Darwin stated that living organisms respond to selective pressures, causing their species’ gene pool to change over time. The difference in this article is that viruses are not living, and yet can infect living organisms. I would imagine Darwin would be surprised to hear that an abiotic factor can not only change our behavior, but change the way we are “hard-wired” to exist, especially since he hypothesized that all our traits are passed down from previous generations rather than taken in from the “outside”. Indeed, I think most people would be surprised to learn that; I certainly was. To learn that the amount of genes attributed to viruses is quadruple the amount needed to create the proteins necessary for life seemed to indicate to me, firstly, that we have been repelling attacks for a very long time. Of course, that’s a rather obvious assessment, but it is rather astounding that so little of our genome is actually “useful”.
That is, until we learn that viruses that may have otherwise created “junk DNA” likely played huge roles in our basic functions, such as facilitating live births. That is what surprised me the most about this article. Of course, viruses have probably caused billions of deaths over the course of human history, but they have also provided innumerable advantages for our species; much like some of the greatest scientific advancements are made during war, some of humanity’s most integral processes come from a class of organisms that is known for producing widespread death.
As we become more effective at fighting viruses, we will surely see less of this evolution on our part (in fact, medicine in general seems to inhibit selective pressures), though we definitely may still be able to “absorb” viruses whose negative influence is less severe, or even absent. Since such viruses cause a change in our genome, the question of speciation arises; how much can viruses change us before we are no longer human? And since we apply different standards of ethics to non-humans, is it our moral obligation to have empathy for future species descended from humans? Ergo, should we care whether viruses change us if, eventually, we are no longer “us”? If we let viruses continue to modify our genome, would we not eventually become “extinct” in a way? If so, it may be in our interest to prevent such modification, despite any good it brings. If so, it may be good to revive “dead” viruses in order to continue to be able to do research. Despite the common sci-fi image of super-virus escaping the lab of the mad scientist, reviving dead viruses may cause the preservation of the current version our species, or a more rapid movement toward a “better version” of us, achieved through a deliberate modification of our genome.
A lot of science, in my opinion, can be boiled down to philosophical questions, much like this one. In this case, we may be one day able to modify ourselves to be “better”. However, all I will argue for is that we have to be careful, considering that we may have a big hand in the future of our species, as well as any potential new ones we may create.