Biological and computer viruses

Before someone scores me on the “crackpot index” here, I make the disclaimer that I’m just “speculating out loud” here. Speculation is not a bad word, is it? I find it helps expand one’s insight into facts and forces one to look at them in a different light. It’s not that I’m coming up with some ridiculous view AND saying it has to be right. I’m performing the act of extentding an analogy just as a “what if”.

I remember when the word “virus” was first used to refer to malicious little files appearing on 5.25" floppy disks that would cause damage to your computer, and even back then I was struck with how similar the analogy between a biological virus and a computer virus really was. Both are little snippets of code that traverse through a network and affect an organism. Biological viruses have little snippets of DNA code that change the DNA in a cell to change its functionality (computer viruses have code that change the code and functionality of the software) , and computers are basically organisms or acting entities in a society of computers (like bioviruses traverse through the bio network).

Although the main goal of most bio viruses are to reproduce itself and propogate, bio viruses have also been cited as proponents of mutation, where they may actually change the contents of a host DNA and produce a change to that organism’s attributes. To many, natural selection is testing the effectiveness of an organism’s mutation. Similarly, snippets of computer code are sent through the network to upgrade a program’s functionality.

In the computer network, we as humans can influence the evolution of the network by introducing viral code that propogates like an email worm through the network. This isn’t always meant to be harmful. Corporations send code all the time through their network to upgrade software on individual desktops. Then I think (big jump here) since the analogy so far is so close between the two, what if bio viruses, analogous to upgrade scripts, are the remnants of the upgrade scripts of a creator race that maintained the Earth as a bio network? Over the millions of years of evolution they have mutated out of control and can wreak havoc - now having many “bugs” in their code. Or you could say that it’s not havoc at all but the continued and intentional design. This would make the Earth basically a planetary zoo or lab. Evolution becomes the “versioning” of life. This is not “creationism” exclusive of evolution. it is instead an “evolutionary design” or to use a computer analogy, the software maintenance of life.

In more general terms, is there anything about the human creative act that can give us insight into the creation and evolution of life? What is there really to refute a teleological component to the development of life?

At first glance, it seems a reasonable enough hypothesis, but the biggest problem is that computer systems work using rigorous logical operators. A comp sci guy could explain it substantially better than I can (because, err, they know what they are talking about), but a computer program basically breaks down into a series of “If–>then-else” statements. Biological systems, on the other hand, are rather resistant to such an analysis. Admittedly, that may change with time – perhaps we merely lack the computational power to break the biological code down.

Plus, there is the matter of functionality. In more derived organisms, the genome is quite streamlined with very little excess baggage: if it is present, it is probably doing something. On the other hand, in less derived organisms (and Eukaryotes in general), there is a lot of “junk” DNA in the genome. As we understand more about the sort of complex regulation required in these organisms, the total amount of “junk” DNA appears to be shrinking rapidly, but we can accept that there is still a whole heck of a lot of it. If such a computational system were to exist, it makes sense that that would be where the power would be. It is sitting there and, theoretically, doing “nothing” for the organism in question but it is still doing “something”.

At the same time, information is inert. It needs to be doing something, either encoding RNA or eventually getting translated into proteins. Otherwise, it would be the equivalent of a bunch of computer code sitting around. I could scribble out a bunch of zeros and ones, but unless they are put into a computer they are just scribbles on a piece of paper.

So, upon further investigation, I’d say the hypothesis needs some work.

Actually a computer program “is” a series of indentations on a disk or some other form of irregularity corresponding to a series of 0s and 1s, interpreted by the system.
If you were to try and derive any kind of “if->then” statement from that, you’d be pretty screwed too! :stuck_out_tongue:

The problem with biological systems isn’t that they are more complicated (though they are) it’s that we don’t have a ready made translator to retrieve the “if–>then” statements.

They are written in base 4, but that base has to be transcribed to RNA and (usually) translated into proteins. That is hardly an “if->then” statement. The zeros and ones, sure, but what I was saying is that you need a computer to run them. No such system exists for “junk” DNA, so it would be like me writing zeros and ones on a piece of paper as opposed to compiling them into a program.

“If->then” statements only apply to a system… not a code.
The 0s and 1s (given they are implemented properly) are what alter the system (or at least part of the system) into a setting where in the “if->then” statements apply.

You wouldn’t expect to find “If->then” statements in DNA… you’d expect that that DNA (when properly implemented) results in a system where “if->then” statments apply.

I’ve forgotten who said it but I think he said something along the lines of “any system that gives consistant output for given inputs, can be used to compute.” Ah. yeah. Hugely vague. Think his name began with an ‘A’. Can’t be sure.

Anyway, what I mean is that I agree kinda with MMP when he says:

If we’re gonna compare biologic to technologic systems then I think you’ve gotta view DNA as the thing that builds the computer hardware, and connects up the power lines, boots up a random username avatar, then goes home for a cup of tea.

At the lowest level protein transcription level sure, not a lot of if-then but just plain yes-no, but at the higher levels - the control functions retarding or promoting the process of protein generation - it’s more like yesyesyesnoyes = yes - a whole bunch of regulatory molecules must be present in the requisite concentrations to switch on the process, or switch it off. But then that’s pretty low level stuff too, few proteins act alone to produce whole-organism change but rather a cascade of cellular events througout entire tissues/organs and systems of tissues/organs. So in effect you have a whole network of regulatory “yesyesyesnoyes” events acting in concert concurrently. And networks can support effective if-then decisions at the higher operation levels of chemically interpreted perceptual data.

If that’s any clearer.

In response to the OP - nah, the “virus as a mutated upgrade” is just too complicated, too tooth-fairy, to be true.

Also, I think, if it were true, I think by comparing the genomes of different strains of viruses you’d start to see common elements that would indicate a single ancestor “upgrade package” from which they all mutated, and be able to re-construct it - if that could be done, then maybe your idea would start to hold some water.

Are you aware that most of the genetic material in the chromosomes are “noise”, meaning strings of nucleotides that serve no purpose whatsoever? At least that’s the current thinking based on studies and mapping of the human genome.

Actually, I think DNA acts more like a relational database. It’s combinations of adenine, guanine, cytosine anf thymine map to amino acids that form the building blocks of proteins, just like in a database you have tables that map to other data through foreign keys. I will stop there - this is not “I Love Relational Database Theory” after all.

Whether one finds the OP believable or not, one of the purposes I put it up here is for a larger observation, which is that analogies seem to resonate with people in a way that deductive and inductive reasoning don’t (some analogies more than others depending on who we talk to) Deduction is basically restating what you already know, induction is extrapolating a small set of like occurrences into a rule that can be applied more universally. But analogy seems to me to be where creativity gets its spark to form the hpyotheses that fuel the “observation and experiment” and modeling in the natural sciences.

We learn as kids by anaology - identifying likenesses betwen what we know and what we’re trying to know. Language is a mapping or analogy of sounds to reality. Newton analogized from an apple on the head to the forces of gravity. And traditional metaphysics when groping for explanations of the unobservable - or theology in the explanation of what a God is - needs to resort to analogical reasoning. It doesn’t seem to make sturdy conclusions, but for me it always seems to be where real knowledge starts.

My fascination with analogy explains my choice of avatar on this board, yet alas many only know the medieval philosophers as copycats of the Greeks. Not always so.

Fair enough. I guess a bunch of unsubstantiated statements without a lot of justification deserves a like response.

I guess you can think of viruses as like any other organism consuming other organisms for the goal of species (used loosely for bio-viruses) propogation. But what I think makes viruses unique is that they don’t really “eat” an organism so much as change the organism’s component programming to make it function differently, and can cause mutations of organisms. I don’t think you see such things that plainly in the food chain. If you try to apply traditional evolutionary thinking to this, why would that have occurred? I’ve read some theories that offer viruses as the earliest forms of life. If that was the case, why would something so effective at propogation by hijacking an organism’s programming disappear as a means of asserting oneself in the species struggle? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to suppose that humans should be able to kill other organisms by seizing into their programming like some bad science fiction movie?

Well, maybe instead we incorporated that ability into an increased complexity and multi functioned form of life. Maybe that ability to play with DNA went into a self-reproduction capacity as opposed to needing other organisms to effect reproduction. But I’d have to think that, judging from how traditional evolution looks at things, we’d still have it as a nasty tool for bringing down our foes.

Does this lead to “humans can now play God, therefore there must be a God to play at being”? :stuck_out_tongue:

I suppose one could ask that question, Only Humean, but that was not in my mind when I wrote this.

As I was writing the OP, it occurred to me that I was making an analogical argument between the act of humankind in creating and managing of the “compuer ecosystem” and the biological ecosystem. So basically what I was thinking of was that, aside from the craziness of the OP, is this a fair analogy to make? Accepting the analogy as fair likely leads to allowing teleology but not necessarily to a personal God as creator. One could fashion an argument that life serves a function in the universe and is a necessary outgrowth of it as opposed to it being an act of wild chance, i.e. teleology without a God.

I’m curious - how do you see a purpose without someone/someOne/something to have it?

The title of my next book - Teleology without God, at a Barnes & Noble near you :smiley: Sure to be a page turner.

I don’t see purpose by necessity as involving a sentient designer. You can see an example even when people discuss evolution. They talk about some special feature of a species and state its evolutionary purpose. According to evolution, it’s natural selection that brought the feature into existence or honed it, but certainly the feature now serves a purpose for the survival of the species and yet evolution strictly speaking identifies no designer.

A brand of idealism or may also allow teleology without God. Suppose the Universe (or Multiverse) is the embodiment of Intelligence or Thought, and we humans form components of a intelligent network stretching the universe, where the universe has no intelligence apart from it’s intelligent members but experiences an emergent property of intelligence by virtue of the network. In such a case you don’t have a God per se because the intelligence is dependent upon us. We collectively comprise and foster the Universal Intelligence. But the emergent properties cause the Universal Intelligence in turn to feed back changes to the universe. In such a model the notion of “purpose” could easily be prevalent.

Do I believe it? Right now, it’s just interesting to think about, but the purpose (pardon the pun) of mentioning it here is to illustrate the logical possibility of Teleology without God.

Of course, in the sense of aptness rather than intent. Interesting idea!