Is the human race a virus? Part 1

Is Agent Smith right? Are we humans the equivalent of a virus because we are the only organism that can spread across the earth and multiply? And if this is the case, is there a cure to the disease of humanity as Agent Smith professes he and his kind are?

Well one thing our robotic friend got wrong was that viruses are organisms. Viruses are not, strictly speaking, organisms because while they have genes, they do not have a cellular structure. Despite this, they look and behave as if they are alive, which is why some scientists describe them as “organisms on the edge of life”. They evolve following the same process of natural selection and reproduce by creating multiple copies of themselves through self-assembly.

The thing is, viruses do not have their own method of metabolism, so rely on the sustenance provided by host cells for their energy. Without it, they wouldn’t have the ability to reproduce and would die out. Humans are, in all respects, live organisms. They are mammals and consist of the same building blocks of life as all other organisms – cells. And they have a metabolic system which allows them to produce sustenance independently of other organisms.

So, straight off the bat, you can rest assured you are not a virus – in case you were worrying. At least not in a strict biological sense.

But hold on, you’re not off the hook yet. While we may not be viruses as such, we certainly display the same parasitic behaviour that viruses do. In his seminal documentary series, Cosmos, Carl Sagan likened an animal’s relationship with plants as a parasitic (or at least a symbiotic) one.

Human beings grew up in forests; we have a natural affinity for them. How lovely a tree is, straining toward the sky. Its leaves harvest sunlight to photosynthesize, so trees compete by shadowing their neighbours … Trees are great and beautiful machines, powered by sunlight, taking in water from the ground and carbon dioxide from the air, converting these materials into food for their use and ours. The plant uses the carbohydrates it makes as an energy source to go about its planty business. And we animals, who are ultimately parasites on the plant, steal the carbohydrates so we can go about our business. In eating the plants we combine the carbohydrates with oxygen dissolved in our blood because of our penchant for breathing air, and so extract the energy that makes us go. In the process we exhale carbon dioxide, which the plants then recycle to make more carbohydrates. What a marvelous cooperative arrangement – plants and animals each inhaling each other’s exhalations, a kind of planet-wide mutual mouth-to-stoma resuscitation, the entire cycle powered by a star 150 million kilometers away.

This succinctly summarises the carbon cycle, and represents just one of the many processes that occur in nature whereby its biotic components (living/organic) interact with both each other and the surrounding abiotic elements (non-living things such as the air, water, soil and so on) to form a fully operational ecosystem. This ecosystem, while not a life form in itself, is very much a necessary factor of life here on earth. Without this complex web of interactions between living things and non-living forces and then amongst the living things themselves, life as we know it would be completely different.

Yet, what is the difference between this and a complex organism, which is the manifestation of multiple systems of cellular interactions occurring within its body? Complex organisms such as mammals consist of biological systems, such as the circulatory system, the respiratory system, the nervous system, and so on. Without the function of one of these systems, the whole organism would suffer, as would its constituent organs.

This is why cancers are so fatal if they arise in certain organs. Cancers are mutated cells that have lost the ability to self-destruct, and as the body doesn’t recognise them as foreign invaders (like viruses), their continued self-division within the body creates a build-up of tissues which form a tumor. If malignant, these cancerous cells can then spread across the body through one’s bloodstream and multiply, in a process called metastasis. This creates more tumors across the body, impairing certain tissues and organs, equalising their ability to serve their own function, and ultimately neutralising the role of a given organ system. Is this sounding familiar?

Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed, and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. 

What if humans were a cancer – an unregulated accumulation of malignant biological matter? And what if they were attacking the planet’s ecosystems in the same way cancers attack organisms? This is the question I pose in the next part of this post.

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