• Count Timothy von Icarus
    291
    I had a thought the other day when rereading some opinions on the question: "are viruses alive?"

    This is a big topic in biology. It's normally a question posed to underclassmen in their college biology surveys. At first, it seems rather obvious that viruses should be alive. After all, bacteria and other single celled organisms are the most common form of life. However, here is the argument generally given against viruses being alive:

    Living things reproduce. In general, cells reproduce by making a copy of their DNA. Unlike cells, viruses do not have the tools to make a copy of their DNA. But they have found other ways to make new viruses. This is done by inserting virus genetic material into a host cell. This causes the cell to make a copy of the virus DNA, making more viruses.

    Many scientists argue that even though viruses can use other cells to reproduce itself, viruses are still not considered alive under this category. This is because viruses do not have the tools to replicate their genetic material themselves.

    More recently, scientists have discovered a new type of virus, called a mimivirus. These viruses do contain the tools for making a copy of its DNA. This suggests that certain types of viruses may actually be living.

    There are, of course, problems with this definition on a number of fronts. Bacteria of the phylum dependentiae also depend on other cells' molecular machinery to reproduce their genetic code, reproducing similarly to viruses. Obviously there are also a whole host of obligate parasites that are dependant on a host to survive, although they don't reproduce using the same mechanisms as viruses (whereas dependentiae do).

    I always came down on the side of viruses being alive. The reasons being that:

    A. They reproduce within living ecosystems.
    B. They undergo natural selection and evolution, just like living things.

    I'm now rethinking this in light of the attributes of memes. Memes also require a host. They exist within the material substrate of human brain tissue, and their instantiation in the material world is a pattern of neurons firing together. Obviously they are obligate parasites.

    Memes also reproduce, they jump from one host to another. Other human brains get exposed to a meme through sensory inputs, and the meme becomes instantiated within their brain tissue as well.

    Memes undergo natural selection and evolve over time. Thus, memes:

    A. Reproduce within living ecosystems
    B. Undergo natural selection, just like living things

    Memes even have a bit of a leg up on viruses in that they exist within the medium of cells that are clearly living things.

    The problem here is that a meme is even more abstract and disconnected from the physical science aspects of biology than viruses and prions. It certainly "lives" in a biological substrate, but it doesn't have RNA or even any set chemical make up. Indeed, the pattern of neurons that make up a meme in a given brain will change over time.

    The second problem for memes being alive, is how they can exist in a dormant form, in human texts. The memes of Gnosticism, as actually understood by Gnostics instead of Christian heretic hunters, vanished from human brains with the purging of the Gnostics and destruction of their books in late-antiquity. However, in 1945, when a large collection of these books were discovered in Egypt at Nag Hammadi, the memes were revived. How can a living thing exist in words? This would seem to stretch the definition of living too far.

    However, this seems to be the type of "life" Dawkins was thinking of when he created the term. The meme is a new sort of DNA for a new self replicating "thing," that exists in the biological sphere.

    Where I think this gets interesting is in comparisons to Platonism. Plenty of people will accept mathematical Platonism, but reject Platonism in other respects. Numbers exist in their instantiation in the physical world. Memes though, seem to open up the prospect of non-mathematical ideas existing through their instantiation in the physical world as well.

    Maybe there is something there to tie the physical sciences to the social sciences. As it stands, the gap seems virtually impossible to bridge. It's hard to see how one jumps from neuroscience to politics. The idea of ideas as not just as abstraction, but as being instantiated in the physical processes of their generation as thought, seems like it could bridge this gap. It's almost like a missing link in the chain of emergence.

    "Undergoing natural selection," is also probably a weak way to define life. If you read someone like Spencer, everything is natural selection.

    I don't have a solid conclusion here. I thought it was interesting and the last topic I saw on this searching was four years old. Hell, I'll make it a poll.
    1. Are viruses and memes alive? (1 vote)
        Neither are alive.
          0%
        Viruses are alive, memes aren't.
        100%
        Viruses and memes are alive
          0%
        The property of "being alive" has be rendered meaningless by things like prions, viruses, and memes.
          0%
  • onomatomanic
    29
    The human mind likes binary propositions. Nature does not.

    At the very least, "the property of 'being alive'" has fuzzy edges. And reconsidering it in terms of a matter of degrees may well be more worthwhile altogether. Of course, that immediately runs into trouble of its own. Is a human being more or less alive than a single one of its constituent cells; is an ant colony more or less alive than a single one of its constituent ants?

    All of this is to be expected, though. "Life" is an emergent quality of complex systems, and those are invariably difficult to pin down.

    Still, none of this makes the concept "meaningless" or even any less meaningful than otherwise.

    IMHO. :)
  • ssu
    4.9k
    Viruses are alive when they have a host. Meme's aren't alive. If they would be alive, then basically "Ideas" would be alive.

    Yes, ideas, the classical name that social sciences (and philosophy) has used for the phenomenon, but the natural scientist Richard Dawkins in his hubris decided to promote a more 'biological' way (as he doesn't hold social sciences in great respect).
  • TheMadFool
    13.9k
    Are viruses alive?

    This puzzle is very much like what Richard Dawkins (atheist + evolutionary biologist + author) - the originator of the meme concept - talks about on the launching of a book of his: Between any two points in an evolutionary chain, interbreeding can occur i.e. there is essentially no difference between them; however, the bigger the gap between two such points, the more unlikely is a successful mating. In other words, a difference in degrees, after a certain threshold, becomes a difference in kind. The difference betweeen viruses and humans is that of kind; ergo, if one is considered alive, it becomes difficult to say the other is too. Go smaller - take a bacteria - and few will complain if you say a virus is alive.

    N.B. we're made of a trillion or so cells, bacteriaish and we have DNA &RNA, virusish.
  • Count Timothy von Icarus
    291

    I think you're right. The deeper problem for me is that such fuzzy definitions, applied to core concepts like "alive" or "having being" seems to not only uproot bivalence, but the Law of the Excluded Middle entirely, and then what's left of your logical systems?


    That's why the problem seems related to mathematical Platonism to me. Numbers don't exist in the sense that quarks and leptons do, but they're an essential facet of existence you need to explain anything, and obviously get instantiated in the physical world. Ideas follow a similar mold, although they only come into play at much greater levels of complexity and emergence, within sentient beings and their cultures.

    Some physicalists would say they are just abstractions, and they can be eliminated from scientific dialogue. Indeed, even the existence of more apparently existing phenomena, for example qualia, have become candidates for elimination. I just don't know if this is correct. How do you ground the social sciences on the physical without looking at the physical instantiation of ideas, which are necessary components of explaining social systems?
  • Miller
    159
    Complex vs simple. Conscious vs unconscious. Are perhaps better divisions then alive vs dead. Alive is self centered to us. Certain types of biological complexity we call "alive". Because it is similar to us.
  • john27
    667
    A. Reproduce within living ecosystemsCount Timothy von Icarus

    Are memes reproducing the memes, or are we creating the memes? Parasites utilize the host to create their own offspring, but I don't think thats exactly the same kind of relationship in terms of "birth" that we have with memes. If we are physically giving birth to a new species called memes, than... I don't know. Can't think of any other thing that's living that gives birth to two species.
  • SophistiCat
    1.8k
    Where I think this gets interesting is in comparisons to Platonism. Plenty of people will accept mathematical Platonism, but reject Platonism in other respects. Numbers exist in their instantiation in the physical world. Memes though, seem to open up the prospect of non-mathematical ideas existing through their instantiation in the physical world as well.Count Timothy von Icarus
    Some physicalists would say they are just abstractions, and they can be eliminated from scientific dialogue. Indeed, even the existence of more apparently existing phenomena, for example qualia, have become candidates for elimination. I just don't know if this is correct. How do you ground the social sciences on the physical without looking at the physical instantiation of ideas, which are necessary components of explaining social systems?Count Timothy von Icarus

    How are memes different from other social, or for that matter physical ideas? Contracts, nation states, cats, electrons - these are all instantiations of ideas, in broadly Platonist terms. Non-Platonists will in turn treat memes, assuming they grant them a place in their ontology, as they would other ideas.

    The question to be asked about memes is whether they are a well-defined, useful concept, and that has been disputed. Whether they "exist," assuming we give a positive answer to the first question, depends then on your ontological needs and preferences.

    Whether memes are alive depends, of course, no the definition of life, which, as you said, is an actively debated question. Coming up with a good definition can be useful for some endeavors, such as origin of life research and exobiology, but the importance of this question shouldn't be exaggerated. In most contexts it matters not at all, and so can be treated as a more-or-less arbitrary convention.
  • onomatomanic
    29
    The deeper problem for me is that such fuzzy definitions, applied to core concepts like "alive" or "having being" seems to not only uproot bivalence, but the Law of the Excluded Middle entirely, and then what's left of your logical systems?Count Timothy von Icarus

    Fuzzy concept, fuzzy logic. I take your point that the more fundamental the concept, the more uneasy it makes us to think that way. But that has everything to do with the way we think, or like to think, and nothing to do with the way the things we think about actually are.
  • Nils Loc
    1k
    Not sure there is much significance to saying numbers "really exist" or viruses are "alive". It doesn't change the useful or empirical nature of these things.

    Memes might require life, like viruses, but are not alive. If we discovered similar "non-living" molecular replicators of some sort on another planet we'd all be real excited for what that means regarding the potentiality of life. In such a case the preference for assigning the category might flip but it still wouldn't matter much.
  • TheMadFool
    13.9k
    Nature: Genes

    Nurture: Memes

    Join me, ladies and gents, at my abode between Scylla and Charybdis!


    You might also like :point: Nature vs. Nurture vs. Other
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