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How viruses made us humans

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  • Telos - Philosophische Praxis

Abstract

Current research on the origin of DNA and RNA, viruses, and mobile genetic elements prompts a re-evaluation of the origin and nature of genetic material as the driving force behind evolutionary novelty. While scholars used to think that novel features resulted from random genetic mutations of an individual’s specific genome, today we recognize the important role that acquired viruses and mobile genetic elements have played in in­troducing evolutionary novelty within the genomes of species. Viral infections and subvi­ral RNAs can enter the host genome and persist as genetic regulatory networks. Persis­tent viral infections are also important to understand the split between great apes and humans. Nearly all mammals and nonhuman primates rely on olfaction, i.e., chemorecep­tion as the basis of the sense of smell for social recognition, group membership, and the coordination of organized social life. Humans, however, evolved other means to establish social bonding, because several infection waves by endogenous retroviruses caused a loss of odor receptors in human ancestors. The human independence from olfaction for social recognition was in turn one driver of the rather abrupt human transition to dependence on visual information, gesture production, and facial recognition that are at the roots of language-based communication.
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Subject: Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, Cognitive Neuroscience
Online Publication Date: Apr 2021 DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198813781.013.5
How viruses made us humans
Guenther Witzany
The Oxford Handbook of Human Symbolic Evolution
Edited by Nathalie Gontier, Andy Lock, and Chris Sinha
Abstract and Keywords
Current research on the origin of DNA and RNA, viruses, and mobile genetic elements
prompts a re-evaluation of the origin and nature of genetic material as the driving force
behind evolutionary novelty. While scholars used to think that novel features resulted
from random genetic mutations of an individual’s specific genome, today we recognize
the important role that acquired viruses and mobile genetic elements have played in in
troducing evolutionary novelty within the genomes of species. Viral infections and subvi
ral RNAs can enter the host genome and persist as genetic regulatory networks. Persis
tent viral infections are also important to understand the split between great apes and
humans. Nearly all mammals and nonhuman primates rely on olfaction, i.e., chemorecep
tion as the basis of the sense of smell for social recognition, group membership, and the
coordination of organized social life. Humans, however, evolved other means to establish
social bonding, because several infection waves by endogenous retroviruses caused a loss
of odor receptors in human ancestors. The human independence from olfaction for social
recognition was in turn one driver of the rather abrupt human transition to dependence
on visual information, gesture production, and facial recognition that are at the roots of
language-based communication.
Keywords: viruses, genetic regulation, genome editors, olfaction, social recognition, group membership
In modern humans, the mind, not the genome, became the substrate for learned
(acquired) group identity, aided by the development of reading. It is with our
minds, not our noses, that we learn to belong.
(Villarreal, 2009a)
Introduction
In the first part, I provide a brief outline of the origin of the biocommunication theory that
is to be situated in the pragmatic turn in linguistics and philosophy of science. I then
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demonstrate how the biocommunication approach can help explain the origin of sign me
diated interactions in all three domains of life.
In the second part of this chapter, I focus on how genetic material can be understood as a
natural code and how viral genes infiltrate mammalian and human genomes. Viral infec
tions are key players in the evolution of all cellular organisms in general and mammals in
particular. Endogenous retroviruses in particular have played a crucial role in the evolu
tion of the placenta, and they are also responsible for the loss of odor, especially in hu
mans. As we shall see, the latter provides a means to understand the evolution of human
bonding and social communication in the form of symbolic language.
Example: The emergence of meaning in natur
al languages
Anything that can be said can be said clearly” (Wittgenstein, 1922). This is a quote from
the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus. The book investi
gated how language refers to the world and how it enables scientific knowledge to be ex
pressed in a formal, logical language. Wittgenstein tried to find and justify a strict mathe
matical theory of language, where all sentences of science can be formalized and ex
pressed as mathematical-like equations. For that reason, he argued that what can be said
scientifically can be said clearly. Sentences that cannot be formalized are deemed scien
tifically senseless.
In his later works, Wittgenstein (1953) rejected his earlier ideal of a world-depicting, for
mal universal language. Instead, he recognized that the basic features of natural lan
guages are determined by social groups that use a limited repertoire of signs for social in
teractions. The later Wittgenstein argued it is the social and pragmatic context in which
the living agent is concretely interwoven that determines the meaning (function) of a
sign-sequence of a natural language.
This idea marks the pragmatic turn in philosophy of science, of which earlier proponents
include Charles Sanders Peirce (1923, p. 87), who said that to identify “meaning … we
have to identify the habits it produces.” Peirce introduced the term semiotics to designate
the science of signs. He differentiated three classes of sign. Indices point to some object
in the context in which it occurs, an example being a footprint in the sand. Icons are signs
that demonstrate similarity with the designated object; think of the image in front of pub
lic toilets with the different icons of females and males. Symbols, the third class of signs,
do not depict what they express, for example, the alphabetical letters of a human lan
guage are symbols for sounds. In pragmatics, the connection between a symbol and its
meaning does not depend upon the relation between the symbol and the object, but re
sults from convention-based social learning.
George Herbert Mead demonstrated that meaning (semantics) is a social event, a social
interaction-derived consensus. This contradicts the core concept of the (coding) sender
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(and the decoding) receiver narratives (see below) which cannot explain how communi
cating living agents reach a common agreement on the meaning of signs and the goals of
cooperation. Later proponents of the pragmatic turn included John Langshaw Austin
(1975) and John Searle (1976) who developed the speech act theory, as well as Jürgen
Habermas (1984, 1987) who introduced the theory of communicative action.
Major insights on human language and communication can be summarized in terms of
the following points (Witzany, 2010a).
Language is a repertoire of signs that is used by competent agents according to syn
tactic (combinatorial), pragmatic (context dependent), and semantic (content coher
ent) rules. Any system that lacks either syntax, semantics, or pragmatic language use
cannot be defined as language.
We may differentiate between a linguistic competence (to generate sentences) and a
communicative competence (to induce social interactions).
Languages are not sui generis. There must be groups of living agents that share the
above-mentioned rules and competences in generating utterances using commonly
shared signs. This means that natural language use is inherently a social event. Think
ing (in sign-based sentence-like structures) follows the social learning of language and
not the other way around.
Language is primarily used for communicative interactions. Communication in every
day life is not restricted to transfer of factual knowledge about the world. Rather, it as
sembles all social interactions/knowledge that are mediated by signs. Non-verbal bodi
ly expressions may also serve as signs, and when combined they too bring forth com
municative interactions (e.g., gestures, mimesis, or pantomime).
In addition to denoting various classes of speech acts, natural language is also innov
ative because it enables the generation of new sequences, new behavior, and new in
teractional patterns. The results of such innovative speech acts cannot be predicted
from a complete analysis of former behaviors or former sentences or words, i.e., they
cannot be computed in principle.
These points about natural language use have now been empirically validated (see Haber
mas, 1984, 1987; Tomasello et al., 2005) and they contradict the core assumptions made
by classic theories, including mathematical theories of language that assume that lan
guage refers to outer objects, as well as its derivatives that include information theory
(Shannon & Weaver, 1949), systems theory (Wiener, 1948; von Neumann, 1966), and
Chomsky’s theory (Chomsky, 1964; Nowak et al., 2001) on generative grammar.
In the remainder of this chapter I integrate and develop these insights brought forth by
the overall pragmatic turn to language and communication.
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cellular, that have a nucleus where genes are organized on chromosomes. Prokaryotes do
not have nuclei and many are unicellular although they may form colonies and bacterial
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From archaea, bacteria, and unicellular eukaryotes up to the more complex eukaryotes,
such as fungi, plants, and animals, all life forms have a sign repertoire to coordinate and
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dinated cell processes within and between cells in nearly all situational contexts (Witzany,
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2016).
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merely metaphorical, and that bee communication systems have all the attributes of real
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whether language use in communication processes is a rather exceptional phenomenon,
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ordinating interactions between cells, tissues, organs, and organisms. Figure 1 gives a
graphic representation of the resulting theory of biocommunication.
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The genetic code: A natural language?
Molecular biologists characterize genes as representing a natural code, where transcrip
tion processes from DNA to RNA, and translation processes from RNA to amino acids and
proteins, as well as immune responses, and cell–cell communication are the essential
processes of how organismic form comes about. These concepts were not introduced into
biochemistry and molecular biology by linguists, communication experts, or language
philosophers; they were coined by molecular biologists to explain observed phenomena
(Nirenberg et al., 1965; Crick, 1968).
Nobel laureate Manfred Eigen insisted that the genetic code represents a real language
and that the term “language” is not just a metaphor. “All the words of the molecular lan
guage are combined to a meaningful text, which can be broken down into
sentences” (Eigen & Winkler, 1983, p. 305). “At any rate one can say that the prerequisite
for both great evolutionary processes of nature—the origin of all forms of life and the evo
lution of the mind—was the existence of a language” (p. 314). Nonetheless, Eigen under
stood language as it was defined by Chomsky, in terms of a context-free universal gram
mar where the meaning (semantics) of any given language sequence is determined by its
syntax.
Clearly, the nucleic acid language and the protein language are rather different from cel
lular organisms that communicate with their repertoire of signs. On the other hand, if we
take seriously the idea that no natural language speaks itself, just as no natural code
codes itself but depends on competent social interacting agents, we have to identify
agents that edit, modify, adapt, or generate genetic code sequences de novo. What are
these agents, where do they live, and what are their main behavioral motifs?
Viruses and RNA networks act as natural edi
tors of genetic text
Because they lack metabolism, scholars debate whether viruses can really be considered
to be life forms. One thing is for sure, however: viruses contain many genes which are
unique to viruses and thus not found in any living organism. Some virologists therefore
suggest viruses predated cellular organisms. The number of genes found in viruses and
virus-derived parts exceeds by a factor of ten the amount of genetic information found in
cellular organisms. If we ignore eukaryotes and only consider prokaryotic life, we have a
number of prokaryote viruses of 10 , which means if we were to line up the length of
their virions, we would have a string of length forty million light years (Rohwer et al.,
2014).
One way in which we can conceptualize this finding is by understanding that the visible
living world of organisms belonging to the three domains are embedded into a viral “dark
matter” that we are only just beginning to examine (Youle et al., 2012). Most of these
viruses and virus-like genetic agents do not cause diseases, but they persistently colonize
31
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host cells and host genomes (Villarreal, 2005). When viruses colonize host cells, a key fea
ture is that only a few persist as functional agents. In most cases, viruses undergo loss of
function and in a later phase, these “defectives” are co-opted by the cell. Here they con
tribute to all steps and sub-steps in cellular functions such as transcription, translation,
epigenetic markings, repair, and immunity (Villarreal, 2009a,b; 2011a; Ryan, 2009; Villar
real & Witzany, 2010).
There exist millions of types of viruses. Examples are bacteriophages, DNA, or RNA virus
es. Particularly important for this discussion is the group called endogenous retroviruses,
which are viruses that specifically infiltrate the genomes of mammals; and a subclass of
endogenous retroviruses, human endogenous retroviruses, that are found inside human
genomes. Besides viruses, there also exist a whole series of mobile genetic elements
some of which might be related by common descent to these viruses, and others of which
we do not yet know their evolutionary origin.
Many of these viruses nest themselves in the areas of the genome that used to be desig
nated as “junk DNA” because these genes do not encode for proteins. However, today we
know that non-coding RNAs regulate key functions in the cells they belong to. In the hu
man genome, for example, approximately 2 percent of the genetic sequences code for
proteins that underlie development and growth of the organismic body; the remaining 98
percent is non-coding DNA that is nonetheless transcribed in non-coding RNA performing
various regulatory functions (Witzany, 2010b).
This means that DNA is not merely a genetic storage medium serving as a heritable
“blueprint” and evolutionary protocol, it is also a species-specific ecological niche. The
human genome, for example, is colonized by retrovirus-derived retroposons and other
mobile genetic elements, which in total sum represent more than 60 percent of the whole
genetic content of humans (de Koning et al., 2011).
In sum, viruses and mobile genetic elements infect organisms and insert themselves into
host genomes, thereby disrupting the existing sequence. They can, for example, delete
existing host sequences, or they can multiply within the host system through a copy-and-
paste technique (Shapiro, 2002; Shapiro & Sternberg, 2005). They furthermore change
host genetic identities either by recombination or by the epigenetic (re)regulation of ge
netic content, and many co-evolve with the host and interact in a module-like manner (Vil
larreal & Witzany, 2015). In this respect viruses play vital roles in evolutionary and devel
opmental processes (Weiner, 2006; Villarreal, 2015a; Roossinck, 2015). In contrast to ac
cidental point mutations, their integration at various preferred sites is not a randomly oc
curring process, but is coherent with the genetic content of the host; otherwise, impor
tant protein coding regions would be damaged, causing disease or even lethal conse
quences for the host organism. Such biological agents are capable of identifying se
quence-specific loci of genetic text (Bushman, 2003; Mitchell et al., 2004; Lambowitz &
Zimmerly, 2011). They are masters of the shared technique of coherently identifying and
combining nucleotides according to contextual needs. This natural genome editing com
petence is absent in abiotic life, and therefore represents a core capability of life.
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These examples show that the genome is not merely a molecular structure with a storage
function, but rather an ecosphere habitat with an abundance of RNA-derived settlers such
as retroviruses, competing for a limited resource: DNA. To get access to this limited re
source some cooperative behavioral patterns have been selected whereby formerly com
peting agents find a way to cooperate and to counter-regulate within the host genome.
This newly emerging cooperation of formerly competing genetic parasites may lead to
new features in host tissues, organs, or organisms, as documented in the various innate
and adaptive immune systems (Marraffini & Sontheimer, 2010; Villarreal, 2009b). It is
possible to imagine how different tissue types evolved in quite different species; this is a
coherent event because of an abundance of persistent (non-lytic) viruses which share tis
sue specificity rather than species specificity (Villarreal, 2009a).
The role of retroviruses in the evolution of the
mammalian placenta
Up to one hundred genes can transfer to a new host in a single infection event. This is not
a small step, as is the case with replication errors (chance mutations), but an evolution
ary non-random drive with far-reaching consequences. An example relevant for mam
malian and human evolution are endogenous retroviral infections that lead to the transfer
of syncytin genes, which resulted in the evolutionary novelty of placental mammals (Perot
et al., 2012).
The most active period of an endogenous retroviral transcription occurs during the for
mation of placental tissue, during growth periods, and when trophoblasts join together
(Villarreal, 2004, p. 314). Trophoblasts encapsulate the fertilized egg, help the egg nest
properly, trigger processes that ensure nutrition, and prevent reactive responses by the
mother’s own immune system. The egg is therefore protected by trophoblasts against an
immuno-reactive response of the mother. These characteristics are unknown to
monotreme mammals and marsupials.
In turn, the trophectoderm is a highly complex tissue that is, surprisingly, not of maternal
origin, but a derivative of the fertilized egg. It develops before the egg becomes implant
ed into the uteral lining. Experimentally suppressed expression of endogenous retrovirus
es inhibits implantation (Villarreal, 2015b). This implies that implantation of the embryo
requires transcription of retroviral syncytin-coding genes. In humans, the HERV W env
gene codes for syncytin (Dupressoir et al., 2005), a molecule used by the host to join tro
phoblast cells with the tissue that eventually nourishes the embryo (Villarreal, 2004).
Although these processes have been known for over thirty years, the purpose of this reac
tion was previously unclear: it did not make sense that the evolutionary innovation of pla
cental mammals was tied to the acquisition of a complex set of endogenous retroviruses.
Since the trophectoderm is protected by the maternal immune system, it enables further
growth into the placenta, thereby modifying blood flow and nutrient supply between
mother and embryo. Once the sex of the totipotent embryo is determined, the high ERV
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expression rates are stopped and DNA methylation functions again (Villarreal, 2005, p.
325).
Microbiological infection events may also, however, lead to genetic defects also, perhaps
leading to the loss of relevant tissues. As we will see later this means that such colonizers
might also destroy important genetic sources, in turn driving the evolution of alternative
capabilities.
The cooperative turn in humans
Viruses and subviral RNA networks also underlie key differences between human and
nonhuman primate communication. Here we focus on the evolutionary dynamics that led
to symbol generation and usage (Burling, 2005). Cooperation and intentionality are hall
marks of complex nonhuman primate communication systems: but human languages are
different. Great apes understand many aspects of social interactions in their life worlds,
including causal and intentional relationships (Russon & Begun, 2004). But in contrast to
human infants, great apes cannot participate in shared intentionality or cooperative com
munication (Tomasello & Rakoczy, 2003).
The intentionality displayed by chimpanzees and bonobos includes the capacity for goal-
oriented behavior, including the imagining of a possible action and its results, especially if
similar situations have previously been experienced. We can characterize such goal-ori
ented behavior as “cognitive” because a chimpanzee such as bonobo not only observes its
conspecifics and the larger environment, but also employs inner simulation, i.e., self-ob
servation (Hobaiter & Byrne, 2014). Although chimpanzees and bonobos use a wide range
of manual gestures to communicate, they only communicate about real-life situations, and
only in a context where communication leads to immediate manipulations of social situa
tions (Graham et al., 2018; Bohn et al., 2016). Conclusions in the context of a great ape’s
life refer to real-life or actual situations, not probable or fantastic ones (Byrne et al.,
2017). Apes do not produce gestures to draw attention to situations or entities that are
not actual, or to inform another ape without intending to manipulate its behavior (Gra
ham et al., 2018; Bohn et al., 2016).
The shared intentionality and social lifestyle engaged in by humans surpasses that of
great apes, and human language requires higher-order theory of mind (Tomasello, 2008).
Human social cognition is characterized by shared intentionality that brings forth cooper
ative and altruistic interactions, potentiating new modes of cognitive representation such
as making perspective-taking and symbolism possible (Tomasello, 2003a,b). Socially re
cursive cognitive behavior resulted in humans not merely focusing on individual perspec
tives but on the perspective of other group members (Tomasello, 2008).
This new form of cooperation based upon shared intentionality emerged from common
goals and shared attention. Group hunting in great apes is characterized by each individ
ual ape trying to catch the prey. This means the group behavior remains in the “ego-sta
tus” for every individual. But the so-called cooperative turn in humans means that the
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group members now act in a group perspective without “ego-status” (Tomasello, 2008).
The decisions that are taken focus on group rather than individual benefits. This can al
ready be seen in three-year-old children who have been shown to engage in cooperation
in experimental situations (Liszkowski et al., 2009). It was demonstrated that the shared
goal is so important that individual children who reached their goals early did not stop
their actions until all the others had reached their goals. Similar behavior in great apes
has not been observed.
Cultural background as collective intentionality
Culture assembles a totality of specific self-reflexive cognitive actions combining shared
intentionality with knowledge of different perspectives on common goals (Tomasello &
Rakoczy, 2003). This differs from great ape cognition which focuses on common goals
rather than from an “ego-status.” With human-shared intentionality a new evolutionary
stage has emerged. Individuals that act on their “ego-status” in the group now depend on
each other by sharing cooperative goals. This crucially includes helping another group
member by giving information that is beneficial for the other, but not necessarily for the
information-giving agent. A central communication motif arises here: giving others useful
information for their benefit. This new motif is not found in great ape communication
(Tomasello et al., 2005).
Human groups now build cultural identities (self/non-self culture) with a variety of cultur
al conventions, norms, and institutions that are not constituted by individual but by a cul
turally shared background. This cultural background and the experiences within everyday
life represent knowledge within a teaching process for future generations, which should
integrate every new member from birth onwards into these norms of a specific cultural
identity. Children are actively told and taught in an altruistic way to learn all these behav
ioral motifs of the specific culture, to internalize them, and to become fully responsible
members of this cultural group.
Language types no longer have personal connections with expressed utterance types.
Rather, communicative conventions decide whether one uses a word in a correct sense or
not. Now, every new member of the human species from childhood onwards (as a part of
the cultural identity group) can learn a “universe” of conventionalized communication
(Tomasello, 1999, 2014).
How did humans evolve gestures to draw attention to situations or entities that are not
actual, and why do they willingly share information with other group members without
the immediate intention to manipulate their social world? In other words, how do ges
tures and vocalizations transition from being merely iconic and indexical to being symbol
ic? As we saw, symbols are signs that neither “pick out” nor depict what they mean.
Rather, they result from conventions that are memorized, learned, and used in a correct
or incorrect way (Gillespie-Lynch et al., 2014). The use of symbols requires certain levels
of abstraction: if humans speak about something that is not real, they extend time and
space beyond the immediately present (Tomasello, 2003a,b; 2008).
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In summary, human language emerges from human communication, i.e., sign-mediated
interactions as an essential means to coordinate and organize all common goals based on
commonly shared conventions, understanding, and intentions. As we have seen, children
in human societies learn how to use language by combining words and utterances within
the context of everyday social life. The learning process is embedded in cultural tradi
tions, based on local customs and traditions that include religious and moral systems. All
aspects of learning are inculcated socially, because the meanings of linguistic utterances
are not a private but social (Mead, 1934). There must have been an evolutionary pathway
to the emergence of this capability. It has often been assumed that the evolution of sym
bolization results from stochastic genetic mutations that bring forth an invention, an evo
lutionary upgrade, so to speak, of existing capacities. Here, we provide an alternative
view to explain the transition from iconic and indexical to symbolic behavior.
Social sensing in most mammals is determined by pheromone com
munication
How do other mammals, and nonhuman primates in particular, learn social behavior?
How do they acquire competence in social interactions, and learn their social roles in
their community? How do they appropriate behavior that enables social integration with
in their community? What are the consequences of single failures or repeated failures in
social interaction?
The basic identity sharing system in animals, especially in mammals, is pheromone-based.
Pheromones are intense odors brought forth by biochemical processes, for which mam
mals have evolved the sense of smell. We know that the pheromone sensory systems and
receptors are evolutionary very old, being essential communication tools even for bacte
ria. Pheromones are key semiochemicals for identifying other animals. For marsupials, ro
dents, or dogs, for example, urinary odor detection and odor marking is essential
amongst competing males, and odor detection by menstruating females is of primary in
terest for both males and females. While social learning occurs within all animal lineages,
the social role of odor sensing is predominant (Villarreal, 2009a, 2011b, 2015b).
Mammalian social identification systems in addition are dependent upon maternal bond
ing that occurs between a mother and her offspring. Placental mammals need obsession
to nurse their young (Gootwine, 2004). In placental mammals the various pheromones
that emotionally attach the mother and her young start at the onset of the very develop
ment of fetus and continues after birth via lactation and milk. Pheromones, such as oxy
tocin, vasopressin, or prolactin together with their cognate receptors play essential roles
here. This fundamental social bonding system together with facial recognition (pleasure,
fear, anger, etc.) and memory is very important and is not subjected to genetic variation
processes during the long evolutionary periods. In other words, these biochemical sys
tems are highly conserved. The increasing importance of social bonding correlated with
neurobiological complexity (Kendrick, 2006), especially the learning of emotional plea
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sure or emotional pain for social bonding or loss of social bonding becomes of importance
for learning mammals in the earlier stages.
These findings allow us to combine empirical knowledge about neurobiological aspects of
human language and communication with knowledge of basic molecular biological
processes in microbiology in general and virology in particular, with the goal of under
standing how recent research on viruses and subviral RNA networks that shape the genes
and genome architecture of all living organisms is relevant for language evolution and the
evolution of symbol use. The difference between the nucleotide sequences coding for pro
teins (amounting to less than 2 percent of the total sum of nucleotides) of humans and
their closest ancestors, the chimpanzees, is only 1–2 percent. These small differences
cannot explain the enormous inter-species differences in behavior, cognition, and commu
nication. Noncoding DNA regions that are transcribed in reproduction, which do not code
for proteins but are for regulatory RNAsare relevant in nearly all cellular processes.
Humans differ the most from chimpanzees in the endogenous retrovirus colonizers
(HERV-K), the long terminal repeats (LTRs), and the Y-chromosome (Kim et al., 2004;
Flockerzi et al., 2005, Jurka et al., 2007).
The hypothesis I advance is that the primacy of pheromone detection was lost by some
African primates, as a consequence of repeated steps of retroviral colonization of their
genomes. The genetic alterations caused by retroviral invasion led to damage or even loss
of the relevant receptors, olfactory genes, and related tissues; favoring a shift in domi
nance to other sensory modalities, and in particular, vision and vocalization.
Genetic colonizers divided evolutionary pathways of primates
The neocortex of humans in comparison to chimpanzees displays a tissue enlargement
that depends on stable alterations to the cellular programming and tissue (cell) identity
systems involving ancestral neuronal stem cells. Only retroviruses have the capacity for
such re-programming, as demonstrated in several tissues e.g., retroviral infection derived
arc genes that are essential for long-lasting information storage in the mammalian brain
(Shepherd, 2017). Virologist Luis Villarreal developed a plausible scenario from the virus-
first perspective: an epidemic-like colonization by endogenous retroviruses took place
within African primates that incapacitated the role of olfaction for recognition of group
identity (Villarreal, 2015b). The primary tool to identify group members and their sexual
and social roles in everyday group life was abruptly lost. The loss of odor receptors and
related tissues was the result of several infection waves by endogenous retroviruses. This
caused a dramatic loss of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) olfaction (Kulski et
al., 1999; Spehr et al., 2006; Doxiadis et al., 2008) and finally led to group recognition be
coming independent from olfaction, which is the primary source to differentiate individu
als of the (self) group and non-self individuals in all other mammals (Villarreal, 2009a).
The loss of olfaction-based social recognition caused an increasing and probably abrupt
shift to dependence on visual information, including gesture production and recognition,
and vocalization.
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After the loss of odor receptors, determining social roles within groups and the language
of humans became the dominant tool for social bonding. This means that the pheromone-
based social bonding typical of other mammals in humans was replaced by a more com
plex cognitive process. In association with language-based social bonding, the visual
brain cortex must evolve relevantly because prior to language, body expression patterns
that served as tools for generating coherent gestural sequences became most important
after the loss of odor capabilities (Villarreal, 2009a, 2011b, 2015b).
The newly derived social bonding techniques via visual social interactions, accompanied
by vocal complexity and differences in color vision, increased the (mirror-) neuronal com
munication and its complexity in human social brains. The social brain, therefore, results
from group identity procedures and processes (organization and coordination of group
behavior). After the HERV K colonization of African primates, which reduced odor recep
tion dramatically in humans, several other colonization waves continued, and further in
capacitated the remaining olfactory-based identity (Villarreal, 2009a, 2015b). It is note
worthy too that various behavioral instincts expressed by many mammals immediately af
ter birth are also lost in humans. Humans, in fact, are the most helpless of all the new
born mammals. They can only eat and defecate at birth without additional learning. But,
in contrast to all other primates, human infants must learn fundamental movements. They
cannot walk, crawl, or even lift their heads.
As a result, human beings are more and more dependent on learning from others, espe
cially during their early brain development phase. Human communication and language
were the primary tools for social group identity integration or rejection. The social brains
of humans need complex language skills in order to transmit survival strategies to con
specifics, to manufacture and use tools, and to learn the rites and rituals of the communi
ty they belong to.
Designation of content that is not actually present by symbol-mediat
ed speech-acts
Language freed humans from many biological determinants playing major roles in nonhu
man primates, but the question of how humans invented symbolic language remains. The
differences between human and nonhuman communication is based upon the existence of
some kind of extended mind and on emotional networking that is grounded in recursive
thinking and feeling and on the capacity to generate and transfer information to others
that represents content which is not connected to actual situations. This may be a start
ing phase for the origin of language-based conventional behavior, new vocal alphabets,
symbolic signs, and sign sequences.
Designation of content that is not actually present needs combinations of gestures and vo
cal sounds that a social community agrees upon in a conventional process, which is not
the result of innate expression patterns. The pheromone-based semiochemicals and the
main receptor of odor detection employed in nonhuman primate biocommunication, and
the related tissues, are almost completely lost in humans due to the retroviral infection
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waves. Therefore, facial recognition and conventional sign use that designates content
that is not actually present empowers planning for the future, such as food storage tech
niques (for winter) not for “ego”-status, but for the common benefit of the group.
Myth telling from the past and cultural traditions, such as group rituals as well as related
cults derived techniques, such as painting and music became essential tools in the trans
generational transfer of group memory and learning (Tomasello, 1999; Zilhão et al., 2010;
Montagu, 2017; Hoffmann et al., 2018) Symbolic sign use in abstract alphabet use that is
traded, learned, and memorized through generations dominates social life of early human
species and selection processes.
Conclusions
Communication is a key characteristic of life in general. The evolution of symbolic lan
guage based upon sign-mediated interactions in humans is at least in part the result of an
abrupt loss of genetic determinants for identity recognition, and coding for odor recep
tors and cells of related tissues. These persistent infections of endogenous retroviruses
affected African primates in several waves and finally led to the divergent pathway of hu
man evolution. Humans had to rapidly develop new tools to coordinate and organize
group identity, group behavior, and social roles. Early human communicative gestures
were followed by vocal languages to designate objects and action behavioral motifs (at
tack, defense, mating, food gathering) even if—most importantly—these were not actual,
but distant in time and space. This acted as a pressure to evolve linguistic conventions for
conveying shared meanings, based upon a lexicon that goes beyond indexical and iconic
signs to symbolic signs. As a successful tool for coordination and organization, that must
be reproduced by social learning and memory in myth telling and rituals, symbolic lan
guage emerged as a fundamental species-specific trait contributing to human survival.
Glossary
Non-coding RNAs
In any cellular replication process DNA sequences are transcribed into intermediate
RNA to form the protein coding exon sequences. Some of the transcribed RNAs do not
code for proteins and serve as regulatory RNAs such as transfer RNA, messenger RNA,
ribosomal RNA, micro RNA, small interfering RNA, small nuclear RNA, small nucleolar
RNA, and several other RNAs all being remnants of former infection events by genetic
parasites (such as mobile genetic elements) that reached persistent status in host
genomes. In, for example, humans only 1.5 percent of the whole genome sequence
serves as protein coding sequences whereas 98.5 percent represent sequences that do
not code for proteins.
Mobile genetic elements (MGE)
Genetic sequences that may move around the genome and even self replicate. MGEs
are remnants of former infection events by genetic parasites such as viruses and their
relatives.
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Subviral RNAs
Subviral RNAs in most cases are parts of former viruses that remain as regulatory ele
ments in infected host genomes. Some term it “defectives” because in most cases they
cannot reassemble to functional viruses.
Endogenous retrovirus
Endogenous retroviruses are viruses that persist within a host genome without caus
ing disease. Some of them are coadapted and serve as important regulatory elements
such as, for example, syncytin in pregnancy.
Long terminal repeats (LTRs)
Repeat sequences of RNA used by viruses to insert into a host genome. As coadapted
genetic sequences they may serve later on in host genomes as essential regulatory ge
netic elements.
Phages
Originally “bacteriophage,” this is a kind of virus that infects bacteria and archaea.
Phages are the most numerous and diverse living entities on this planet.
Syncytin
Syncytin is an essential cell fusion protein in mammals especially in placenta forma
tion and embryo attachment in the uterus. Syncytin is encoded by an endogenous
retrovirus, i.e., a former infection derived retrovirus that reached persistent status in
the host genome.
HERV-K
Human endogenous retrovirus besides humans is found also in old world monkeys,
great apes. May be associated with cancer in testis but in the case of overexpression
may have an immune function against related genetic parasites.
Semiochemicals
(semeion; Greek: sign) Are molecules that function as signs in communication process
es and are produced by cells, tissues, organs, or organisms to communicate with oth
ers of the same or related identities. Prominent example of semiochemicals are hor
mones.
Major histocompatibility complex (MHC)
Cell surface proteins that functions in immune systems to identify foreign (non-self)
molecules.
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Guenther Witzany
Telos-Philosophische Praxis
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Chapter
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This chapter (8.3) along with the chapter of Gunther Witzany (2.4) outlines a new paradigm for understand the origin and evolution of life in which communication is a core issue. Together they summarize the group interactions of RNA stem loops and viruses, the consortia dependence, the role of group identity, the minority roles in changing environmental circumstances (context/pragmatics), the whole QS-C concept. All this is missing in accepted current concepts.
Chapter
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What does „communication“ mean in the context of life? This article will clarify that physical and chemical investigations of living organisms assemble important attributes, but if we remove communication from all interactions of living organisms, nothing would remain as living. This contribution will outline that life results out of three complementary interacting levels of communication, cell-cell communication, RNA stem-loop communication and virus communication. The biocommunication approach complements former molecular biology, genetics, and evolutionary theory and offers an integrative method to understand the most recent available empirical knowledge about natural communication and natural languages and codes. This opens a better chance of more efficient investigations based on an integrative understanding of all levels of all domains and finally leads to a new understanding of life.
Article
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Cross-species comparison of great ape gesturing has so far been limited to the physical form of gestures in the repertoire, without questioning whether gestures share the same meanings. Researchers have recently catalogued the meanings of chimpanzee gestures, but little is known about the gesture meanings of our other closest living relative, the bonobo. The bonobo gestural repertoire overlaps by approximately 90% with that of the chimpanzee, but such overlap might not extend to meanings. Here, we first determine the meanings of bonobo gestures by analysing the outcomes of gesturing that apparently satisfy the signaller. Around half of bonobo gestures have a single meaning, while half are more ambiguous. Moreover, all but 1 gesture type have distinct meanings, achieving a different distribution of intended meanings to the average distribution for all gesture types. We then employ a randomisation procedure in a novel way to test the likelihood that the observed between-species overlap in the assignment of meanings to gestures would arise by chance under a set of different constraints. We compare a matrix of the meanings of bonobo gestures with a matrix for those of chimpanzees against 10,000 randomised iterations of matrices constrained to the original data at 4 different levels. We find that the similarity between the 2 species is much greater than would be expected by chance. Bonobos and chimpanzees share not only the physical form of the gestures but also many gesture meanings.
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The extent and nature of symbolic behavior among Neandertals are obscure. Although evidence for Neandertal body ornamentation has been proposed, all cave painting has been attributed to modern humans. Here we present dating results for three sites in Spain that show that cave art emerged in Iberia substantially earlier than previously thought. Uranium-thorium (U-Th) dates on carbonate crusts overlying paintings provide minimum ages for a red linear motif in La Pasiega (Cantabria), a hand stencil in Maltravieso (Extremadura), and red-painted speleothems in Ardales (Andalucía). Collectively, these results show that cave art in Iberia is older than 64.8 thousand years (ka). This cave art is the earliest dated so far and predates, by at least 20 ka, the arrival of modern humans in Europe, which implies Neandertal authorship.
Cover Page
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Archaea represent a third domain of life with unique properties not found in the other domains. Archaea actively compete for environmental resources. They perceive themselves and can distinguish between ‘self’ and ‘non-self’. They process and evaluate available information and then modify their behaviour accordingly. They assess their surroundings, estimate how much energy they need for particular goals, and then realize the optimum variant.
Chapter
This chapter examines the role of transmissible RNA populations (viruses) able to functions as a coherent consortia in the origin of RNA based life.
Book
From bacteria to humans, all life has ways to recognize themselves and differentiate themselves from similar life forms. The ability to recognize similarity can be called group identity or group membership and also relates to group cooperation. Even viruses have the capacity for group identity and cooperation. However, those viruses that stably colonize bacteria can directly affect the group identity of their host. Starting with this virus-host relationship, this book traces the origin and evolution of group identity. By examining the stable, extrachromosomal viruses of bacteria, a strategy has been defined that is used for both virus persistence and group identity; this is the addiction module of phage P1. Thus, this book examines how genetic parasites and addiction modules have been involved in the origin of toxins/antitoxins modules as systems of group identity and immunity. The origin of sensory systems for light and small molecule (pheromone) detection and production, social motility, and programmed cell death are all examined. From the emergence of worms with brains, to vertebrate fish, to insects and tetrapods, olfaction and pheromones were maintained for group identity purposes and linked to addictive social bonding. In the African primates and humans, however, a great colonization by genetic parasites mostly destroyed this pheromone based system of social identity. This compelled primates to evolve enlarged social brains that used vision to learn group identity. Humans additionally evolved an even larger social brain and also developed a mind able to learned language and beliefs to specify group identity.