Laura Geggel interviews virologists at LiveScience, who offer arguments against the idea, for example:
“Take a cat, a plant and a rock, and leave them in a room for days,” said Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and an affiliated scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore. “Come back, and the cat and the plant will have changed, but the rock will essentially be the same,” he said.
Like a rock, most viruses would be fine if they were left indefinitely in a room, Adalja said. In addition, he noted that living beings have self-generated and self-sustaining actions — meaning they can seek out sustenance and behave in self-preserving ways. In other words, “they’re taking actions to further their lives, [such as] a plant sprouting its roots to find water or an animal looking for food,” Adalja said. More.
Dr. Adalja thinks that the fact that viruses can be inert like rocks until they come into contact with a living cell means that they do not “qualify as being alive.”
But wait. The rock cannot be “ert,” so to speak. The virus can be “ert” or inert. Does the ability to be inert for long periods – but suddenly “ert” when an opportunity beckons – show that the virus is not alive?
Anyway, can we be sure that all viruses fit this description? Only recently, we discovered giant viruses, for example. Did anyone predict them? What criteria are we sure they will follow? What rules are we sure they will keep?
This is one of those increasingly numerous situations where an open-ended discussion would serve us better just now than an attempt to enforce boundaries and rules.
Boundaries and rules are great when we know exactly what we are dealing with (think: ice hockey). Otherwise, they just add to the noise, as people rush to defend criteria nature doesn’t appear to have noticed.
See also: Phil Sci journal: Special section on understanding viruses
Why “evolution” is changing? Consider viruses
The Scientist asks, Should giant viruses be the fourth domain of life? Eukaryotes, prokaryotes, archaea… and viruses?
Are viruses nature’s perfect machine? Or alive?
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