Review — The Aliens Among Us

The past seven months spent sanitizing has strengthened germophobe culture. While this may not last very long, it has turned our associations with the viruses of all kinds, into negative. The aliens among us — an article in Weekly edition of The Economist for Aug 29th, 2020 (p. 9) provides a noteworthy refresher on the role of viruses. The article employed forensic arguments and acknowledged the litany of pandemics caused by viruses like the HIV or the Spanish flu and argue that the role of viruses is integral to the ecosystem, and hence essential for human survival. Although the author uses well-researched arguments of fact to which he further employs Kairos to increase his persuasive power, the argument is missing the wholeness because of the lack of one key disclaimer in this quintessential essay.

The rhetoric opens by how proudly humans think of themselves as world apex predators until a viral pandemic hits us such as COVID-19. He uses forensic arguments in an attempt to understand the influence of viruses and how studies have now turned into an investigation of the strategy of gene — selfish and others. He then turns to exploratory analysis of viruses; how they are varied and ubiquitous and have shaped the evolution of organisms by demonstrating the power of natural selection.

He then builds the argument using facts and figures. He starts with developing the base for factual arguments by talking about the nature of viruses, how they are parasites — packages of genetic material that exploit another organism’s metabolism to replicate in abundance which is a very successful strategy indeed.

To support the facts, he uses an example of seawater analysis where they found over 200,00 viral species and that world might contain 1031 virus species, outnumbering all other forms of life. These figures then lead to discussions of virus’ characteristics as a result of its replication in abundance strategy. The first one is how they have adapted to attack every organism in existence because of the ability to mutate fast. This killing of abundant species makes room for rarer ones thus promoting diversity. Secondly, how their tendency to cause plagues develops a strong defense, eg. a predatory cell commits suicide to ensure the transfer of genes to surrounding cells and their survival. This has wider consequences such as the development of complex organisms like mushrooms, peas, and human beings. Thirdly how they are the transport mechanisms for genetic information. By integrating into cells of their hosts they are then passed down to the hosts’ descendants. This is further supplemented by a fact that between 8%-25% of the human genome seems to have such viral origins.

In the end, the writer timely use Kairos to share his fascination with the positive possibilities that viruses have opened up for human advancement such as miracles of vaccinating and technology such as gene editing with CRISPR and concludes by saying that a virus-free world is an impossibility and meaningless.

This article for the germaphobic population might sound like an endorsement to living in a world full of billions of viruses, however, the author’s choice to not mention the precautions that must be taken to avoid exposure to unnecessary viruses leaves them unaware and biased, hence predisposed to future pandemics. Since the author spoke about how viruses have led to the development of Human Beings, the ecosystem, and the advancement of the human race, but not mentioning vital precautions to avoid the misery and loss of lives due to viruses would make the argument seem biased. The arguments missed alluding to the risk caused by the spillover of viruses in animal species and its assessment, especially the ones that happen due to close contact with wildlife and humans. This is imperative because while there are viruses everywhere doing good for our ecosystem, it is essential to be brought to attention that activities like hunting, domesticating animals, managing endangered species closely expose unnecessary viruses to people such as SARS COVID. The exploitation of wildlife by humans through hunting, trade, habitat degradation, and urbanization facilitates close contact between wildlife and humans, which increases the risk of virus spillover, a study has found. There’s a dire need to discover ways to safely co-exist with wildlife, given that they carry plenty of viruses to avoid or reduce the possibilities of future pandemics.

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