The Evolution of Scientific Thought

To me, the most striking part of the article was how the writer—Michael Specter—so effectively described the progression of scientific thought on viruses within the field. I absolutley loved how he described the context and basis for scientific thought before endogeneous viruses were well documented, and made the mid-century understanding of viruses not dumb or insignificant, but justified based on the best agreed-upon understanding amongst scientists at the time. In a weird way, the evolution of scientific thought on endogenous viruses happened due to small point mutations of consciousness within the field — the observation of viral presence within the placents, the damning evidence of protein TRIM5alpha’s role in human evolution, or the discovery of endogenous lentiviruses. These all help move the collective edge of human thought on viruses, which I think is just superb.

Let’s extrapolate on that a bit for fun — because the edge of human thought moves slowly due to mutations, it is difficult to see beyond the edge without hypothesizing new scientific ideas so extremely that they seem baseless. This is a limitation for Darwin, because he did not have the ability to conduct genetic analysis. I imagine Darwin would be surprised by the presence of viral sequences within DNA itself, and ultimately, the essential role of viruses in propelling human evolution. While he highlighted the most accurate mechanism for evolution to date, natural selection, it would have been incredible of him to hypothesize that viruses are genetic modifiers of human DNA. But they are!

The article ultimately suggests that viruses are an integral mechanism for propelling human evolution. Michael cites the unique observation of the HIV epidemic within Africa — a scientist purported that Africa’s population will soon degrade to a point where only those who have mutated a resistance to H.I.V. will be able to survive, and thus will eventually repopulate the continent with a massive advantage. I think it is the most accurate synthesis of all areas of thought within the article, accounting for the direct role of viruses in evolution and natural selection, but also how viruses become integrated into human DNA itself, similar to the rabbit’s lentivirus. This has really changed my view on viruses by showing me how new hypothesis can be drawn from the cutting edge research done by scientists around the globe.

In order to fully understand the role of endogenous DNA within humans, they must be examined and tested. While it might be nice to get a quantum computer to do all the test runs, for now, the testing must be done on cells. The difficulty comes from the reality that it is difficult to find an alternative test subject — from what I gather, the article hypothesizes that one of the acute mechanisms for the divergence of humans and chimps was the production of H.I.V. suppressing genes, which subsequently rules out the ability for tests on chimps to be extrapolated to humans. However, scientists can alternatively derive sequences of human DNA that could potentially serve as an immune response to H.I.V. — one of them being trim5a. I think that is a field that must be continued to be explored. I really can’t put a stake in the ground on the morals of human testing, but the current status quo is quite satisfactory — test runs of HIV vaccines are being run as I type this, which is an exciting reality.

 

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