On zombies

Woo hoo, I put in tags for my posts. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, perhaps from “Breakfast of Champions,” never write your own index (or do your own tags). It’s too revealing. Who knows, maybe opening comments will be next (hint: no, it won’t be).

I am in Atlanta, and my airplane book for the short hop was Garry Wills’ most excellent “Bomb Power.” I don’t give away too much by re-stating the thesis, that the invention of the atomic bomb substantively changed how the nation state approaches national security. Sort of makes sense; indeed, it seems an outgrowth of what I glean from Diamond’s narrative in “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” When we have enough resources, we have the freedom to organize, to get more freedom. Of course, there comes a point at which we war with other societies, for whatever reason. Then we organize to keep the freedom we have, even if we have to give up some freedom in the process (nicely captured by the mantra “Freedom isn’t free,” which I think is a bit more subtle than its adherents often claim). In this light, the establishment of the Manhattan Project, and the subsequent development of an entire apparatus of secrecy and control around its products, makes complete sense. I must admit I haven’t finished Wills’ book yet, so I am curious to see if he proposes an alternative legacy, since the one we have seems sort of inevitable to me.

Which of course brings us to zombies.

We have already engineered society (ours and others’) to take into account the nuclear threat. How do we engineer society to take into account biological threats? There have been some relatively inspired imaginings of this in the science fiction genre, ranging from “World War Z” right on down to teen fiction such as “Hollowland.” I could have equally well used vampire overruns from scifi (that term indelibly removing me from uncomfortable fanboy status), but zombies are much more appropriate, as they better represent the semi- (but not completely) mindless nature of a concerted biological attack, especially via a communicable disease.

And how do we react to large zombie incursions? Quarantine, decapitation, and a police state, although not necessarily in that order. And eventually immunity, depending on the degree of magical zombie-ness that informs a given book.

Now, while keeping zombies firmly in mind (and how can we not?), I careen back towards Wills’ sociopolitical musings. Societies develop a national security apparatus to protect them from other societies (and, in this day and age, that usually means other nation states, since non-state actors are having trouble doing more than flying planes into buildings, which is not quite the same as building a centrifuge to enrich uranium). Ultimately the national security apparatus must take on a life of its own to function efficiently, and its cost / benefit ratio varies over time.

But what would this mean with respect to zombies? Quarantine, a police state, and immunity, check. But decapitation … of who? Well, of the zombie. Not of a nation state. Because zombie uprisings / biological warfare largely differs from other asymmetric warfare in that it does not, for the most part, require something as complex as the enrichment of uranium. I have argued forcefully elsewhere in these droppings that synthetic biology is not De Debbil, and that making a disease is more complex than what the DIYBio kiddies are capable of. But that doesn’t mean that it would be utterly beyond individuals or non-state actors. It would just have to be the right individuals or non-state actors. Like rogue graduate students, for example (again, a recurring meme here).

This therefore raises the question, how do you engineer society to defend against … society?

One option might be “don’t worry, be happy.” You can argue that the very impersonal nature of disease relative to, say, a bomb makes it easier to ignore. The Reagan administration did a bang-up job of ignoring the AIDS pandemic, for example. We’re used to disease, it’s part of our lives, even if it’s not as much a part of our lives as it once was. And, really, given the unbelievable amount of damage caused by that Third (or First, if you’re non-Biblical) Horseman, it doesn’t even really register. 25,000 flu deaths, yawn. Versus: oh my God, there’s a sniper in DC!

It’s not the effect, it’s the cause that seems to cheese people off. The notion of directed disease is so abhorrent as to be one of those few taboos that seems to have some staying power. That said, it seems inevitable that it will be torn asunder at some point, and societal displeasure will follow quickly.

So, I prognosticate that the dystopia we’re in is as nothing compared to the dystopia we’re moving towards (and, again, one person’s dystopia is another person’s Denny’s; I will leave you to figure out where I stand on the matter, although the question of cheeseburgers looms large in that regard). It seems likely that to defend against the fact that we can be thwacked with nuclear fury not by a Los Alamos project that required the combined scientific genius of several continents, but by a wayward dork whose brain chemistry isn’t quite right we must both engineer society to keep track of the dorks, and engineer society to be immune to the dorks. If you quit thinking about biological warfare and go back to thinking about computer hackers, nothing in that last sentence will seem odd. I hope we don’t have to get to the point where we decapitate the dorks.

So, we will become comfortable with genetic engineering, and embrace it. We will become comfortable with organizing society around defense epidemiology and herd-based immunological bulwarks, and will embrace them. We may even countenance more fundamental engineering of the human form, with the same advantages and problems that attended similar changes to plants in the Green Revolution(s).

All so that we don’t have our anonymous undead brethren rising to claw at our throats. Brains!

Tags: Epidemiology, Intelligence


- originally posted on Monday, April 18th, 2011