Are Viruses Alive?

It is a question that has plagued scientists for almost a century but it is mostly a matter of semantics since we know exactly what a virus is and how we define it has no bearing on how we relate to them. Linnean taxonomy is arbitrary, drawing lines for human convienience that don’t exist in nature. As is often said in evolutionary biology, every offspring is the same species as its parents so dividing the species is less a matter of what they actually are as what helps us best understand them scientifically and also helps the lay public understand. They aren’t what we name them, they are what they are. I term this approach semantic consequentialism. To define language, not as if it has inherrent meaning, but by its utility in conveying information and what purpose it serves.

In the end, a bacterium is about as conscious as a virus particle. They are both thoughtless biological machines who wriggle or ride the currents of the microcosmos peacefully unwitting of the rhtetorical bloodsport between academics who could be using their expertise to save lives as opposed to getting in sorority catfights over meaningless lines in the sand in the hours they waste on social media doing this instead of planting their eyes above a microscope.

So, is it better for scientific study and public education to push the official border between living and nonliving onto the far side of viruses? That is to call them alive. Probably. What does, say, an art history major need to know about viruses? Not much. Principally, they’d need to be familiar with the kind that harm humans and how to interact with them and the main ways they do that are through inactivating them with things like soap, alchohol, and heat. Those are the same ways normal people kill bacteria in their daily lives and PSAs that mention bacteria often mention viruses. It’s easier to just use the word “kill” than “inactivate” and to mention both bacteria and viruses in shorter sentences for easier consumption because “if it bleeds it leads” and PSAs should not lose people’s attention and PSAs need to be easy to remember. The average Joe, Jane, or Jano (for the non-binaries) gets excited by killing things, not inactivating them. Ergo, viruses should be alive.

Even for experts in the field, the line is probably better inclusive of viruses than not because, let’s be real, geologists don’t study viruses: biologists do. At universities and in research institutions, viruses are the purview of the biology departments. It would sound strange, and rightly so, if a professor gave a tour of a biology department and said “We mostly study organisms but we have a token section devoted to rocks”. Psychologically, that type of code switching would impede the scientists studying viruses because everything a virus does involves organic processes and instead of, for some arbitrary reason, forcing researchers to switch from geology jargon to biology jargon, we just call them alive so they don’t have to do that. In psychology, that code switching is real and it could slow down actual life-saving research.

God did not afford binomial names to his creatures, he let us do it for his amusement because we’re bad at naming things. We name things for God’s amusement, sure, but we mostly name things for practical reasons of public education and research. It would serve everyone better if we called viruses alive. I come from the psych field and what we’re learning is every condition is a spectrum and manifests, often, in mosaic form. God does not draw the border between schizotypal and schizophrenic, we do. We make up words and categories and their use should be to promote human welfare and happiness and minimize human suffering. Likewise, taxonomy is largely a useful fiction, we make it up, and thus we have the power to use it to increase human welfare and decrease human suffering. We should elect the answer which does more good in the world. Viruses are alive because the psychology of researchers and practical public health messaging are behooved in the direction of human welfare if viruses are defined as alive.

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