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An Ancient Virus May Be the Source of Human Consciousness

It’s no stretch to say that the human consciousness is one of the things we possess which sets us apart from the lesser animals. The ability to hold abstract thoughts in one’s mind or imagine scenarios or objects outside of our sensory experience is what has enabled us to build skyscrapers, airplanes, and all the other affronts to nature, the gods, and who knows what else. Despite many advances in evolutionary genetics, however, the exact origins of human consciousness still prove to be somewhat of a mystery.

You know what else is a mystery? Why these types of illustrations are so popular these days.

You know what else is a mystery? Why these types of translucent head illustrations are so popular these days.

Some scientists believe consciousness evolved exclusively with the first humans, while others believe it might have evolved farther back when the first ancestors of modern animals appeared. Now, a daring new theory has emerged which has some scientists wondering if consciousness might in fact be part of our original genetic coding in the first place. According to two new studies published in the biology journal Cell, consciousness very well could have been injected into the human genome by an ancient virus which infected early humans. Could human consciousness some kind of genetic infection we carry around?

If viruses were just a little bit bigger, they would be some of the scariest things on the planet.

If viruses were just a little bit bigger, they would be some of the scariest things on the planet.

The two quite technical papers, can be found here and here. They center around a certain neuronal gene called Arc which uses a process very similar to viruses to encode genetic information which passes between synapses in the brain. It’s still a mystery what role that genetic information plays, but neuroscientists have observed that synapses die if this process breaks down. By tracking down the evolutionary roots for this gene using comparative genomics, scientists have claimed that ancient viruses could have transmitted viral Arc genes to early humans, where they inserted themselves into the human genome and eventually evolved to enable our higher brain function:

Evolutionary analysis indicates that Arc is derived from a vertebrate lineage of Ty3/gypsy retrotransposons, which are also ancestors to retroviruses. These findings suggest that [Arc genes] have been repurposed during evolution to mediate intercellular communication in the nervous system.

It’s quite an interesting thought. Given human beings are distinctly more intelligent than animals and capable of tasks which animals aren’t, it makes you wonder how that came to be. Could human consciousness and intelligence be the product of an ancient viral infection which jumped to humans? Why did it avoid all the other animals?