Do coronaviruses have a mind?
At first that seems a crazy question until we stop and think a little. What is a ‘mind’? Merriam Webster suggests that it is “the organized conscious and unconscious adaptive mental activity of an organism.” There is also the concept of a collective mind which could be attributed to a shoal of fish forming a threatening shape or the murmurations of starlings. By forming a large group these animals can confuse predators leaving only the weak, or ‘different’, vulnerable to attack. It is not just the smaller species that benefit from this behaviour. A herd of elephants will form a protective circle when threatened and a school of dolphins will herd fish into a small area to facilitate easy feeding. We know that dolphins, monkeys, whales and birds all have means of communication but we have yet to discover whether fish have any form of communication.. Who leads the shoal or the flock?
Most definitions of ‘mind’ imply the presence of a brain which is found in all the examples quoted above. Even the humble minnow has a brain which advises its host when a decision has to be taken but what informs the brain of a single starling in the centre of a flock of more than 10,000 to turn left in unison with its fellow travellers? What form of communication demands that individual sardines should act as one to form an enormous shoal on the approach of a predator?
It is well established that viruses mutate in ways that improve their chances of survivability. Could there be a collective mind of the coronaviruses that decides which mutation should prevail thereby maintaining its apparent one, two or three step lead over those of us who consider ourselves, perhaps arrogantly, much more advanced than a protein molecule?
The question then arises as to whether viruses are alive or dead. Most biologists say no. Viruses are not made out of cells, they can’t keep themselves in a stable state, they don’t grow, and they can’t make their own energy. Even though they definitely replicate and adapt to their environment, viruses are more like androids than real living organisms. Nevertheless, viruses have some important features in common with cell-based life. For instance, they have nucleic acid genomes based on the same genetic code that is used in our cells (and the cells of all living creatures). Also, like cell-based life, viruses have genetic variation and can evolve. So, even though they don’t meet the definition of life, viruses seem to be in a “questionable” zone. Virologists are divided on this question.
They are parasites dependent upon other cells not only to keep themselves alive but, more importantly, to replicate. Outside a host cell they are as vulnerable to attack as the aged deer falling behind the herd. The old deer has many enemies — climate, lack of food, wolves and any number of other predators but, so far we have not been able to create a fully effective ‘enemy’ against a virus. We have a few drugs that can weaken them but we are unable to wipe them out and by that time they have mutated, frustrating the efforts of the scientists. As a predator, Covid-19 initially attacked the old, weak and vulnerable in our society but it has begun to attack young adults while small children can carry the infection but normally show few or only mild symptoms of disease thereby becoming potential ‘super-spreaders’.
Viruses can be divided into DNA or RNA viruses. Coronaviruses belong to the RNA group. These nucleic acids are the building blocks of life. Our DNA makes us who we are, what we look like, how we think — using our minds. Who is to say that some small part of a virus’s genome does not govern some form of primitive mind?
The tobacco mosaic virus was the first virus to be described by Adolf Mayer in 1886 when many respected physicians were still attributing infectious diseases to miasmas in the air or the phase of the moon. Who is to say that in another 140 years scientists will be scoffing at our lack of knowledge and training attack viruses created by mind-altering chemicals to destroy those which try to destroy our civilisation? Early science fiction suggested futuristic ideas that were dismissed as rubbish at the time but later proved to be preternaturally close to the truth. Watch this space.