For the last few days I have been suffering from what is called the Common Cold. No one enjoys having a cold, as far as I know, and I for one certainly dislike it intensely. Some people manage to catch a cold and to have done with it in a few days. I am not so lucky but as I am Resting From Work ™, I can at least stay indoors and coddle myself. This has beneficial effects, including the opportunity of making endless cups of tea throughout the day.
Leisure leads to reflection and the particular reflection I have in mind at the moment is that the Common Cold is a wonderful example of how species adapt to their environment. Here we have a microscopic organism, a virus, a minimalist among life forms if ever there was one, unable to survive on its own in a harsh world, but skilled in invading big organisms like homo sapiens and taking over the host’s cells to do its work for it. Hate it or love it, you have to admire it.
You might object that the cold virus only persists in the host for a certain length of time, typically a few days, and is then destroyed by the host’s antibodies. That is possibly true but it will nevertheless have achieved during that time all that it is programmed to achieve, including sending out ambassadors to other organisms, setting up home within them, and starting the process all over again.
Because we are thinking creatures with a sense of self, we regard the life of the individual as paramount. Being born and growing to maturity is regarded as a success story while old age and death are considered as decline and ultimate defeat. Hive organisms such as bees and ants probably do not think that way, assuming they think at all. And I am pretty sure that viruses don’t think that way, either. To the reflective virus, what matters is the survival of the race. The individual is a disposable tool in this grand scheme.
If you think this way (as our mythical thinking virus does), then the history of the cold virus is one of unmitigated success. The virus is immortal and continuously alive and living it up in hosts all around the world. Even as immune systems evolve new defences, so the virus evolves to circumvent them. It penetrates the strongest defences with all the aplomb of the Scarlet Pimpernel, except that where the latter was one individual, viruses are counted in billions.
The relationship between the virus and homo sapiens in not symmetrical: we can live without the cold virus but the cold virus cannot live without us. This has been the undoing of many other strains of virus such as bubonic plague and smallpox. If you manage to isolate victims and stop the disease spreading, it dies, along with those infected. The cold virus has found the answer: don’t kill your victim; treat him gently and he will continue to work for you.
Will the Common Cold ever be defeated? It’s possible, of course. If that happens, it will be hailed as a great triumph of human science but in a way it will also be a defeat. The more diseases humanity conquers, the better for us as members of the race, but the more dangerous it is for planet earth and the other life forms. We do not hesitate to destroy anything that threatens or merely inconveniences us. Unlike the cold virus, we really do risk destroying all of life on this planet. Compared with us, the cold virus is positively benign.