As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps the world, we’ve all been very clearly reminded of our mortality and of how much we’re truly at the mercy of what the world throws at us. Some of us are in lockdown, others isolating, more are fully quarantined. As a global society we’re truly staring down the barrel of a gun like no other we’ve seen in our lifetime. But what if things took another turn?
You go to bed, worn out from another day of social distancing and trying to understand the muffled words of the masked masses. As you slowly drift off to sleep you’re stirred awake by some odd sounds. Distant moans and groans disturb your otherwise peaceful nighttime. Faint scratches on wood echo from downstairs. What almost sound like pained screams carry across the night.
You slowly walk to your window, the sounds growing louder. You draw the blinds and to your horror, you see the source of all the commotion. Crowds of shuffling, bleeding undead wander the streets below; hunting for victims…
The zombie apocalypse is here.
Let’s just pause right there for a moment, shall we?
As crazy as that situation sounds, we’re honestly not willing to rule it out considering everything that’s happened in the world in the last year or so! But should we really be worried should this scenario occur? As always, we’re concerned about the science behind the situation. So let’s examine the research and see if we should really be scared!
Creating a Monster
First, we need to figure out exactly what type of zombie we’re dealing with here. Are they the slow, shuffling kind we see in George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” or the lightning quick, inhumanly strong zombies seen attacking Will Smith in “I Am Legend?” The answer, as always, lies in science.
Zombies, underneath it all, are still human. This means that they’re going to have to follow the physical and biological laws that we do. As such, it’s hard to see a zombie apocalypse where everyone infected gains super speed or strength. If you can’t run as fast as Usain Bolt now, contracting a virus that attacks your body’s defence systems isn’t going to help that.
Because of this, we turn to the work of Dr. Steven Schlozman. A professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Schlozman wrote the novel “The Zombie Autopsies” in 2011. His work describes a zombie scenario where typical humans develop undead tendencies such as mindlessness, shuffling, and an insatiable craving for human flesh. This all happens due to crazed scientists attaching a prion* to an airborne virus similar to the flu.
*A prion is a type of protein that causes normal brain proteins to act abnormally. Prion diseases typically cause symptoms like rapid dementia, difficulty walking, muscle stiffness, and difficulty speaking…sound familiar?
With the virus spreading through sneezing and coughing, a pandemic soon grips the world – devastating the population. The disease, known as Ataxic Neurodegenerative Satiety Deficiency Syndrome (ANSD), destroys the brain and leaves only a small amount of working tissue behind. The remaining tissue leaves the newly-zombified with just enough function to stumble around. The disease also affects the hypothalamus; the brain’s hunger regulator. This causes the consistent desire for human flesh. In Dr. Schlozman’s own words,
“They just stumble into whatever they can and take a bite.”Dr. Steven Schlozman
So now we know exactly what we’re dealing with. The zombies we’re facing are slow, shuffling barely alive creatures who will search out and try to eat anything in their path. They have just enough brain function to aimlessly walk around, but not much else.
Now…let’s take a look at why science says we shouldn’t worry too much!
With the world’s population decimated, we’re presuming any survivors are already immune to the infection, so we’ve no need to fear the airborne disease. Our only worry is the zombies. But, as it turns out, the zombies have some things they need to worry about too.
Humans are wonderful, in that we’re very adaptable to our environments. We can flourish in most climates, but can the same be said for zombies?
If You Can’t Stand the Heat…
One thing humans don’t deal very well with is extremely high heat. There’s a reason desert areas remain typically uninhabited. Thankfully though, we’ve developed bodily methods of dealing with hot climates such as sweating and heat radiation. With the zombie’s brain functions shut down to a minimum however, they’re in for a nasty surprise.
With healing probably not actively happening any more, any damaged flesh or exposed wounds may begin to rot in the heat. This rotting will spread quickly, leaving the zombie as nothing more than a disgusting pile of filth. This could even potentially cause one of the most eye-catching natural spectacles the world has ever seen: an exploding zombie chorus.
Let me explain.
Putrefaction (the breaking down of the body after death) will be sped up by the heat of the sun. Bacteria in our gut, which is normally used to break down food, will start to produce various gases. The zombies will swell and bloat, until eventually something has to give. This will lead to the grotesque, yet awesome, event we’ve coined spontaneous zombie explosion. The hotter the temperature, the quicker this will happen. So the zombie apocalypse has now just become a waiting game (followed by the absolute worst clean up job anyone could ever imagine).
In less humid locations, the newly-zombified will have mummification and desiccation to worry about. Without actively hydrating themselves, the mummies will slowly dehydrate. While they might not be affected by the headaches and cramps us humans would have to deal with; they will have to deal with the long term effects. Cell damage will occur at an extraordinary rate. Left out in the sun too long and ultraviolet sun damage will happen (imagine the worst sunburn you’ve ever seen, then leave it outside and untreated for even longer). Eventually, the zombies will be reduced to nothing more than dried out zombie jerky.
Watch Out For The Cold
Now, what about the cold? Maybe the zombies will flourish in less tropical locations? Let’s see. Similarly to the heat, the cold will also have some pretty severe effects on the zombies. With bodily defense systems shut down by the virus, the water which makes up the majority of a body’s cells will begin to freeze. If the zombies were slow before, they’re being outpaced by a snail now. Eventually, with nothing driving them to seek shelter, the zombies will simply freeze solid. Also, similar to any other type of meat, zombies will have to worry about freezer-burn. The constant freezing, thawing, and re-freezing of cells as day turns to night and back again will dehydrate the body cells and leave them utterly destroyed.
Bones will become increasingly brittle in the cold, leaving the zombies prone to devastating fractures. While they might not feel the pain, chasing their prey becomes an awful lot harder with a broken leg!
All of this bodes will for us remaining survivors, and we haven’t even mentioned the potential effects of rain, sleet, hail, snow, or the variety of other weather conditions that could prove fatal to the oncoming zombie horde.
But just in case you’re not fully convinced…
Spooky Scary Skeletons…and Muscles and Ligaments
Humans are made up of a variety of complex systems; including muscles, tendons, ligaments and more. A breakdown in any one of these systems can cause serious problems for us, especially when it comes to movement. Some of the most dynamic athletes in the world, arguably the people at the peak of human conditioning, can be brought down by a small sprain of a ligament or tear in a muscle. So it seems very likely then that zombies will struggle with these issues too.
As time goes on, zombies will pick up all kinds of mechanical issues that will hinder and slow them. While they might not feel the pain (more on that later) it’s still going to be very difficult to move the body if the muscles moving it are torn, the ligaments that make the connections are severed, or if certain limbs are hanging off entirely! Simple physics and biomechanics determines that these zombies will be heavily impaired, if even able to move at all. That zombie looks a lot less threatening now that he’s only able to drag himself slowly across the floor with one arm. Already slowed by their prion-based infection, the zombies are now finding it even more difficult to keep up with us courageous survivors.
Scarier Than a Trip to the Dentist
But let’s say one does catch you. Maybe they got the drop on you as you slept, maybe you let your guard down too much thinking the weather would get to them before they got to you. But here you are, cornered and frozen with fear. The zombie grabs your arm and brings it to its lips as you brace for the pain of the bite. Suddenly, you feel an odd, slobbering sensation on your forearm. That’s right. The zombie has no teeth. Without any form of dental care or oral hygiene, coupled with the rotting of the flesh and receding of the skin, the zombies teeth have rotted and fallen away. And you’re far from a perfectly cooked filet mignon either. To cut through your flesh and take a solid bite would at the very least take a full set of healthy teeth. You look down at the confused and despairing zombie still gnawing at your arm, and you almost feel bad for them!
The Energy Crisis
But again, let’s just say some zombies managed to get to some unwitting humans before all of that had the chance to occur. They feast and gorge themselves on their favourite meal. Now what? Humans consume food to fuel our activities, we use it as a form of energy. Our metabolism is the system that maintains this energy balance. Unfortunately for the zombies however, their infection has stopped most of the processes in the brain. We know the hypothalamus has already been compromised due to the zombies insatiable desire to feed, so it makes logical sense to think their metabolism has gone equally haywire. Without a proper metabolism, the zombies have no way to convert our delicious brains into the nutrients and chemicals required to give them energy. Before long, they’ll be completely unable to move, nothing left to do but die.
Where Am I?
If you thought that was it, you were sadly mistaken. Metabolism won’t be the only system that will cease to function in zombies. Their sensory system will soon begin to suffer too. As the body succumbs to the elements, the eyes and ears will rot and tear. And their sense of smell will have to fight through the stench of rotting flesh and already exploded zombies to try and find us. Tasting their way through the world doesn’t sound like the most solid plan, so that leaves touch. The unfortunate zombies will have to feel their way to us, while we still have all of our senses intact. We could be 5 feet away from a zombie and they might never even know!
Tis’ But a Scratch
Finally, and arguably most importantly, the last major biological capacity the zombies would miss would be their ability to heal. Medicine has come a long way from its gritty past. A cut or wound no longer spells disaster for most humans. We’ve developed medicines and common practices to deal with these kinds of things to ensure full healing. Zombies have none of this. All of their injuries are permanent! Every scrape, every cut, every blow with a baseball bat from a fleeing survivor is going to last. They’ll widen, and deepen, and slowly begin to expose everything that lies beneath. Quickened by the elements, this will lead to the zombies eventually being nothing but a long trail of decomposed body parts.
One upside for the zombies however, might be the lack of pain. As we hammer away at the zombies with any blunt instrument we can get our hands on, they’ll feel nothing. This does bring with it it’s own problems though. Congenital analgesia is a real neurological condition that means a person feels absolutely no pain, so we know a little bit about how this could potentially affect the zombies. Pain, as it turns out, is one of the best forms of feedback humans have. When a child learns that the stove burns their hand, they very rarely touch it again. Without pain to act as a deterrent, the zombies will pick up all kinds of injuries. These will eventually all add up and, combined with some of the other factors we already talked about, will lead to a quick demise for our undead friends.
By now you should hopefully be feeling a little better about the zombie apocalypse we seem to have found ourselves in, but I can tell you’re still not fully convinced. That’s why I have one final point to make…
The world has a very interesting habit of fighting back against things trying to harm it, so don’t think the zombies are going to have it all their own way.
Microscopic, MASSIVE problem
As we’ve unfortunately found out in recent times, one thing that we just haven’t gotten a full grip on as a species is handling viruses. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown alarming issues with how the world deals with things of this nature. Despite the major advances we’ve made in dealing with viruses and infections, we’re still not perfect.
Zombies are no different, and they definitely don’t have the access we have to vaccines or the organisation to shut down infection. Our immune systems do a good job at keeping the majority of viruses at bay, but with zombie’ brains operating at a minimum, they could be in serious trouble. Viruses, infection, fungi, bacteria – all of them are likely to see the groups of rotting zombies as a perfect host. They would slowly succumb to their new visitors as their systems shut down further, or they’re eaten from the inside out.
Speaking of being eaten…
The Birds and the Bees
Humans have been fortunate enough to evolve to deal with danger in many ways. A lot of these evolutionary traits are rooted in avoiding dangerous animals which can and will eat us. These traits have served us extremely well, and will more than likely be unfortunately lacking in our zombie foes. Bears, lions, wolves, even dogs will see the stumbling zombie hordes as a slow moving feast! Animals will adapt to the new zombie wasteland quickly, and will advance into previously human occupied territories quickly looking for food. When presented with an easy meal, they’re not going to turn it down.
Even if we step down from these larger, formidable animals; the zombies are still in trouble. Rats and flies will slowly eat away at the zombies exposed, rotting flesh with glee. While it will certainly make the world a bit more dangerous for us survivors in one sense (get ready to get over your fear of rats very quickly), it will help us massively in our fight against the undead.
And that finally brings to…
The Final Boss
The last true barrier to a full zombie takeover of the world…us. Even with our population decimated and our societal structures collapsing, we still have a couple of tricks up our sleeves. At the time of print, humans are currently the undisputed and undefeated champions of the food chain. As we delve into that a little further, it’s important to understand why. We don’t have exceptional defences against prey, nor are we the strongest or fastest creatures in the world. What we do have however, is an extraordinary level of intelligence. We are simply, too clever to be truly hunted. Combine that with our technology and you now have an incredibly intelligent species with the capacity for extreme damage. We have quite literally hunted other species into extinction. Now I’m in no means advocating for that practice as a positive thing, but it does offer evidence as to how formidable we can be.
Zombies are still effectively human, yet they lack the very qualities that have enabled us to thrive. If our greatest asset is our brains, the zombies have lost that through the shutting down of all but the most vital aspects of theirs. If we’re the primary food source for the walking dead, we’re also their primary predator. Imagine having to kill a tiger or a wolf every time you wanted to eat, we’d never survive.
We can also put our intelligence to use by organising ourselves into survival. Even with a breakdown of society, history has shown that people are quite good at navigating a crisis. Barricading ourselves into a supermarket or high-rise building would make it almost impossible for a zombie to get to us, while also enabling us to strategise ways to do what we unfortunately do best…kill.
So there you have it. As dark as it may get out there, a zombie apocalypse should almost certainly be the least of your worries. If you’re one of the lucky few to survive the initial infection, just board up your house, make sure you have some good food, find a new Netflix series and just wait it out. The zombie apocalypse will take care of itself! The robot uprising on the other hand…
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