It is now late Autumn.
In late Autumn, with the days growing darker, with the nights getting colder…indeed, with Halloween just behind us, I have the privilege, perhaps even something approaching the obligation, to write about scary things. (No, not partisan politics. Not that scary.) Since I have pigeon-holed my talking points firmly in the world of the undead, I suppose it is fitting that I once again write about zombies.
But today, I’d like to make the discussion a bit more serious. I’d like to address the fundamental ethical questions that declare themselves in any decent zombie storyline. In doing this, I’d like to use some of the most provocative notions that are emerging from our increasing knowledge of the brain.
To you naysayers, I will myself say “nay."
I don’t believe in the dichotomy between high and low brow. This is my post, and if I wanna use zombies to talk about ethics, I’m allowed to do just that. Plus, I’m not alone. Today I’ll have a chance to elaborate on these ideas at an entire forum devoted to Zombie Neuroethics that will take place at Emory University. In other words, there are other folks swimming in these deceptively profound waters.
So, let’s start with the most troubling questions that are inevitably unearthed (so to speak) in zombie stories:
- Is it ever OK to kill a zombie?
- Is OK different from necessary?
- How do we answer these questions?
In zombie stories, I’d argue we don’t ever fully answer these queries. That’s in part because we get held up on question 3.
How DO we answer these questions?
I think we answer these questions by trying to decide how we define being human in the first place. And this is of course no easy task. In fact, some have stated that we would be best served by considering the capacity for consciousness to define our humanity.
Bioethicists have noted that as we get better at prolonging life functions in the absence of consciousness, we might find ourselves in the position of recognizing that “consciousness is an essential characteristic of being human.” This is in fact a direct quotation from an article in Behavioral Science and the Law. Put more simply, lungs that breathe and hearts that beat—even feet that ambulate—might not be enough in the eyes of some to earn the title of human. If we lack the ability to be conscious, then we might lack the capacity to be human.
Don’t shoot the messenger here. I am quoting from very thoughtful people but also aware of the potentially controversial nature of the content.
So, as it turns out, the ability to be conscious as the authors define it sits squarely in the neocortex. The authors note that we ought to instead discuss neocortical death rather than absolute death, and that neocortical death is therefore the loss of the ability to have or ever to reclaim a state of consciousness.
To the extent that zombies act like they lack a functional neocortex, we might be tempted to wander down this uncomfortable road:
absent neocortex = absent consciousness = not being human = being dead. (or undead)
Am I being provocative? Of course. But these are topics worth pondering.
Take it a step further. Some have also argued that the “default mode network” is necessary for humans to be declared human. This is the region of the brain—most likely the medial prefrontal cortex—that allows humans to imagine scenarios in the absence of incoming stimuli. The default mode network is what “switches on” when you are imagining, or thinking of the future, or rising above an otherwise un-interesting environment.
Ever see zombies in the movies without food nearby? It’s hard to imagine that they’re thinking of much of anything. To build on the equation above, we might argue it like this:
absent default mode network = absent medial prefrontal cortex = not human.
In both of these equations, we find ourselves deciding, at least in a fictional zombie scenario, that because zombies lack the brain function for consciousness, they lack as well the brain capacity for the more delicately defined notion that characterizes humanity. With that excuse in mind, we might feel that it is fine to go ahead and bludgeon them with that cricket bat, just as Simon Pegg’s character does in Shaun of the Dead.
Except that Shaun isn’t altogether comfortable with his newfound brutality.
What if that shambling thing still thinks? What if it feels? That scene where Pegg’s character has to dispatch what was once his mother is truly heart wrenching.
After all, studies of brain plasticity show that even in the absence of a functional neocortex, even without a medial prefrontal apparatus, people still can discriminate loved ones from unloved ones. People with brain injuries that would seem to interfere with the very qualities that we might be tempted to define as human beguile us at the end of the day by acting, well, human.
In other words, that shambling thing that you’re confronting in a zombie film? It might know you.
What now? Isn’t it amazing how this storyline steadfastly refuses a dichotomous parsing?
Y’all know I’m just having fun.
But, as with all fictional constructs, this kind of fun allows us to ponder topics that otherwise send shivers up our spines.
Now that’s scary stuff.
Steve Schlozman is the author of The Zombie Autopsies, which has been optioned for film by George Romero