Dialectical Materialism and viruses

Viruses, the most common organisms on Earth, can only be understood in their relationship to living things; they are in fact not able to carry out metabolic processes, because they do not have any of the physiological mechanisms necessary for the implementation of these processes. They cannot reproduce or feed on their own.

A virus simply consists of a protein capsule protecting a DNA or RNA. It can only reproduce by means of a host, from which it diverts part of the operation for its own benefit. In doing so, it can also cause its own genetic code to intrude into that of its host.

Viruses, by their massive spread on the planet, are a key in biochemical exchanges; at least 8% of homo sapiens DNA is viral from its origin. The placenta owes its function to viral DNA.

This fact alone completely ruins bourgeois conceptions of heredity as “fixed”, frozen, separated from reality, etc.

Viruses form, concretely, a pivot in the more complex development of matter.

This material always comes from the universal unity of the processes as well as from the qualitative character of the movement, while being carried out in a particular way and through quantity.

It must be understood that there is nothing existing in a separated way and that nothing is regressing in its development. What is called “disease” is therefore improperly defined, because the negative effects are completely secondary to the main aspect of the general process of complexification of matter which involves dialectical relationship.

Only a small minority of viruses are thus pathogenic to humans, even though they form a material aspect of the utmost importance. It is an expression of uneven development.

The types of viral populations in the ocean are at least 200,000 and it is predicted that they would be a billion. In the ocean, the number of viruses per milliliter of water is estimated to be between 10 exponent 6 and 10 exponent 8 (between one and one hundred million).

These viruses play an essential role in the ocean in their relationship to bacteria and living things; their role is still unknown, but it appears that they regulate the bacterial population, that of micro-algae and even living beings.

In other words, the decomposition resulting from the activity of viruses has a biogeochemical activity, playing on food in the oceans, the equilibria of the beings therein, neutralizing the development of bacteria, having an essential function in the presence of CO2 on Earth through activity in the carbon cycle (by capturing carbon to transform it as sediment in the seabed).

Many chemical elements are still involved here in the activity of viruses in the ocean (phosphorus, sulfur …) and research is new, dating from the very end of the 20th century and the very beginning of the 21st century.

It wasn’t until the 1930s that we were able to see viruses, using electron microscopes; it was not until the beginning of the 21st century that viruses, like the bacteria, appeared as an essential scientific field.

If this statement is true on the level of practical studies, dialectical materialism had already noted the nature of viruses in the early 1950s, within the framework of the socialist USSR led by Stalin, and had asked the question of their role in biogeochemical processes.

In a summary on dialectical materialism of 1953, Peter Belov, in his article On the primacy of matter and the secondary character of consciousness, says that:

“The data of advanced modern science as to the essence and origin of life can be briefly summarized as follows.

Living is not something random on earth. The totality of all living things on earth – the biosphere – is a natural product of the geochemical development of the planet’s surface.

The biosphere continues to play an essential and extremely important role in all the other geochemical processes of the earth’s crust, determining the nature of the rock formation, the formation of the soil, the composition of the atmosphere and in general the distribution of the chemical elements in the upper layers of the earth’s crust, hydrosphere, atmosphere.

“Living organisms, from a geochemical point of view, are not an accidental fact in the chemical mechanism of the earth’s crust; they constitute its most essential and inseparable part. They are inextricably linked to the inert matter of the earth’s crust, minerals and rocks … The great biologists have long been aware of the inextricable link that connects the body to its surrounding nature.” (V.I. Vernadsky, Essays on geochemistry, State Publishing House, 1927)

Living things are made up of the same chemical elements that make up the rest, the mineral part of nature.

The composition of a living body includes almost all of the chemical elements (including radioactive) in the periodic table, some largely, some in smaller proportions. But whatever the quantitative proportion of certain chemical elements in the composition of the protoplasm (their presence in organisms is only detected by spectral analysis), they however also play an important role in the life of the protein, their absence leads to death of the body.

Modern advanced natural sciences (astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology) have fully exposed the idealist theories of “eternity of life”, “panspermia”, etc. Life on earth is of terrestrial origin, the result of an extremely long natural synthesis of increasingly complex organic substances (…). The Living is inseparable from the conditions of its existence and can only be conceived as a product of the development of these conditions themselves.”

The question that inevitably arises here is that of placing the virus: is it an organism falling under living matter or is it inert matter?

Virologist Konstantin Sukhov rightly noted in 1950 in the journal Questions of philosophy that:

“The self-reproduction of viral particles marks their capacity to assimilate and is a quality that fundamentally distinguishes them from bodies of inanimate nature.

At the same time, due to the simplicity of their organization, viruses retain a number of properties which make them extremely close to molecular substances.

This includes their ability to crystallize and their chemical reactivity.

At this stage of the development of living matter, life turns out to be reversible, it can completely stop and resume depending on environmental conditions.”

This point of view is essential, because it poses the viruses “in the middle” of inert matter and living matter.

There are two opposing points of view here, indeed, in the socialist USSR at the time of Stalin, implying themselves a whole conception which, if it is wrong, shakes up the scientific perspective itself.

If we say that viruses come from inert matter or living matter, there is indeed a compulsory validation from a parallel point of view.

The question arises in the following way: either it is said that viruses are not alive, but by-products of life, that they are basic living forms but having degenerated and having lost everything except their DNA. This places them in a subordinate role, consequent to the development of living matter and bringing them back to inert matter.

Or, on the contrary, it is said that viruses are part of the process of life itself, that they are there from the start in this process.

The Soviet biochemist Alexandre Oparin (1894-1980) considered for example that this second conception was wrong, because it would bring to consider that viruses would be a “brick” of life, which would lead to a metaphysical conception of a “creator” at the origin of such a brick.

Oparin was head on against Vernadsky here. Oparin reasoned in terms of “primordial soup” where living matter is inert matter experiencing a leap, while conversely Vernadsky considered that the universe had always known an opposition between living matter and inert.

However, Vernadsky had still not resolved the question of viruses in 1938; he then formulated the problem as follows in Inert matter, living bodies and biosphere:

“We have never observed a spontaneous generation of a living organism from inert bodies: the principle of F. Redi (all life comes from life) is never violated.

The concept of inert (dead) and living natural bodies as distinct natural objects is an ancient concept, taught over the millennia – a concept of common sense. It cannot be doubted and is clearly intelligible to all.

After centuries of scientific work, there have been very few doubtful cases where one wonders whether a specific natural body should be considered as a living or inert body, or whether a given natural phenomenon is a manifestation of living or non-living processes.

The issue of viruses is one of those rare cases, and it is probably the most profound illustration of this.”

Here is the problem. Oparin is right to say that there cannot be an absolute border between living matter and inert matter: this would be an absolutist idealism. However, it follows from his reasoning that viruses would be a regression, but a regressive process is not possible, since it is opposed to the principle of the dialectical movement.

Vernadsky is thus right to see in viruses a theoretical problem, but he sees himself blocked by his positioning opposing unilaterally inert matter and living matter.

In fact, the answer is in the question and Mao Zedong’s teachings on dialectical materialism, his insights into movement and its nature, make it clear.

There are two aspects, which has been well seen. First, it is clear that living matter requires an internal process and that viruses do not have it.

Friedrich Engels tells us about living matter, in the Anti-Dühring, in 1878, that:

Life is the mode of existence of albuminous bodies, and this mode of existence essentially consists in the constant self-renewal of the chemical constituents of these bodies.

The term albuminous body is used here in the sense in which it is employed in modern chemistry, which includes under this name all bodies constituted similarly to ordinary white of egg, otherwise also known as protein substances (…).

Wherever we find life we find it associated with an albuminous body, and wherever we find an albuminous body not in process of dissolution, there also without exception we find phenomena of life.”

There are no vital phenomena relating to viruses. So it seems that viruses do not come from life, from living matter.

However, at the same time, viruses have DNA or RNA, which inert matter does not have. Viruses are capable of having a direct relationship with living matter, while inert matter has an indirect relationship.

This is where the key lies. Vernadsky is wrong to oppose living matter to inert matter, but Oparin is wrong to assimilate them by saying that one comes from the other. Indeed, by doing so, he himself opposes one to the other and returns to Vernadsky’s unilateral idealism.

The latter is moreover more materialist despite his idealism, because he recognizes the dignity of the real: in opposing in the past living matter to inert matter, he is wrong, but in opposing them today he is right because it allows us to understand their combination, their dialectical relationship in a whole which is the Biosphere.

By opposing one to the other, Oparin is materialist because he says that matter comes from matter, but he loses the dialectic because he separates living matter and inert manner unilaterally and therefore misses the leap made by matter.

His point of view is thus regressive compared to that of Vernadsky, because it breaks the unity of matter and arrives at an abstract schematism where inert matter would have remained after all “behind”.

Viruses are, in such a framework, the proof of the leap in matter and at the heart of the contradiction that this leap implies.

Viruses are not either inert matter or living matter, they represent the expression of uneven development in the leap of matter bringing about the existence of living matter.

Viruses are the nexus of the inert and the living, of the spread of the complexification of life (by the transmission of DNA) and of death (by diseases and bacteriophage activities, massive in the ocean).

Viruses are fixed, they do not change in size, and yet they can transform, recombine. They have genetic material but cannot reproduce on their own.

They have a form depending of mineralogy but are turned towards the living.

Viruses are the nexus of the relationship between life and death, and as such a key to understanding the development of living matter as we know it.

The “primordial soup” of which Oparin speaks cannot exist in the past only, such a reading is anti-dialectic.

In reality, there is no negation of the negation, a break rejecting the legacy of the past, and the soup still exists, having experienced qualitative leaps. Viruses are at the heart of the contradiction of this soup where living matter and “inert” matter both attract and repel each other, as opposites.