Of mice and men

John B. Calhoun was an American ethnologist and behavioural researcher renowned for the series of studies of the rat and mice populations. In 1968 he initiated his most famous experiment in which he released four breeding pairs of mice into a carefully designed enclosure dubbed “Universe 25”.

The mice had abundance of food, water, nesting material and no natural predators. The objective of the experiment was to track the growth of the mice population in these conditions, which might have parallels to the social behaviour of humans on an increasingly overcrowded Earth. Based on his previous research Calhoun did not expect a happy ending and he was right. Here is a brief account of what happened in Universe 25 (after Mysterious Universe):

During this [first] phase, the mouse population of Universe 25 roughly doubled every 55 days until by day 315 their numbers had reached 620. (…) The enclosure wasn’t truly overcrowded, as it had been designed for up to 3,000 mice, but rather, it had developed a very unbalanced distribution of individuals. This persistent gathering and eating in overcrowded gathering points seemed to result in three times more socially immature mice than socially established ones, suggesting that they were somehow losing their ability to form social bonds. That was around the time when the perfect society of unlimited resources that Calhoun had so meticulously created began to crumble.

So social dysfunction started well before the population reached the limit of the available resources.

From around Day 315 of the experiment, a wide variety of odd behavior started to surface among the animals. Some male mice who had no social role in the face of the burgeoning population suddenly seemed to lose their sense of purpose and became detached from these natural roles. They stopped trying to defend their own territory or pregnant females, lost interest in those around them, and whereas they would normally emigrate to other broods they found none willing to accept them and so became listless wanderers tending to congregate in the center of the Universe where they spent their days mindlessly eating or fighting amongst themselves. These males were seen as the “outcasts” of the society.

If the mice universe was meant to show what might happen to us, humans, we see a growing population of unattached males with no family responsibilities and little interest in the society in general. Not a good sign.

The more dominant males among these became markedly more vicious and violent, attacking others without provocation and fighting for no apparent reason. Many of these roving males would roam about attacking or mounting, essentially raping, other mice indiscriminately, regardless of gender or relation. The non-dominant males conversely became extremely meek and passive, with some of them becoming the targets of repeated attacks by other males while refusing to fight back. In some cases, cannibalism occurred among the mice, and there was generally a descent into feral, violent behavior punctuated by intense bursts of shocking brutality.

This is getting really ugly. Does indiscriminate raping and intense bursts of shocking brutality not remind you of the exploits of the Islamic State? How about the West becoming “extremely meek and passive”?

The female mice were not having much more luck. In the absence of any males willing to protect their nests, mothers began to become highly aggressive towards trespassers, essentially taking on the role typically reserved for the males. Unfortunately, this went into overdrive. Young mice were banished before they were weaned and often mothers ignored their young or seemingly forgot about them. Some females became unusually aggressive towards even their own offspring and would even sometimes attack and kill their own young, while others became morose hermits who refused to mate. All of this led to a quickly sinking birthrate and an infant mortality rate of over 90% in some areas of the enclosure. 

This is truly frightening – aggressive females turning against their young, with a resulting precipitous drop in the birthrates.

The final phase of the experiment was ominously referred to as “the death phase” or “die period.” By Day 560, the population increase had plunged to next to nothing, partly due to the alarming mortality rate that had reached nearly 100% and partly due to a disinterested attitude towards procreation that began to be exhibited in many of the male mice.

More on the males disinterested in procreation:

Amid all of this turmoil and degradation within Universe 25, there was also a new generation of mice emerging that had not ever been subjected to a normal social upbringing and showed absolutely no interest in fighting, courtship, mating, raising young, or much of anything really. Calhoun referred to this aberrant group of mice as “the beautiful ones.” These “beautiful ones” were completely detached from society, had completely lost touch with normal mouse behavior, and spent all of their time eating, sleeping, or incessantly grooming and preening themselves, leading them to having a fine, robust, healthy appearance with keen and alert eyes, hence their name. Calhoun often referred to these mice as “handsome,” however, their beauty was truly only skin deep. Inside they were empty. 

Some interesting thoughts on how mind degradation leads to physical decline:

Calhoun liked to refer to this drastic detachment and lack of will to participate in society as the “first death,” or basically the death of the animal’s spirit, which would occur before the “second death,” or physical death of the body. Once this “first death” was reached, the mice were no longer really mice anymore but rather empty husks merely killing time awaiting the inevitable death of their body and an end to their pointless existence. They had in a sense lost all will to live in any useful manner.

And, finally:

This was the unstoppable slide to catastrophe, the point of no return, the “behavioral sink” that Calhoun had talked about, and the mouse utopia’s apocalypse came crashing down as all of these factors conspired to cause the population to start barreling rapidly towards extinction until there were none left. Universe 25 had ceased to exist.

In the context of its human parallels, I am finding the decline of Universe 25 both fascinating and scary.



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