Darwin’s Surprise

I think that the article is titled “Darwin’s Surprise” because it includes concepts that would surprise/puzzle Darwin had he heard them during his lifetime. Some of the specific concepts that would startle Darwin include the idea of human beings having been descended from viruses as well as apes, along with the discovery of the degree to which viruses have been an evolutionary force. When Darwin published “On the Origin of Species,” viruses had yet to be discovered, let alone understood as to how they replicate and cause disease. This would all be new information to him. Hearing how extinct deadly viruses are able to be brought back to life and most likely did contribute to making us human would’ve been unfathomable during the 19th century.

Most of the information presented was surprising to me because I had never heard of such theories and experiments regarding viruses prior to reading the article. However, what I found to be most surprising is that scientists, such as Villarreal, believe “viruses may well be the unseen creator that mostly likely did contribute to making us human.” I had always heard of the potential harm a virus could cause, rather than on any possible benefit. As
stated in the article, viruses have been associated with many cancers and “in most cases the cells would be better off without them.” Nonetheless, studies have shown that there is one exception: the mammalian placenta. Retroviruses were found to be a part of what makes up the placenta in baboons, mice, cats, guinea pigs, and humans. To me this suggests that placentas could not exist without retroviruses, and therefore, mammals would not be able to provide nourishment to their embryos. This is shocking because as stated earlier, I would have never guessed that what is often seen as harmful could be so helpful as to give life as we know it, a life.

As stated in previous questions, the article suggests that viruses have played a baffling role in evolution-causing both harm and good. They possess “the evolutionary power to influence humans as a species-to alter our genetic structure.” Viruses change so rapidly that after a while, “a drug designed to stop it can lose its effectiveness completely.” Essentially, viruses “drive each infected cell to acquire new and increasingly complex molecular identities.” The article changed my outlook on viruses because I was always taught to fear, not celebrate them. Now, viruses are not something to be feared, but rather to be learned from. Understanding more about viruses and how they evolve would allow scientists to provide us with more answers to our questions.

Personally, I do believe scientists should “revive” dead viruses. Like most everything, research has its benefits and downsides. Although it is possible that “broken parts of viruses could once again be made infectious,” in good hands, viruses seem to be able to provide vital clues as to how AIDS, cancer, and like function. Heidmann and others would even argue that resurrected extinct viruses have “much to tell about the origins and evolution of humanity.” If this is true, then I am for it.

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3 Responses to Darwin’s Surprise

  1. MayaH says:

    I was also very surprised by the fact that viruses contributed to the development of humans as a species and are possibly the reason behind our differentiation from apes. As you stated, viruses are usually associated with their negative effects on us and other species, but they are what contributed to the development of the placenta, enabling humans and other organisms to have live births and protect their embryos from the viruses surrounding them. In lieu of this, I wonder what other positive effects viruses had on our development as a species and agree with you on the importance of reviving dead viruses for AIDS and cancer research, especially if they can be modified to reproduce only once .

  2. EmilyD says:

    Your point about how we’ve been taught to fear viruses is really interesting, and I think that societal perceptions of various topics plays a really big role in a lot of scientific research as well as the question of what is ethical and what is not. I think for most people, the main association we have with viruses is “disease you should avoid catching because it can’t be treated with antibiotics”. And there’s definitely an element of that fear with the question of whether scientists should be reconstructing extinct viruses – if viruses are something we’ve spent our whole lives trying not to catch, why should we run the risk of putting more viruses out in the world for us to catch? But the element of fear plays a really big role in all questions of where to draw the moral line when it comes to scientific research, not just in this scenario. I think that a lot of times, like you said, the practical benefits that can come from research often outweigh the potential risks, but we as a society are unwilling to condone research on things that frighten us. Interestingly, there’s kind of a similar phenomenon in linguistics, where people tend to denounce certain speech patterns as being “wrong” or “inferior”, when in fact from a linguistic standpoint they are totally valid forms of language. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the speech patterns that are perceived to be “wrong” are almost always the ones used by minority groups or people of lower socioeconomic standing, and the reason they are seen as inferior is not because of their inherent linguistic validity or “correctness” but simply because they are associated with said minority groups or people of lower socioeconomic standing. Similarly, there is very little that is frightening about the research being done – it does pose a risk, but most things do to some degree, and the scientists referenced in the article seem to be taking ample precautions – but people are afraid of it because that’s what we’ve been taught to be afraid of.

  3. RyanB says:

    I agree with your stance on the resurrection of “dead” viruses for the purposes of research and development. Since endogenous retroviruses and similar viral signatures are so widely abundant in the genomes of not only humans, but countless other species’, the study of such retroviruses could possibly become the forefront of modern biology. Paleovirology (which I was extremely shocked to discover even existed) can be the key in understanding evolutionary history of viruses and organisms alike, and can also lead to further understanding of modern viruses (potentially leading to more effective methods to combat them). I think this potential greatly outweighs the potential risk of viruses becoming infectious again in controlled settings.

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