Zombies have been limping around Hollywood for almost 100 years. They’re the stars of popular TV series, movies and video games. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention even give information on how to survive a zombie invasion. So, how likely is a real-life zombie apocalypse?
In theory, a virus could evolve that induces rage and the need to eat human flesh. Scientists have actually found a neurone which could be targeted by a zombie virus – the olfactory nerve. This leads to parts of the brain affecting hunger, emotions, memory and morality. From attacking this nerve, a virus could result in hungry, aggressive, brain dead victims, who can’t recognise their own family and friends, and have no control over their body other than to feed.
In fact, several viruses already exist which seem to make the first step in zombifying people. The rabies virus, causing violent movements, anxiety, hallucinations, and aggressiveness, is even transmitted through biting. However, less than 3 people die a year of rabies in the US, so it’s hardly apocalyptic. This could be because it isn’t transmitted between humans, other than in a few transplants. There was one instance of a rabid kiss, but that’s hardly the stuff from 28 Days Later. The reason animals bite and transmit the disease is that they are confused, so turn to their natural defences.
It might not be a virus that causes the zombie apocalypse, but a parasite (as seen in Resident Evil IV). Parasites are capable of entering the brain and altering behaviour. Toxoplamsma gondii is a microbe which infects rats. To reproduce, the parasite (and rat) must be eaten by a cat. To maximise the chances of this happening, T. gondii actually changes the rat’s perception of cats, so, instead of being afraid of them, the rats seek them out. Scientists are already working on weaponising these bugs to be used in wars!
Which brings us on to the idea that maybe nature isn’t the serial killer – maybe the human race will be its own demise. A plausible method that scientists (or a supervillain) could use to create a zombie army is through nanobots. Within a decade, we will have nanobots capable of crawling inside our heads to repair neural connections. If the host dies these tiny robots could be capable of keeping parts of the brain alive – specifically, the parts for motor function and the desire to feed. They may even be able to reprogram the brain to bite surrounding humans, in order to be transmitted to another host.
So, scary as it is, a human with zombie-like characteristics is possible. However, one key feature of zombies is the fact they are dead, or, rather, undead. There are instances of people being declared dead, then waking up. Clarius Narcisse from Haiti (where zombie myths originated from) was declared dead and buried in 1962. He was found wandering around town, alive and well, 18 years later. Apparently, local Voodoo priests were using Japanese blowfish poison to zombify their workers. The poison slows all bodily functions to the point of being considered medically dead. When victims wake up, they are in a trance-like state, capable of tasks like eating and sleeping, but with no emotional connection to the world.
So if someone could “die”, then wake up with a zombie virus – we could, theoretically, one day have “zombies”. But would this actually lead to an apocalypse?
Probably not – firstly, zombies aren’t that well adapted to being active predators. With open wounds and rapidly decaying flesh, they wouldn’t be able to go out in the sun, especially with their diet consisting solely of human flesh. They would also be more sensitive to cold – limited blood and fluids mean frostbite would easily set in, and that’s not even mentioning their lack of immune system.
They not only have weak bodies, but also lack the intelligence that sets humans apart. This means they wouldn’t be able to communicate a joint attack or problem solve in any way. They wouldn’t be able to drive; they probably wouldn’t even be able to use a door handle.
If Hollywood is to be believed, the zombie plague can only be transmitted through being bitten by someone with the infection. This is obviously problematic – have you ever tried to bite through denim? All we’d have to do is wear clothes and we’d be protected. Plus, their only food source is the world’s top predator.
In today’s world, as soon as there was an outbreak a video of it would be online, easily warning people to just stay inside. In films, somehow the world’s army is overthrown by the infected (even though the untrained civilian protagonist seems to take out whole swarms). This just seems unrealistic – nothing about zombies would make them bulletproof. Also, even if they were superior to us, they could never wipe us out completely or even retreat, as we’re their only prey.
In conclusion, a zombie apocalypse is possible. However, it’s so unlikely that the human race will die off before it ever happens anyway.