Darwin’s Surprise

I hate being sick, and I am pretty sure that most people, if not everyone, do not find it enjoyable as well. Well, viruses are the perpetrators of every cold you get, the stomachaches you come down with, and the fever you sometimes suffer from. Why do we have viruses if they only seem to cause harm? I personally could not have thought of any way in which viruses help us as human beings. Charles Darwin thought about the evolution of animals from a phenotypic prospective. He had no idea what genes were, or how evolutionary inheritance worked from a microscopic prospective. In this reading, Michael Specter quotes Robin Weiss, a professor of viral oncology at University College London, who stated that “If Charles Darwin reappeared today, he might be surprised to learn that humans are descended from viruses as well as from apes.” This is why I believe that this article is called “Darwin’s Surprise”. No one would have expected viruses to help organisms, especially in our evolution. Darwin would have never guessed that viruses existed, nor would he have thought that we evolve from something that only seems to harm us.

Even though I could not think of a way in which viruses could help us as organisms, I was not surprised by the fact that they play a vital role in our existence. I was surprised by the fact that we are able to reconstruct viruses and by the ways in which viruses actually help us adapt to our environment and the way we live. I honestly never thought about it. I was not the only one who was baffled, for Specter explains that in 2003, it was found that “our bodies are littered by shards of such retroviruses, fragments of the chemical code from which all genetic material is made”. Throughout this article, Specter seems to show how viruses provide us with immunity against a variety of diseases. After reading this, I was able to make a stronger connection between viruses and evolution. It does make sense to show that viruses play a role in the “battle of the fittest”. Those that are infected by a certain virus die out, until organisms are able to build immunity against a virus. Those with this immunity will have a better level of fitness than those who do not. Over time, this immunity will spread over a species as a virus becomes a permanent part of the organism. This is the concept that Specter keeps proving in this article, through experiments gathered from scientists all over the world. Reconstructing viruses also seemed like an idiotic move at first. Why would we want to reconstruct structures which harm us? After reading this article, I was able to understand why it is vital to bring viruses back to life. We can learn to understand viruses by building them from separate components.

Viruses have been able to provide mammals with structures which have helped us evolve as a species. Theirry Heidmann “suggested that without endogenous retroviruses mammals might have never developed a placenta, which protects the fetus and gives it time to mature.” This theory backs the concept that viruses have played a vital role in our development and evolution. Heidmann was able to back this claim by reconstructing viruses. He reconstructed a virus known as “Phoenix”, which was used to drive all of his claims which have to do with viruses. I believe that his experiments provide us with a valid reason behind the revitalization of viruses. It was used to help us build on the relationship between viruses and living organisms. This is the only acceptable reason for reconstructing viruses. If reconstructing viruses help us find cures for certain diseases or provide us with a better understanding of virus’ functions, reconstruction is suitable. By building a better understanding of viruses, we will be able to use them for our best interests.

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3 Responses to Darwin’s Surprise

  1. mbcoomes says:

    If I were to answer the question, “What did you find most interesting about this article?”, I would also mention the discovery of retroviruses in the development of placentas, like you did. I think that beyond the surprising fact that viruses have aided in our evolution as creatures, the specific ways in which we have benefited or adapted with viruses are truly thought provoking.
    Like you articulated, viruses have helped mammals evolve structures such as the placenta. I would just like to add that it is important that mammals did develop placentas because it allowed for the unique live birth, which, if we think about it, doesn’t seem advantageous. Intuitively, such a laborious, energy consuming, painful, and risky process would not be favored in evolution. Yet, it is the live births which have led to larger, more complicated and regulated brain systems for mammals. For me, THIS is the truly amazing part.

  2. mbcoomes says:

    If I were to answer the question, “What did you find most interesting about this article?”, I would also mention the discovery of retroviruses in the development of placentas, like you did. I think that beyond the surprising fact that viruses have aided in our evolution as creatures, the specific ways in which we have benefited or adapted with viruses are truly thought provoking.
    Like you articulated, viruses have helped mammals evolve structures such as the placenta. I would just like to add that it is important that mammals did develop placentas because it allowed for the unique live birth, which, if we think about it, doesn’t seem advantageous. Intuitively, such a laborious, energy consuming, painful, and risky process would not be favored in evolution. Yet, it is the live births which have led to larger, more complicated and regulated brain systems for mammals. For me, THIS is the truly amazing part. Much of what defines us as humans or separates us from other creatures comes from our highly regulated, organized and complex brain systems. The fact that part of our humanity can be attributed to a non living entity, the virus is kind of mind boggling.

  3. FelissaH says:

    Kelly Clarkson once said, “What does not kill you, makes you stronger.” And little does she know, this implies to the billions of generations ago where we were beginning to see light. The evolution of humans being shaped by virus, something that has been negatively viewed upon due to their tendencies to alter our fitness, is a radical suggestion. Yet strong amounts of evidence points towards this phenomenon. However, the idea of deriving from an article would seem to be unlikely. In the article, the interaction of virus and humans were described as a forever long game of “cat and mouse.” One will always evolve and infect while the other adapts and grows. This game suggests the same effect that animals that live in close proximity with each other. So rather than evolving from, the retrovirus could be the form of evolution we have incorporated with. One could not deny that the evolving placenta and immunity could not have been as strong without combating viruses for billions of years. And without the help of these “extinct” viruses, we would not be where we are in our current form of evolution.

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