N. Katherine Hayles
The novel coronavirus is posthuman in at least two senses. First, and most obviously, because it is oblivious to human intentions, desires, and motives. In the US, this has led to the spectacle, refreshing despite the virus’s appalling toll on human lives, of politicians unable to spin “alternative facts” beyond a certain point—the point marked by bodies piling up in morgues. As many have observed, the virus does not distinguish between Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, Christians and Jews, Evangelicals and Muslims. In a country as deeply partisan as the US, this has opened new possibilities for dialogue. Canny governors, for example Gavin Newsom of California, are realizing the advantages of putting policies ahead of politics, abstaining from criticism of Donald Trump even when deserved. The US Congress has come together with remarkable speed to pass stimulus legislation, and even Trump has had to tone down his early claims of the virus as a “Democratic hoax” into a more fact-based approach (although never without some propaganda).
The second sense is more technical, although not difficult to grasp. In evolutionary terms, humans and viruses have adopted diametrically opposed strategies. Humans have achieved dominance within their evolutionary niche by evolving toward increased cognitive complexity, developing language with associated changes in brain and body, evolving elaborate social structures, and in very recent human history, augmenting their capacities with advanced technical devices, including artificial intelligence. Viruses, by contrast, have evolved toward increased simplicity. Viruses replicate by hijacking a cell’s machinery and using it to proliferate, which allows them to have a much smaller genome than the cell itself, a characteristic favoring rapid replication.
In broad scope, then, these two strategies appear completely opposed. However, recent research is painting a more complex picture. As Annu Dahiya argues, the idea that viruses cannot replicate without cells (because they use the cell’s machinery to turn out copies of themselves) is now being questioned. She recounts a series of experiments by Sol Spiegelman’s lab at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana in the early 1970s that show this with elegant simplicity. After demonstrating that viral RNA could indeed self-replicate, albeit in vitro rather than in vivo, Spiegelman combined in a test tube viral Qß phage RNA, the enzyme RNA replicase and salts. After viral replication, he then diluted the solution multiple times by discarding most of the test medium and adding more medium enriched with RNA replicase and nutrients. This was equivalent to creating an environment in which, to use a human analogy, 90 percent of the population dies and the remainder spreads out over the previously crowded terrain, then 90 percent of them die, and so on. This creates an intense selective pressure favoring those entities that can replicate the fastest. As Dahiya summarizes, “the most successful replicating viral RNAs successively shortened their sequences through each serial transfer. This resulted in them losing almost all genetic information that did not relate to the binding of RNA replicase. While the initial Qß phage had 3600 nucleotides, the RNA phage at the end of the experiment possessed only 218.”
Similar results were obtained by Thomas Ray in his Tierra experiment, designed to create similar competitive conditions in a simulated environment within the computer, where artificial species competed for CPU time in which to replicate. Ray found that within twenty-four hours, an entire complex ecology had evolved, including species that (like viruses) had lost the portion of their genome coding for replication and instead were using the code of other species to carry out the task. The shortened genome allowed them to replicate at an increased speed, giving them a selective advantage over species with longer codes. Moreover, these were then parasited in turn by other species that had lost even more of their code and used that of the viral-like replicators to carry out their replication (which in turn relied on the longer codes of the species they had parasited), a strategy that Ray called hyper-parasitism.
These results encourage us to understand the present situation as a pitched battle between different evolutionary strategies. On the human side are the advantages of advanced cognition, including ventilators, PPE, and of course, the race to find a vaccine. On the novel coronavirus side are the advantages of rapid replication enabled by a very short genome, and extreme contagion through its ability to disperse through the air and to live for many hours on a variety of surfaces. Recent research has indicated that people may be most contagious before they show symptoms, which has been led to novel corona being labeled a stealth virus. (Perhaps the stealth strategy evolved to ensure maximum spread through a population before individuals became too sick to move about.) In evolutionary terms, the novel coronavirus has hit the jackpot, having successfully made the leap from bats in the planet’s most populous large mammal, humans. Comparing the two strategies so far, the score is staggeringly one-sided: coronavirus, 140,000 and counting; humans, 0.
Amidst all the pain, suffering, and grief that this virus has caused humans, are there any lessons we might learn, any scrap of silver lining that we can snatch from the global chaos and wreckage? In addition to imposing reality-based constraints on political discourse, the virus is like being hit across the head by a 2X4; it reminds us with horrific force that although humans are dominant within our ecological niche, many other niches exist that may overlap with ours and that operate by entirely different rules. It screams at jet-engine volume that we are interdependent not only with each other but also with the entire ecology of the earth. And finally, it makes devastatingly clear how unprepared we are: unprepared to cope with the virus’s effects, of course, but equally important, unprepared to meet the philosophical challenges of reconceptualizing our situation in terms that does justice both to the unique abilities of humans and to the limitations and interdependencies upon which those abilities depend.
This interdependence is illustrated through the new kinds of origin stories being written about the emergence of life on earth. The recent discoveries of ancient giant viruses, with genomes almost as large as bacteria, suggest that they may have played a crucial role. These giants contain genes that encode for translation machinery, something previously believed to exist only in cellular organisms. Moreover, they include multiple genes that encode for enzymes catalyzing specific amino acids, another task that cells perform. Investigating these complexities, recent research is accumulating evidence that virus-like elements may have catalyzed some of life’s critical stages, including the evolution of DNA, the formation of the first cells, and the evolutionary split into the three domains of Archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes. Modern viruses may have evolved from the ancient giants through stripping-down processes similar to those described above, jettisoning parts of their genome to facilitate faster replication.
In addition to the participation of viruses in life’s beginnings, another kind of interdependence has been the discovery of ancient virus DNA within human stem cells. Stem cells are crucial to human reproduction because they are pluripotent, having the ability to transform into all the different kinds of cells in the body as the fetus grows. Recent studies have found that one class of endogenous retroviruses, known as H. HERV-H, has DNA that is active in human embryonic stem cells but not in other types of human cells. Moreover, researchers have discovered that if this activity is suppressed by adding bits of RNA, the treated cells cease to act like stem cells and instead begin to act like fibroblasts, cells common in animal connective tissues. Without the pluripotency provided by stem cells, human reproduction could not work. Ironically then, the viral contamination that is posing a deadly threat to contemporary humans is also, in another guise, critical for human reproduction.
These complexities suggest that a simple binary of us-versus-them, humans versus viruses, is far too simple to be an adequate formulation for understanding our relation to each other and to the larger ecologies within which we are immersed. If the novel coronavirus is posthuman, other viruses, such as those in stem cells, are human at their/our core. We need a thorough reconceptualization of the concepts and vocabularies with which to describe and analyze these complex interdependencies, as well as the ways in which humans, as a species, are interdependent with one another as well. The pandemic offers an opportunity to rethink the ways in which we can identify with each other and with life forms radically different from us.
As a start, I would like to suggest three terms for consideration. The first is humans as species-in-common, an idea emphasizing the commonalities that all humans share with one another, notwithstanding all the ethnic, racial, geopolitical, and other differences that exist between us. We can see flashes of this idea throughout history, including in the present pandemic, a situation that overruns all borders and geopolitical differences to strike at humans everywhere. The second term is species-in-biosymbiosis, an idea recognizing the ways in which different species interpenetrate, for example in the human biome. The third is species-in-cybersymbiosis, emphasizing the ways in which artificial agents, especially artificial intelligences, are actively collaborating with humans to shape our shared world. I offer these brief sketches as a first pass at what a more adequate framework might look like. Notwithstanding its devastating effects, the pandemic invites us to think new thoughts, try out novel ideas, and suggest formulations that can lead to better futures for us and for the more-than-human organisms with which we share the planet.
17 April 2020
N. Katherine Hayles, the James B. Duke Professor of Literature Emerita at Duke University and Distinguished Research Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angles, teaches and writes on the relations of literature, science, and technology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. She has published ten books and over one hundred peer-reviewed articles, and she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her most recent book is Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious (2017). She is a frequent contributor to Critical Inquiry.
 Annu Dahiya, “The Conditions of Emergence: Toward a Feminist Philosophy of the Origins of Life” (PhD. diss., Duke University, in-progress).
 Ibid. p. 166.
 I am developing these terms in more depth in a forthcoming book.