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A virus's mission is to make as many copies of itself as possible

A virus's mission is to make as many copies of itself as possible A virus's mission is to make as many copies of itself as possible
Source: Alexey Kashpersky via CreativeBloq
Virus of the Mind
From a book
Virus of the Mind
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A successful virus must let its host live long enough to spread the virus. That's odd, though—wouldn't it follow that the most successful viruses would let the host keep living and spreading them as long as possible? Wouldn't that mean we should expect viruses to be on our side in general, since our health is linked to their survival? That depends on what you mean by "on our side." The success of a virus in the long run depends on its ability to replicate without killing its hosts. Of course, that doesn't help you if you're killed by one that hasn't evolved to be "successful" yet. As John Maynard Keynes pointed out, in the long run we're all dead. A virus that spread to ten other people and killed you in the process would be quite successful enough, short term. A virus that immediately killed every host wouldn't be successful, just as a computer virus that instantly crashed every computer it infected wouldn't last long. But longevity of the host is just one possibility for a virus's mission:

A virus's mission is to make as many copies of itself as possible.

Wait a minute—why is that the virus's mission? Do we really believe that viruses have some kind of guiding purpose to their lives? What does it even mean to say that a virus has a mission? Why couldn't a virus just be content with infecting one cell, retiring, and kicking back and watching the endoplasmic reticulum for the rest of its days?

The short answer is: if it did, it wouldn't be a virus as it's defined here. I'm only using the word virus to refer to things that penetrate, copy, possibly issue instructions, and spread. But waving my hands and clinging to the definition is the easy way out. There's a very subtle point here, one that's important to under-stand because it runs through this entire book:

When we look at life from the point of view of a virus, we're not saying the virus is alive, can think, or even has a point of view.

Looking at things from the point of view of a virus just gives us insight into what's interesting about viruses: how and why they spread. When I say a virus's mission in life is to spread, I mean only that when we examine viruses, the interesting thing about them is that they spread. If they didn't spread, we wouldn't call them viruses and we wouldn't be interested in them. We are interested in viruses because their penetrating, copying, issuing of instructions, and especially spreading is a powerful force in our universe. It's fascinating, exciting, and even scary to discover something that, once released, goes off on its own and spreads itself to the world with no further effort on the part of its creator. Saying a virus has a mission in life is a trick to make it easy to understand how it works. It would be equally correct to reverse points of view:

The universe contains many mechanisms for copying and dispersing information, and viruses are some of the things that are often copied and dispersed.

Some of these copying mechanisms are straightforward; others are roundabout. But the viruses we see the most copies of are the ones that those mechanisms happen to latch onto and copy. So given that we're only studying successful viruses, the one thing we know about them is that they are good at spreading. The DNA viruses have found effective ways to spread via the copying mechanisms of our cells.

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