The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically changed the way Americans live, both individually and collectively. But has it altered the way we think about the basic fabric of our lives? Not yet. I think it should, though—especially in ways that strengthen the vision of interconnected creation outlined by Pope Francis in Laudato si’.
Influenced by literal readings of Scripture as well as an implicitly Cartesian picture of the world, many Americans operate with three sets of sharp distinctions: 1) between living and nonliving beings; 2) between different types of living beings, arranged in a rigid hierarchy; and 3) between inert matter and vibrant mind or soul. But if we start to consider how viruses operate, all three sets of distinctions begin to dissolve, and interconnections take center stage.
What is a virus? It’s an aggressive snippet of DNA (or RNA in the case of retroviruses). Many viruses operate by fusing themselves with the outer membrane of the target cell, and then working their way toward the nucleus. Once there, they take over the cell’s genetic mechanisms, reprogramming the cell to make more virions (single particles of the virus) rather than fulfill its normal functions. Eventually, the virions overwhelm and rupture the host cell. Newly liberated, the virions go on to seek other cells to infiltrate, moving from cell to cell and from organism to organism.
Does that mean a virus is alive? That’s a difficult question. Some scientists say no, they are more like chemistry sets. Unlike viruses, living beings autonomously consume, process, and expend energy. Moreover, a virus cannot reproduce on its own through a process of cell division, in the way a simple amoeba can. But others argue that a virus is alive, or at least intermittently alive. It may not reproduce itself, but it does actively organize its own reproduction. Maybe there is a middle ground: in a fascinating article in Scientific American (December 2004), Luis P. Villarreal argues there is a “spectrum...between what is certainly alive and what is not.” Villarreal, the founding director of the Center for Virus Research at UC Irvine, asks us to think of life as “an emergent property of a collection of certain nonliving things.”