A second death for mice and men
By Adam Tatelman, Arts Editor
From Huxley’s Brave New World to Orwell’s 1984, much political fiction has been written about the utopia’s potential to become a dystopian nightmare. Such stories are not mere entertainment. They are based in contemporary societal realities, often predicting the future by asking “if this goes on, what shall happen?” In the case of the stories above, the answers are less than comforting. Something rotten festers within the utopian ideal, perhaps within all of western civilization, and its full horror can be glimpsed even in the smallest of worlds.
John B. Calhoun (1917–1995) was an ethologist and behavioural researcher who conducted a series of experiments on rats and mice to determine the effects of overpopulation within what he called a “Mortality Inhibiting Environment;” essentially, a utopia for rodents.
His first experiment took place in 1947. Calhoun discovered that a colony of Norway rats, when given a 10,000 square foot outdoor terrarium, began to willingly segregate themselves into clans of roughly 12 rats as their population increased. Larger groups of rats appeared to be incapable of social maintenance, and subsequently disbanded. Curiously, the colony’s population never rose above 200 rats during the 28-month research period, despite the surplus of space and fertile females.
Calhoun continued to add variables to subsequent versions of his rat utopia, such as building in separate living spaces for the rat clans. In 1968, Calhoun repeated the experiment with a more refined set of circumstances. Using property and specimens secured by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Calhoun introduced four breeding pairs of mice into his Mouse Universe, a nine-square-foot pen lined with mesh tunnels, simulating walk-up apartments. There were 256 mouse apartments in total, each containing food, water, and nesting scraps, i.e. all the necessities of life. There were no illnesses or predators to contend with; only the lack of space.
Theoretically, the Mouse Universe would have adequately sustained just over 3,800 mice, but it never had to. Every time Calhoun ran the experiment, the mouse colony exhibited identical patterns of social breakdown, which he described as “behavioural sink.” The pattern ran its course through four distinct phases, the first of which Calhoun called “strive.”
During the strive phase, the first eight mice spent 104 days adjusting to their new environment and nesting. Following this, the exploit phase saw the mouse population double every 55 days—impressive even by mouse standards. The equilibrium phase was reached at day 560, when the mouse population peaked at 2,200—not yet truly overcrowded from a purely spatial perspective, but full to bursting in terms of social space.
In the months leading up to day 560, the mice began to display increasingly anti-social behavior. Adolescent mice were rejected from social territories with increasingly greater frequency, causing them to become passive and reclusive. This phenomenon grew with each passing generation, leading to the persecution of passive males by roving mouse gangs, including uncharacteristically aggressive and violent females. The social hierarchy began to disintegrate, with the breeding males slowly losing interest in their territory, females, and young. Some mice began to mount others regardless of gender. A few others displayed cannibalism.
With each passing generation, the birth-rate declined due to male disinterest in mating. The females seemed to lose interest in their own young, abandoning or killing them. Most disturbingly, the females also lost the ability to carry their young to term. According to Calhoun, “infant mortality ran as high as 96 per cent among the most disoriented groups in the population.”
In the final phase, the “decline,” the mice stopped fighting and breeding altogether. The final generation sequestered themselves entirely, grooming constantly, emerging to feed only when the other mice were asleep. Calhoun rescued a few of them and attempted to re-integrate them into another mice society, but their behavior did not change. They were physically perfect specimens, but they had lost all social and reproductive motivation, choosing to simply wait for the end. Calhoun named them “The Beautiful Ones.”
The final successful birth took place on day 600. The population continued to decline, but the mice never bred again, nor did they partake in any typical mouse behaviour. Calhoun characterized this as the “first death,” an existential despair that causes paralysis of the mind in anticipation of the “second death,” or death of the body.
At first glance, these mice had everything they needed to ensure prosperity, yet the condensation of the population rendered the mice incapable of passing on the basic knowledge necessary for reproduction. As Calhoun put it, “For an animal so simple as a mouse, the most complex behaviours involve the interrelated set of courtship, maternal care, territorial defense, and hierarchical intra-group and inter-group social organization. When behaviours related to these functions fail to mature, there is no development of social organization and no reproduction […]”
Calhoun’s experiment has since become an icon of social pessimism. His ideas are reflected in films like Soylent Green and A Clockwork Orange, as well as a large body of scientific literature. As Calhoun ominously noted in his 1962 paper Population Density and Social Pathology, “For an animal so complex as man, there is no logical reason why a comparable sequence of events should not also lead to species extinction.”
If that sounds alarmist, consider that within the last decade, a number of phenomena have emerged that closely mirror the four stages of the behavioural sink seen in the Mouse Universe.
Population condensation is always the first cause. Just as in the Mouse Universe, humans tend to congregate in certain areas and abandon others. As such, populated areas become gradually more condensed. Cities like Rio de Janeiro squeeze a whopping six-million people into a mere 1,221 square kilometres of space, and, fascinatingly, it is not even among the most densely populated cities in the world. Compare this to Mumbai in India, where 22-million people reside within 603 square kilometres. For perspective, that’s nearly 25,000 people per square kilometre.
The lack of physical and social space in these urban centres leads to a stressed environment, causing social unrest and violence. This phenomenon can be observed in major cities like Mexico City and New York, especially in crowded inner-city areas where crime is most prevalent.
Another phenomenon that can be observed in densely-populated areas is the breakdown of the family. The U.S. Census Bureau shows that one in four American children lives in a fatherless household—17.4 million children in total. Forty-five per cent of such families are considered poor. Along with the social difficulties faced by food-insecure families, the children of these households lack strong role models to help socialize them, much in the same way that Calhoun’s mice failed to uphold social organization when the fathers left the nest.
Failure to reach a replacement birth rate is the next logical phase. The global average fertility rate has declined steadily for the past 50 years in nearly all parts of the world, especially in urban centres like Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong. This is a natural adaptation made by apex predators with high infant survival rates; to avoid overpopulation, the species reproduces more slowly. It may not yet be a problem, but that merely indicates the only significant difference between our world and the Mouse Universe: scale.
Even the Beautiful Ones have an analog in humanity. The Japan Times reported that 20.3 per cent of Japanese men aged 25–29 have no interest in pursuing sex or relationships with women, preferring instead to live solitary lives. These Sohsoku kei Danshi, or “herbivore men,” often avoid social interaction and refuse to be a part of consumer culture. Similar groups of men have begun to appear in the UK, US, and Canada over the last few years, identifying themselves as “Men Going Their Own Way,” or MGTOW for short.
Whether or not this was his intent, Calhoun’s work and the human reflections thereof handily explain the problem with utopias. That is, they make all their inhabitants redundant. All the important roles have been filled by a system which provides a standard of comfort to its citizens. Although this setup might appeal to one’s inner idealist, it carries with it unforeseen consequences. The moment there are more people than there are roles to fill, the population becomes restless, aimless, and even suicidal, often without realizing why.
It would be nihilistic to say that humankind’s extinction is certain, yet it seems we have mistakenly adopted the very conditions which could speed our demise as a species. We are animals, and we respond to input the same way other animals do, so it is foolhardy to disregard Calhoun’s warning. Yet, unlike Orwell and Huxley, it is not enough for us to merely ask “if this goes on, what shall happen?” We must find a way to change the answer.
To strive is the natural instinct of all living beings. When this personal responsibility is taken away, the subject loses its sense of self. Fortunately for us, we have two things that Calhoun’s mice did not—opposable thumbs and measurable I.Q. scores. It falls to each of us to put those things to use; to assert our independence from the natural order, and create motivation for ourselves on the individual and societal levels. Averting the first death requires us to change the rules of the experiment.
Otherwise, we may become beautiful only in death.