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Neuroscientist: Even Viruses Are Intelligent

Antonio Damasio says, in the excerpt from his new book, that — based on the evidence — we cannot deny viruses “some fraction” of intelligence

University of Chicago biochemist James Shapiro’s just-published paper concludes that bacteria, based on their behavior, are cognitive, which means that they are aware in some sense, perhaps some would say, intelligent. What about viruses?

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio says, in an excerpt from his recent book, Feeling & Knowing, that we can also credit some sort of intelligence to viruses:

Viruses cannot reproduce on their own, but they can invade living organisms, hijack their life systems, and multiply. In brief, they are not living but can become parasitic of the living and make a “pseudo” living while, in most instances, destroying the life that allows them to continue their ambiguous existence and promoting the manufacture and dissemination of “their” nucleic acids. And on that point, in spite of their nonliving status, we cannot deny viruses some fraction of the non-explicit variety of intelligence that animates all living organisms beginning with bacteria. Viruses carry a hidden competence that manifests itself only once they reach suitable living terrain.

Antonio Damasio, “IN THE BEGINNING WAS NOT THE WORD” at The Scientist, (November 1, 2021)
Virus bacteria cells background

But, you may wonder, how can viruses be considered intelligent if there is still an active debate about whether they are even alive? A discussion at Britain’s Microbiology Society (May 10, 2016) offers Yes (David Bhella) and No (Nigel Brown) on the same page.

An Arizona State University page votes Not Sure because many of the criteria are tricky. For example, “Because they [viruses] do not use their own energy, some scientists do not consider them alive. This is a bit of an odd distinction though, because some bacteria rely on energy from their host, and yet they are considered alive. These types of bacteria are called obligate intracellular parasites.”

And, to complicate the picture, giant viruses like Mimivirus can behave in some ways like the one-celled life forms to which both Shapiro and Damasio are prepared to credit some type of cognition. As Harvard neuropsychiatrist Jon Lieff put it a few years ago:

The Mimivirus is extremely complex and, like cells, is able to to repair it’s own DNA (see post), correct errors in reproduction, create mRNA and translate these into proteins. It has genes never before described in a virus. A major debate now occurring is whether this virus is a deteriorated cell, or a unique evolutionary organism… Viruses appear to have functions, different in nature but comparable in complexity to bacteria. If bacteria have a form of sentience, then can we really say that viruses don’t?

Jon Lief, “Virus Intelligence: Are Viruses Alive and Sentient?” at Microbes (June 18, 2012)

For what it is worth, people who study and work with viruses compare their behavior to that of insects and animals. Here area few instances from the last twenty-five years:

1998: Coronaviruses attract attention for their “intelligence:” “Researcher teases out secrets from surprisingly ‘intelligent’ viruses”:

Viruses are very intelligent. They can think. They do things that we do not expect. They adapt to the environment. They change themselves in order to survive,” said [Michael] Lai, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.” “That’s part of what got Lai interested in studying the coronavirus, which is made up of 31,000 nucleotides and has the longest known viral RNA genome. “Conventional wisdom would say that having such a large RNA genome wouldn’t work, that the virus would become defective. But coronavirus seems to have broken all the rules,” he said.”

Eva Emerson, “Researcher teases out secrets from surprisingly ‘intelligent’” at USC News (October 30, 1998)

2010: Some viral strategies are reminiscent of those of insects:

A tactic familiar from insect behaviour seems to give viruses the edge in the eternal battle between them and their host… The video catches viruses only a few hundred nanometres in size in the act of hopping over cells that are already infected. This allows them to concentrate their energies on previously uninfected cells, accelerating the spread of infection fivefold.

Jessica Hamzelou, “Viruses use ‘hive intelligence’ to focus their attack” at New Scientist(21 January 2010)

Note: The video can be seen here.

Flu. Influenza viruses with RNA, surface proteins hemagglutinin and neuraminidase,  medically 3D illustration

2014: Some of the adaptations that help viruses spread sound like the tricks that animals sometimes use:

In this lecture entitled ‘Viruses travel tricky routes’, recorded as part of the Science-Inspired Tales series, Dr Russell says understanding how “clever” viruses are can help us to outsmart them. Each virus has its own unique ways of spreading to new victims, he says… For example, rabies makes animals paranoid and thus more likely to bite other animals and spread the disease to new hosts,” says Dr Russell, adding that rabies-infected animals also avoid water which increases the concentration of viruses in their saliva.

Editorial Team, “Viruses Are ‘Smart’, So We Must Be Smarter” at Vaccines Today (January 7, 2014)

2021: We are told that “Adaptation of SARS-CoV-2 virus to the immune system not purely random”:

Research shows that the emergence of mutations in SARS-CoV-2 are not purely random. Rather, the virus has repair and adaptation mechanisms in its genome that can accelerate the occurrence of particularly dangerous mutations. In the light of these findings, it appears that the most effective strategies to combat the pandemic are those that aim to achieve the lowest possible incidence rates… Systems capable of solving problems with a higher rate of success than might be expected with random processes, can indeed be called ‘intelligent’, even if the virus is not actually ‘thinking’ or ‘planning’.

News, “Coronavirus: “intelligent” mutants” at Test Biotech (25 February 2021)

So… the problem-solving systems of the virus that causes COVID can be called “intelligent” even though the virus itself is not doing any thinking and there is a dispute among scientists about whether it is even alive? That points to an intelligence underlying or within nature that the viruses did not themselves create. The question should be seen in the larger context of the growing popularity of panpsychism in science — the approach that consciousness underlies and pervades the universe and that all entities share in it to some degree.

Panpsychism is not theism (the universe was created by God). At the same time, it is not materialism, which more usually seeks to show either that consciousness does not really exist or that it is merely a state of matter. The implausibility of materialism has caused many scientists to lean more toward panpsychism.

The clash between panpsychism and materialism will make for an interesting watch in years ahead.

You may also wish to read:

Neuroscientist: Nervous systems alone do not cause consciousness. Antonio Damasio, author of Feeling & Knowing (2021), points to the whole body as involved in consciousness. One-celled intelligence aside, it’s unclear how Antonio Damasio’s ladder of consciousness, built on self-balancing and death avoidance, gets us the human mind.

University of Chicago biochemist: All living cells are cognitive. James Shapiro’s recent paper points out, with examples, that bacteria meet the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “cognitive.” Future debates over origins of intelligence, consciousness, etc., may mainly feature panpsychists vs. theists rather than materialists vs. theists.


Why do many scientists see cells as intelligent? Bacteria appear to show intelligent behavior. But what about individual cells in our bodies?

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Neuroscientist: Even Viruses Are Intelligent