Monday, February 1, 2010

Viral media

When I told my Grandma I was going on a camp to study bats, she listened politely for a few moments, then said "Yes, but really, what's the point of bats?". This was a new addition to her repertoire, which usually goes along the lines of: "I don't know why they bother having crocodiles. They're ugly, they eat people...why don't they just shoot them?" Grandma grew up in England, where over a millenia or so, people have done exactly that to their larger wild animals. The English have also replaced most of their wilderness with gardens and fields. In Grandma's opinion, this looks 'much prettier,' and is a great improvement on our ugly Australian bush.

I found it difficult to come up with an impromptu justification of the existence of bats. I didn't have the option of claiming that bats are God's creatures. After discussing mortality with her doctor, Grandma has decided that she's an agnostic. I ended up resorting to the slightly feeble argument that a) bats are cute, and b) they eat insects, which is a good thing if you hate insects. I was betting this argument on the fact that Grandma would hate insects, which, after all, are ugly and eat people. But she claimed to liked them. I'll have to remember this fact for possible point scoring the next time we have a sophisticated discussion about ecology.

I suppose I've always assumed that living organisms have an intrinsic value, not to mention their ecological significance. Even bacteria have their virtues. What they lack in personality, they make up for in useful nutrient recycling activities, or helpful gut-flora action.

However, I feel tempted to draw the line at viruses. These are entities - they can't even be called living things - that don't even bother to have their own cells. They lie around as inert capsules of DNA or RNA, only springing into action when they infect a cellular organism and hijack its cellular machinery to produce more virus genes. These genes get packaged in a protein coat and released into the world as more dormant viruses, which wait around to infect the next organism. A virus is the ultimate example of someone who needs to get a life of their own. Even parasites stoop to excreting and reproducing for themselves.


Maybe Richard Dawkins would understand the simple needs of the virus. The title of Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene refers not so much to the genetically determined selfish behaviour of organisms, but to the selfishness of the gene itself. This is because all the gene wants to do (not consciously, of course) is to produce more copies of itself. According to Dawkins, the carrier is merely the vessel of the gene. Evolution, and the variety of differently shaped bodies it has produced, represents increasingly sophisticated attempts by genes to package themselves in order to ensure their reproduction.

Judged on these terms, viruses are nature's car poolers, house sitters and refusers of plastic bags. They say no to unnecessary packaging. They don't waste valuable resources growing their own cells when there are plenty of other people's cells to go around.

But, as with a sanctimonious hippy, I just can't warm to them. When it comes to genes, I prefer the ones that have as much ornate gift wrapping as possible. The more colours and accessories the better.



Call me a sucker for a cheap gimmick, but these genes glow in the dark!

It's not just a visual aesthetic that counts against viruses. There's also a lack of narrative drama. Sure, swine flu got a lot of media coverage, but how did this make the virus feel? What does a pathogen really get out of life when it's incapable of conscious thought, unconscious thought, movement, sensory perception, feeding and mating? What is the point of viruses?

The elephant in the room, of course, is that viruses make a mockery of our limbs, brains, emotions, genitalia and rational thoughts. If we're just doing in a more elaborate way exactly the same thing they're doing with a few sticks of non-sentient genetic material and a protein coat, - that is, replicating our DNA ad infinitun - then we have to ask the question: what is the point of us? Which, in my books, is all the more reason to despise them. Essentially, I'm saying that I hate viruses because they are irreconcilably different to us, yet at the same time remind us of ourselves. Because this means I have to identify with something I hate, I only hate them more. Of course, Fascism is not always a good thing, but let's just say there's a time and a place.

4 comments:

Romy said...

I love your grandma.

Lorelei V said...

I love you and your grandma.

Kit said...

Well I'll never think of viruses the same way again. As house sitters, they do seem to leave a lot of breakage in their wake, like clueless squatters. Your grandma is terrific.

ha said...

I love your grandma, and your funny informative beautifully written blog!