I didn’t really understand viruses. Or how they interact with cells. Or what cells even do, for that matter. Luckily, a trove of engaging resources abound for us opsimaths. And it was far more enjoyable (re-)learning this round for personal rather than performative knowledge.
A cell is a little province with a code book for manufacturing. A gene is a recipe from this code book for making a specific protein. How big is the code book? Good question I thought. If my calculations are correct, it contains about 375MB of information with built in redundancies. These instruct operations (i.e. which amino acids and what sequence to put them together) for making ~20k different proteins in humans, each protein with a specific technique for manipulating matter. All orchestrated god knows how.
Returning to the virus then, which is a scrap of code waiting to get stuck to a cell. Not even a living thing by most definitions. It’s just a chassis with code whose shape attaches it to matching contours on cells and dissolves passing instructions through a cell’s membrane. This code rewrites the cell’s code book. It’s sole objective, like most organisms, is simply to replicate. To get the cpu/processor/brain of the cell to execute its program for making its protein building blocks. Which aren’t that many. Because it’s not trying to build a city or province like the cell, which must support functions in a larger organism. It’s just trying to make copies of itself and its escape pods until the cell is so full it bursts and viruses can then float around attaching to more cells.
Thoughts are also similar to viruses. Some thoughts can survive on paper surfaces for centuries and then unfold inside a brain, mobilizing it to replicate its code to other brains through speech or writing. Many spread electronically now.
Credits to Laurie Anderson and her Language is a Virus song, and William Burroughs before that. Language assembles sequences that act like genes, for building functional ways we perceive and interact with reality. Much like proteins work to manipulate matter.
Sometimes replication depends on survival of the host, and even the host’s well-being, in which case it’s called symbiotic. Organism and host work as a team. Microbes of this type make up more of our body than our cells. We are a multitude.
Sometimes, however, an organism is only about its own replication, host or environment be damned. This model is called a pathogen. i.e. “pathos”-producing. Pathos from the Greek “what befalls one.” Concerned only with their own survival and replication, they destroy their hosts with strategies designed to find new hosts.
Information seems to be a fabric of nature, like energy and matter. And code instructs biological processes of growth and maintenance, including processes of our brains. Our thoughts are just as much biology as our cells. Code can build allies, making a union stronger than the parts, making the whole more resilient.
Or code can maximize its own survival, spreading sensationally and utilizing channels and mammalian habitual behaviors in ways that leverage and accelerate its chances to jump ships while its current one is sinking. As media accelerates and globalizes the spread of thoughts, code has unprecedented vectors for both symbiosis and pathology. Until we can quarantine our awareness from thoughts, we will continue to mindlessly and haphazardly embody both.
“I choose to live by choice, not by chance.” — Miyamoto Musashi