thing theory (2008)

anth g6085


caitlin warbelow (columbia university)


(Screenshot of (c)Brain, first computer virus)



“…Or, perhaps humans are constructed by and for viruses as their own personal playground, battleground, nursery and hospital.  Perhaps we are in the midst of a great war between viral factions, who design their own hosts (such as humans) to inhabit (and discard) for their own purposes…”


“…few things on earth are spookier than viruses….”


What to do with things we only recently figured out are things at all?  Such is the case with viruses, those things so small that we need technology only recently developed to “see” them at all, so powerful that they can change genetic structure and kill, so strange that they have no cell structure and can’t reproduce on their own, and so un-understood that no one knows how they came to be or why they continue to exist.  So prevalent in thought is our evolved understanding of the virus that behaviors associated with it have jumped conceptual species boundaries and are now applied to such fields as computer technology, marketing, advertising, video, email, the internet, ideas, campaigns, etc.  Quite the impact for such a tiny…thing. 

The history of the word “virus” is much lengthier than one might expect.  First recorded in English in 1392, the derivation is from the Latin virulentus meaning “poisonous”.  A number of languages have similar bases, including “-weis” (to melt or flow, Latin), “vish” (poison, Sanskrit), “ios” (poison, Greek), “visnja” (poisonous cherry, Old Slavonic), and “gwy” (fluid, water, or blood, Welsh).  Variations of the word referred to such things as venomous substances, poisonous slimes, the sap of plants, slimy liquids, and malodorous fluids.[i]

Although the mechanisms of viruses were not “scientifically” understood until recently (and still not fully), the connection between an agent of some sort and the onset of symptoms has been understood for centuries, mentioned as early a text from 1020 in which contagion is described as occurring through contact with human bodies, water, or soil, by “foul, foreign earthly bodies”[ii].  The Black Plague, in the 14th century, provided a perfect, if deadly, opportunity for medieval scientists to explore the ideas of contagion, particularly in the scholarly Arabic world where Ibn Khatima postulated that “minute bodies” lead to disease and Ibn al-Khatib hypothesized that disease was transmitted through touching “garments, vessels, and earrings” worn by the affected. [iii]  In 1717, Mary Montagu, the wife of a prominent British diplomat, watched Arab women inoculate their children against smallpox by exposing them to a small amount of a mild form of the disease, but her attempts to bring inoculation back to the Western world were largely rebuffed.  By 1782 the word was being used to refer loosely to agents of disease.  At the end of the 18th century Edward Jenner famously developed the first vaccine, for smallpox, after discovering that milkmaids never got the disease because they inadvertently inoculated themselves through their work with cows.[iv]

Although the idea of contagion through some small “thing” floated about for some centuries, the identification of said thing was much more difficult because of the incredibly small size.  While attempting to determine what caused a tobacco disease by passing crushed plant matter through a porcelain sieve in 1892, Dimitri Ivanovski discovered that he could infect other tobacco plants with the remainder.  This proved that there existed an infectious agent much, much smaller than bacteria, which is too big to pass through so small a sieve.  Shortly after, Martinus Beijerinck coined the actual term virus in its modern scientific sense and proposed that these things could only multiply in living cells and not by themselves.  In 1935, electron microscopy allowed humans the first “look” at a bacterium – the tobacco mosaic virus.



(Rothamstad Experimental Station, 1994)


The images and further research revealed that viruses were unlike anything hitherto known in the biological world.  Cells, the building block for all life and an integral requirement in the traditional definition of living things, have cell walls – viruses don’t.  They consist solely of a jumble of nucleic acid surrounded a protein and lipid coat derived from the host cell’s membrane, plus the occasional tail or spike to better grab on to the unfortunate cell. 




A virus finds a host, lyses the membrane, enters the cell, and looses its genetic material inside the cell where it replicates using cell resources  Each new copy then builds shells and leaves the cell, changing the inherent genetic structure of the cell in the process.  Simple enough and brilliant in its simplicity…but where did such a…thing…originate?  Why do they continue to exist?  What implications do viruses, these unliving life-changers/enders that we can’t see or feel but through their unpleasant effects, hold for thing theory?



(HIV virus,


Scary in their efficiency and disregard for “who” they infect, viruses infuriate and mystify scientists because there is no cure for a cell infected.  Such a powerful particle must be explained in this scientific world of ours.  A number of theories have been proposed to explain how viruses evolved.  Although rare, genetic material is occasionally transferred between cells, outside of the protective membrane.  A rogue piece of code, in combination with the right proteins, could have (could still) morph into the simplest of viruses, parasitizing off neighboring cells in order to survive and reproduce.  Perhaps, taking a page out of the manual of the lysosome, a cell might develop parasitic tendencies by and by, gradually losing parts of its physiology that prove only burdensome when in the parasite business.  Or, contrary to our conception of viruses as dangerous scraps of leftover genetic material from some better being, maybe viruses are actually the precursor to cells and life as we know it. 

Some recent research supports this theory.  At a lab in England, researchers have discovered a virus that is unlike any virus known – it is one five-hundredth of a meter (huge by virus standards – it can be seen under a normal microscope), has a genome of 1.2 million letters (nearly 10 times the size of the normal virus), and is larger than many bacteria.[v]  It is called the mimivirus, or “mimi” for short, and it stretches the definition of what a virus is, how viruses came to be, and what exactly we are. 


(Discover Magazine, 2006)


 “‘If this is true,’ Forterre has said of the viral-nucleus hypothesis, ‘then we are all basically descended from viruses…’”


What is Mimi?  Is it alive?  How do we interact with Mimi or any other virus as a thing?  The field of biology tells us that things that are alive have the following characteristics: cell structure, cell division, self-assembly, and autonomous growth.  A virus has none of these things, but an amoeba does, and so does an embryo.  A doorknob does not have these things, so it is not alive, nor is a dead human.  A doorknob with a virus on it and a dead human with a virus in it are also not alive according to our definition.  But if a live human were to put her hand on the doorknob, she may end up being changed by this event in the most fundamental ways – her genetic code may be altered, or she may become - dead.  Unlike any other thing we can interact with, with the possible exception of radioactive chemicals, a virus makes us different in a way no other thing can. 

What would Harmon have to say about this?  In his book Guerrilla Metaphysics, Harmon advances a theory of objects whereby objects and humans interact only as a series of relations in a type of vacuum or ether and never fully “get” each other: [vi]

We are never directly acquainted with objects, but only with the windy ether or plasma into which their living qualities are released… (pg. 68)

Any sort of human relation to objects will inevitably fail to grasp them as they are. (pg. 74)

While I buy Harmon’s ideas for most objects in the world, living and non-living, I do not believe that viruses fit into this scheme.  Take, for example, a shoe.  I might wear the shoe because I like its design and think it will get me better results on a date, while my date notices my shoes only for the amount of money he posits they might have cost me, and what this might imply about my personality.  Neither of us know where the shoe was made, or what integral materials were used to make it.  When the heel breaks and I throw it away, I won’t know where it has gone or what thing it becomes as it decomposes.  We interact with the “living qualities” of the shoe and act upon them accordingly, but ultimately the shoe, to us, is a black box which we put on our feet but can never fully “grasp” in the true sense of grasping. 

Now lets take a hypothetical but college-pertinent example.  My date interacts with the “windy ether” of my shoes by deciding that they indicate not that I might be a burden on his checkbook at a later date, but that I am engaging in the mating ritual and want to have sex.  In keeping with Harmon’s theory, I am unable to fully grasp this man, this object, and like so many things (every thing?) in life, the black box that is a one-night stand slips bodily away.  Unbeknownst to my conscious, this object has given me another object – a virus.  And unlike the thing objects sitting flowerly on the table, or the thought objects floating around in my head, this one is interacting with me, I would argue, in Harmon’s ether – actually inside the smallest of black boxes, that box Latour says no thing can open.  This thing picks a cell of mine, rips it open, deposits its genetic instruction manual inside, uses my cell’s resources to make many copies, and burst out again, hungry.  My cell (which is living) interacts with this non-living thing by responding to its own genetic codebook, which says “replicate, replicate”.  The infected cells, which cause system-wide changes in my body, and are indeed of a different genetic structure than the ones I started out with (and I am only a collection of my cells), are different than they were the day before I bought the shoes.  Different doesn’t really explain this “different” though – I argue that the interaction between virus and person is, indeed, a direct acquaintance, a full grasping, in the Harmonian sense.  It is unconscious, uncontrollable by the whims of humans, irrevocably permanent, and utterly complete. 

What of the thoughts in my head, the ones that regret buying the shoes, drinking the whiskey, hailing the cab, nodding my head?  To go back to our premise about the origin of viruses, which posits that viruses are the building blocks of all life and not the other way around, how is the evolution of thoughts and actions like the evolution of viruses and organisms?  A brilliant 2007 article by Eugene Koonin discusses the idea of a “biological big bang” theory, wherein the traditional cladistic Linnaean model of evolution and classification is debunked as a vestige of our privileged position at the end of the time-space continuum.  In addition, instead of a continuous evolutionary movement from amoeba to graduate student, Koonin believes that evolution takes place the same way that universes are born – in “big bangs”.[vii] 

Known in a watered-down form as “punctuated equilibrium” in biology, the premise is that like baby universes, life expands and mutates rapidly after an initial event (the “bang”) for a certain amount of time and under certain rules, slowing down after some time and becoming somewhat static, after which another “bang” occurs and the whole thing happens again, under another set of rules.  Applying this to evolution - instead of all life looking like the stereotypical tree, with eukaryotes, prokaryotes, and the animal kingdom (no viruses) on their respective branches right on down to the soil itself, where lies a jumble of chemicals, heat, and, well, magic (so to speak) - Koonin believes that that original primordial soup gave rise to two basics after the first bang: individual gene strands, and “virus-like agents”.  The rules of this first bang are that genetic material is transferred freely between all, and that boundaries are “leaky”.  This goes on for some time, leading to “proto-bacterial” and “proto-archael” entities, which still trade genetics freely.  The second bang happens, and then there are new rules – genetics are not traded freely and nothing is leaky anymore.  You have what you have, and you interact with stuff that has the same stuff as you.  Bacteria becomes more complex, leading to differentiation of parts within the entity, viruses stay about the same, figuring out how to parasitize off the new cells.  Things are quiet for a while.  The third bang happens, wherein the bacteria appear to have the clear advantage, being self-replicating and all, and begin evolution as we know it from our textbooks – the eukaryotes, prokaryotes, and PhD students are eventually formed.  Viruses still stay about the same, observing from afar if you will, but subsisting no less amply off the fruits of evolution, while evolving themselves to take advantage of new situations (i.e., cultural allowance of sex on the first date, industrial chicken farming, propensity to spend time on cruise ships, etc.). 

Look at Koonin’s somewhat confusing diagram of this process and it is possible to replicate the entire premise for the evolution of a thought into an action.  Thoughts (memes, to quote Dawkins) run amok in the primordial soup of our brains.  Their boundaries are leaky and they pass freely between the conscious and the unconscious – they freely trade “genetic” elements between each other.  (Diagram I in Koonin’s picture.) Eventually an idea, a collection of somewhat organized thoughts, is formed.  (Box A, equivalent to “proto-bacteria”)  At the same time, all objects also form leaky boxes of ideas.  (Box B, equivalent to “proto-archea”)  We wish to share these forms amongst ourselves and also utilize information from the objectboxes we encounter, so we (through various means) transmit these ideas from our personal mindspace into the collective soup, where they interact with each other and the objectboxes to form coagulated thought-things, whose membranes are no longer leaky except for within the mindspaces of a single person (Diagram II).  These thought-things then become multi-part objects with various differentiated elements within themselves, still non-material, but with great potential – action-things.  After a time of evolving and being continually influenced by other thought-things and objectboxes, the action-thing makes the evolutionary leap to an act – an actresult, which is able to not only interact with other thought-things but also to physically move objectboxes, the first manifestation of anything physical in this whole scheme.  (Diagram III). 


(Koonin, 2007 modified by Warbelow)


It may be a bit far fetched, but essentially, objects can be equated to viruses and thoughts/thought-things/action-things to bacteria/eukaryotes/prokaryotes etc.  Objects (or rather, the objectboxes – the ether of the object) remain in their initial state throughout the process of action-thing creation but can influence any other box at any other time.  Ideas/memes evolve into successively more complicated thought-things, but are very nearly always at the influential mercy of the primordial objectboxes. 

The three “bangs” in this diagram (represented by red lines) correspond to the conceptual shifts required to move between 1. prototypical ideas/memes and leaky but organized thoughts, 2. organized thoughts in the personal mindspace and ideas in the interpersonal realm, and 3. ideas in the interpersonal real and an act.  Each of these bangs takes some effort to move between and is generally proceeded by a period of intensified evolution of the idea/act. 

If you’re following me, which might be irrationally difficult, try replacing virus related terms with thought-related terms (shown in brackets) in the following passages:

The overwhelming majority of viruses are not harmful to their hosts. Each of us is infected with a huge array of viruses. The human genome, considered as a mass, contains more retrovirus sequences [object boxes] than actual genes.

Information, whether biological or industrial, is passed along by replication. Create a new word-processing file and copy it: that's replication. But any replication process is susceptible to errors, which in turn can generate novelty. And novelty… is often an advantage: Some new life-forms [ideas] will adapt better to the environment.  Some viruses, like Ebola or avian influenza, are basically runaway replicators, effectively burning their own life bridges in the process. [example: suicidal thoughts]  But the majority, as Villarreal puts it, strive "to persist, not make a lot." [example: the premise of education]  Those that do persist eventually become both stable within, and staples of, evolution.

Or, perhaps humans are constructed by and for viruses [thought-things] as their own personal playground, battleground, nursery and hospital.  Perhaps we are in the midst of a great war between viral factions, who design their own hosts (such as humans) to inhabit (and discard) for their own purposes.

Perhaps it is even easier to swallow this idea when extending it to the most modern conceptions of viruses – those dealing with technology.  People have created computer viruses and “worms” out of the same primordial thought ether that gave rise to the computers in the first place.  They create the viruses and worms for lots of reasons –those such as harmless pranks, experiments, and educational tools are benign enough, just like most of the retroviral material we all carry around in our genome. 

The more caustic computer viruses are created to vandalize, destroy, “tag”, and generally wreak havoc on evolved technology.  Some viruses replicate themselves (called “worms” – equivalent to biological viruses) and create zombie computers (like infected cadavers) to help in this quest.  Others infect just one device when opened, similar to biological bacteria.  Computer viruses are born from, feed off of, are fought and rallied against with, and sometimes destroy, the same basic “genetics” that computers themselves are.  Sound familiar?  To me, it sounds like the exact same process as both biological evolution and thought-act evolution.

Assuming everything started in that primordial soup of high school biology textbook lore (inevitably, it did not), progressing over a vastly long period of time to the current situation we know of as humans and viruses, then morphing in a comparatively short time into aforementioned computers and technoworms, the advent of each of these events preceded essentially by a “bang” of its own, where are we moving to next?  These things we interact with, these viruses (biological, thoughtological, technological) – they can grasp us in the most fundamental ways, they can exist in the ether.  We sit around a (virus-covered) table and discuss “thing theory”…are we really as evolved as we think?


“…As it turns out, they are not the little breakaway shards of our biology—we are, of theirs...”



Note: all quotes from Unintelligent Design by C. Siebert unless otherwise attributed.


[i] Virus. Oxford English Dictionary Online.


[ii] Sina, Ibn. Qanun fi-l-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine). 1025


[iii]Syed, I. Islamic Medicine: 1000 years ahead of its times. Journal of the International Society for the History of Islamic Medicine. 2002. v2:2-9


[iv] Behbehani, A. The smallpox story: life and death of an old disease. Microbiol Review. 1983. v47(4):455-509


[v] Siebert, C. Unintelligent Design. Discover Magazine. 2006.


[vi] Harmon, G. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the carpentry of things. Chicago: Open Court Publishers. 2005.


[vii] Koonin, E. The Biological Big Bang model for major transitions in evolution. Biology Direct. 2007. v.2:21