We Are Who We Eat
Today in Creepy Science, two separate teams of scientists have discovered that blood transfusions from young donors can actually repair organs and tissue in older individuals. There are a couple points that need making before everybody starts celebrating/freaking out:
- The studies were performed in mice, not people, so nobody is going to come for your blood just yet, kids. The outlook seems positive, though.
- The potential for getting cancer if this is done is probably going to increase. Then again, cancer might just beat out dying of Alzheimers (I know I’d pick cancer over Alzheimers any day of the week, but that’s just me), especially since the former is frequently treatable and the latter isn’t.
- You wouldn’t be drinking blood or bathing in it or anything. It would be a transfusion. The kind you’d get from a blood donor, most likely. Maybe even one of your own kids.
Why This is So Cool/Terrifying
Blood has serious symbolic and metaphoric significance to most cultures on the planet. The idea that it might even hold some kind of key to longevity or even (maybe) immortality is a great big gift to speculative authors everywhere. Hell, this article today probably launched at least a dozen new vampire novels, each probably more odious than the last (sorry vampire fans, but you should know what I’m talking about). Even a cursory look at Christian religious ritual demonstrates our solemn fascination with blood; if you go to Church, you’re drinking the blood of Jesus every time you take the Eucharist (well, assuming you’re one of the many Christian sects that believe in transubstantiation). Why are you doing this? Well, to reaffirm your devotion to the ideals he set forth. Your reward for this loyalty? Say it with me now:
Yeah. There isn’t a story in that, no sir. No way this scientific study has seriously interesting narrative legs. Nothing to see here, folks – move along.
Fantasy and horror editors and agents across the globe better hold on to their seats. The number of blood-sucking takes of lunatics exsanguinating children to sustain their wicked lives is about to hit a pretty serious bump. Science Fiction publishers are going to start reading about dark futures where our youth are financially supported by the old while the old are physiologically supported by the young. Wild, wild stuff. Some of it will probably be pretty cool, too. Heck, I might even write some.
To me, though, this bit of news (even assuming it pans out) isn’t dystopian doom and gloom. Like all technological breakthroughs, no doubt it will be abused in various ghoulish ways. It also, though, has the potential to save people’s lives – Alzheimer’s patients, people with weak hearts, people suffering from neurological disorders, etc., etc.. I’m choosing not to be all doom and gloom about this. Like all technologies and scientific breakthroughs, this one (if it works out) will have it’s pros and cons. If this thing can help turn back the clock on a wide variety of devastating neurological diseases, I’m going to call it a win.
Of course, I’ll also be warning my kids against friendly-looking old ladies with syringes and medical tubing. You know, just in case.
My Anti-Zombie Manifesto
(Author’s note: in the vein of posting stuff here I’ve posted elsewhere, just to get ‘up to date’, here’s my little argument against the sci-fi zombie and its corresponding ‘apocalypse’, posted on facebook some months ago. Enjoy. Or not, I suppose.)
Okay, so this whole zombie obsession of the past few years has really started to drive me bonkers. It hit a head a week or so ago when my wife, Deirdre, came home from work at BU with a flyer that was being handed out regarding ‘what to do in case of zombie attack.’ Obviously farsical, the pamphlet nevertheless frustrated me beyond reason, and I need to vent. My blog strikes me as a pretty good place to do this, so here it goes. I should note that this rant is in no way personally targeted at anyone.
I am a self-avowed enthusiast of things fanciful or science fiction-esque and, as a general rule, I do not begrudge other groups their obsessions with whatever ghost, goblin, or android currently catches their fancy. Do I like Twilight? No. Do I begrudge the fans their interest in Twilight–no, not really. Indeed, my problem with zombies is very specific. I don’t mind that zombie films are popular or even that some clever little student group is distributing bogus health information to no-doubt confused international students. My problem is that the modern zombie, in its current incarnation, makes no internally consistent sense and, therefore, fails to enable me to suspend my disbelief.
This is a by-product of the ‘science fictionization’ of zombies, primarily. If we want to stick with necromancers chanting foul rituals to raise hordes of the undead, I have no problem with the concept whatsoever. By dint of involving magic, you are consciously waving away any and all of the concerns I voice below. However, science fiction, as the first word indicates, needs to pay a certain homage to science as we understand it. It can bend and stretch the rules of physiology just so far before an idea ceases to be plausible and, therefore, becomes ridiculous. The science fiction zombie is one such entity.
The Science Fiction Zombie
The sci-fi zombie has a series of characteristics that set it apart from its fanciful cousin. In order to critique the trope, it only makes sense that I lay out what I see as being included in that trope.
Premise #1: Zombies are created by some kind of disease or biological agent that, once it infects its host, transforms them into a zombie over a variable period of time (from a few minutes to a few hours, depending upon dramatic license). This agent is almost universally transmitted via bodily fluids of some kind, chiefly blood and/or saliva.
Premise #2: Zombies suffer from extreme behavioral modifications, primarily limited to the following: rabid aggression towards other humans, the complete destruction of human empathy or compassion, erasure or curtailment of the capacity for problem solving or creativity. Thus, they tend to stagger around stupidly, attack on sight, and show no mercy.
Premise #3: Zombies are extremely strong due to their lack of restraint and are resistant to damage due to the fact that they do not feel pain. This makes them hard to stop.
Premise #4: The only sure-fire way to kill a zombie is to destroy the brain somehow or otherwise cut it off from communicating with the body.
Premise #5: The zombie plague spreads so quickly and is so unstoppable that, inevitably, the entire human race will succumb, ushering in some kind of apocalypse or reasonable facsimile thereof.
There you have it–the basic set-up. I am aware that there are distinctions between ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ zombies, but I would contend that the difference is immaterial to the heart of my critique, except to say that ‘fast’ zombies make somewhat less sense (who in such an addled state of mind actually *improves* coordination?) and is somewhat more effective (see below).
The Problems with Premise #1 (Transmission)
Okay, let’s make this one easy. I want you, right now, to try and bite the nearest human being so it breaks the skin. Go ahead.
You hesitate, I’m guessing. Let’s entertain why that is:
Firstly, you rightly conclude that to do this would result in some kind of physical struggle. You, in the role of zombie, will be attempting to use your teeth to bite someone while that somebody will be using their fists to pummel you and their legs to run the hell away. Here we can see that an *actual* zombie (were such a thing to exist) will be at something of an advantage, seeing how they don’t feel pain (so punching doesn’t help in most cases) and they are in a state of near-permanent adrenaline rush (so they will be trying harder).
Secondly, and perhaps not consciously, you must be aware of just how poorly suited the human jaw is for the purpose we have assigned it. Human jaw muscles are fairly weak, human teeth are not especially sharp, and the human head/neck is not designed to tear flesh from something that’s still wiggling around. Even were we to grant you the extra aggression needed to *really* try to bite somebody so hard you draw blood, it won’t be easy at all. Keep in mind that a drooling zombie is likely to incite an intense adrenal response from the victim, too, rendering them comparable in strength. Then there’s the simple possibility that the victim in question is wearing, say, a leather jacket–good luck biting through that. I suppose we could grant that zombies ‘benefit’ from the kind of intense muscle spasms that are caused by siezures, but even in that case we have to mitigate their effectiveness as biting things with the fact that such muscle siezures are (1) exhausting, (2) hard to control with any agility, and (3) seldom so strong as to allow you to bite straight through leather, cloth, and skin with ease.
Thirdly, the zombie virus presumes a 100% infection rate (hardly comparable with any real disease known to man, even the man-made ones) and that the person thusly attacked by a zombie won’t immediately go to the hospital because they’ve been attacked by somebody with rabies (which is a rather large presumption) and, once there, be appropriately isolated. Also, the prospect of this zombie being able to pull off a successful bite in public is very slim. A rabid lunatic trying to maul somebody is likely to engender a collective response. Our ‘first zombie’ might be able to bite one or two people, optimistically, before he is sat on by a bunch of other people and the police are summoned.
The Problem with Premise #2: Zombie Psychology
Tightly tied in with the reason a zombie plague wouldn’t go very far is because of what it does to zombie victims. From what we can ascertain from the source material, it is evident that the zombie plague does massive neurological and psychological damage to the victim. In some cases it is explained as a kind of ‘rage virus’, in others it messes around with brain chemistry to the point where the victim is in a rabid-like state or some other form of irrational fugue.
All of this presents an enormous problem for the viability of a zombie as a credible threat to civilized society. It dovetails nicely with the problem with Premise #1–it makes it really, really hard to bite somebody. It would be one thing if you were riding next to some dude on the train and he, out of the blue, turned around and tried to bite your face/hand/whatever. This, though still not likely to break skin, is infinitely *more* likely than the prospect of the drooling, moaning, blood-covered dude getting the drop on you. He is, by his very nature, a pariah to all ordinary people. He sticks out like a sore thumb. I’ve seen a *lot* of zombie movies make the assumption (admittedly for the purpose of drama, but still) that zombies are able to sneak up on people. Sorry, folks–a ‘rage’ virus doesn’t have an off button. If your brain is so screwed up that you are a mindless cannibal, you aren’t going to be using subterfuge. Subterfuge requires planning, a degree of reasoning ability, and an element of restraint and judgement that zombies clearly lack. There is a *reason* all of the predatory species of the world have, on average, much larger brains than their herviborous cousins–hunting, sneaking, trapping, and so on require *thought* to manage. Zombies ain’t got it, so they will suck at catching you off-guard.
This problem snowballs with a huge number of other none-too-unusual obstacles that would face your average zombie in an urban locale. They aren’t thinking creatures in the same way that a guy who murders his wife and kids in a red-tinged rage-filled haze is. They are going to do stupid things, like walk through plate glass, swim after you until they drown (What? Zombies can’t drown you say? Bullshit–see part 3), get hit by cars, fall down open manholes, electrocute themselves on third rails, and, perhaps most importantly, be unable to find you.
Yes, that’s right–zombies would suck at hide and seek. They aren’t thinking beings anymore. They lack curiosity, creativity, problem-solving skills, etc.. All you’d need to do to survive a zombie infestation is lock your doors and not go out. There–problem solved. Hell, climb a ladder atop a roof and then vandalize the rungs and you’d be safe forever, provided you didn’t starve (don’t worry, though, since zombies aren’t going to be able to topple society, somebody will be along sooner or later).
For all their ferocity, zombies are morons. Morons are not all that dangerous, ultimately, especially when they’re trying to spread disease with their mouths. Look at it this way: if you could pick out somebody with the flu at ten paces without fail, would you ever get the flu? If the guy with that nasty cold going around ran around groaning and saying ‘cold…cooooold…COOOOOOLD,’ would you shake his hand? Of course not. The ability for the disease to transmit itself would be immediately and instantly curtailed. No zombie would be able to get on a plane, drive a car, sail a boat, which means the simple geography of the earth would keep them bottled up in one tight area, even *presuming* they were able to spread the disease with ease, which they can’t. Even if somebody were to manifest as a zombie on a plane, they would be quickly restrained and those one or two people they bit would be quarantined/checked out. Somebody bitten by a rabid person doesn’t just get to walk away, folks. Hell, they don’t *want* to walk away–they want antisceptic, bandages, and a consultation with a doctor.
Anyway, even if I were to grant everything I just refuted, the zombie apocalypse *still* wouldn’t happen. Why? Well, simply because every physical capability ascribed to zombies is complete nonsense.
The Problems with Premises 3 and 4: Zombie Physiology
Right off the bat, lets get one thing straight: the science fiction zombie is created by a plague/disease/pathogen of some sort. It doesn’t much matter if it comes from a spacecraft or a secret government lab or the garage of an apocalyptic lunatic, it’s still a mircoscopic thing designed to invade the body and do something to it, presumably for the purpose of self-propagation (its creators, of course, have alternate goals, no doubt, but the bug itself doesn’t). The reason this is important is because there are some things a disease just *can’t* do.
For starters, let’s dispel this nonsense that states that zombies, in their science fiction capacity, are ‘the living dead’. No, they aren’t. They aren’t dead at all–they’re alive. They are people with a disease that modifies their behavior, and that’s it. They can’t be dead because dead things don’t (and can’t) move around. No disease imparts motility on inanimate matter. No disease can. The disease’s function is to attack the brain, primarily, for the purpose of altering behavior in a specific way (see part 2). Viruses don’t have muscles to move things, even collectively, and even if they did there is very little likelihood they could coordinate together on such a massive scale as to operate a human body in even a rudimentary fashion. Hell, they don’t have *eyes*. Good luck spreading a zombie plague without eyes, super-virus. Sorry, but zombies are living people.
They have to be alive *unless* we aren’t dealing with a plague but rather an *extremely advanced* series of parasitic entities (likely nanotechnology based, or perhaps part of some alien collectively intelligent organism) that can replace the human musculo-skeletal system for locomotion with their own alternative. If we are going to grant that this is possible (so we’re dealing with aliens far more advanced than ourselves–goodbye any ‘government lab’ scenario), that begs the question ‘why’. I would presume that the purpose is to use a human host to somehow infiltrate society. There are easier ways to do this than transforming dozens of people (yes, dozens) into mindless, drooling idiots. I would imagine that a species with technology advanced enough to create the kind of thing that would create the living dead would have access to such methods and would employ them, since any species that intelligent wouldn’t do things the hard way.
So, we pretty much *have* to assume that zombies are alive, since that makes the most sense. Now, if zombies are alive, they can be killed just like anybody else. Sure, they don’t feel pain, but pain is simply an alarm system alerting the brain to damage done to the body. Not feeling pain doesn’t mean you don’t suffer damage. The whole ‘must destroy the brain’ thing also plays in here: the brain doesn’t make the body work all on its own. The brain gives orders, yes, but it needs the things it’s ordering to be functional. It needs the heart, lungs, arteries, veins, muscles, joints, and so on to be functional enough to operate the complex machine that is the human body with sufficient skill to manage to bite somebody so it transmits the disease. If a zombie’s heart stops, it dies just as quickly as you or I would (well, perhaps marginally slower, but still). It doesn’t matter if its addled brain is still ordering the heart to beat; if the heart is busted, no amount of neural impulses will keep it running. If you apply the brakes when your brakes are out, you don’t stop, do you?
What this means for our zombie scenario is that, for all their ferocity, zombies aren’t going to last very long or do much damage before they render themselves inoperative. They can be shot dead as easily as anyone else (bleeding out will kill them, too), they can drown, they can suffer debilitating injury, they can be beaten unconscious (with sufficient head trauma), and so on. Furthermore, since they can’t feel pain and their survival instincts are removed, they are far more vulnerable to simple things we might not consider. They don’t blink–blinking is a pain response to dryness in the eyes. The result is zombies will let their eyes dry out, hampering their vision (remember what I said about blind zombies?). They could be influenced to stare at the sun, for crying out loud. They don’t rest, meaning they are going to exhaust themselves, cramp up, run their feet raw until they’re bleeding, leading to infection and death. They could die of exposure (from heat or cold), dehydration, and all that other stuff that our very useful brain ordinarily wards off as a matter of instinct. Killing zombies would be arguably easier than killing regular people, since regular people would know not to walk into potentially deadly hazards and would periodically stop to rehydrate.
“Ah,” says the zombie enthusiast, “but what about their enhanced physical strength?” My response is to ask “what enhanced physical strength?” Okay, so we can grant zombies a state of constant adrenal surge (no matter how exhausting that may be–again, zombies don’t last long), but this doesn’t mean they can punch through walls or tear down locked doors with their bare hands. I would bet any of you anything you like that, were you in a state of mindless adrenal-fueled rage, there is no way you could kick in my door while the bolt was thrown. Not happening, especially not if you weren’t in your right mind and weren’t using your brain or simple tools. It’s a thick door; I live in the city.
The reason zombies can’t go past this goes back to the limitations of disease. A plague doesn’t build muscle, even one that attacks the brain. I suppose, were we to grant that this plague is so advanced that it interferes with or otheriwse influences growth hormones (but, again, this is stretching the likely possibilities), a zombie might be able to grow more muscle. The emphasis there, however, is *grow*. Zombies don’t just get muscle mass for nothing–they’d need to eat. The more growth you want, the more you’d need to consume. While this might combine nicely with an appetite for human flesh, it also means you’d need to eat your victims, which means they don’t become zombies themselves since they’re dead. It also means it would take some time (numerous hours, if I’m being charitable) before their zombie muscles are in place. It also indicates that (if my nascent knowledge of biology bears true), rather than a singular virus, we are dealing with a condition made up of a cocktail of viruses–one to alter behavior, the other to alter the endocrine system. This would necessarily reduce the frequency of successful transmission and would probably result in some zombies having the behavior without the physique while others would have the physique without the behavior (in other words, they wouldn’t be zombies at all, but closer to superhumans like Captain America).
Given all this stuff, zombies would be more sad than dangerous. They would likely dehydrate and die within a few days at maximum, probably less time. If you thought to bring a gallon of water and some granola bars up on your roof with the sabotaged ladder, you’d outlive the lot of them.
The Problem with Premise #5: Zombie Apocalypse
Okay, so I have thus far established why sci-fi zombies wouldn’t function like zombies are portrayed. They would not transmit their disease as easily as imagined, they aren’t smart enough to capitalize upon their aggression, and they aren’t anywhere near as strong or tough as they are represented.
But what, you ask, about the zombie horde?
It is true, indeed, that a giant mass of zombies would theoretically be a dangerous thing. Every bit as dangerous as a giant mass of regular people, actually, except infected with a dangerous pathogen and, overall, more violent (certain mobs of soccer fans excluded, of course). It is also worth noting that in almost all zombie movies, the mass of zombies is the primary danger–the thing that shows up somewhere in the second act to finally put the heroes out of their misery, and that it takes the third act for them to figure out how to solve. The zombie horde is what ends the world, destroys civilization, and lead to Will Smith wandering the streets of New York alone with his dog.
There is, of course, one major, overriding problem with this scenario: the zombie horde would almost certainly not develop. Some of the reasons why are already inherent in the flaws of the previous premises. Since zombies would have trouble transmitting the disease efficiently, you really wouldn’t get that many zombies. You’d get them, sure, but in the dozens or possibly scores; almost certainly not in the hundreds or thousands. Those dozens or scores would probably develop in closed quarters where there is a lot of distraction keeping people from noticing the rabid zombie attacks. In particular, I’m thinking nightclubs and bars, wherein the music is loud, the lighting is dim, and the patrons are drunk. Still, there *are* bouncers in such places (usually), and it’s pretty likely any drunk person bitten by a drooling lunatic would *still* wind up at the hospital, but you never know–people are stupid.
Oh, and just so I can settle this: a zombie plague stops at the hospital. Zombies are clearly out of their minds, would arrive restrained, and would remain restrained. Zombies can’t escape from full hospital bed restraints without injuring themselves to the point of incapacitation. People who haven’t turned yet will get treated, inspected, etc., and even if there is no cure and the hospital doesn’t know what’s going on, they aren’t going to let somebody attacked in this way walk, most likely. They *might* (people *are* stupid), but even in that case we’re dealing with dozens or scores of zombies, all told, not *everyone*.
More important than the transmission problem, however, is this simple fact: how do the zombies know to gather in a horde? There are no zombie organizers. There is no zombie Facebook page informing everybody to gather at point A to go gathering up the humans. Also, why don’t zombies eat or attack *each other*? They are mindless, aggressive, flesh-eating machines and, as it happens, zombies are made up of flesh. Seems to me that two zombies in a room would spend just as much time tearing *each other* apart as they would normal humans. a great pack of zombies would just become a hyper-violent mosh pit, likely resulting in the zombies killing one another. Bingo–no horde.
The only way a horde might happen is if, again, we are working on the assumption that the zombie plague also creates some kind of pheromonal IFF signal (Identify Friend-or-Foe). Not only is this ridiculously complex (and thus unlikely), it also reduces the likelihood of perfect transmission, meaning *splat*–again no hordes.
In essence, the zombie apocalypse simply wouldn’t happen, couldn’t happen, and (obviously) won’t. This doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be zombie *disasters*. We could imagine perfect storms of human error, stupidity, and environmental factors that might result in hundreds of deaths in some small community or part of an urban center, but it wouldn’t topple the government of anything important. State of Emergency declared, perhaps; National Guard called in, possibly. End of the human race? Not a chance.
Conclusion and a Note on Origins
In the end, I think I’ve made pretty good case for why I find the sci-fi zombie scenario so hard to stomach. It’s patently ridiculous on the face of it. If we want to have magic powers involved, well then I have no problem. Beyond that, though, its, frankly, lazy sci-fi. This doesn’t mean zombies *can’t* be done well, it’s just that, lately, they haven’t been. Personally, I blame Charlton Heston and The Omega Man. That started this whole zombie-apocalypse nonsense.
And, as a final swipe at the trope, let me ask this question: who the hell is designing this zombie plague? Why? If the objective is to create a devastating biological weapon, why make zombies? A hyped-up version of the flu, anthrax, or smallpox would kill *far* more people, be easier to deploy, and, what’s more, give you an easier time when you came in to mop-up and claim territory (which is what all good weapons are supposed to let you do, you know). If the objective is to make some kind of super-human soldiers, why make it transferrable? You don’t want your opponents in a conflict to ‘catch’ your super-power, do you? If the objective is to infliltrate or control society, why make zombies? Zombies are freaking useless slaves. Why not simply infiltrate society with very *appealing* creatures and take control that way. Society is compelled by smiles and pretty faces, but repelled by blood-stained, drooling monsters.
Okay, I’ve said enough. Thanks for reading, if indeed anyone has, and I promise that, if you start chattering about the latest zombie-related property, I won’t say anything. I won’t even roll my eyes. I’ve said my piece, now. I’m done.