Darwin’s Surprise Prompt Response

I think that the article is titled “Darwin’s Surprise” because Darwin, were he to learn of recent developments with retrovirology and genetics, would be surprised to learn the importance of viruses in the evolution of animals, particularly humans. He would be surprised, first and foremost by the concept of billions of microorganisms, some living, some not, such as bacteria and viruses, constantly inhabiting and affecting humans. He would have an idea of the existence of genes (discreet, heritable units) but be shocked that diseases can change and effect them, and most of all, he’d be surprised that viruses have been a driving force in the evolution of various organisms. This would come as a shock to him, as he wouldn’t understand that they could directly cause what he would consider mutations, it would also surprise him because, as was mentioned, he didn’t have a knowledge or understanding of viruses.

The single most shocking part of this article for me, was that viruses might be a direct cause for mammalian live birth. This surprises me, for one thing, because I too, like Darwin, did not know that viruses are largely responsible for human evolution, and certainly not to the degree that they’d be responsible for one of the most unique characteristics of an entire clade of organisms. The idea that an endogenous retrovirus, something like HIV, changing the genome of some common mammalian ancestor millions of years ago could be the cause of live birth is just fascinating.

The article suggests that viruses have been a driving force in the evolution of multicellular organisms (and although the article doesn’t mention it, bacteria as well) for a very, very long time. Essentially, the article states that we (multicellular organisms, specifically mammals) have been in an evolutionary race with viruses, and that it’s been a driving factor in the evolution of most organisms. I definitely agree with the article, it certainly makes sense (and is backed by numerous studies and renowned scientists) that viruses could be such an important catalyst in evolution. The article did change my view on viruses, prior to reading this article, I had agreed with Joshua Lederber, and thought that viruses were only a threat to humanity. I now see that, though they are a potential threat, they are just as much, if not moreso an ally to humans, speaking on a larger, evolutionary scale, they are an important part of our adaptations and evolution of our species, especially since they are one of the few environmental factors left for humans that can have the scope of effect needed to push adaptation and evolution. So on an immediate scale, they’re threatening, on a long-term evolutionary scale, they’re extraordinarily valuable.

Science certainly should “revive” dead viruses, the potential benefit is immeasurable, and and negative consequences are speculative at best. If reviving dead viruses continues to bring the knowledge and benefit that it already has, ie. teaching us the importance of viruses in evolution, offering us knowledge about PtERV that could lead to a cure for HIV, and those important discoveries may just be the tip of the iceberg, then it would be folly not to pursue this, the things we can learn and the advances in medicine that can be made are too great to discount. The only argument against reviving these viruses, the fact that one may reinfect humans and cause harm, is an unfounded, illogical fear. For one thing, none of the diseases revived have yet proved dangerous. Also, if one of these viruses did prove dangerous/infectious, they’re being studied in labs that are prepared to deal with that contingency exactly, labs that house viruses and diseases that we know for certain could prove deadly if released, and that are specially equipped to prevent that from happening, so that argument is moot. In summary, yes, we really really should study and revive dead viruses, there is no reason not to, and we’ve already gained so much knowledge from them, and have so much more to potentially gain.

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