Zombies and Speciesism: An Allegory on Animal Experimentation
This analysis is going to focus on zombies and how they relate to Veganism. If that seems like an unlikely pairing, hold on.
M.R Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts proves to be a thoughtful meditation on Animal Experimentation, Speciesism and the personhood of non-human animals.
To begin, let’s consider the genre of Zombie Fiction. In classic iterations the undead shuffle about in large packs following their instinct to feed on the brains of the living. It is understood without question that a zombie is not a person, or even a human. They used to be human, but are no longer included in this group.
The reasons for this comes down to their mindlessness – they no longer have an interior life. They have no vital interests, or that their primary vital interest – your brain, is also of vital interest to you. Thus a Zombified person is cast out of the circle of Humanity.
M.R Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts subverts this trope with a unique take on the Zombie. A parasitic fungal Infection hijacks the human vessel to propagate itself. We are introduced to Melanie and a class of other ‘children’ who are the offspring of the first wave of these zombies (referred to as Hungries) who resemble humans almost entirely despite being decidedly non-human.
From the beginning Melanie’s consciousness is never put into question for the reader. She is articulate, observant and possesses a sense of self. She knows who she is. Yet we come to understand that although this is abundantly clear to us, those around Melanie do not treat her this way.
In fact, the way she is treated darkly parallels how we treat animals in scientific research today. She and the others are kept in unadorned windowless cells with a few paltry clippings of forests and other ‘outside’ things taped to the wall. Just like a Chimpanzee in captivity with a mural of the jungle painted on their enclosure.They are transferred from this cell to a classroom for their lessons, over and over.
In fact, the way she is treated darkly parallels how we treat animals in scientific research today. She and the others are kept in unadorned windowless cells with a few paltry clippings of forests and other ‘outside’ things taped to the wall. Just like a Chimpanzee in captivity with a mural of the jungle painted on their enclosure.
With the knowledge that Melanie and the others are cognisant this treatment feels like solitary confinement. Yet what we understand as psychological punishment for humans is blithely accepted as fine for non-humans.
It seems unfair and cruel that Melanie is subjected to this – but one should consider why this would ever be okay, for anyone human or not.
Even more desolate than subjecting these thinking, feeling individuals to a life of boredom is that for all their time spent in class their fate is to be dissected at the hands (scalpel, really) of Dr. Caldwell. Her scientific research aims to understand how these Hungry Children can exist in duality, possessing the virus and yet also consciousness. To solve this mystery she needs to examine their brains and ignore that they have minds.
Dr.Caldwell is an interesting character. In this novel no reader can see her as anything but a villain. She refuses, despite the evidence, to acknowledge Melanie’s humanity. Throughout the novel she steadfastly refers to her as Test Subject Number One. She also denies that Melanie and the others are capable of feeling pain.
In one troubling passage she performs a vivisection on one of Melanie’s classmates because she does not want to waste any anaesthetic. Her myopic focus on ‘a cure’ does not engender any sympathy in the novel. She reads as a scientist who has strayed too far into the weeds. If the first Hungry Child yielded no results, the fifth, tenth or fiftieth is not likely to either. Her research leaves only a mountain of suffering and no tangible results, unfortunately just like much research conducted today.
It would be hard to find a reader who would condone Dr. Caldwell’s methods. She is murdering children after all. Or is she? That’s the question the reader should wrestle with in this novel. So often, in fact almost always, in their daily life they chose to side with the Dr. Caldwell’s of the world. The reader would forsake a potential vaccine to the disease for Melanie’s life. Would they extend this to another non-human? Maybe they would forsake someone for yet another shampoo.
Is it because she looks like a human child? If that were the case then the reader would have to concede that the hordes of zombies threatening the survivors must be taken into account too. This is because they are people too – just brainless ones. Yet that argument does not hold sway. The reason being is that they do not have consciousness – they lack an interior life. Melanie is not a person (she is not even human, remember). She is a Hungry. Yet we easily extend her humanity and personhood. We do not want to see her tortured.
We accept that she has a right to life and desire for her life to be more fulfilling then spending it in her enclosure. We accept all this because we see that she is a thinking, feeling creature. She is not human but we do not want to cause her pain, even if that meant Dr. Caldwell may potentially find a cure for other humans. Can we then extend our compassion for a character in a novel to our interactions with non-human animals in the world? We already acknowledge that they think, feel pain, and learn.
Can we then extend our compassion for a character in a novel to our interactions with non-human animals in the world? We already acknowledge that they think, feel pain, and learn.
We can easily prioritize Melanie (a non-human animal) over humans in the novel. Can we prioritize others in this way? Many intelligent creatures similar to Melanie are deprived of stimuli and languish in cold, sterile cells. If Melanie were a chimpanzee could we dismiss this desire for autonomy?
We continue to jealously covet all these ‘special traits’ as purely human; when we know they are not. Dr. Caldwell challenges one of the characters who questions her research “Which will do the most good in the end? Your compassion or my commitment to my work?”.
I believe we all know the answer to this question. We just need to put it into practice.
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