Viruses are technically not alive according to the standard biological definition of life. This is because left to themselves they don’t display any of the seven criteria required for something to be deemed living, which are respiration, reproduction, nutrition, movement, growth, sensitivity and excretion. However, neither are they really on a gradient between life and non-life whose denizens display some but not all of these features. They reproduce with the help of organisms by hijacking the machinery of the cell to make more of themselves, so I’ve tended to think of them as items (there’s a nomenclature problem here) which have a single characteristic of life, namely reproduction. True, they can’t reproduce alone, but the same is true of many sexual organisms, and in a sense viruses are not organisms at all, although they are organised so maybe they are. However, when they do infect cells they participate in life and tax their hosts in various ways, hence the fact that they’re often related to illness.
Partly because they’re not alive, the idea of calling viruses by the usual binominal system of genus + species such as Homo sapiens or Boa constrictor may be inappropriate. However, non-living things are classified, such as stars, minerals and elements, without strictly implying an evolutionary process, so they may nevertheless make sense, or at least some form of classification may exist. To me it seems feasible to track at least some of the phylogenetic tree of viruses by comparing their genomes, although presumably DNA and RNA would have to be done separately here unless the genomes turn out to be similar. It also appears that RNA viruses are in fact descended from early RNA-based organisms rather like bacteria which died out long before even the LUCA (last universal common ancestor) appeared. This whole issue is of course the “natural kinds” problem of philosophy: is reality already categorised into different types of things or is that just what we do to deal with it? This also applies to whether viruses are alive, as we have categories of living and non-living things. This may, however, be inaccurate and at this point I’m going to depart into what is often seen as ridiculous territory, because I’m panpsychist.
Panpsychism is the belief that the physical Universe is composed entirely of sentient entities. The reason I believe this is true is twofold. Firstly, there seems to be no way to account for consciousness except to view it as an innate property of matter or some even more fundamental part of the fabric of reality. Secondly, there’s always a temptation to draw a line around People Like Us and consign everything else to the Outer Darkness which doesn’t need to be considered, and it’s, so to speak, often strangely coincidental that the cis palar people are paler and of similar gender and so forth to the people drawing the line than those who are trans palar. In other words, my decision to be panpsychist is fundamentally ethical. Other species have no voice, other kingdoms even less of a voice and so on, so we can safely assert our power over them without them complaining and kid ourselves into thinking it’s okay. This prioritising of the ethical over the ontological, I think, reflects the idea that the Torah was created before the physical Cosmos and acts as a kind of blueprint for it, because that’s exactly the way we should be approaching life, and that “should” has priority over any “is”. This also addresses the is/ought problem of not being able to derive an ought from an is, because of course you can’t. It’s the other way round.
Akin to panpsychism is hylozoism, the belief that substance as such is always essentially alive – hyle – substance; zoön – animal. Hylozoism is not quite the same idea as panpsychism because it doesn’t follow from something being alive that it’s also conscious, and it’s also an older idea than panpsychism, perhaps even the original idea. Pre-Socratic philosophers regarded magnets and the wind as alive because they were active, for example, and whereas the processes driving those activities are a small subset of the processes occurring within things normally regarded as being alive, that division between the inorganic and the organic may be imposed by the human mind. It also relates to pantheism because all of reality could be conscious, alive and God. Since I come from the Abrahamic tradition, I don’t see the physical Universe as God but I do think this exposes a possible assumption made by some anti-theists when they claim everyone is born atheist. I don’t believe this is true. A child’s first experience of the world is usually of the parents, who are alive and conscious – parents are a child’s world at first, and that world is alive and conscious. In fact a mother is in a sense a baby’s God. It therefore makes sense to me that a child will initially view their environment as alive and conscious, and the way young children play seems to reflect that. I also think the concept of God often arises as a way of coping with separation anxiety. I can specifically remember doing this as a coping strategy when I was very young. Incidentally, simply because this is how the concept arises doesn’t invalidate it or even refute it – I see it as a mechanism placed divinely in the human mind to encourage theism. However, theism can in general be left out of this point.
All of this has a number of linguistic consequences because the way we talk about stuff influences the way we treat that stuff. There is currently a vegan campaign to refer to all animals by “she”, “he” or singular “they” rather than “it”. I disagree with this because it seems anthropocentric in view of the fact that many species are simultaneous hermaphrodites or reproduce asexually and it misses the opportunity to obfuscate gender in English by edging into “non-natural” gender. Hence it’s inappropriate to call many planaria or sea anemones something other than “it” because they’re hermaphrodite. Having said that, it does seem appropriate to use “who” rather than “what”, “that” or “which”, “someone”, “somebody” and the like because they’re common rather than neuter gender terms, and for me this extends beyond the animal kingdom to plants, fungi and living microörganisms. Eccentric though it may seem, unlike many vegans who find the usually disingenuous suggestion that plants are not sentient, being panpsychist I believe they are. There often seems to be a focus on the possession of a central nervous system as a sine qua non of awareness, but this allows, for instance, bivalves to be seen as non-conscious and therefore unable to suffer when in fact it isn’t so clear-cut. Bivalves respond to Cynthia’s pull, to the taste of water and sometimes they can even see, and simply because their neurones are differently-arranged doesn’t mean they aren’t conscious. Regarding the human body too, we are essentially embodied in our consciousness and hormones are sometimes neurotransmitters, similar processes to nerve conduction occur in other tissues and so forth, so whereas we may believe ourselves to be conscious brains in non-conscious bodies that may well not be so. Moreover, although we happen to have an apparent substrate for our consciousness based on fibrous cells carrying electrical charges and interacting via chemicals, it doesn’t follow that that’s the only way it can be done. It could be based on silicon chips, hydraulics or cogs and gears for all we know. Given that, the fact that plants respond to light, gravity and chemicals and communicate with each other, sending signals which indicate when fruit should ripen or if they’re being eaten by insects, for example, suggests that plants may as well be considered conscious. Bacteria too communicate with each other. They can, for example, make decisions based on the density of their population. But in order to avoid being paralysed by guilt, we should probably accept that we should minimise our suffering and killing while accepting that eliminating it entirely is practically impossible. Our specific immune response constantly annihilates bacteria and the plants we eat, though conscious, are fewer in number than the plants whose death we would be responsible for by being carnist.
Common-gendering and ethical language finally come unstuck at viral level. Before I go on, I want to consider what I mean by “level”. There is no chain of being. Nothing but God is at the pinnacle of creation (and God is of course uncreated). All the rest of us are equal. Hence the idea of viruses being at a lower level is distinctly dodgy. Even so, one thing they are is inanimate. Viruses are inanimate objects. They may be relatively sophisticated nanomachines which can infiltrate cells, but they are still not actually alive. Therefore the appropriate language for them is different. We do not kill viruses but destroy them, for example, and it’s entirely apt to use “it”, “something” and the like rather than “they”, “someone” and so forth. This still doesn’t answer the question of what life is though. The seven characteristics model doesn’t really work. For instance, many organisms are sterile their entire lives, whole phyla of animals have cell constancy – they never grow once formed and their wounds can’t heal – and so forth. Life applies more to an entire group of organisms than individuals. However, NASA defines life, for the purposes of looking for it off-world, as “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”. I would actually take issue with this because I think non-chemical systems could also do this, such as collections of plasma (as in ionised gas) or artificial electromechanical devices which manufacture slightly imperfect copies of themselves.
At some point I will probably write something about the ecological catastrophe this is part of and the need for planned command-economy type solutions for this and other issues, but right now I’m just going to leave it there.