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Posted by on Nov 5, 2013 in Humor, Pseudoscience, Teaching | 22 comments

The Possibility of a Zombie Apocalypse

This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.

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The Possibility of a Zombie Apocalypse by Thomas Taylor

(Thomas previously wrote about the history of the zombie)

History aside, there are some people who think that a zombie apocalypse on the scale of Hollywood movies could happen. There have been preparation guides, survival tools, and even mathematical models that have attempted to work out how fast this would destroy the world. If one thinks of how humans are the most effective predators on the planet, it only makes since that if one removes their inhibition and turns them against humans, the result would be catastrophic. The often overlooked issue is that zombies have had everything that makes humans effective worldwide, and has allowed us to prosper, removed. Without the ability to adapt to the environment, an immune system, or even basic reasoning skills, the zombie apocalypse would be short and disappointing.

Humans are often seen as being apex predators, and our tools for maintaining our status on this list are our adaptability and our intelligence. The voodoo version of zombies had to be protected and cared for due to not possessing either of these. Left to their own, zombies would simply stumble into something that will kill them, or they will succumb to predication. Just picture a zombie walking across a subway track; how many would be vaporized by the third rail? The ones that do survive the New York subway would still be stuck as the awkward shuffle displayed by most movie zombies would not be able to circumvent the stairs to get out. In other parts of the world zombies would fair much worse. Being slow and relatively defenseless, they would find themselves on the menu of almost every large predator in existence. Lions, tigers, alligators, and bears would make short work of a zombie after they figure out that it will not react to their advances the same way a normal human would.

(Note: this is just make-up, not real. I didn’t want to make anyone vomit. If you’d like too, though, just type in “maggots” into Google image search. Blargh.)

Humans have one of the most impressive immune systems on the planet. This may not seem too big of an issue at first, because zombies are not going to suffer from the flu, but protecting from illness is only one of the things our immune system does. In the human body, bacteria outnumber human cells ten to one. These bacteria are largely beneficial to us, aiding in enzyme production, saliva in the mouth, and digestion of food in the gut. All these bacteria are kept in check by our immune system. When zombies shut down the immune system, the microbiome begins the decomposition process. The first thing that happens to the zombie is known as rigor mortis, the contraction of the muscles will make the afterlife very difficult for up to 72 hours after death. During this time, the bacteria reproduce unchecked and produce methane and hydrogen sulfide which attract flies and other animals. These flies lay eggs that hatch into maggots. These maggots can consume up to 60% of the human body within seven days of passing. After some time, the body cavities fill with too much gas from the bacteria buildup causing both the grossest and the funniest ending to a zombie move ever as they pop open and their liquefied remains fall to the ground.

Accounting for both these issues, a long zombie attack would have to be out of the question. So what would happen if somehow zombies were able to gain the critical mass required for a horde at a fairly rapid pace? The timeframe would have to be between the three day mark, where they would not move and the thirty day mark, where they would expire. So for the sake of argument, one day a million ten-day old zombies appeared. If they appear in the winter, it will be a short evasion; lacking the ability to regulate their body temperature or produce their own heat would prove to be a disaster for the zombies. At ten days old, the body temperature will have completely left the zombie; this will result in the water contained in the body to freeze. As half the world is always in its winter season, this leads to an issue with a worldwide epidemic for zombies.

So they can only attack half the world for one month, which could still cause an issue for that half, right? It turns out, probably not. For a living person, an exterior door is fairly easy to get around. Sadly, according to the movies, zombies do not have the balance or the common sense to use this method. Their preferred method is to pound on the door slowly until it caves in. This makes it very unlikely they will ever get through a door with their rotting and broken human hands. Also of note is that, since zombies do not know how to use door knobs, this will happen with almost every exterior door. The next option is for them to use a window. Although they will be able to easily break the glass on the windows, most windows are not on the ground, causing them to have to tumble through in an easily killable fashion.

Yep, no way he’s getting to that brain.

When they do gain entry into the building, with little to no intelligence, a person would still not be in immediate danger. A good analog for this would be a mouse in a maze. With training, one can get a mouse to run a maze, but it does not take much to trip them up. The inside of a store or office building would only increase this complication, making it highly unlikely that the zombie would ever be able to find a human to bite.

This whole scenario overlooks one of the biggest factors against a zombie apocalypse. Humans are good at killing things.  Zombies have their hands and teeth, people have assault rifles and intellect. Before looking at how quick a million zombies would wipe out an area, one needs to look at how fast humans can kill a million zombies. The bloodiest day in recorded history of fighting was the first day of the Somme Offensive where an estimated 30,000 people lost their lives. At this rate, a million zombies would be dead in 33 days; this is probably an underestimate when dealing with mindless zombies.

So now, during the next episode of The Walking Dead or during the repeats of World War Z that are bound to happen on cable TV over the next few years, you can turn to friends and say “Yeaaaaaaah, not gonna happen.”

  • SmilodonsRetreat

    That’s the one thing that always bugged me about zombie shows. Why do survivors use pistols and shotguns? They could just stroll down to the local national guard armory or a decent army base and pick up a tank or something.

    A Bradley AFV has a 25mm cannon firing explosive shells at 200 rounds per minute. It’s effectively immune to zombie attacks and two people could live in it for a several days.

    All good points in the article. I’ll just have to make up a biologically acceptable zombie…. hmm… zombie alligators!

    • Shatterface

      Don”t Nazi zombies have anti-tank grenades?

      Also, some of those in Lucio Fulci films can teleport so you might end up trapped inside a tank with one.

  • Shatterface

    For a living person, an exterior door is fairly easy to get around. Sadly, according to the movies, zombies do not have the balance or the common sense to use this method. Their preferred method is to pound on the door slowly until it caves in.

    Yeah, but people mocked Daleks for not being able to climb stairs – and look at how that turned out.

    • gaurdianaq

      daleks have intelligence though, zombies do not.

  • Evelyn Stratmoen

    This had always been my issue with my fear of zombies — afraid that they will be intelligent and quick-footed. Thank you for dispelling that myth; maybe I can watch The Walking Dead without having to cover my eyes :)

  • intuitiveacuity

    The zombie apocalypse, and apocalypse fantasies in general, are the refuge of the afraid and dissatisfied. Its no wonder that in an age of income inequality and minimal upward mobility there is a desire for the whole house of cards to collapse. Still, cynicism must not win the day.

  • ahuskey

    Playing the devil’s advocate here: I feel like a counter-argument from someone wholly vested in the existence of zombies would be that the occurrence of a zombie apocalypse is something that none of that there science-y stuff can explain (redneck accent implied). But I guess that leads us back to a fundamental issue of propagating science to the world – using logic to combat an argument that did not originate with logic doesn’t work.
    Side note, I could barely read the mid-section of the paper because of that horrifying picture! Jesus, help us! (puke)

  • psychodawn93

    Hopefully no one with even a small amount of intellect would believe in a zombie apocalypse, but stranger things have been known to happen. I always assumed everyone knew all those zombie movies and television shows were the figment of some deranged writer’s imagination, but you know what they say about “assuming”. The human mind is a strange and misunderstood thing, but surely not strange enough to believe in zombies! Does that mean that some people really believe in werewolves and vampires too? I guess you never know, I know people that still think professional wrestling is real!!

  • RankingEffects

    The idea that an infection could kill humans and reanimate them after death speaks against just about everything we know about the necessary prerequisites for life, but for some reason, it’s still entertaining. The zombie has essentially been hi-jacked (usually a virus), so even though it still has a human form, it’s no longer human. What is more terrifying than a walking virus in a human body that wants gnaw your flesh?

  • Bethany Barnett

    I didn’t realize that we have more bacteria in our bodies than we do human cells. It’s also interesting to know that maggots can consume so much of a human’s body within a week of passing. Very interesting facts, Thomas.

  • timharvey87

    The maggots argument is the most compelling for why zombies can’t exist. They would all be eaten up so quickly. In all zombie movies, maggots are typically missing or are shown on only the recently dead. The argument that I have heard used is that maggots will not eat infected dead tissue. But I don’t think maggots are too picky when it comes to dead tissue. I believe maggot therapy is an actual treatment used to cleanse the body of necrotic tissue. Great article, Thomas.

  • pdavis13

    Although I’m 99.9999999% sure a zombie apocalypse is never going to occur, it’s still fun to play devil’s advocate with this. I have to agree that no matter how aggressive they could get, living humans are good at killing things. I love watching The Walking Dead, favorite show right now, but I remember in the beginning they wanted to reach Ft. Benning so badly in order to get supplies, but it’d been taken over or run dry of things. i just have a hard time believing that a military base, such as that, didn’t have the power to take out mass amounts of zombies while still up and running, and that it was eventually overrun by them.

  • Ryan Danger McCall

    While the outbreak of a deadly disease may be plausible, a zombie apocalypse is not. Even if zombies were to suddenly appear and begin to raid the world, there is no way it would last. Just as stated, humans are far to good at killing things. I have not thought of the maggots eating the body. It seems like the best defense for a zombie outbreak os to let the maggots finish them off!

  • jaymacg

    The idea that the zombies would decay pretty quickly has always seemed to ruin the fun of the movies for me (I was eating when I saw that picture of the maggot make-up, by the way). However, I do feel better about my odds of surviving the zombie apocalypse after reading this.

  • vivianjingjing

    It is a horrible but interesting issue. In china, the dead body running is a kind of traditional witchcraft in western Hunan province. According to a legend, people miss their home and want to return back the birthplace after they died. But there are much mountains in Hunan province and people died that can’t afford the transportation expenses. So people died had invented this method. Certainly, it is just a legend.

  • shanshan1314

    Maybe it is time to make people think about what they did to other animals and other enviornment, maybe that is the point to give something that human are scared of, like Vampire,like Zombie, like Ghost in the horror movie. We cannot deny that these kind of things would make more people scared to do something bad, like the movie i knew what you did last summer. There always somebody knew. Human did a lot of things to the enviorment, kill all kinds of animals, eat distinct animals, that is so cruel. To be the desert for Zombie might make more people think what they did to others. Like a sentence that Chinese people always say, Do not do to others what you would not have them do to you.

  • JazzySmall

    Zombies have always been a thing with me, since they were always depicted as super strong creatures that just wanted to eat me! I’ve seen Zombie cages on the back of peoples pickups with zombie replicas trapped inside and it made me wonder about what was going on, to even my little cousin rushing at me in the morning throwing me a “gun” telling me the zombie apocalypse was among us. There are many who believe this can happen and without facts, or the intent to critically think about it circumstances that were intended for entertainment seem to be seeping into the actual thoughts of their audience. Its fascinating to see the short amount of time that zombies would live, just hide out for a month or two and everything shall be A otay!

  • Alexa Riffe

    When looking at the livelyhood of zombies in reality, there are many obstacles that would keep zombies from taking over the world. However, there is a great entertainment factor is the entire zombie apacolypse movement. I have never been one to fall on the wagon, but after the movie World War Z, I will admit I began to invision scenarios and how I would prepare. The entertainment value of it is highly addictive.

  • CathlinaSmith

    I actually saw a van the other day that said “Zombie Exterminator” across the side of it. I thought it was hilarious but knowing the kind of people there are in the world, I wondered if he was serious. Zombies are fun to make television shows and movies about but I would really worry about someone who truly did believe in zombies. If there are zombies I will use my children as human shields.

  • dandymandyl

    Reading this has definitely changed how i will be viewing zombie movies and this zombie fad that has popped up recently. I really hope that these people that take the zombie invasions seriously really consider things like this before they go planning and revolving their lives around being ready for the zombie apocalypse.

  • tinafriar

    I really don’t get this whole recent zombie fad, but thank you for this post. I have several friends who have taken their zombie obsession to an annoying extreme and I want to grab them by the ear and pull them to a computer and make them read this post. Of course, if any of their ears come off in my hand, I am running and you better try to keep up. :)

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