In 1947 John B Calhoun began the first in a series of experiments that would run for the next 25 years. These experiments looked at the impact of overcrowding, initially on rats and in later experiments on mice. They became known as the Mouse Utopia experiments, and their findings have been suggested to carry a grave warning for the future of mankind.
Si Baroni looks back at Calhoun’s work and asks whether in today’s chaotic world, we are beginning to see the parallels between his experiments and our own societal failings…
The world in 1947 was one of heavy juxtaposition. In one sense, the whole planet was taking an elongated sigh of relief as the bloodiest conquest in our history had finally been brought to a shuddering halt with the dual bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively in August 1945. At the same time, mankind’s first (and subsequently only) use of atomic weapons had ushered in an era of new anxieties as the cold war entered its infancy.
When I think of the 50s, I think of the stylised ‘Americana’ version me and my Generation X cohorts were presented with. Everything was big bright and bold, yet overwhelmingly wholesome and dare I say it, reassuringly conservative (with a distinctly small c). But as I look back across some old footage from the era now as I prepare to write this article, I can’t help but think that all of the dominant bold colours, and the over-saturation of the film itself, is a particularly strong metaphor for the era at large.
The vibrance seems to be turned up just a tad too much, just a bit too bright, in the way a child is drawn to bright colours in their naive positivity. This is of course, understandable considering the echoes of the second world war were ringing fresh in the minds of a scarred generation, but to me, it also hints to much deeper collective need to desperately cling on to all that is wholesome in the face of a clawing anxiety trying to snatch it away. The brightness at the centre of this world, was there to stop us thinking too much of the demons that lay in wait in the dark corners of the societal psyche.
It was in this world, against this complex societal backdrop that John B. Calhoun began to conduct the first of his experiments in what would become known as the Mouse Utopia project. The plan was to understand and thus better prepare ourselves for one of these emerging collective anxieties, our sleepwalking into a Malthusian catastrophe, as a result of increasing human overcrowding.
The first of Calhoun’s experiments, which would go on to become his life’s work, began not with mice, but with rats.
In March 1947, he began a 28-month study of a colony of Norway rats in a 10,000-square-foot (930 m2) outdoor pen which he had convinced his neighbours to let him build on their land near his home. Into this pen he introduced a colony of around 30 of Norwegian rats who would live a life without fear of predators or disease and with abundant levels of food and water.
Calhoun has speculated ahead of the experiment that the five healthy females he had included within the initial population would be able to theoretically produce 5,000 healthy progenies for this size pen. Yet in this first experiment Calhoun had already identified that there was some causal link between the density of the colony and its ability to function in the way it would within a less constrained environment. Instead of the colony growing to the levels that would be expected, Calhoun found that the population never exceeded 200 individuals, and stabilized at 150.
In addition to this the rats had created a distinct set of subgroups throughout the pen rather than disperse themselves across the area in any random manner. Each sub-group, of which there were twelve or thirteen, contained about a dozen rats each – a number he noted that appeared to be the maximum that can live harmoniously in a natural group. Beyond this size, he observed, 'stress and psychological effects being to function as group break-up forces.'
As the experiment progressed and the population increased mothers began failing to care for their young effectively, leaving the majority of young to die before reaching maturity...
But why did the population of the what Calhoun had affectionately dubbed Rat City stay capped at around the 150 mark? Calhoun’s careful observation of the colony identified an unexpected cause for this population stagnation, unnaturally high infant mortality rates. For some reason, as the experiment progressed and the population increased, mothers began failing to care for their young effectively, leaving the majority of young to die before reaching maturity.
The results of this first experiment were intriguing certainly, and Calhoun had begun to formulate his own theories as to why this was occurring but to prove them he would need to replicate the experiment many times over. As he did so, his theories would become more robust, the evidence of his work would become more concrete. However, the truths revealed in Calhoun’s subsequent experiments across the next two decades revealed an even more dystopian nightmare of the rodent kind than even he had predicted.
With the first experiment concluded, Calhoun was hired by the National Institute of Mental Health, and across an eight-year period where he refined his methodology in a series of more controlled experiments, in smaller enclosures he dubbed ‘Rodent Universes’. The enclousres were populated this time by a strain of albino domestic Norwegian rats.
With the additional resources now available to him, Calhoun established a team to continue the studies in which the rats were provided with everything except space. The rats were again provided with ample food, water, protection from disease and predators and materials for nesting. In short, these rats were given everything they could desire for a physically healthy rat lifestyle. Eight years later, in 1962 he announced his findings to the world in a paper entitled ‘Population Density and Social Pathology’ published in the Scientific American journal.
The opening paragraph of that paper set out the tone and gravity of his work in a beautifully succint, yet deeply ominous manner.
But what of vice? Setting aside the moral burden of this word, what are the effects of the social behaviour of a species on population growth – and of population density on social behaviour?
“In the celebrated thesis of Thomas Malthus, vice and misery impose the ultimate natural limit on the growth of populations. Students of the subject have given most of their attention to misery that is to predation, disease and food supply as forces that operate to adjust the size of a population to its environment. But what of vice? Setting aside the moral burden of this word, what are the effects of the social behaviour of a species on population growth – and of population density on social behaviour?”
As with his initial experiment Calhoun found that the behaviour of the females soon rapidly began to follow the same pattern as before. Many of the females actually became unable to carry out their pregnancies to full term, whilst those that did once again would neglect their young resulting in unnaturally high infant mortality rates, even reaching a staggering 96% within one of the colonies. However, the impact on the behaviour of the male rats was even more pronounced.
As Calhoun wrote: “Among the males the behaviour disturbances ranged from sexual deviation to cannibalism and from frenetic overactivity to a pathological withdrawal from which individuals would emerge to eat, drink and move about only when other members of the community were asleep.”
It was this increase of behavioural pathology within the colonies that Calhoun and his team coined ‘Behavioural Sink’, as the rat populations continued to show the same repeated behaviours. Calhoun had also noted that the male rats would fall into four distinct categories. These were the dominant rats, who would guard their dominion and effectively hold power over a harem of female rats. Interestingly, the female rats that were held within the dominant male rats’ groups showed no deviation when it came to their maternal instincts unlike their peers within the wider colonies.
Beyond this there were three other types of male rat that Calhoun described as follows:
“The Homosexuals. A group perhaps better described as pan sexual. These animals apparently could not discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate sex partners. They made sexual advances to males, juveniles and females that were not in estrus. The males, including the dominants as well as the others of the pansexuals' own group, usually accepted their attentions. The general level of activity of these animals was only moderate. They were frequently attacked by their dominant associates, but they very rarely contended for status.”
“Somnambulists. They ignored all the other rats of both sexes, and all the other rats ignored them. Even when the females were in estrus, these passive animals made no advances to them. And only very rarely did other males attack them or approach them for any kind of play. To the casual observer the passive animals would have appeared to be the healthiest and most attractive members of the community. They were fat and sleek, and their fur showed none of the breaks and bare spots left by the fighting in which males usually engage. But their social disorientation was nearly complete.”
“The Probers. These animals, which always lived in the middle pens, took no part at all in the status struggle. Nevertheless, they were the most active of all the males in the experimental populations, and they persisted in their activity in spite of attacks by the dominant animals. In addition to being hyperactive, the probers were both hypersexual and homosexual, and in time many of them became cannibalistic. They were always on the alert for estrous females.”
It was clear that Calhoun’s work was revealing regular patterns in the degradation of societal norms within the rodent colonies. However, perhaps the most fascinating truth uncovered within this wave of experiments was the significant impact of socialization on the amplitude of the behavioural sink.
The more delayed eating process caused new socialisation habits and it was these habits that generated the behavioural sink...
This was identified by a variant that Calhoun included within separate universes that forced the rats to become more socialized during a crucial biological necessity, feeding. In one group of universes the rats were given access to their food via special devices in which hard pellets were behind wire mesh. This made it harder for the rats to feed so they would remain at the feeding area longer. In the second, set of universes, the rats were fed with open access to powdered food so they could feed quickly.
This somewhat innocuous difference had profound impact on the behaviour of the rats. Why? Calhoun’s study indicates that the more delayed eating process caused new socialisation habits and it was these habits that generated the behavioural sink.
This socialization was caused by the slow conditioning of the rats that eating alongside each other moved from an unusual occurrence to a necessity. Due to the delayed nature of the feeding process the chances were high that while one rat was eating another would join it at the feeding station. Additionally, the arrangement of the ‘Universe’, drew more rats into the central pens than into the end ones, it was in these pens that the individuals were most likely to find other individuals eating.
Eventually, the social aspect of the activity became determinant: the rats would rarely eat except at feeding stations already in use by other animals. At this point the process became a vicious circle resulting in an ongoing feedback loop of socialized feeding. By the time the three experiments of the first series drew to a close, half or more of the populations were sleeping as well as eating within the same central pen and the signs of behavioural sink were highly evident.
Contrast this to the second set of universes where the rats fed quickly and thus the chances of co-feeding were far lower and thus the socialization feedback loop failed to materialise and the social pathology exhibited by the rats in the second wave of experiments, although remaining severe compared to a natural baseline, was far less extreme than that within the first series of experiments.
Across the next 11 years Calhoun went on to continue his study with a series of similar experiments, this time on house mice. There were some distinct differences between these latter studies, in particular the design of the enclosures became more vertical in nature, with the pens designed for sleeping at the top of tall metal tubes which Calhoun dubbed walk up apartments. At the bottom of each apartment was a virtually unlimited supply of food, water and nesting materials as with the earlier rat experiments. The other distinction between the two sets of experiments is perhaps the most crucial, in these latter experiments Calhoun and his team interfered far less and adopted an approach of merely sit back and observing.
Yet, despite the lack of interaction and instigation of Calhoun and his team, the mice responded to the overcrowded environment in exactly the same way as the rats had done previously. Once again the mice became centred in one area, and the implicit conditioning of socialization and feeding began to occur, albeit this time with no coercion by Calhoun and his team. Subsequently the need for social interaction became so aligned with the need for food that the former began to outweigh the latter. Once more this over socialization led to behavioural sink with the mice showing the same social degeneration as the mice had previously.
The resemblance to human behaviour is frightening. In humans we see poor family relationships, the lack of caring, the completely alienation, the magnetic attraction of over-crowding...
At the time of the publication of Calhoun’s initial paper, psychologist Carl Rogers had drawn worrying comparisons between the societal degradation of Calhoun’s rats and the overburdened societies of high-density human populations, writing “The resemblance to human behaviour is frightening. In humans we see poor family relationships, the lack of caring, the complete alienation, the magnetic attraction of over-crowding, the lack of involvement which is so great that it permits people to watch a long drawn out murder without calling the police. Perhaps, all city dwellers are inhabitants of a behavioural sink?”
Upon the publication of his paper into the later mouse experiments, Calhoun himself echoes this sentiment concluding “For an animal so complex as man, there is no reason why a comparable sequence of events should not also lead to a species extinction. If opportunities for role fulfilment fall far short of the demand by those capable of filling roles and having expectancies to do so, only violence and disruption of social organization can follow. Individuals born under these circumstances will be so out of touch with reality as to be incapable even of alienation. Their most complex behaviours will become fragmented., Acquisition, creation and utilization of ideas appropriate for life in a post-industrial cultural-conceptual-technological society will have been blocked. Just as biological generativity in the mouse involves this species’ most complex behaviours, so does the ideational generativity for man. Loss of these respective complex behaviours means the death of the species.”
Calhoun’s work has had a profound impact on many popular culture visions of a nightmarish dystopian future including references in Batman and Judge Dredd. Ominously perhaps that future which was predicted in our past has now become our present. The progressive movement that has emerged as a dominant line of thinking within the West, appears on its surface, to celebrate much of the social degradation that Calhoun witnessed in his various rodent populations, before they all headed to their inevitable societal collapse.
The LGBT movement has gone through a rapid transformation across a relatively short period, from being a movement which rightly demanded the morally correct and just application of equal rights and social parity for a minority section of society, to one which just some forty years later, openly embraces debauchery in public displays of power at pride marches that see nudity, fetishism and bondage pushed as a family-friendly environment.
Similarly, the trans acceptance movement has equally transformed from the morally correct drive for acceptance within wider society of those who until recently, were diagnosed legitimately with suffering a mental condition of gender dysphoria, and were simply trying to find a place in the world for themselves, to a world where it is not just acceptable for an 11 year old drag queen to perform a strip routine in front of an audience of men who are thrusting dollar bills at him, but it is celebrated.
At the same time, the far-left progressive thugs of Antifa are marching openly across the developed nations in violent protest of the rise of the ‘far right.’
These are the brave warriors for social justice who defended all of our freedoms from the evils of an Asian, gay, journalist who had the temerity to document their violent and unlawful disruption of the city of Portland. They bravely beat him down en-masse until he suffered bleeding on the brain.
Let’s not forget either the brave collective of Antifa in Canada who made sure that the old lady, trying to cross the street on her zimmer frame, knew that she too was a fascist. They made sure she understood this by screaming directly into her confused and frightened face. The lack of self-awareness amongst them is almost comical, the violent output though is not.
All the while we are seeing the incel movement, young men who have become involuntarily celibate, being pushed to the fringes of society as they try to just get on as best as they can having largely been born with the ultimate original sin of being male and if they are really unlucky being born white as well.
What better example of the death of maternal instinct could there be than the conscious decision to remove oneself from the gene pool altogether?
How about the recent trend towards sterilization and its celebration within pockets of western civilization? What better example of the death of maternal instinct could there be than the conscious decision to remove oneself from the gene pool altogether?
Sexual deviation, extreme violence and aggression, the rejection and isolation of the non-alpha males to the fringes of society all occurred within Calhoun’s over socialised rodents, and the parallels with our own societal collapse is unnerving. One could be drawn to the fact that the UN predicts that 70% of the world’s populations will be living in urban conurbations by 2050 as a further cause for concern. This does of course present its own challenges, not least around sanitation.
However, the issues I’ve outlined above are generally centred around the west and in particular the English speaking anglosphere, so I don’t think physical proximity is the challenge that needs to be overcome.
Indeed, as Calhoun’s experiments revealed whilst social psychopathy was generated by the density of population this in and of itself didn’t lead to excessive behavioural sink. It was only amongst the rats and mice whose behaviour became hyper-socialised that this phenomenon was realised.
This leads me to a hypothesis of my own.
We live in a world where we are constantly connected.
Just think back to your own day to day life. How often is it that you’ve sat with someone during a meal when they’ve been constantly on their phone responding to social media discussions? Think back to the last time you were in a relatively busy environment, how many people around you were staring down at the screens transfixed. We know now that Facebook, which became the blueprint for all other social platforms, was designed to be addictive. Every little interaction giving us that dopamine hit we craved so much, keeping us coming back for more.
Is our addiction to social media akin to what Roger’s describes as the magnetic attraction of over-crowding – a dangerous addiction that can only lead to our own self-destruction?
Could it be that by introducing such hyper-socialisation into all aspects of our lives we have begun our own behavioural sink on masse?
Like Calhoun’s rodents, could it be that our reliance on socialization is eroding our fundamental core habits, leading to some kind of society wide malfunction? Is our addiction to social media akin to what Roger’s describes as the magnetic attraction of over-crowding – a dangerous addiction that can only lead to our own self-destruction?
Could it be in fact that the act of hyper-socialisation is indeed a distinct and separate issue from that of population density entirely and that the dangers of hyper-socialisation are just as real in a digital format than would be in a face-to-face scenario?
Again, the fact that it is Western societies that are falling to progressivism would seem to support this notion.
The progressive malaise hasn’t infected the vastly over-populated cities of Asia in any significant manner for example, although interestingly we are seeing it creep into Indian society which again has closer historical and linguistic links to the Anglosphere. This would suggest that the link is not necessarily related to physical proximity, but more aligned with social interaction – something which is more easily facilitated with the thread of a common language.
Could it be that the introduction of social media into our society has pushed us into our own behavioural sink?
Sadly, by the time we establish whether there is any truth in this hypothesis, it may well be too late.