1/12/2022 08:53

The Teleology of SARS-CoV-2

The Guardian this morning has a pretty good summary of viral evolution as it is seen in SARS-CoV-2. The article points out that "viral evolution is not a one-way street" and the next variant could be more rather than less virulent. It takes note of popular hope for COVID-19 to become just another common cold (or at worst an influenza) but reminds us that such changes are not inevitable "and repeating these mantras won’t make them happen any faster."

The article also offer something completely different: an example of our tendency toward expansive anthropomorphism.

Viruses aim to create as many copies of themselves and spread as widely as possible. Although it is not always in their best interests to kill their hosts, so long as they are transmitted before this happens, it doesn’t matter. Sars-CoV-2 doesn’t kill people during the period when it is most infectious; people tend to die two to three weeks after becoming ill. Provided it does not evolve to make people so ill that they do not, or cannot, mix with other people while they are infectious, the virus doesn’t care if there are some casualties along the way.


There is a plausible argument about whether viruses are "alive". Researchers do use the words "live" and "killed" as terms of art in connection with vaccine production but no virus is capable of reproducing itself nor does it respire or excrete or perform any of the functions which normally define life. Viruses actually don't really do anything; living cells do all the work of taking in viral particles, extracting and reproducing the instruction set, packing the new copies into viral particles, and expelling the results for others to encounter. It is your own living body which makes itself sick and then provides my body the opportunity to do the same.

There is no plausible argument about whether viruses have aims and interests let alone cares and concerns. There is no more intentionality to a virus than there is to a McDonald's coffee cup thrown out of a car window.

But there are "ends". The teleology of viruses is the study of what changes result from the existence of those viruses. Having SARS-CoV-2 floating around the environment results in increased disease, increased death, and increased numbers of SARS-CoV-2 viral particles. If that were not true the virus would have died away; it would be a "failed" virus in the obvious sense of not having any continuing impact.

"Success" as applied to a virus means "having consequences"; a virus is "successful" if it continues to have an impact. When applied to ourselves "success" implies "a correct or desired result" [https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/success] but for a virus "success" follows from any continuing result.

On that definition SARA-CoV-2 is undoubtably a success.