It is quite common now to understand vampires and zombies in terms of some disease which takes over the body and re-animates it after death. Movies like "night of the Living Dead" and all of its offspring, including "28 days later," as well as books like "World War Z" use this theme. This is not the way vampires were always understood, however. The folklore of vampires is much older than Bram Stoker's Dracula, and the where widely regarded as real creatures in many parts of the world. But instead of disease, the vampire was either a person possessed by a malevolent spirit, or a ghost-like specter. It is only in the late 1800's that the germ theory of disease gains prominence, so the ground for changing our understanding of vampires was not set until then. (By the way, I love the irony of speaking scientifically about fictional entities, and using science to discover which of the myths surrounding vampires are factual, and which are purely mythical, something every vampire book has done since "I am Legend" first did it in 1951.)
For Matheson, there are three kinds of vampires. There are the newly diseased who will eventually die and turn into the undead variety. On the way to this disturbing end, many go mad, as they realize what they have become: flesh eating creatures that would eat their own loved ones if they could. Matheson explains the anti-social, hardly human variety of vampire in that way: they have gone mad. But it is possible not to go mad, or to come out of madness, and still not be undead. These are people simply with a disease that, if untreated, will kill them and turn them into the undead, and the disease will make them yearn, desire, require the blood of a living thing, preferably human, preferably undiseased human, to keep living. The bacteria at the root of vampirism needs blood to survive and prosper. At the death of the human, the corpse reanimates into a being properly called the vampire. The corpse does not breathe, its heart does not beat. This being seems quite rational, remembers events and people from its living days, plans ahead, and interacts socially with other creatures like herself. For example, knowing that Neville is all alone, the women vampires dance seductively, stripping, etc., in an effort to lure Neville out of his home so that they can eat him.
Now as we saw in the last post, Neville has turned himself into a scientist. he discovers many of the things I just described through experiments. Early experimentation include dragging a female into the sunlight to see if light really does damage the vampire. Answer: yes, as he watches the still living female scream, whither and die in the sun. He collects some blood from another to see if he can find the root cause of vampirism. Answer: yes, a bacteria he can see and for which he can test. He also experiments on the blood to see if the ingredients in garlic are toxic to the vampire. Answer: no, it seems to be an allergic reaction. In short, without the approval of the subject, without any desire for the good of the subject, Neville performs scientific experiments upon his subjects in an effort to know and understand. The pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
Later, he checks the blood of a woman who does not want him to to see if she is a vampire. He does not do this for her sake, but for his. Here we have experiments performed not for the sake of science, nor for the sake of the victim, but for the sake of the experimenter.
Now it turns out that a section of humanity has managed to survive, but with the disease. They develop a medicine to keep it in check, so they do not die of the disease, and as humans with a disease, they function socially just fine. They create a new society. Now suppose Neville found a cure. What if the new vampire-humans do not want to be cured? Is it right for him to force them to be cured against their own will?
I want to point to a few features of the current medical ethics in order to put these points into perspective. First, remember, "I am Legend" is written in the early '50's. Students of medical ethics are well acquainted with the Tuskegee Syphilis study of the 1930's. Here, the question was: what is the natural progression of syphilis in an African American? So they recruited poor black folks under the guise of treating syphilis, paid for by the Federal Government, when in fact, they were given no medication, and watched for years. A few years later, when a cure for syphilis was discovered, they were still kept in the dark, and watched for almost three decades. When the first people started to complain about the ethics of the study, the people in charge of the study reacted angrily, saying they would ruin its results. In other worlds, in a common attitude towards scientific study, the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge sake trumped any concern about the ethical treatment of the patients/subjects/victims. There are many, many examples like this, but perhaps not quite as egregeious.
Neville's attitude towards science and medical ethics fit the 1950's. But our intuitions differ. We hold you must keep the welfare of the subject in mind first and foremost, and we hold that you must have the approval of the subject, made aware of any problems that may occur. Neville does none of that.
Do vampires, as depicted in the book "I am Legend," have rights? Is it immoral to treat them as Neville does?
(Post is too long, I know.)