One of my pet peeves is when people endow viruses and cells with anthropomorphic abilities and characteristics. I used to tell my students at the University of Virginia how imprecise and unscientific this is. Viruses and cells do not choose, plan, or scheme. They are not volitional in evading attack, restraining abnormal or deleterious mutations, or in preserving their own existence.
This anthropomorphic diction is counterintuitive to actual scientific mechanisms. Genes are not selfish; viruses are not clever; and cells are not seeking their own survival. Yet such language is widespread and difficult to avoid in current published works. And now, some scientists are not only confusing the narrative of life on Earth by anthropomorphizing cells and microbes, but others are trying to redefine life more broadly.
Why the Anthropomorphizing Phenomena?
The strong trend toward anthropomorphism is at least in part because cells and invading microbes appear clever and selfish. The “dance” between an organisms’ cells and invading microbes is extremely intricate and complex. It’s hard to miss the choreography and therefore it’s relatively easy to get sucked into talking about microbes and cells in human-like ways. But it’s really just another example apropos to Francis Crick’s admonishment to biologists that naturalists must constantly remind themselves that the apparent design in nature is not real. But, invoking anthropomorphic language only exacerbates the apparent “design problem.”
When naturalists use anthropomorphic language, it highlights that non-teleological, naturalistic evolutionary processes have failed to account for relatively rapid changes observed in the complexity and diversity of higher level, multicellular life since the Cambrian explosion (about 540–500 MYA). So scientists are forced to fall back on language that suggests purpose and volition—none of which exists in Darwinian evolution. If you claim that life’s history resulted from undirected evolutionary processes, you shouldn’t use verbiage that implies intention or purpose of any kind.
Creationism Gives Life Meaning, the Evolution Theory Does Not
The word “teleology” has its roots in the Greek word telos meaning “end” or “purpose.” Naturalistic (Darwinian) evolution says that not only does evolution not have any predetermined end or goal in mind; it is also a process that, all along the way, has no purpose driving it forward. Darwinian evolution has, at the heart of it, non-teleological processes that are driven by non-teleological mutations.
In stark contrast, the Christian worldview not only endows individual lives with a purposeful or meaningful end, but it endows creation with purpose and meaning. Cells and organisms adapt by design—excellent design in fact. The omniscient God created this excellent design and anticipated the types of environmental challenges, stresses, and pressures that would affect given organisms, thereby endowing them with the mechanisms to survive and thrive and adapt, not volitionally, but intentionally, by extremely insightful engineering. Such engineering provides organisms the capacity to flexibly respond under different environmental and developmental triggering events. Design in creation accounts for extreme complexity and diversity and novelty across the various phyla while relying on shared architectural structures and molecular building blocks to function within constraints of physics and according to basic chemical properties.
I believe a desire to endow viruses and cells with active, driving roles in a new goal-oriented (teleological) evolutionary theory is partially behind the motivation of some researchers to argue in favor of characterizing giant viruses as a new domain of life. In a recent publication in Nature researchers have identified elements in genomes of some giant viruses that share characteristics similar to the bacterial system CRISPR/Cas9.1
CRISPR/Cas9 is a gene-editing technique that allows some prokaryotes (bacteria and archea) to target bacteriophage, which have entered or infected the prokaryotic cell, destroying their DNA before the phage establish replication and destroy the cell. Some mimiviruses (a family of giant viruses) harbor short sequences of DNA that match that of infecting virophages. These virophage DNA segments in the mimivirus genomes have a similar layout to the CRISPR/Cas9 system—where short phage DNA sequences are flanked by enzymes that help prokaryotes defend against invading bacteriophage. When these mimivirus analogs are disrupted experimentally, researchers have demonstrated that virophage can successfully attack the now defenseless mimiviruses. These researchers propose that the discovery of a working immune system in viruses supports their position to reclassify these viruses as a new domain or branch in the tree of life.2
But viruses, including giant viruses, fail to qualify as life on many levels. They do not consume nutrients or produce energy for metabolic processes. They do not produce waste, grow, or develop. They do not reproduce themselves. They require living cells in order to replicate. They require a living cell’s machinery, resources, and energy for replication.
So why even suggest that the standard of life be lowered and broadened to include giant viruses? If some scientists persuade others that viruses are alive and that they are volitionally driving evolution then we will have lowered the standard of life. We would see it go from living cells to giant viruses that lack independence and depend on the simplest, currently defined living cell for replication.
The question we have to ask is, is it science or philosophy that’s driving this effort? I argue that it is the latter. If we concede to lower the bar to cell-dependent giant viruses, there’s no clear barrier between the replication of these giant viruses and far simpler viruses containing less than half-a-dozen genes. Darwinists could effectively drive the evolutionary story “forward” by continually lowering the smallest and simplest standard of life to a simple self-replicating molecule like RNA. If we define self-replicating molecules as living entities and infuse them with teleological powers as well, the evolutionary problem would be solved.
Some rational scientists must step in and stop the madness. I was not alone at the University of Virginia in strongly encouraging students and colleagues to stop anthropomorphizing viruses and cellular processes. At least one of my other virology colleagues shared the same pet peeve. Although I wore a custom-made T-shirt at the University of Tulsa that said, “Viruses are people too!” I certainly wasn’t expecting anyone to take me seriously—certainly not scientists who should know better.
Food for Thought
- Do you think viruses should be reclassified as living beings?
- Is there any harm in using colorful language that anthropomorphizes cells and organisms?
- Anthony Levasseur et al., “MIMIVIRE Is a Defence System in Mimivirus that Confers Resistance to Virophage,” Nature 531 (March 2016): 249–52, doi:10.1038/nature.2016.19462.
- Ewen Callaway, “CRISPR-like ‘Immune’ System Discovered in Giant Virus,” Nature, news release, February 29, 2016, http://www.nature.com/news/crispr-like-immune-system-discovered-in-giant-virus-1.19462.