Apocalypse don’t-know-how – or where did the science go in the popular doom and gloom literature?

By Jonas Waldenström

I have thing for sci-fi and fantasy books. For periods I read little else but books with at least one flaming sword on the cover. Toss in a magician and some women in light clothes and it is a sure read. And, no, it doesn’t need to be poor literature. There are a number of really skilled writers that can tell a compelling story in beautiful prose. The challenge is to weed these authors out from the tons of really crappy Tolkien-copycat writers that flood the market.

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Occasionally I read a doom and gloom book, like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, or Metro 2033 by Dmitrij Gluchovskij. Last night I finished World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. Yes it is true, I read the book instead of watching the movie. Kind of old fashion guy, I’d say. But hey, I am a freaking professor, so I should be old fashioned. Anyway, WWZ is a page-turner. Loads of zombies devouring flesh, eating entrails, moaning and groaning, creating havoc and scaring children. The story is also on how mankind responded to the zombie threat, first with panic, then with sacrifice, and lastly with vengeance and purging of the undead. And on how today’s societal structures and geopolitics influenced the post-apocalyptic world. For instance, India and Pakistan nuked themselves out of the board. USA, of course, liberated large parts of the world from their refuge west of the Rockies. Surprisingly, Cuba’s closed communism system transformed into a new democratic world power by immigrants. The people of North Korea disappeared into caves never to be seen again. Russia became a new Soviet Union, now with religion as a base.

Sometimes it is very technical account, with this and that ammo doing this and that harm to a zombie. You see, to kill the undead zombie you need to aim for the brain. Apparently a zombie can do without most things – energy, oxygen, metabolism, gastrointestinal systems, limbs – but not the brain. Thus to put the end to the gaul you need to hit the brain, either with a bullet, or with a handy medieval sword. And it is somewhere here I as a scientist start to feel neglected. So, the cause of zombie plague is a virus. Yes, a virus. OK, but what are the fundamental properties of a virus? First, they do not have their own metabolism and need to infect living cells in order to propagate. This doesn’t really go well in hand with metabolically dead bodies without circulation. How should the virus particle go about forcing the dead body to perform its new functions (namely: moaning, searching for living humans, devour human flesh, repeat cycle)? Second, a virus will have a genome – be it RNA or DNA – that encodes for proteins, which in turn perform certain functions. These functions can be described and analyzed.

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Nowhere in the book is there a single scientist mentioned. No attempts to study the nature of this new disease. There is one guy who invents a wonder drug, but this is more on the lines of fraud than of science. One doesn’t need to go far in today’s society to see that scientists make up the forefront in the battle against new infections. For instance, a collaborative effort of the global virology community managed to crack the SARS nut and describe the corona virus that caused it. Today, there is a global task force on influenza, and other scientists try to identify the sources of MERS infections in Saudi Arabia. Thus, I have a real hard time to see that scientist wouldn’t have tried to tackle a zombie virus. It would have been better not to list the cause, or, take the extraterrestrial approach, than to say it is a virus.

But it is still an entertaining book. And it must be an awesome feeling to whack the undead in the head and saving the world. I probably need to see the movie, too. Perhaps there are scientists in that one – would be refreshing to see.

Finally, for those interested, there are a number of true pathogens that affects the behavior of their hosts. The term ‘parasite-induced trophic transmission’ (or PITT for short) deals with instances when a parasite alters the behavior of an intermediate host in order to increase transmission to the final host. There are liver flukes that make ants crawl up to the top of grass in order to be swallowed down by grazing ungulates. There are worms that make the antennae of garden snails to pulse and flash to attract predatory birds. There is a fungus that makes ants snap their jaws shut on the underside of a leaf so that the fungus can grow inside the body and then release the spores through a fruiting body extending out from the head of the ant. There are parasites that make honeybees into ‘zombees’ that fly around at night. There are hairworms that make terrestrial grasshoppers to hop out in water so that the worms can finish their lifecycle (while the grasshopper drowns).

However, none of these pathogens reanimates the corpse and make it go around eating things. And isn’t that nice?

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7 thoughts on “Apocalypse don’t-know-how – or where did the science go in the popular doom and gloom literature?

  1. I liked this view of World War Z. I think when Max Brookes was writing the book he was concentrating more on his military and geopolitical history which he clearly knows a lot about (there’s many seeds of real events going right back to the Romans which he’s woven into the book if you know where to look for them) rather than the science behind a vius.

    This also might be because putting true zombies (risen dead) in a real scientific context is difficult (since it violates almost all biological rules). However, newer infected zombies (living humans infected with a disease that makes them act like a true zombie) are more scientifically viable and do allow for the science to be specified in more detail (think, for example, about the rage virus in the film 28 Days Later). This is certainly the route I’ve taken (based around a mutated Rabies virus). It’s not 100% scientifically accurate (it never can be), but it’s as close as I could get it and I think it’s at least feasible. Of course, it helps that I’m a biologist by training!

    • Thanks for the comment Colin – it is awesome that a true writer found my little blog post. Now I need to buy your zombie book! Yes, it is true that one should stick what one is best at, and in Brookes’ case it is clear he knows at lot of history and politics – things that lift the book to a higher level. And I did enjoy reading it!

      I think you choose wisely to go with the rabies virus. Everyone have heard – and fear – rabies, which gives a good entry point for a book. Further, it is probably the best example we have of a virus that really change human behavior. Not that people get like rabid dogs, but the fear of water, and wind are very peculiar. There is a clip on Youtube on a man from India with these symptoms. I watched it once, but couldn’t do it again. Given the course of disease, I knew he was a dead man since long.

      • Yeah, rabies is pretty scary. I’ve seen some footage too but find it extremely upsetting to watch. My main premise is what if rabies mutated into a disease that wasn’t eventually fatal and that it spread through the blood stream rather than along the nerves (meaning it would reach the brain much faster). Anyway, before you buy the book, check out the scientific premise (which you can find here: http://wp.me/p2PdIc-rO). That way if you don’t think it’s feassible you won’t waste any money (I’m not a good salesman, am I?).

        In the meantime, I think one of the most interesting zoonotics is toxoplasmosis especially with the way it subtley alters behaviours of rodents, and of humans, so they are more likely to be eaten by cats (completing the life cycle of the parasite). We think we’re intelligent and then find ourselves being manipulated by a parasite. It’s another real ‘zombiie’ disease!

  2. Toxoplasma gondii is a very interesting pathogen! I teach a disease biology class each year, and it is always fun to do the ‘zombie pathogens’. I try to read-up on the subject when I can, but haven’t read much on toxoplasmosis the last six months. The effect this parasite exerts on the behavior of infected rodent is fascinating – they do not shun cats, they are actually attracted to them, thereby experiencing higher predation rates by the parasite’s final host. If I remember it right, the parasite manipulate the olfactory cues for mate choice, thus hitchhikes on existing pathways.

    The evidence for effects of Toxoplasma in humans are more at the level of correlation – for simple reasons it is quite tricky to do infection experiments on humans. However, if the parasite really make people more daring (or stupid…) it is extremely interesting. Also the link to schizofrenia is interesting. And to suggest that the reason some people are cat lovers is a chemically driven process from a unicellular parasite…

    On a side note, I believe that protozoa, larger parasites and fungi are more likely to cause host behavioral manipulations than viruses and bacteria. The genome size differs substantially: with a larger genome there are more genes that can evolve to new functions. This is particularly important for viruses, with the physical limitation of packing the viral genome in the capsid. My pet virus, influenza A virus, goes around with merely 12 genes – compared to the 20 000 that make you and me humans.

    I will definitely buy your book. There is zomething about zombies that is unresistable. First, however, I need to finish the Steven Erikson novel Forge of Darkness – thick as brick and packed with swords and magic.

  3. Another interesting subject of thought is the effect the bacteria in our intestines have on our behaviour. I heard a scientific discussion on swedish radio recently, where this was discussed. Apparently the microbiology of our intestines affect our behaviour quite a lot, and there are indications that an unbalanced germ population could trigger ADHD. We are a lot more guided by our germs than we would like to admit.

    • Yes, and no. Clearly, we are affected by the bacteria in our gut (and as well by the bacteriophages that infect the bacteria) as nutrition is governed by the symbionts’ ability to degrade bio-molecules into small enough pieces for our absorption. However, all the new microbiome papers telling this and that are often falsely depicted in the media, or, at least are over-simplistic. Again, it is hard to differ cause and effect when you compare groups of people – this field should need more experimental manipulations. Science writer Ed Young tweeted something on the lines that “microbiome affects XXX” has replaced “XXX causes cancer” in the media stream. Thus, although genome sequencing and microbiome research can seriously change the way we perceive our health there is still a need for caution.

      • Well, media logic is what is is. However, in this talk they did refer to experiments with mice, who were completely void of bacteria. Their behaviour was quite different from mice with normal microbiome. From this, and more limited research on human subjects, they extrapolated conclusions. They may not be completely accurate, but it is at least feasible.

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