we "classify it as a novel virus."

Genetic sequences in our bodies that look like viruses from our ancient past actually seem to pay positive roles in the human body. (We used to call some of them "junk DNA," but we're finding they serve many functions.) We're still learning more about the very complex DNA sequences in the human genome. "We can't say that definitely viruses are all bad."

Might we think of viruses, then, as smaller units of information or coding, that misplaced or mutated, mess up an organism's operation, much in the same way that coding in a computer program must be correctly situated and sequenced to operate properly? Perhaps. And all bits of information may either serve to assist proper functioning, or find their way into places where they do not belong and thereby wreak havoc? We've all heard of malware.

In nature, viruses, not being alive, can't be blamed as having wicked intentions. But with computer viruses, humans deliberately attempt to hack a system and implant another program, other data or instructions.

But this doesn't just happen with computers. Take the case of the coronavirus itself and the story of how it all happened and what followed in its wake. What if someone wanted to change the narrative of that story and replace it with "fake news"? Or falsely name a culprit? Wouldn't that be like replacing the good information in a cell with a virus, which copies its own "story" and replicates it in others?

Heather Zeiger writes at Mind Matters about the Chinese communist government's handling of the coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan, China, and how they have been rewriting its history to make the government look like the hero. Such tactics include attempts to rename the virus as the "Italian" or "Iranian virus" or to blame its first appearance in Wuhan on foreigners who carried it in.

So first, you put new information into someone's head, and then you get them to replicate it, and pass it on. In China, it seems, that new story may be going viral. Its effects remain to be seen and it may prove to be incurable.

is the executive editor of Salvo and Touchstone magazines.

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