What the Unborn and the Undead Have in Common

One freakish thing about zombies is that they look like people even though they aren’t.

What does it mean to be a person? For philosophers, the answer isn’t simple but it has to do with being able to think and feel, recognize one’s own existence, and make choices rather than simply following a programmed set of responses.

Sometimes stories and movies explore personhood by drawing us into the lived experience of mythical creatures who don’t look like humans but who share our capacity to think and feel, suffer and love, and cherish conscious life. Consider, for example, Bambi or E.T. or Horton Hears a Who, or more seriously, Ex Machina or District 9.

Zombie stories do the opposite—they take us into a world of creatures that look like us but who lack the qualities of personhood. A zombie may have been a person once. It may even still have human form and flesh, but the person is gone. Animated by some magical or biological force, it operates on instinct alone. A zombie is incapable of doing something different—or caring about harm it does or even its own long-term existence—because it can’t think.

That is why, what matters in zombie movies is the people. We don’t really care about how many zombies die, and in some movies they die by the millions—like swarms of ants. But we do care about people. We root for them because, like us, they can feel afraid and they can feel pain and their idea of living well doesn’t include being terrorized by zombies.

You know from the title of this article where this is going.

In the beginning stages of gestation, a human embryo or fetus has no more qualities of personhood than a zombie—far fewer, in fact, than your average cat or dog. The qualities that make a person a person come into existence gradually at the beginnings of life, and sometimes they fade away long before a heart stops beating. That is because what makes a person a person is having a mind, which requires a brain, which is a lot more complicated to develop and harder to sustain than a mere biological pump made out of cell matrix.

All mammals have hearts, even when they don’t have much in the way of a brain. In fact, so do all birds and fish and reptiles. Even insects have little tubes that contract to move fluid through their circulatory systems, though they are very simple—rather like the pulsing tubes in embryonic humans. People who oppose abortions are very smart to focus on heartbeats, and not just because we attribute all kinds of special symbolic meaning to having a heart. Blood cells and pulsing hearts develop in fetal mammals long before the central nervous system has any meaningful function. The mechanical pressure created by the pulsing tissue helps blood cells to form.

Does a zombie have a beating heart? Since zombies are mythical creatures, the answer varies depending on the story, but mostly no. Zombie blood is alternately described as thick and extra-powerful or dry or nonexistent. In any case, a heart is unnecessary. This, of course is just one of several important differences between zombies and embryonic humans:

  • Zombies trigger our innate sense of revulsion against decaying flesh, which was a high-risk disease vector for our ancestors. They trigger our innate fear of predation, coupled with our innate fear of violence by other humans. Fetal life, on the other hand, triggers our innate attraction to and impulse to protect babies—the same thing that makes puppies and kittens almost irresistible.
  • Zombies have no potential to become anything but zombies, but an embryonic human has the potential to develop into a person. If it is incubated long enough, it will acquire some personhood characteristics during the latter part of gestation, namely the basics of consciousness, sensation, and preference. (Some philosophers argue, wrongly, I think, that even this potential personhood should preclude abortion.)
  • Zombies are entirely imaginary. (Sorry folks.) Fetal humans—while we may hold all sorts of imaginary ideas about them, just as we do about grown humans and other animals—actually exist.

A religious person who hates abortion might be appalled by my comparing a zombie and a human fetus, because the emotions the two arouse are so very different. Ironically, though, religious opposition to abortion is based on a kind of magical thinking much like that in zombie stories—the idea that human bodies can be animated by some supernatural force.

In the stories that religions tell, this magical force is a soul put into the body by a deity. Religious believers talk about “ensoulment” of a fetus, which the Catholic Church used to say happened at quickening, or the first felt fetal movement. Now many Christians say it happens when a sperm penetrates an egg. Women who have aborted a fetus sometimes get told that they will meet that aborted soul in heaven, magically grown into a person that is capable of thinking and talking and recognizing them despite never having attained such capacities through brian development and experience.  (Since most human embryos either fail to implant or spontaneously abort, one can assume, just statistically, that this version of heaven is 98 percent populated by such magical beings.)

In traditional zombie stories from Haiti, a zombie’s body was animated by a soul that was trapped in this world by an untimely death–and a bit of voodoo. In modern zombie stories, the magical force is more often explained in quasi-scientific terms—it may be “electricity” or a “biological contagion.”

In all cases, these labels simply fill a gap in the story. The real magic is psychological: The labels provide a satisfying answer to the question “why” without actually providing an explanation. Neither electricity nor biology works that way, and we now know that the ancient concept of the soul (a subset of mind-body dualism as it is called in philosophy) is a byproduct of how cognition is structured.

To oversimplify, our brains have different modules or programs—one for processing information about physical objects, including bodies, and one for processing information about the minds of other sentient beings. To some degree, these modules operate independently of each other, and that lets our imaginations run free. We can imagine minds that exist after the death of the brain (think ghosts) or minds that exist in mythical creatures (like talking snakes) or miniature souls in fertilized eggs, or zombies who lack functional brains of their own but are out to eat yours.

We humans are creative storytellers, and playing with the glitches and quirks of our minds can make for a lot of fun. It makes our stories even crazier than life itself. We startle ourselves, inspire ourselves, and terrify ourselves, and come back for more. And things get craziest of all when we decide that magic is real so that our imaginative stories shape human priorities and behavior in the real world.

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