🦠 Viral Life 🦠

On Thursday, I attended a virtual boot camp for librarians. This year, the faculty presentations were focused on reviews of basic virology and immunology. The virology presentation was very fascinating, and I’d like to discuss it in brief here because I love trees.

In Proclus’ commentary essays on the Republic, plant life came up, specifically with respect to the appetitive soul. The idea is that plants are appetitive, and most animals have an “additional layer” of the spirited soul. I disliked this because it seemed like a disservice to plants. In the push and pull of conversation, the thought seems to go back very far, and The Philosophy of the Commentators, Sorabji, volume 2 (Physics) indicates that much of the dialogue (beyond Empedocles) was between Plato and the Platonists, who allowed some soul, and Aristotle, who did not, and who had a considerable impact on the later developments in how we think about other life (p. 44, 1d).

This is definitely just an opinion, and most of my opinions do not carry much weight, but I think that this points to some critical questions about how we conceive of other beings and whether or not we are equipped to recognize and interpret what we are perceiving. Humans tend to have empathy for other animals because they are similar to us. We recognize facial expressions and body language, and we recognize the different personalities of specific animals (like cats and dogs) that we live with in close proximity.

Complex life has had the opportunity to evolve in diverse and beautiful ways, like a symphony, with each part a candenza playing simultaneously so that it seems like chaos. Plants do not have the things that we recognize; it’s only very recently that we’ve learned about the myriad plant processes that are loosely called “plant cognition,” and I recommend reading this Wikipedia article and the sources at the bottom because it offers some clarification on this specific usage of the term cognition. We’ve learned about root-clicking and a few other communication methods, too. Rather than say that they don’t have soul, maybe embodiment, and the function of the body in general, requires some level of consumption and appetite; we create barriers of otherness based on a complex decision process, which for humans (I’m sticking with the species I know) involves cultural and religious concerns.

During a Zoom discussion a few months ago, those of us in it were talking about some of this in Proclus, and I mentioned that I think that viruses are a better analogy for discussing the vegetative soul than trees and other plants. Viruses are purely appetitive, seeking to invade host cells and reproduce themselves, always hungering. Most cannot use human cells as these replication hosts, and the ones that do cause an immune system response and can make us ill or kill us. They behave mechanically, with a set of rules that they follow when exposed to the correct environment for their replication; they, like many other simple life-forms, are the natural substrate that must exist so that complicated life can be.

I was watching that talk while putting things away that I’d retrieved from my office — we had had a grab and go on Wednesday to retrieve what we had left in March when the library abruptly closed. I walked to the office and back with a suitcase, the sun blisteringly hot above and the mask sucking in against my face every time I breathed in, the workout as much for my diaphragm as it was for my arms lugging everything back home. While unpacking, and as I looked at the slides and took in the words, I thought about Apollôn and his role as the giver of healing and plague.

My thoughts moved on to the cell as the Trojan city and Apollôn’s role in it, and I thought about all of the parallels we can make between myth and the world and between theological concepts and the world. Viruses, once they replicate, often burst forth with so many copies of themselves that they are like a swarm of arrows blotting out the sun; the cell’s membrane, like the walls of Troy, are the first line of defense for keeping us whole and intact, followed by the sentries of our immune systems. Last night, while reading the Timaeus commentary, this sequence of thoughts seemed similar-but-admittedly-different to something that Proclus had written at 57.23 — “Don’t be surprised that we earlier linked the lower city with generation, and now link it with war. It is a sound practice to correlate the same things with different ones according to a variety of analogies, since, though generation resembles the lower city in its plurality of inseparable lives, it resembles war and hostilities in its conflicts and its material disturbance.” Each myth is like a flower that we approach when closed, and to truly know it, we need to experience the fullness of its extension, the softness and number of its petals, and the way that life interacts with it.

Another really cool thing I learned about during the session was viral geometry, not directly from the presentation — the presenter showed an image of a virus that looked like an icosahedron while going over the overview. It intrigued me. (It’s an icosahedron, after all.) I Googled it and saved a few articles to Pocket because I had absolutely no idea.

That is all.


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