Bent on gorging ourselves on bleak and bloody visions of our own destruction, pop culture as of late has been zombified. These shambling simulacrums of our own mortality have broken through the boarded-up doors of our hearts and gnawed lovingly on our brains. This resurgence of a classic horror genre is obviously a welcome one, as exemplified by the success of shows like The Walking Dead, and the fact that the CDC used a zombie apocalypse scenario as a PSA for disaster preparedness.
Zombie doodle courtesy of Sara E. Mayhew
Seemingly everyone has had their love of zombies reanimated: mathematicians published a paper modeling a zombie outbreak to examine pandemics, researchers and students at the Large Hadron Collider made a full-length zombie movie in between particle smashings, and popular video games from Red Dead Redemption to Call of Duty all have joined the brain-matter-hungry mob.
It’s a good thing, if we can believe any zombie-themed media, zombies don’t actually exist. Nearly every outcome is Mad-Max or Fallout. It’s undoubtedly fun, and rather macabre, to speculate how a virus-spreading and ever-growing gang of gangrenous flesh gorgers would ruin our world (or at least a city or three). The zombie apocalypse is then a tried and true thought experiment combining our fascination with death and gore with epidemiology and disease.
But a zombie-laden thought experiment needs a counterpoint. Allow me: a zombie apocalypse would never happen.
All the Worlds a Stage…For a Zombie Apocalypse
First things first. Any discussion of a zombie apocalypse (from now on ZA) needs to get its canon straight. Are we talking about the Dawn of the Dead zombies, slow-moving and mindless undead, or are we talking about 28 Days Later zombies, objectively terrifying with ferocious speed and viral transmission?
I suppose if we take the “average” zombie portrayal, we are talking about zombies from shows like The Walking Dead: mindless, slow-moving, rotting human corpses, both hungry for human flesh and able to “turn” individuals unfortunate enough to be bitten.
We also have to imagine a stage—how the ZA got started. Was it a virus, an unholy rising, a parasitic takeover akin to the Ophiocordyceps parasitic fungus that forces ants to distribute spores before killing them? Again, the most popular scenario seems to be a virus spread by an unlucky chomp from a bloodthirsty ghoul.
Finally, let’s also suppose, as in The Walking Dead, that there is a national (or even global) simultaneous zombie outbreak. Here is where, if we aren’t to fully suspend our powers of critical thought, a ZA’s plausibility drops dramatically, like a zombie run through its rotting brain. We give ourselves far too little credit. Humans are amazingly talented killers.
Winning World War Z
Zombies would not be the terrors we make them out to be (if we must argue realistically about something that isn’t real). They lack the two things that make humans dangerous in the first place: having a mind and being able to run. Speed and endurance running, combined with the ability to plan, coordinate, and to use tools/weapons, makes for a dangerous animal. A zombie is like a toothless shark that can no longer gracefully cruise the shoals.
But what about the numbers? The inherent danger of a ZA isn’t the risk posed by one hungry corpse, but by an onslaught of them, perhaps shoving themselves grotesquely through your shattered first floor windows and splintered doors. Here is where zombie narratives sell humanity short.
Humans are skilled murderers, time and again proven excellent at killing, especially each other. Consider the history of genocide; how good we are at killing other humans who can think and plan and run away, in mass amounts. Why would it be harder to kill non-thinking, slow moving humans if we are already so good at killing ourselves?
Try a simple thought experiment, channeling the terror of a house surrounded. Say you have 25 individuals who are set on eating your face. Would you prefer them to be live humans or undead zombies? Most people I believe would choose the zombies. Even the dumbest humans are more dangerous than a pack of mindless meat sacks. Even unarmed people are scary.
But what about the global outbreak? At last estimate, human existence is at least partially responsible (through deforestation, human expansion, etc.) for the extinction of at least 100 species of other organisms every 24 hours. With no goal, no survival instinct rallying humanity to push back from the brink, we casually obliterate entire genetic lineages. If we had the goal of wiping out an outbreak of slow moving packs of rotten meat, we would be violently capable.
And speaking to the idea of a contagious virus, if the CDC can eradiate malaria from the US, we could handle a zombie outbreak.
But what if the military or police force falls? You’ll forgive me for being a bit evasive on an answer to an imaginary disaster, but the military wouldn’t succumb to a mindless mob. An overrun defense force is merely a plot device. In the ZA narratives that use it, they take away the military because it makes for a boring story if they didn’t.
Why a military force would fall, especially as terrifying and well-equipped as America’s, has never been explained. Jets and bombs and drones and tanks and Apache helicopters and rocket launchers and Gatling guns that can fire 3,000 rounds a minute. Does any of this arsenal, feared (and lamented) by the rest of the developed world, suggest a simultaneous and catastrophic demise brought on by senseless automatons?
But what about the environment? Admittedly, being trapped in a city overrun by the undead isn’t ideal, but it isn’t a death sentence, nor is it representative of most of the country (or the world). America itself is so big, that even if 90% of the US population were zombified, a zombie encounter would be few and far-between (if evenly distributed). The country of wide, open spaces means that there is almost always a place you can run.
And where do you run? Anywhere cold. One or two winters in the boreal forests of Canada, for example, with its freezing temperatures and healthy bear/wolf/cougar population, would make short work of slow, rotting, meat.
It only gets more implausible from there.
The Semantics of Eating Brains
Mathematical models have fun showing how a zombie apocalypse could spread across the globe but leave out almost all of the aspects of a plausible human resistance to it. In short, the zombie apocalypse only comes about because of conveniently placed lynchpins of annihilation. Without a mysteriously bested military, or a vanishing of all the guns and ammunition that litter the United States (a gun for every man, woman, and child, on average), the thinking ape won’t be overcome by the non-thinking, dead version of one.
But while we are speculating, what would be the best zombie weapon? A gun of course. Barring the unexplained plot point of, “We have to save ammo because there isn’t any around,” just hole up at a Wal-Mart. We sadly know how abundant guns are, and just how much ammunition is available.
Many of these points depend on your own interpretation of the canon and the numerous variables involved. I am not saying that every permutation of the now ubiquitous zombie story will end with thawing, rotting meat being exterminated by hungry bears. However, I think it’s useful, if we are to discuss this, to think of real-world implications and at least consider that a future ridden with zombies doesn’t have to end up like I Am Legend, The Walking Dead, or Zombie Land. We could actually win this thing. But I’m still stocking up on machetes just in case those 28 Days Later zombies show up.
Feel free to argue with me in comments, but keep in mind that’s already more than a zombie could do.
This post comes in large part from a discussion I had with manga artist and TED fellow Sara E. Mayhew, who spoke at last summer’s Amaz!ng Meeting.
How to Control an Army of Zombies—Carl Zimmer
The Walking Dead—Kills, Deaths, and Weapons [Infographic]
Dumb Ways to Die—The Walking Dead Style
Kyle Hill is the JREF research fellow specializing in communication research and human information processing. He writes daily at the Science-Based Life blog and you can follow him on Twitter here.