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In my story there is a parasitic viral life form which infects multiple species and has the capability to hijack the entire host body as well as communicating with the host. Essential to the story is that this life form has a clearly defined consciousness and intelligence, even outside of a host, and that the virus has an extremely long life-span.

How plausible is this?

I don't necessarily mind some hand-waving but I want to lean more towards hard sci-fi. So even though consciousness is more of a philosophical concept, if we model our understanding of it on ourselves and the way we are constructed (neurons forming the basis for consciousness), what could be a reasonable parallel to neurons for a viral life form that would allow them to have consciousness and intelligence on par with human beings?

If this is too far-fetched, is there some other microorganism that might be more plausible to use as basis for this life form?

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    $\begingroup$ The Dreel from Jack L. Chalker's Well World series are an example of this. The individual virii were not conscious, but the collective of them within an individual host were. They also had a mammoth space vessel which was basically a large tank containing countless bazillions of them. $\endgroup$ – EvilSnack Oct 25 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ Would a nanomachine "virus" count? $\endgroup$ – nick012000 Oct 26 at 6:50
  • $\begingroup$ If nanomachines with collective intelligence is believable, same goes for viruses. The existence of such entity isn't hard to accept, finding a believable evolutionary line is where the problem is. With machines you can always say somebody just created them. But this is of concern to you, only if you have to provide such evolutionary line. As long as you don't, then fine. Also, viruses can be "artificial" too. $\endgroup$ – Hatoru Hansou Oct 26 at 10:13
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    $\begingroup$ DNA/RNA might be (at least in some circumstances) computational. If you're a ran of computational consciousness, then it's semi-plausible. However, it's unclear how the virus would experience time, and it would likely be unaware of the host in the same way you're unaware of the quantum foam though you exist within it. $\endgroup$ – John O Oct 26 at 13:45
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    $\begingroup$ See also the Stephanie Meyer book/2013 movie "The Host". $\endgroup$ – Harper - Reinstate Monica Oct 26 at 14:33

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There is no agreement among scientists if virus are life forms at all, because they are basically just a proteic capsule containing nucleic acid. In order to reproduce they need to hijack some other cell which, using their nucleic acid, will produce new copies of the virus.

I think it is straightforward to say that a sentient virus is impossible, for the simple reason it has no structure from which sentience could arise.

A similar reasoning holds also for other unicellular life forms, they are too simple to have sentience. As far as we know, a brain is needed for that.

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A virus itself doesn't have any independent processing power - it's just an inert list of instructions. It requires a living cell to carry them out.

But one possibility would be for a virus to recruit cells of the body and turn them into neurones. All the code to develop into a neurone is already in every cell of the body - all you have to do is activate it. Essentially, the virus triggers the body to grow extra brains. Getting random neurones scattered around the body to connect into a coherent whole is a much bigger ask, though. And if you want the personality to have a longer lifetime than the host, you will also need to posit communication between the parasite brains in different bodies, in some massive hive mind. Memories are passed on from generation to generation.

There are many options for such communication, of course. Chemical signals (like pheromones) are slow. Biological radio might be possible, (or some future-tech version of it,) but radio is easy to interfere with. Bioluminescence could be used within line of sight. But perhaps the most elegant and virus-like method is to hijack the organism's own methods of communication, and overlay their signals in hidden, encrypted 'covert channels' of communication, in voice tremor, twitches, itches, pauses, blackouts, and so on. Or you could handwave and say 'telepathy'.

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    $\begingroup$ That's an absolutely horrible perspective, I love it. $\endgroup$ – Yksisarvinen Oct 26 at 12:01
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    $\begingroup$ in Vernor Vinge's "A fire upon the deep", one of the alien races have their personality split over several individuals who stay close and communicate by sound. From Wikipedia: "A canid race, each "person" comprising a group mind of 4–8 members, which communicate by emitting ultrasonic waves from drumlike organs called "tympana". Each "soul" can survive and evolve by adding members to replace those who die, potentially for hundreds of years.". Needless to say, these aliens become very confused when they engage in sexual activities. $\endgroup$ – Stef Oct 26 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Stef Sounds pretty similar to what we call a "culture". $\endgroup$ – Brilliand Oct 26 at 20:33
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Too far-fetched ...

While sentience or consciousness is notoriously badly defined, it probably requires complexity. Humans, whales, or even cats have more complexity than worms or flies, and they display more sentient behaviour.

One virus will not be sentient, no matter how long it lives (for virus values of "living").

Many viruses would be hard-pressed to interact in a stable pattern.

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    $\begingroup$ I think large collectives could easily interact in a stable pattern, although the patterns would be driven largely by instinct. For example, ants can arguably cooperate as well as or better than cats, despite cats being considered more intelligent. $\endgroup$ – Fax Oct 26 at 14:08
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A outside a host cell is not alive, it is merely a set of instructions but incapable of itself executing those instructions. A Virus has no metabolism of its own. At all. But inside a host, or in a suitable growth medium? YES

It is very believable that a collection of identical, very simple, organisms can work together to make a functional higher grade organism, even sentient life.

The trick is that complexity can arise from the structure of a system, even when that system consists of very simple elements. (or even just copies of 1 simple element)

Consider the utter simplicity of the system called Conway's game of Life. A cellular automaton with ludicrously simple rules. Yet.. It has been proven possible to build a Turing Complete machine using this simple ruleset. And with a Turing Complete capable construct, you can build any computer. And from there it is just a hop, skip and jump to full sentience.

If you insist on a more physical example of complexity arising from simple roots, look to the humble Slime Mold. This is a sort-of fungus, that consists of very simple cells, that can group together in very complex ways.

As for how this viral infection of yours can form a neural network to think with? Firstly, who says you need a set of neurons to think with? Chemical triggers could work well too. However, in your example the virus is infecting another being that ALREADY has a fully functional neural setup that is quite capable of thinking with. ALL the virus has to do is hijack a tiny portion of the host's brain, implant its own personality and worldview into that, and your scenario is fully set up.

Actually, your idea is not exactly original.I think the patent for this concept is held by the Cordyceps Ant-Zombie Fungus. This is a fungus that attacks an ant, completely changes the ant's behavior and makes the ant build a "nest" for the fungus to propagate. It may not be sentient, but it surely does initiate a rather complex set of instructions using a very simple infections and a creature that should be incapable of that level of planning doing the work.

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Self-aware conscious microbes can be plausible, but only if they're capable of forming neural-like structures outside of the host (And it will most likely cause their consciousness to be born anew each time, unless they employ writing the information holographically into their DNA while they're sapient, but then their DNA will be truly massive, and it will bring in the usual troubles caused by mutations via imperfect copying).

But viruses? No, I don't think you can justify that without some massive amount of handwaving.

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I don't think it can be done sans contact with a nervous system.There was an old SF Novel Called 'Three to Conquer' by Eric Frank Russell that addressed this issue.

In the story 3 crewmen of a returning space mission are infected by an alien virus that had evolved on its home world to infect a local intelligent native species there. (I think the planet was Venus). It was also implied (again I think) that the species concerned had in turn evolved means of detecting infected individuals so as to try and avoid them.

Unlike your story the point was the virus was not in and of itself intelligent until it managed to infect the central nervous system of a suitable host. At that point it rapidly divides/replicates inside neurons without killing them. Hijacking them instead for its own purposes. Outside of a host it was completely inert.

Once it had infected someone it had access to the brains innate consciousness and all the memories of the victim but the process destroys the previous 'inhabitant's' conscious mind. The victim ceases to exist and can never return.

The virus had one overriding priority - to spread and take over new hosts. To do this it 'mimics' the mannerisms and personally of the host until it can maneuver someone the host knew into a position where it can infect them.

Very old story and pure bunkum biology but you might be able to posit a bacteria or a protozoa that does something similar to the virus in Russell's story. Viruses destroy the cells they infect during replication. You might instead create a life form that grows inside a host inside its CNS and which parasitizes the hosts neurons for its own benefit. Certainly there are examples (as mentioned) of this on Earth.

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You could approach insane levels of information processing technology.

Each "virus" particle isn't the same virus. The viruses each unique pieces of a biological computer processing system. The infection has multiple tiers.

Tier 1 is biological compatibility. The same way that most dog viruses do nothing for humans, but moreso; your virus has to be capable of infecting the target and delivering a payload.

Tier 2 is hacking their biology. Unlike traditional viruses that are trying to infect, reproduce, and jump to a new host, you have work to do in their body.

Tier 3 is building a new consciousness.

Think of the Von Neumann interstellar probe problem. Here you send a star wisp to a new star. It starts off with next to no resources, and starts bootstrapping by finding a metal-rich asteroid and building a small factory to build more stuff.

Eventually it builds enough infrastructure to decompress and run an actual intelligence in this new solar system.

Your virus infection is a Von Neumann "interbiological" probe. It builds a system to decompress and run the viral intelligence in in the alien biology of the host body.

The viral intelligence payload is expensive to carry. So like a Von Neumann probe, you might just send enough intelligence to build a giant communications dish, and then upload the consciousnesses afterwards.

In the viral case, you'd invade the body, take over its biology, then arrange for a high-bandwidth transfer or copy of consciousness from another host.

Tier 4 is building a collective consciousness.

Humans have high barriers between each organism, but we still have a multiple "collective" information processing beings; from cultures, to religions, to corporations, to families, to polities. A viral consciousness with the ability to stream itself from one body to another might have a long, slow over-consciousness that isn't confined to a given body.

The thought processes of each individual infected would matter much like the state of each neuron in our brain matters. Individual infected could even go rogue, much like cells in our body can go cancerous or otherwise misbehave. We have an immune system to identify and deal with that problem that works exceedingly well.

We also have a reproductive system that attempts to isolate the noise of each lifetime from damaging the next too badly, cleaning up entropy by gestating a new being every 20-40 years; most cancer and other biological system "wear" problems in the previous generations isn't passed onto the next iteration.


Building such a viral consciousness is difficult to imagine using natural selection pressure.

But a ridiculously advanced information processing civilization (like, Matryoshka brain scale or crazier, like ice giants from a heat death universe) could plausibly design such a thing.

For a plot, imagine ice giants, consciousnesses spread over galactic scales, in a universe long past the stars going out, thinking huge slow thoughts as they extract the entropy of fading black holes. They know they are doomed, but they solve for how to send extremely small (compared to their size) fragments of information to a warm universe. Extremely limited, they find a warm intelligence, and build "Von Neumann probes" out of existing viruses. These infect creatures, modify them to receive yet more data. Slowly (in our time frame) they send extremely compressed images of pieces of their consciousness in an attempt to escape the long, slow death of theirs.

Even planetary-scale hive intelligences are not nearly large enough; to transmit and store even a small fragment of the universe-scale intelligence that they are, they need to swallow the universe.

The physics of this universe are going to be relatively alien, so they also need to develop local intelligence (or hijack it) in order to build a higher bandwidth communication device. In this young, hot universe, consuming even a fraction of its entropy (say, converting an entire galaxy into a inter-dimensional radio receiver) would be a wealth far more than they can afford to spare back home.

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It could work if:

A- It is a colective (like ants, like Borgs)form of sentient life. B- It is a virus, but it has a big DNA.

Remember you, and any one in this world started like two microscopic cells getting together.

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    $\begingroup$ What has a big DNA to do with being self aware? And how can virus show collective behavior? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Oct 26 at 5:31
  • $\begingroup$ I think your answer has merit, but you should elaborate. For it to work, the virus should be able to induce the host cells to produce something functionally equivalent to neurons, and possibly enough 'seed data' in DNA to encode something akin to consciousness. It could probably not evolve naturaly, but given a fair amount of handwaving it might be created as a nano-weapon. $\endgroup$ – j4nd3r53n Oct 26 at 9:22
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Individual bees are dumb, beehives are smart. Ditto ants/anthills.

Analogously, each infected host acts as a neuron. Whether it's on or off depends on genetic markers on the viruses in it, with criteria for changing based on markers in new incoming individual viruses. Optional: non-binary states. Non-binary states seem better for plausible state-transition criteria. The global mass of infected is a smart "individual", reasons very slowly, and reprograms the faster viral properties strategically, making tradeoffs.

Optional: multiple of these large "individuals" compete and/or cooperate.

For more plausibility, have far more hosts (more "neurons") than present day Earth humans, maybe hundreds of billions.

I can't think of an evolutionary path leading there, but seems stable once it exists.

For a related fictional example of a planetwide mind made of dumb individuals, in this case unicellular bacteria, see: (hover to show spoiler)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nemesis_(Asimov_novel)

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As others have pointed out, sentience of a virus outside a host is not possible. Viruses have specifically evolved stable configurations when not infecting a host, and sentience as we know it requires changing state.

However, it's not far fetched to imagine a virus that has a characteristic and significant effect on infected hosts' behaviors. For example, the rabies virus can cause agitation and (ostensibly) fear of drinking liquids. If the change in behavior is significant enough, infected hosts might be considered to have a consciousness distinct from their pre-infection consciousness. Colloquially, this might be called the consciousness of the virus. For example, the fictional virus N. Machiavirus might induce hosts to carry out Machiavellian schemes to spread itself.

A virus that induces total behavioral change would probably need to evolve over thousands of years starting from something like rabies. It might evolve over a long period in non-human mammals, then transmit to humans in a shorter period of time.

Note that the virus would impart a fixed behavior pattern on the host. It would not be able to "remember" anything when infecting to a new host. Memory between hosts would require untenably specific feedback from the host's nervous system to cellular reproduction of infected cells (using some form of epigenetics). I'm not aware of any viruses that do this.

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As others have noted intelligence in the virus outside of a host is problematic. But once in a host, I can see it being plausible for a virus to be able to unpack its thoughts and memories from an encoding within its genetic structure. The DNA of the virus particles would reflect the current thoughts and feelings of the virus within the host producing the virus. These memories/thoughts/feelings are transferred to the new host upon infection.

For a virus that is intelligent outside of its host... This requires some sort of metabolism, viruses do not have this. If they did they might be considered more of a parasite, with a free-living phase. "The thing" is a monster that has some of these properties, a single cell can infect a whole organism and carries the memories of previous incarnations of the entity. Perhaps you could imagine a viral bourne version of the thing that converts its host over time into its own form. This form is intelligent and releases viral particles to convert other creatures into this form.

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In my humble opinion, it would be presumptuous to rule out the possibility of future sentient viral life forms. We still lack knowledge about the functioning of life forms in our deepest oceans. According to current knowledge, box jellyfish have a central nervous system and sensory neurons, and are able to chase prey among other things, without having an actual 'brain'. Does this amount to a level of sentience, however minimal? It's plausible, so I don't think it should be completely ruled out that other life forms without an actual 'brain' could have some level of sentience.

Source: https://boxjellyfish.org/do-box-jellyfish-have-brains/

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In addition to what has already been said, a virus that co-opts its host's nervous system, or that makes the host grow an additional nervous system, could encode its experiences into the DNA carried by new virus particles. There is no real virus or other biologic organism that does this, but there is no physical reason why such an encoding of information into DNA (or RNA if you prefer) could not work. It requires biochemical pathways that don't exist, but nothing that would be (biochemically/physically) impossible. Virus particles would be a bit larger than typical viruses, but viruses are so small that that wouldn't matter. The only question is how such a virus could have evolved. You'll be hard-pressed to come up with a realistic scenario. But an easy cop-out is that the virus was designed by a very advanced alien species.

Virus-infecteds sharing experiences and memories by encoding them in virus particles have some interesting characteristics: multiple infected persons can infect a new victim at the same time. In that case the virus personality of the new victim could have the memories and experiences of all its 'parents' (assuming the virus was programmed to properly merge such different experiences together). And, as infected individuals constantly produce new virus particles, two virus personalities can share memories if they are in each other's neighborhood. Not instantly, and depending on how the virus works it might not be all memories or not in high fidelity, but over a few hours to days one virus personality could acquire memories and experiences from another in this way.

So for plausibility: not plausible at all if you assume an earth-like evolutionary environment and the virus must evolve naturally. But physically there's no reason why this couldn't exist, if you hand-waive its evolution. (Or if you want to, figure out a realistic scenario. Figuring one out is hard, but evolution can go in so many directions that I'm sure some theoretical way exists in which such a virus would evolve.) Another easy creation path is that the virus was designed by some intelligent species, which is also possible.

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You just reimagined the zombie virus.

The virus reprograms hosts for its own goals. The standard trope makes human hosts much dumber, but you can make it different. Hosts remain as smart as before, they just change goals. The virus' neurons are the hosts' actual neurons, used in place.

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Adam Warren gave one interesting example of a conscious meme(!) in Gen-13 #43–44 (Vol. 1, DCWS period): the earworm "So Happy to be Happy". Apart from this rather being on the soft side of sci-fi (since happening in a superheroes universe), I would say it quite nicely matches your requirements of long life-span, clearly defined consciousness, and intelligence, as well as not being confined to a single host and allowing humans to hold conversations with the viral consciousness.

Gen-13 #43 cover Gen-13 #44 cover

The catch is of course how to justify the necessary communication between different parts of the viral consciousness. As far as I can recall, Warren never addresses that point, but pretty much the only solution that would make sense in that story would be for infected hosts to develop a certain degree of telepathy (for intra-consciousness transfer of information, not for spreading the infection further). Whether this solution would be applicable also in your setting depends of course on how you want to play it.

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It's quite possible for a parasite to behave like a virus, i.e. trick its host into making copies of itself rather than reproducing in the normal way. It's also possible for a parasite to survive for a long time outside its host. While others have suggested (not unreasonably) that a brain is required for self-awareness, in reality we have no way to know that, and indeed there's no agreed test for self-awareness. If there were, one might create a device that was clearly not self-aware and yet still passed the test, if only to demonstrate that the test was flawed. It's probably reasonable to say that a self-aware organism would need to have something equivalent to a half-decent brain, and possibly that could be implemented at the atomic rather than cellular level and so it could be reasonably small, rather larger than a typical virus but perhaps still small enough to invade a single cell of a host.

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