By Juhi Wagle
Blog editor's note: This post is a reflection on and an elaboration of Swami Yogatmananda's talk, "Life of a Virus": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NyMTX7XFxGU&t=463s
The recent epidemic has brought viruses back into the public spotlight, along with the age-old question, “are viruses alive?” Even with all the advancements in biology and virology, biologists remain divided on this point. Some deny viruses are alive, because viruses do not have a metabolic system and are incapable of independent replication. Others refute this argument by showing that viruses, much like seeds, have life “latent” in them. In the right environment, they grow and replicate. Furthermore, they evolve – which is one of NASA’s main criteria to classify as “living.” Some others say that the answer depends on how one defines life.
So, the first issue is to agree upon a definition for “life.” What can be considered “living”? Observing life around us, biologists have identified 7 properties of life. While non-living objects may satisfy some of these, only living beings satisfy them all. While this is a good starting point, it is handicapping. Firstly, it has been proven that all life on earth can be traced back to a single ancestor. We are drawing our defining properties from a sample set of 1. This is potentially unrepresentative of life in the universe. Because we are limiting “life” to “life found on Earth,” there might be life on some other planet that we wouldn’t even recognize as such, as it is so different from our own.
The second problem is the definition process itself. Because we are trying to build definitions from properties, we can reach very wrong conclusions. Science has committed this mistake before – bats were considered birds because both species fly. Much later bats were discovered to be mammals through evolutionary theory. Another similar case is the definition of “water.” Before the advent of molecular theory, scientists went by what they observed about water – that it is a tasteless, odorless, wet, transparent and excellent solvent. 17th century chemists believed these properties to be so unique to water that nitric acid (which is wet, transparent and a better solvent than water) was called “aqua fortis” (strong water). And on the other side of the problem, is sea water not water because it is not tasteless? Is muddy water not water because it is not transparent? Only after molecular theory was developed, and water was found to be “H2O” and nitric acid “HNO3,” was this misconception removed.
We need to go back to the very basics of what we experience about life, and not base our definition on what we observe. We always associate “life” with its antonym, “death,” and we know what “death” is. It is destruction, non-existence; which is why we instinctively fear it. If we strip “life” of all its paraphernalia of properties, we see that to be alive is to exist. In Vedanta, where Reality is Existence, there is no word for “living,” because there is nothing that is “non-living.” This is the ultimate realization. But even on the level of our current experience, we can see that all that exists right now is progressing towards destruction, towards death. That is the nature of this time-bound universe. And if it is going towards death, it must be alive right now. So, although this method of negation does not help in answering “what is life?,” it does answer “what is living?” All that exist--humans, animals, plants, viruses, even inanimate objects--are alive.