THE IDEA of a last universal common ancestor provides a plausible and helpful, if incomplete, answer to where humans, oak trees and their ilk come from. There is no such answer for viruses. Being a virus is not something which provides you with a place in a vast, coherent family tree. It is more like a lifestyle—a way of being which different genes have discovered independently at different times. Some viral lineages seem to have begun quite recently. Others have roots that comfortably predate LUCA itself.

How to parse this sentence? Should I read it as :

  1. It is more like a lifestyle—a way of being (which different genes have) discovered independently at different times
  2. It is more like a lifestyle—a way of being (which different genes have discovered independently at different times)
  • Isn't it werid to say "genes have discovered a lifestyle" in 2? What could that mean?

article link : https://www.economist.com/essay/2020/08/20/viruses-have-big-impacts-on-ecology-and-evolution-as-well-as-human-health

  • 1
    Your second parsing is more natural. It would be really weird to interpret "which different genes have" (="which they possess") as a parenthetical aside attaching to a way of being rather than part of the compound verb form in [genes] have discovered [independently].... The use of discovered here is pretty "metaphorically anthropomorphic" - but that's not a problem, given the exact context. – FumbleFingers Sep 5 '20 at 17:24
  • Thank you, but I don't get the meaning of "discover a lifestyle", is it equal to "virus genes choose the way how they showed up"? – wtdark Sep 5 '20 at 17:59
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    Viruses have evolved as organisms that can only exist by infecting larger organisms; they have metaphorically 'discovered' that lifestyle. – Kate Bunting Sep 5 '20 at 18:16

This kind of personification and anthropomorphization (meaning writing about things as if they are people) is common when talking about genes.

It goes back at least to Richard Dawkin's book "The Selfish Gene". Though, as Dawkins says in his book, the word "selfish" is a metaphor.

Dawkins gives an example: suppose a beaver has a mutation in one of its genes. This makes a modification in its brain that causes it to swim slightly differently, with its head higher in the water. So branches that it uses to build its dam carry more mud. So the dam is stronger, so the dam is more likely to survive a flood, so the beaver is less likely to be killed by a flood. So the beaver has more babies, that survive and carry the gene. Eventually, all beavers have this gene. We might say that the beavers' genes have discovered how to swim better, or discovered how to make the dam stronger. It is not literally true (the genes have no brain) but the process of natural selection makes genes seem to act intelligently over many generations.

We could also say that "flying" is a lifestyle, which has been discovered by the genes of bats, birds and bugs (and pterosaurs).

Another "lifestyle" is being a virus. And like "flying", "being a virus" has been "discovered" by genes several times.

This kind of figurative language is very common in English, not only when talking about genes.

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