Debunking the Debunkers: Zombies

This is going to be a new topic for the blog, but I thought it'd be fun to switch things up from the philosophy and theology I've been boring everyone with lately.  Before I get to the real meat of this post, though, I thought I'd share a fun fantasy football fact with you all (and I do hope you appreciate my professional use of alliteration there and below).  A couple years ago I started a new tradition with my fantasy teams: I name them after philosophers.  Not just any philosophers - philosophers I like.  Philosophers I like having various dastardly or dominant traits (exactly what one wants from his fantasy team).  Team names used thus far:

Ascendant Anselmians
Terrible Thomists
Ravaging Rawlsians
Marauding Molinists
Plundering Plantingians (Only in an ESPN league - Yahoo won't allow enough characters)
Loutish Lockeans

A friend of mine took Platonic Pulverizers, which would have been an excellent addition to the collection.  Feel free to pass on suggestions for future years.  The only requirement is, of course, alliteration between the quality and the thinker.  Well, that and that I actually like the thinker.  I will not be a Deriding Derridian or a Nefarious Nietzchean.

But on to the real purpose of this post.  Some of you may know that a number of years ago a few friends of mine and I had a blog about zombie survival.  Now defunct, it was fairly popular at the time.  It was even linked to by Kirk Hammett of Metallica, which helped the traffic flow immensely.  Anyway, some of the things we liked to do was pretend that (a) zombies were/are a real possibility and (b) we were scientific in our approach to zombies.  This led us to the strategy of picking fights with other zombie survival sites and blogs that were inferior.  We'd post about what they had to say and tell everyone why they were idiots and why they should pay attention to us over them.  

All of this led one poor soul from the U.K. to send me an email explaining why I was an idiot for thinking zombies do or could ever exist.  He, of course, gave his credentials as a med student to bolster his claims.  The ordeal was simultaneously hilarious and annoying.  Hilarious because this guy took himself so seriously that he felt the need to give me a resume to debunk something that needed no debunking.  Annoying because this a-hole accused me of actually believing what I was saying.  So, naturally, I felt the need to post his email on the blog, list his email address, and invite any and all readers to email him a piece of their minds.  All good fun.

Anyway, the blog has been inactive for a number of years now, but I read an article today that reminded me of this little kerfuffle: 7 Scientific Reasons a Zombie Outbreak Would Fail (Quickly).  Seriously?  Who does this?  Is there anyone out there who really believes a zombie outbreak is possible?  

Here's the thing: the article's not even that good.  In reading it I got that same feeling of annoyance that I did with the fellow from the U.K.  The obstinate part of my soul welled up and I knew I needed to debunk this debunker.  I will go through each of the seven "scientific reasons" and explain why one's hope for the zombie apocalypse should not be deferred by said reasons.

Objection 1: They have too many natural predators.  Some large (dogs, bears, lions, etc.), most small (insects, bacteria, etc.).

Response: In zombie movies and literature three things typically happen to the large predators.  (a)
They are eaten immediately by the zombies (because zombies travel in hordes and are quite strong, it's difficult for the predator to attack one without being attacked.  See also: water buffalo).  (b) They die from the disease they contract by attacking zombies.  Some diseases out there are transferable between species, so this seems plausible (see also: AIDS).  (c) The predators choose not to attack because they know they will become diseased and die (see also: poisonous tree frogs).

Onto small predators.  The simplest solution to this is just to say that since zombism is caused by a virus, it's reasonable to expect that the virus could and would attack and kill the bacteria causing the rapid decay discussed in the article.  As for the insects, they would probably suffer the same fate as the large predators - be eaten or become sick and die.

But here's the biggest point: it's actually possible that the insects would work contrary to the article's claim.  Take mosquitos for example.  They may not attack anyway, given the lack of live blood and blood flow...so maybe take them or another insect.  If they attack and aren't killed by the disease, the odds are actually pretty good that we could have a malaria-type situation on our hands where insects eat the diseased blood, then carry the disease to other, healthy humans, and thus help spread the disease.  Objection 1 sufficiently debunked.

Objection 2: They can't take the heat.  Heat causes one of two things to happen to corpses: they explode or they mumify - either way the apocalypse is over before it starts.

Response: First, this is a bit misleading.  The explosion is not really a violent enough explosion to expect the brain to become damaged.  Since zombie lore makes the claim that it's the brain that keeps the corpse animated (somehow), there's no reason to expect such an explosion from bloating to kill a zombie.  Since they're portrayed often as surviving with guts hanging out (and after having suffered massive bloating), this is a pretty weak objection.

The mummification objection is much better.  Still doesn't work, but it's much better.  Here's the thing with mummification: even under perfect conditions (certain organs removed, salts added to make the process happen properly, dry, hot climate) mummification takes about 70 days.  A 70 day period during which a corpse can wreak havoc is more than enough time to make an apocalypse a possibility.  First, during these 70 days the zombies presumably will be making new zombies, thus essentially starting the 70 day clock over for each new zombie.  Say a zombie infects someone on day 50.  That's 120 days.  Say that one infects someone on day 60.  That's a half a year.  Even if you think they'll be so solid by day 50 or 60, that they'll be too frozen, then drop the figure to 40 and multiply by a couple million times.  I think it's fairly clear that humanity will be more or less extinct before they are saved by mummification.

Objection 3: They can't handle the cold.  Zombies are dead, so they will freeze solid in the cold.

Response: The vast majority of the world's population lives in warm climates, so this objection will be largely irrelevant.  Have a gander at this little visual aid:

How much of that circle is in a warm or relatively warm climate?  Roughly 90%.  And as you can see in this next image, the northernmost parts of that circle are not the most dense (the circle had to be made that large to fit both western India and southern Indonesia - not to include Mongolia/southern Siberia).

But have a look at this second map.  Notice how many people live in more or less temperate climates.  Not too cold, not too hot.  Most of the North and South American and virtually all of Europe.

Max Brooks actually makes a great point about the "cold" issue in World War Z (the book).  A lot of people tried to use the cold to their advantage, as this objection would suggest they should.  What happened?  Millions of people had the same idea, they quickly ran out of food and began starving to death.  The population was then thinned out by surviving humans rather than zombies, but the effect remained the same.  I think this scenario was one of the most plausible original thoughts Brooks had in the book.

Objection 4: Biting is a terrible way to spread a disease.  Traveling by air, sex, and fleas is a much better plan for a virus.

Response: Hey wait a minute...did you say fleas?  Like the black plague?  Yes...oh, and in objection 1 didn't you say insects would be a big threat to zombies?  You did?  Ok.  Thanks for that.

Here's some news: when fleas pass along a disease they do it by biting.  Ditto mosquitos.  It's only an inefficient way to spread a disease if the ability to bite the uninfected is in some way inhibited.  So insects are an option here for slow, Romero-style zombies.  Also, more recent versions of zombies have taken this objection seriously and created fast zombies.  The Dawn of the Dead (remake), World War Z (movie), Warm Bodies, 28 Days Later - these all utilize fast zombies.  

The amazing thing in each is that each dramatically OVER-estimates people's ability to shoot accurately (especially where a head shot is required - so, in all except the 28 Days/Weeks Later movies).  This is not just a bold statement - this is the sober truth: if zombies were to exist and they were fast, humanity would have almost no chance of survival.  What most people know of shooting comes from the movies, and the movies are wrong.  The vast majority of shots miss and head shots at running targets will run less than a 1% success rate, especially when multiple assailants are involved (as would obviously be the case with a zombie horde).  Even when shooting at humans, the majority of shots are not fatal, so to expect that to change when head shots are required is pretty far-fetched.  For fast zombies, then, biting just may be the single MOST efficient way of spreading a disease.

Objection 5: They can't heal from day to day damage.  With all their clumsiness they will be toothless, limbless, and all their bones will be broken.

Response:  So?  Aren't they that already in the movies?  It only takes one tooth to bite.  People can still walk around with broken bones.  One doesn't need a limb to bite.  So long as their brains remain in tact the zombies would still be a threat, just slightly minimized with increasing body damage.  But how long would it take for all, or even the majority, of zombies out there to get serious enough damage that they're no longer a threat?  I'm willing to bet it'd take longer than the food and water supply in your house will last.  What do you think?  Honestly - how long could you survive with what you have at home?  The article suggests you watch all the seasons of "24" back to back and by the time you're done you'll be safe.  Poppycock.  In movies, for the most part zombies know not to walk off buildings unless they're chasing someone.  There's not a lot of reasons for them to break bones walking around as slowly and methodically as they do.  I just don't see why anyone thought this would be a persuasive objection.

Objection 6: The landscape is full of zombie-proof barriers.  Mountains, high-rises, bridges, rivers, canyons, etc. spell the doom of zombies by making them easy targets for shooters and causing vast injuries.

Response: First, the author, David Dietle, is clearly not very familiar with the fact that zombies traditionally have been able to survive water (Brooks suggests that the Solanum [the name of the virus] somehow protects them from the corrosive effects of the water), so falling into a river or lake is nothing more than a softer landing than concrete to a zombie - certainly not a death sentence.

But the most glaring problem with this objection is precisely that it would require the would-be survivors to use these natural barriers as hold-outs.  Dietle writes, "In cities, people would likely congregate in the upper levels of high-rise buildings, where the invasion can be held at bay with simple security doors. Also, the streets themselves would keep the undead corralled in straight, easy-to-aim-down lines where they could be picked off by snipers, or just bored office-workers waiting out the quarantine by dropping office supplies onto the undead from the top floors."

Yes, he actually uses this picture as an example.  I don't know about you, but I'm not super crazy about the prospect of living on this rock for weeks on end.

Where to begin!?!  First, if there are enough zombies below to drop stuff on them to kill them, then the outbreak has been going for a while now and would appear to be quite successful.  Second, how much ammo do these snipers have?  How many "snipers" are there?  Say there's a thousand zombie horde running (or staggering) toward you at, say, 300 yards.  How many head shots would a sniper have to deliver to remain safe and at what rate?  We're talking a few hundred consecutive Lee-Harvey-Oswald-speed head shots while having to stop to reload.  The plausibility factor is lacking in this "scientific" reason to think the apocalypse couldn't happen.  There just aren't enough snipers in the world to take advantage of this situation on any regular basis.  Those of us who actually shoot guns know how dramatically implausible it is to think that non-professional marksmen could be counted on to provide this many consistently accurate shots or to even think that we'd have anywhere near the ammo supplies needed for such a task.

Lastly on this: how are the people "congregate[d] in the upper levels of high-rise buildings" going to survive for even a week?  How many of us have worked in a high-rise?  I have.  I can guarantee you one thing - there are not enough food and water supplies up there to last a day with that many people.  You better be damn sure this outbreak isn't going to last, because if it does you are out of luck, my friend, if you thought a high-rise was a great idea.

Objection 7: Weapons and the people who use them.  There are 14 million hunters in the U.S.  An armed force the size of L.A.  The apocalypse would end before it started.  Also the military.

Response: How many of these hunters actually live in L.A.?  Or Chicago?  Or D.C.?  Most nations have far stricter gun laws than the U.S., so how many hunters are there in Tokyo?  Or Beijing?  Or Mexico City?  Or Paris?  51% of the world's population lives in cities where gun owners are few and far between.  In the U.S. it's 79%.  The gun owners that exist in places like L.A. or Chicago are largely unskilled and/or unable to shoot anything at long-range (because the gun owned is a pistol).  How are all the gun owners/hunters in Montana and Nebraska going to help those poor souls in New York City and Boston?  This objection is unfathomably stupid.  Just have a look at this handy little map showing gun ownership percentages in the U.S.

So Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Alaska, the Dakotas, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and West Virginia will be fine.  This represents roughly no one when we consider where the majority of the population is located.  If you live in NYC, L.A. San Diego, New Jersey, Baltimore, San Francisco, Honolulu, Chicago, D.C. Boston, or Miami you're positively screwed.

Dietle goes on to suggest that the military and police could handle it.  .50-cals, air support, and MOABs should do the trick.  Yes, because a MOAB is likely an option that will be used on Boston BEFORE things have gotten completely out of control.  These sorts of measures would not even be considered if the zombie apocalypse had not already proven itself a major threat to humanity's existence.  By then it would likely be too late.  Shooting a zombie with a .50-cal isn't much better than shooting one with a .30 cal.  It's actually probably not as good (far less accurate when firing automatic with a .50 from a helicopter than one round at a time with a rest with a hunting rifle).  Combine that with the fact that at any given time about 170,000 active duty troops are deployed worldwide, making it difficult to deploy them immediately against a zombie threat, and this job will be left to the National Guard.  No offense to the National Guard, but they aren't the Marines.  Many of the active duty troops here at home are non-fighting troops, at least for purposes of the zombie battle.  For instance, the Navy won't help much in inner-city Chicago.  Ditto the Coast Guard.  The Air Force can only do so much until the civilian population is entirely overrun and the battle is already being lost (in which case, obviously, the outbreak is/was possible).  You see my point.  Just the mere fact that military assets exist says nothing about their ability to wage and win a war against zombies, especially in the early stages prior to the population having been completely overrun.

Further, the U.S. has one of the most sophisticated and capable military forces in the world.  What happens in other countries that can barely defend themselves from themselves?  What happens in Egypt, where there's already upheaval or in Japan, where there is no standing military?  At the very best, this objection solves for the zombie outbreak in highly advanced nations with extremely capable militaries.  That is to say that it does nothing for the vast majority of the world.

Well, that should do it.  My long-awaited foray back into the world of zombie writing.  Hope you all enjoyed it and, as always, comments are appreciated.

1 comment:

  1. I was watching a show on HGTV about this couple who wanted to buy an island in the Florida Keys. During the half-hour show, the man mentioned zombies no less than four times. As in, "How deep is the water around this island?"

    Real estate agent, "About five feet."

    Man, "Ok, that should keep the zombies out."

    But...apparently not.