The history of the human race is littered with casual references to magical practises such as necromancy; spells that allow the dead to walk again. The relationship between science and magic is one than can actually get quite muddy so I may well cover it one day, but not now. Mercifully, there is a magic free alternative to necromancy that we can talk about; zombies!
Choose your zombie
Whilst zombies do have magical roots, they are an idea that has been picked up by our popular culture which has really run with it. As a result we have a wonderfully diverse ecosystem of different zombies to pick from; cursed ones, enchanted ones, infected ones. There’s so much choice that it’s hard to know where to start. So in order to simplify things we will focus on infected zombies. Having accepted how tricky it will be to add magic into the mix, let’s just consider the purely biological case for zombies. Just for now, let’s take all supernatural and paranormal phenomena and place them in this invisible floating chest made of goblin wax.
Are zombies alive?
Traditionally, zombie are described as undead. Undead? What does that mean? I’m undead but I just call that being alive! Surely things are either dead or alive, what other options are there?
Oddly enough, the answer to this question is unclear. We’ve considered this before when looking at whether viruses are alive or not and found that people can’t quite agree. This is because there is no clear cut definition about what makes something alive, however there is a checklist guide. So lets run zombies through the same questions that we put viruses to:
- Alive things contain some form of inside that is clearly different from the world outside. Well, since zombies are made of the same stuff as living humans then the answer to this will have to be yes, albeit with perhaps a few more holes.
- They are made up of cells. Again, yes; although many if not all of these cells may be dead themselves (depending on how long the body has been dead).
- They eat something that gives them energy and then produce waste. BRAINS!! So that will be a yes. I can’t remember ever hearing of a zombie going to the toilet but unless we invoke magic, if stuff goes in then it must come somewhere and I’m sure that a zombie’s gut can only hold so many brains.
- They can grow by creating more of themselves, to increase their bulk. This is a good question, do zombies grow? They often look like they are falling apart but they were rotting before they became zombies, does that continue once they’re walking around? If they aren’t sustaining themselves (which counts because you need to make more cells to sustain yourself) then what are they eating all of those brains for?
- They can respond to things that happen around them. Most definitely, how else are they going to track down those brains?
- They can reproduce themselves or have offspring. Wow, awkward. Fragile zombie bodies are unlikely to be able to cope with the stresses of pregnancy but that isn’t how you make new zombies. Zombies can infect new hosts, they are like a virus (an idea that some movies have heavily adopted).
- They can change over time to suit their environment. Whilst zombies may not be able to evolve through reproduction, they can evolve through infection. Whatever makes a zombie a zombie will have to survive in a host. This host is the environment for the infection. Whilst animals evolve to suit their environments, infection must evolve to suit those evolving animals.
So in answering the question of whether zombies are alive, we don’t have a definitive answer. For the most part they look alive but there are some things that they lack; those shortcomings are made up for by the virus that is making them a zombie, but the jury is still out on whether viruses are alive. Between the two parts we have something that pretty much ticks all of the boxes.
Could zombies really exist?
This was the original title for this piece, before I realised what big question the mortal status was. As such, you’ll have to wait until next time to tackle this question.
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Matilda’s Lab is written to try and help adults explain complex science to children. Every effort is made to keep the content as accurate as possible but sometimes it is necessary to oversimplify things. However, if you think that anything here is categorically wrong then please get in touch so that a correction may be made.