The Call of the Zombie

Dangerous ways of looking at other humans. Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2000. Cover illustration by Andrzej Klimowski.

Zombies are everywhere.  Fortunately not literally, but you can’t seem to avoid noticing them in films, books, online games and so on.  And what is so disturbing about them is that they are just a bit too similar to us for comfort – human on the surface but seriously flawed inside.

In the latest edition of Odyssey, which has just been issued, we talk about the so-called “uncanny valley” in our perception of alien beings such as the extraterrestrials that we, or our descendants, may encounter one day.  When other sentient beings appear grossly dissimilar to us, we can take them for what they are.  But when they are just a little bit different, we find it deeply unnerving.

The zombie is a case in point.  Portrayals of zombies in popular culture go back at least as far as the 1966 film Plague of the Zombies which is famous for images, particularly the resurrection scene in a graveyard, that influenced many later movies.  They are clearly people, but not normal.  In the 2007 post-apocalyptic film I Am Legend, showing the mutated survivors after a virus has wiped out most of humanity as noticeably similar to ordinary folk is what gives them such a creepy quality.

But what can be particularly disturbing is perhaps not so much the shambling creature which is so familiar from voodoo mythology, but the existence of something which appears human in many respects but lacks human consciousness.  In this sense, we have the concept of the zombie as derived from contemporary philosophy.  In his impressive account of what science can and cannot tell us about human nature Man, Beast and Zombie, published in 2000, the science writer Kenan Malik describes how perceiving a zombie is, in effect, to see a human being as a machine.

He explains how a being which is clearly alive and yet lacks consciousness blurs our normal distinctions regarding rights and responsibilities, and thus creates moral and ethical dilemmas.  These aren’t merely philosophical issues – only because we are conscious subjects can we rise above our immediate circumstances and strive towards better understanding.  Yet increasingly both science and science fiction encourage us to conceive of living beings as machines, and of machines as conscious beings.  Both notions are uncomfortable, and not a little dangerous.

Add to that the tendency to find excuses for all human actions, whether they are due to upbringing, or engrained in us by evolution, or because it’s all “in the genes”, or simply caused by “human nature” (whatever that is), and it’s no surprise that we begin to see humans as automata.  That leads to the conclusion that free will becomes an illusion.  And treating humans as objects – a mechanistic view of humanity – easily leads to so many of the horrors witnessed in our recent history.

In Here Be Zombies (Scientific American, January 2015), Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic magazine, explained that we have a fascination with beings which fall in between categories – in this case, neither human nor nonhuman – and we cannot avoid our evolved suspicion of outsiders who may pose a threat.  We can learn to curb such hatreds, but it doesn’t come easy, and depictions of zombies stimulate regions of our brains that have ancient roots in xenophobia.

All of which doesn’t bode well for when we first encounter an extraterrestrial species.  They may look just like us, in which case we may well get along with them just fine.  Perhaps, if they differ significantly from us, we will have no problems with them either, but if they are just a little different, the xenophobia resulting from the “uncanny valley” is all too likely to kick in.  So we should probably hope instead that they are just the sort of people we would like to meet – possibly even the beautiful characters we occasionally see in science fiction.  But that could bring problems of its own.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: The Lonely Universe, Part Four: Life, but not as we know it | Psychiatric Report

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