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Why the Zombie Apocalypse Wouldn’t Happen PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Kyle Hill   
 

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 drawing

 

 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.

 

 

Further Reading:

 

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. 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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written by ConspicuousCarl, January 03, 2013
Some good points, but some are flawed.

Those shelves of ammo are going to run out a lot faster than you think, especially at Walmart where everything is just-in-time restocking. For any specific ammo type, they might only have a dozen boxes or less. They occasionally impose quantity purchasing limits in response to minor market changes because they don't have enough in the warehouse to handle demand fluctuation which is way less extreme than the need created by a zombie outbreak.

The military certainly has a lot of weapons, but stretched to its limit we had less than 200,000 troops total in Iraq and Afghanistan and that was with a normally-functioning country at home to supply them with food, fuel, and ammo. Imagine that military going up against some fraction of 300 million people, with many of the infected being subtracted from the civilian supply lines as well as many healthy workers deciding to hide in their basements instead of going to work.
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25 Zombies or 25 Live Humans or worse...
written by Gaius Cornelius, January 03, 2013
Normal humans have weaknesses that can make them much less dangerous. They have hopes and fears and are able to empathise and reason. But it's not just a zombie bite that will turn a normal human into an unthinking monster, fundamentalist religion is just as effective and almost as virulent.

Would you rather take on 25 reasoning and feeling humans, 25 unthinking zombies or 25 homicidal religious fundamentalists?
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On the nose, plus
written by C.William, January 04, 2013
If you evaluated the zombie as a distinct species, it is a total washout as a predator. Its only source of food (us) pulls triple duty as its only means of making more of itself (critical since an individual zombie is slow and structurally fragile, making it mostly successful when hunting in large mobs), and is also its own top predator.
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Just a few counter points for fun...
written by Karl_Withakay, January 04, 2013
"Why would it be harder to kill non-thinking, slow moving humans if we are already so good at killing ourselves?"


Because zombies won't follow orders if you point a gun at them or threaten their families. They don't fear for their lives or the lives of their fellow zombies. They don't believe where there's life, there's hope, and it's best to live today in hope of escape or rescue tomorrow. They believe where there's life, there's food. Zombies are the quintessential fundamentalists.


"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."


Not so fast...
First, I'll admit that I have always said that the biggest danger in a zombie apocalypse isn't the zombies, it's the other survivors who want your stuff. (Especially the roving biker gangs.)

However, consider this: 25 humans might be frightened off if you manage to kill 5 or 10 of them, but zombies will persist until either you defeat every single one of them, or they finally get you.


"With no goal, no survival instinct rallying humanity to push back from the brink, we casually obliterate entire genetic lineages"


On the other hand, how effective have we been in various places at wiping out invasive species that threaten the local ecosystems? Zebra muscles, snake-head carp, brown tree snakes, etc.


"And speaking to the idea of a contagious virus, if the CDC can eradicate malaria from the US, we could handle a zombie outbreak."


Get back to me on that when they cure AIDS, herpes, Ebola, Nipah virus, the comon cold, etc. Also get back to me when irrational human behavior isn't a factor in the reassurance of pertussis, and certain medical professionals stop refusing to get the flu vaccine.


"Why a military force would fall, especially as terrifying and well-equipped as America’s, has never been explained."


Presumably because armies don't win battles by killing every single enemy combatant. They win by inflicting sufficient casualties (dead OR wounded) to cause the enemy to give up, surrender, or withdraw, or by making the enemy's position untenable. With most zombie mythologies, only a shot or blow to the head will stop a zombie, and you have to stop every last one of them. Peppering their bodies with bullets and bomb/ artillery shrapnel won't cut it. Soldiers are trained to aim for the center of mass because that is the largest target that is easiest to hit. Taking head shots is a good way to miss, even at close range. I frequently laugh at The Walking dead when people make casual one handed head shots at against moving targets while running.

283,500,000 bullets: That's about what you would need if you wanted to head shoot every single zombie if 90% of the US population turned and you never missed and used one bullet per zombie. (and if the Mexican and Canadian zombies respected the borders.)


"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)"


Look at a satellite image of your neighborhood. How densely populated is it? Imagine if 90% of the people living in those homes/ apartments were zombified and roaming the streets. Also imagine all utilities and infrastructure failing and having to compete with the remaining 10% of the other humans for food, water, and firewood.

"The country of wide, open spaces means that there is almost always a place you can run."


Sure, if you can get out of the city, away from any population centers. That all depends on how fast the outbreak is and how clogged the roads out of town become.

"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."


This assumes 1. that temporary freezing temperatures represent some sort of permanent problem for zombies, and 2. that animals would attack and/or eat rotting zombies. Zombies might very well have an odor that animals might avoid. It also assumes that said animals would not be zombified by eating zombie meat.

“just hole up at a Wal-Mart. We sadly know how abundant guns are, and just how much ammunition is available."


Again, you forget the threat of other survivors. Everybody else will have this same thought. Plus Wal-marts are not really defensible; they have too many ground level windows.
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...dang spellcheck
written by Karl_Withakay, January 04, 2013
reassurance of pertussis


resurgence
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written by WilliamCainAppleValley, January 04, 2013
"Peppering" with artillery misunderstands how artillery works. Yes, the only way to "kill" a zombie is a headshot, I'll grant you that. Artillery (including howitzers, mortars, rockets, and rope-charges) generally arrives from above, and explodes in the air. What's on top of the body?

Similarly, you're ignoring the forces involved in artillery explosions. Larger shells (120mm mortar rounds, 105 and 155mm artillery pieces) shatter bones and sever limbs. Oh sure, not every round will do this, but they don't have to. An artillerybattery can drop 12 rounds simultaneously on a mass of targets, and the carnage caused by the impact will break enough limbs and pop enough heads open (particularly since zombies by definition cannot armor up or seek cover) to neutralize the majority of a mob's threat. You wouldn't be 'peppering' anything, you would be vaporizing it.

Next, heavy weapons. A hit from a .50 BMG or larger round also destroys everything in its path when we're speaking about biological organisms. You don't need a headshot when a bullet to the pelvic area will destroy the leg joints, hip bones, the muscles attached to same. The army has machine guns that shoot these bullets, has since the first world war. It only becomes more ridiculous when you scale up to actual cannons. 20mm, 25mm, 30mm, and 40mm rounds exist in a number of weapons, most of them in fully automatic firing capacity. Any of these weapons hitting a humanoid target will make it pop like a grape. Even a near-miss with fragmentary rounds will shred most of the body into unrecognizability, and again cause so much shrapnel in the immediate area as to *guarantee* some degree of successful head-trauma.

Artillery and automatic weapons don't "Pepper" things. They create zones where it is impossible to survive without taking cover. Zombies wouldn't have the slightest change in an engagement with the military, particularly when we have aircraft that can over as they fire 20mm cannon rounds at an ungodly rate of fire into the mass of targets.

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written by WilliamCainAppleValley, January 04, 2013
Sigh. "Hover" not over, and "chance" not change. Stupid numb fingers.
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I don't think you've fully thought out what it would take to defeat a zombie hoard...
written by Karl_Withakay, January 04, 2013
""Peppering" with artillery misunderstands how artillery works. Yes, the only way to "kill" a zombie is a headshot, I'll grant you that. Artillery [...] generally arrives from above, and explodes in the air. What's on top of the body? "


I understand how artillery works. I was using simple terminology for an intended audience. Yes, artillery from howitzers and mortars (but the main guns of tanks) comes in on a fairly steep ballistic trajectory and often uses air burst fuzes, but you wouldn't be targeting a single zombie from above. Yes, zombies directly under the shell would likely suffer a head wounds, but what about all the other ones not directly under the shells?

"Similarly, you're ignoring the forces involved in artillery explosions."


No, I am not. I am discounting the ability of those forces to take out every single zombie (either by head wound or by rendering the body completely immobile/incapacitated) in a designated kill zone.

"Larger shells (120mm mortar rounds, 105 and 155mm artillery pieces) shatter bones and sever limbs."


Only direct or near hits.

"Oh sure, not every round will do this, but they don't have to. "


Yes they will. 12 155MM shells against a zombie hoard = over-run position.

"An artillerybattery can drop 12 rounds simultaneously on a mass of targets, and the carnage caused by the impact will break enough limbs and pop enough heads open... "


Nope, not even on most of the targets. If you're just worried about wounding or killing normal human targets, such an artillery barrage would be quite devastating, but you're not going to break the limbs or "pop enough heads" of the majority of your targets.

You wouldn't be 'peppering' anything, you would be vaporizing it.


This is absolutely a misunderstanding or at least misstatement of how an artillery barrage works.


"A hit from a .50 BMG or larger round also destroys everything in its path when we're speaking about biological organisms. You don't need a headshot when a bullet to the pelvic area will destroy the leg joints, hip bones, the muscles attached to same. "


A .50BMG is a devastating round, to be sure, but it's not a phaser. I've seen plenty of .50 BMG fire in person. If you hit a typical zombie in the pelvis or leg with a .50 BMG, you may have reduced the danger by forcing it to crawl or limp, but it is still a significant threat. A hit to the center of mass may leave a big hole in the zombie still marching towards you, but in most zombie mythologies, it won't really be slowed down.

The army has machine guns that shoot these bullets, has since the first world war


Well, the Browning M1921 .50BMG (introduced into service in 1929) has not quite been around since WWI, but that's not really relevant to the point.

"It only becomes more ridiculous when you scale up to actual cannons. 20mm, 25mm, 30mm, and 40mm rounds exist in a number of weapons, most of them in fully automatic firing capacity. Any of these weapons hitting a humanoid target will make it pop like a grape."


Of course, you have to score a direct hit to get your "pop like a grape" effect. Most of the cannons firing these rounds are not designed for or intended to be used against individuals.

"Even a near-miss with fragmentary rounds will shred most of the body into unrecognizability, and again cause so much shrapnel in the immediate area as to *guarantee* some degree of successful head-trauma. "

Not really. The proximity fuzed rounds may deal devastating wounds to the living near them when they go off, but they're not going to slow down the zombies much. Again, they're not plasma grenades vaporizing anything in proximity, they're 20-40 mm diameter prefragmented explosives. (like very small grenades)

"Artillery and automatic weapons don't "Pepper" things. They create zones where it is impossible to survive without taking cover. "


Again, see abvove on peppering of artillery and gunfire operate in war; they don't create zones where it is impossible to survive without taking cover. They create zones where the possibility of a living target surviving without suffering significant wounds (for the living) in the absence of cover are extraordinarily low.
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cont'd
written by Karl_Withakay, January 04, 2013
"Zombies wouldn't have the slightest change in an engagement with the military, particularly when we have aircraft that can over as they fire 20mm cannon rounds at an ungodly rate of fire into the mass of targets. "


Yes, but those aircraft can't hit individuals directly very well at all, and strafing an area with proximity fuzed 20 or 30 mm cannon fire might be effective against humans, but I contend that it wouldn't be especially effective against a zombie hoard. Also, at 4000-6000 rounds/minute, with the 511 20mm rounds in the M61 of an F-16, you have only 5-8 seconds of firing time to strafe your target area before running out of ammo. Against a zombie ungodly rates of fire are not what you need. You need controlled fire where every shot counts.


The bottom line is that our military weapons, equipment, and tactics just are not designed to defeat an enemy that can only be stopped by head woulds or physical destruction of limbs and body parts responsible for motility and an enemy that also will persist, unrelentingly in the face of any danger or force until the last one is physically stopped. I don't find it especially implausible that in a implausible rapid zombie outbreak, the military could possibly be overwhelmed.

I am surprised you didn't mention napalm/ firebombs, which would have been a decent rebuttal, as such fire bombing could be expected to wipe out pretty much everything in the targeted area, including the zombies of most mythologies. Still, you'd likely have to napalm a very large surface area to get them all. It wouldn't be enough to take out a patch of zombies and force a retreat of the rest.
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written by mechreyonman, January 04, 2013
I would like to say that, it is in fact very possible that ,considering modern science and disease, there could be a zombie outbreak. Imagine, your country is on the brink of destruction from a war, and you are working on chemical warfare. You mutate existing viruses until you make one that spreads through the blood,, and causes people to become aggressive and decompose while living. you release it on the enemies, and it is more effective than anticipated. It spreads globally. You have a zombie apocalypse. I would also like to say that, given how easy it is to blow things up, and how many explosive and highly flammable substances exist, we could easily bomb small areas with large quantities of zombies and few survivors in order to fight the zombies. if done well, few zombies will survive and they can be gunned down.
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written by C.William, January 07, 2013
It's worth mentioning that while a serious pandemic can be a threat to civilian populations, diseases which spread fast and far are air/waterborne (aka flu). Those that spread by contact are the ones where hosts don't look significantly different than the normal population, and aren't prevented from interacting normally with same (aka many STDs). A traditional zombie "disease" is neither - spectacularly easy to identify, incredibly easy to avoid, and they can only spread the disease by biting new hosts. They travel at the speed of a crippled human, don't have any instinct to roam farther than their food source, and don't hide to avoid detection by authorities, meaning the threat will be contained close to wherever patient zero is. All in all, staggeringly inefficient.

Also, even if you wave your hand and magically make your disease instantly global, it probably isn't a significant threat to a good number of modern military forces, most of which have had plans/training to fight wars that involve chemical/biological hazards for rougly a hundred years now, and can certainly handle a slow, shiftless mob. Most people who think we're going to fight zombies either go too big (nuke the city!) or too small (squads of desperate foot soldiers slogging it out at point-blank range in a battle of machismo headshots vs. animal ferocity!). If at all, foot soldiers would be relegated to cleanup, ensuring all of the likely burned, squashed, dismembered and essentially non-threatening zombie remains have been destroyed by armoured vehicles. I'd go so far as to say you could probably effectively obliterate a zombie "army" using nothing more than a few good chemical lures and civilian bulldozers.
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