Death By Utopia

John B. Calhoun relaxing in Universe 25

In the late 20th Century, John B. Calhoun decided to make Utopia; it started with rats. In 1947 he began to watch a colony of Norway rats, over 28 months he noticed something, in that time the population could have increased to 50,000 rats, but instead it never rose above 200. Then he noticed that the colony split into smaller groups of 12 at most. He continued to study rats up until 1954. Then in 1958, he made his first lab.

He bought the second floor of a barn, and there he made his office and lab. For four years he had Universe 1, a large room hosting rats and mice alike. It was split into four spacious pens connected by ramps, each filled with rats. The thronging mass of rodents produced an odour so strong that unaccustomed visitors took several minutes until they could breathe normally. In 1963 he produced his most famous creation, Universe 1. The worlds first mouse mortality-inhibiting-environment.

2.7 metres square with 1.4m high walls. The ‘Universe’ was surrounded by 16 tunnels leading to food, water and burrows. No predators, no scarcity, the mice would have to be blind to not see the utopia around them. At least it began as Utopia. Four breeding pairs of mice were introduced into Universe 1. After 104 days they adjusted to the new world and the population began to grow, doubling every 55 days. By day 315 the population reached 620. Then is stopped. The population grew much more slowly as the mice came against the limit of space, their only limiting frontier.

Society broke. Young were expelled before they had been properly weaned and were arbitrarily attacked by excessive aggressive male mice. Females became more aggressive, non-dominant males became passive, not retaliating to attacks. The last healthy birth came on the 600th day. Then there were no new mice. Then there were none.

The outside of Universe 25

The purpose of the experiment for Calhoun was to examine a pressing problem, overpopulation. In the post-war 1940′s the world population was rising extremely quickly and in the 1970′s this continued. The question was, what happens next? So he tested it, and tested again. Just 9 years later, in 1972, he produced Universe 25, similar in design but so precise as to keep the temperature at a constant 20 degrees. No matter how he adjusted the ‘Universe’ the results were consistent, the mice moved from perfect to appalling.

After day 600, the male mice just stopped defending their territory, listless mice congregated in the centres of the Universe. These gangs would burst into pointless and sporadic violence. Females stopped reproducing and even started attacking their own young. Mortality rose phenomenally. Roaming mice either attacked or attempted to mount others, irrespective of relation or gender, cannibalism and other acts of depravity consumed them. These were the feral ones. Then there were the ‘beautiful ones.’

The ‘beautiful ones’ withdrew themselves ever so quietly, removing themselves from the sick society. Solitary pursuits began to define them; eating, drinking and grooming among others. No scars on their back or hairs out-of-place, these mice behaved like a separate race. They saw the world through their narrow scopes, as they tossed, turned and tried to cope.

In the end the population sank, even when it was back down to a tolerable level none of the mice changed back. The change was irreversible, the mice were different now. The secluded females could still bear offspring and the beautiful ones had the capacity to help produce them yet it never came. This tipping over into irreversible societal collapse came to be known as ‘The Behavioral Sink.’ John Calhoun called it the first death. Death of the mind and soul, leading eventually to the second death, of the physical form. What he meant was that after the first death, the mice were no longer mice and could never be so again.

Spoiler - Soylent Green is people!

Poster for dystopian film Soylent Green

In a time where people worried about the dangers of people gathering in cities it confirmed their worst fears. The paper, when published, was a massive hit as papers go, it fed into the public consciousness and seemed to match up with the worst of the worries. In 1973, the same year in which the paper was published, the film Soylent Green was released. It depicted a future, an overcrowded world where the population could only survive on Soylent Green, a food handout from the government. The source it turns out, was the more than plentiful supply of human corpses. This change, this innovation was reflected in his experiments. From the cannibalism to the behaviour in desperate mice, John Calhoun noticed that some mice, feral though they were, had to innovate to survive, they became creative.

This purpose of the experiments was not to portend some imminent doom for humanity, in fact Calhoun was trying to be positive. He wanted to change cities, his remedy to the behavioural sink was creativity. By changing society and changing how we designed our cities we could avoid becoming mired, stagnant, and eventually, dead as a dormouse. Over 100 Universes were designed after he published the paper in 1973, these ones designed with the aim of promoting creativity and reducing stagnation.

The fact that nearly everyone who read his research used it to draw out doom caused John Calhoun to become distraught. They missed his point, but still he pressed on. Regardless of what was said, there was science to do. He and others promoted space colonies as a way of advancing human societies and he convinced others to change the way they thought of cities. Bringing in the idea that the places in which people lived could affect their lives in the way they were designed.

For the first time in history, over 50% of the world population exists within cities, and they are safer than ever before, due in part to the ideas drawn from John B. Calhoun and his pungent rodents. His 1973 paper has been classed as one of the 40 most influential psychology papers of all time, and with good reason, it may have indirectly saved thousands of lives.

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Deployed on by Alexandre Coates in Macro Oddities 60 Current Replies

60 Responses to Death By Utopia

  1. Alana

    Great insight, good points made!!

     
  2. Yeshanu

    Good article, but it doesn’t quite go far enough. What happened in the 100 universes created after the paper was published? Did any of them work? Something for me to research…

     
  3. Bakeca Incontri Roma

    Great article! Thanks for sharing!

     
  4. Alex B

    Very interesting… but I am surprised that the scientist J. B. Calhoun never realised an absolutely vital flaw in his experiment. This bares no relevance to reality, for humans nor mice!

    When you pluck a part of nature from the real world and put it in your false one, all of the intricate balances of nature are put radically out of kilter. For if he were to create a real utopia, he would have to involve population culling factors to offset the innate biological drives which ensured the species success against those odds in the first place i.e. predators vs the mouse’s high frequency of breeding. Then he would have to create a utopia for the predators and account for all its biological factors, and would inevitably lead him straight back to the vast intricacy and intelligence of the unaltered nature of the world. This is why Alan Watts calls everything an ‘environment-organism’, because all things are as much organism as they are their environment, so closely are they weaved together in existence.

    Okay, so the refuting point to my argument would be that we humans are also in an artificial environment, one that is created for us and by us and off-kiltering nature in much more drastic ways. However, that is the singular crucial difference between us and the mice. We created this unnatural world, and are therefore knowledgeable and skilful enough to be able to, not only foresee the threats, but address them as well – such as over population. Although, sadly, no REAL movements are being made towards such endeavours at present, and the machine of human greed and selfishness continues to roll onwards towards its own demise.

    (Maybe it would be a utopia if tried neutering or removing and slaughtering the subjects in order to artificially maintain population levels? Bit of a weird utopia though…)

     
    • Alexandre Coates

      Great comment Alex! I’ll see if I can match you for complexity on this one.
      John B Calhoun’s ‘Utopia’ is simply an environment with no limiting factors, specifically, nothing would ever run out, apart from space. He assumed that having living things is a good thing; based on that assumption the environment he built, no limiting factors, optimised for the maximum number of mice. The Utopia though is beside the point.
      It is simply a place where he can have the most mice, in the least time, without shipping new mice in. He just incidentally created what is, initially, a haven for mice, so that he could enable this. Your point about a disconnect between a simple simulation and reality is a very sharp one, but as you admit, it is to model an artificial environment. Specifically an environment in which there is one dominant creature which has many of its needs catered for. The purpose of the experiment was to see how the crowding affected mice, and how to change the effect, not quite to create a Utopia, although he attempted that in his later work.
      You say that humans are “knowledgeable and skilful enough to be able to, not only foresee the threats, but address them as well”. This experiment was not an apocalypse simulator for an inevitable demise of humanity. Rather it was one of the things that makes us humans “knowledgeable and skilful”. Given this information we know exactly what to avoid, eye-watering population densities!
      It has given us the information that we need, mob-mentality can be murderous, split people up. Solutions to this are things like blocks of flats, here we have very high densities of people, but it is counteracted by the fact that the space is divided up, giving privacy. The lack of privacy or personal territory was one of the main factors that caused mice extreme stress and the ‘behavioral sink’. Just a little something to consider.
      I don’t have all of the answers, but I must thank you again for the very insightful, thought provoking comment. If you want to understand more about the problem of overpopulation I recommend viewing this TED Talk, it is very insightful: http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_on_global_population_growth.html
      I hope I was of some help.

       
      • Alex B

        Thank you for your response! That has cleared it up for me… I was perhaps a little quick to condemn him and the experiment. Haha. I am pleased that the experiment can go towards helping deal with these issues and raise awareness of them. Thanks again.

         
    • Tomas Hastings

      But you fail to realize that natural selection and survival of the fittest are in an attempt to build a utopia and strive for perfection through nature. The nature factor is pre-existent in the mice and in humans. The United States essentially is close to a Utopia. The fat and unhealthy ride off EBT food stamp cards and WIC, regardless most of the time of their own standing financially. Predators arise from their own population. Today we have our predators forming and the violent, and overly sexual rapists and child molesters/gays communicating via the internet, creating a new normal. In the mice colony, everyone is in plain sight and therefore can see what behaviors and norms are occurring.

       
  5. Alex B

    I wasn’t finished that first reply and it just sent… can that be deleted?

     
  6. Alexandrov Pupadent

    “No matter how he adjusted the ‘Universe’ the results were consistent, the mice moved from perfect to appalling.”
    vs.
    ” By changing society and changing how we designed our cities we could avoid becoming mired, stagnant, and eventually, dead as a dormouse.”

     
    • Alexandre Coates

      Thanks to the experiments we now what kind of conditions can de-humanise us. Using that information we can create places that avoid those situation, meaning we can avoid the mice-stagnation.
      I hope that helped, thank you for the insightful comment.

       
      • MichaelL65

        Has any of his research been adapted, or used in designing prisons? In some ways, the situation is similar to what the mice faced – everything provided, yet the fact that space is limited.

         
        • Alexandre Coates

          Thank you for the comment. Understand that this is my interpretation and that I am not a professional, but here goes my reckoning.

          A great cause of the stress was constant interaction, the space was all open-plan and the numbers were such that interaction was unrelenting. Social interactions are complex, our brains are large in part to aid us in managing our myriad social connections. So, understandably they put a strain on us, also the ability to restrain yourself is finite, so patience wears thin over time until recuperated during rest.

          So in prisons you have limited space, resources, and you have people. But consider this, the population is managed and set very stringently so that there is space enough to accommodate everyone. Additionally the prison is broken up into many spaces, most notably the cells. They are private, personal areas which contain fewer than 10 other individuals. These points of break from outer society allow for relaxation and recovery.

          I hope that answers your question.

  7. Tony Day

    Thought provoking stuff. I have often wondered about the efforts medcal science is making to combat all causes of death and serious illness and its possible effect on population growth.
    Whether or not anything in your article can shine a light on the problems which may be faced by human overpopulation is questionable. Great site. Well done

     
    • Alexandre Coates

      Thank you for the comment Tony. If you want to know more about science and overpopulation I highly recommend the TED Talks of Hans Rosling, a rather funny statistician with a wealth of useful information. Youtube him, or find him here: http://www.ted.com/speakers/hans_rosling.html
      The concern of this article is to do with extreme population density, something far beyond what is currently found on earth, even beyond the densities in Tokyo, or Mumbai.
      Also, population density is the same problem as population, it is a pressing concern. Fortunately within 30 or so years the world population should start decreasing, so it may solve itself. Unless the UN projections are wrong…

       
      • Melayahm

        I assume you meant wealth and not dearth!! :)

         
        • Alexandre Coates

          Thank you for the correction! I did indeed mean wealth.

  8. Melayahm

    I first heard about this experiment back in the 70′s when I was studying A level zoology. I remember being fascinated by the ideas and they’ve stuck with me ever since, but I never knew the details. Interesting to find out more about it after all these years!

     
    • Alexandre Coates

      It is great to know I have helped you satisfy your knowledge lust, at least for the moment. Thank you for the comment.

       
  9. Luke

    Brilliant, really brilliant … I’m going to dwell on this and dissect this a little more, and send a strongly worded email your way soon! :)

     
    • Alexandre Coates

      I am very flattered that would call something I wrote ‘brilliant.’ I worked hard on the piece, but it was also a very interesting topic. I look forward to the email… although I’m not sure I will be able to handle your strong words ;)
      Thank you for the comment.

       
  10. Oelsen

    Read, read:

    The lack of privacy or personal territory was one of the main factors that caused mice extreme stress and the ‘behavioral sink’.

    This sentence in a comment lets me think about how every communication online is stored by other “rats” and how cities are more and more panopticons.

     
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  12. Rassgg

    The question that I have is how many common genes do we share with Mickey? If it as many as I suspect, then this really is a cautionary tale. Maybe it is the unique genes that we have that gives the hope of a different outcome.

     
  13. jeff

    Great, great article thanks for the easy to follow intersting information.

    My one question and wonder about this, is he started with 4 breeding pairs, this would to me indicate that there was lots of inbreeding, perhaps in addition to the size restraints the mice recognized there were no good breeding matches or maybe they became more aware of it.

     
  14. Lois

    We still need to change the way cities are designed. There is too much concrete, glass, asphalt, and metal, and not enough greenery. Entire tops of buildings could be used as rooftop gardens (provided they are structurally sound). The greenery would not only be pleasant to look at, but reduce the amount of heat produced by artificial materials, and increase the amount of oxygen in the air. Imagine all the vacant lots and derelict buildings, malls, and amusement parks that could be restructured to provide green areas. Nobody likes living in ugly surroundings, so why not make an effort to make them more beautiful?

     
  15. Jason

    Thank you for the interesting article. I do have one question.

    “His 1973 paper has been classed as one of the 40 most influential psychology papers of all time, and with good reason, it may have indirectly saved thousands of lives.”

    How has his research influenced urban planning, city development, population control, etc.,etc.? I am by no means knowledgable in topics regarding the mentioned disciplines, but when I look at all of the new developments being implemented in large cities, I do not see any influences from Calhoun. New residential living quarters seem to be built as high rises and flats are becoming smaller to introduce more people into the center of civilization (read downtown New York flats). I see the exact opposite happening. I was just wondering whether Calhoun’s research is actually being implemented or if – like many other research projects that seem to large of scope to be able to control – has been passed on as a pipedream.

    Hopefully you are still monitoring this comment log, but if not, my own research will have to suffice. Thanks again.

     
  16. Matt

    Much as these were fascinating experiments, I have this niggling suspicion that there is more to them than meets the eye. Humans tend to have a basic assumption that the height of animal pleasure would be infinite food and safety. After all, most animals spend their entire lives seeking just that, so it would make sense. However, for a very long time, hominids did exactly the same thing. Once we had a surplus though, it turned out that we needed the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy in order to be really happy. Perhaps it’s just our enlarged prefrontal cortex that gives us the need to have meaning in our lives, but it never seems to be considered that other species may have that need as well. If that’s the case, mouse society may not have broken simply due to overpopulation. Rather, they may have been living in a hell of meaningless mouse-ennui. At the very least it could have been a contributing factor.
    It sounds far fetched maybe, but behavioral economist Dan Ariely describes a behavior in his book “The Upside of Irrationality” that he calls “Contrafreeloading.” It is the tendency for animals to prefer earned food rather than free food. Apparently all animals he tested (Except cats. Go figure.) exhibited this behavior. In fact, Professor Ariely’s parrot was described as having a propensity to self mutilate if was simply kept in a cage and fed without keeping its mind engaged. I have no idea how one would go about keeping mice mentally engaged, but I do know how for humans, which means the experiment may not translate as well as you may think.

     
  17. Leonida

    I get pleasure from, cause I found just what I was looking for.
    You’ve ended my 4 day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a great day. Bye

     
  18. jason

    If he only started with 4 breeding pairs, it may be the case that all the problems exhibited were due to inbreeding. Another much bigger experiment with many more breeding pairs needs to be done to rule out the possibility that inbreeding was the problem.

     
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  21. northierthanthou

    I remember hearing about this one when I was younger. Interesting to read about it in a little more detail.

     
    • Alexandre Coates

      I’m glad that you enjoyed it. If you know about any other interesting experiments do let me know, I can never have too many facts.

       
      • Trevor Coonan

        So Frederick Douglass’ comment “If there is no struggle, there is no progress” sort of fits here, as once need, want, desire and lack are removed the society disintegrates into primitive chaos.

         
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  24. Gordon Knotte

    I read John B’s report when it came out in the 70′. I just found this site while researching for anther project and glade to see the discussion is still going. Some four decade having past and there signs of some of Calhoun’s experiment poping up in human society. Note the comparison: Intertainment – more violence oriented. Human Homosexuality has and is still on the increase, Alpha male (and female) violance on submisives has increased, even in juveniles and children. Sexual Diviation – Rape, children and aged rape and sodemisation now a routine occurrence. The lack of individual responcibility is declining. Greed and poseciveness accompanied with an apathy towards other on the rise. Calhoun’s Universes will not be followed by the human event because of the ability of humans the evaluate history and plan for the future. But these gifts will not save society from the same end, it will only take longer. Just as in an un controlled, riotist prison or war zone the alphas will take control, the passives will become slaves, pleasure, corruption, and degeneration will stagnate leadership and uncontrolled disease will finish the race. There will be periods of revital, but in the end, the automated Soilant Green factories will stand idle.

     
    • Meer

      Hello,Since I learnt about the event, I have been worending if the BCO it’s going to be opened for the public, as we won’t be able to see it again in our life time. I am aware that the event is going to be very early in the morning, but I’m asking just in case.Thank you

       
  25. henk

    Hi there this is great research but to me it proves how nature adatopts to the environment which we pretty much knew already. To prove this came at the cost of experimenting with live rats. Sounds like lots of rats had to suffer death and pain just to prove this to us. Does animal cruelty not come into it? I think the Chinese 1 child policy is a measure that was taken for the same purpose of overcoming the extremes of behavior due over population. I would hate to think of the suffering of some of these other 100 plus experiments that were done. After all rats have eyes, smell, hearing, taste better than humans so what makes us think that the one sense “feeling” is not like ours or better than ours. I can accept similar research for the benefit of curing our diseases but this mega research in my opinion has serious neglect.

     
  26. Joy

    Well Henk, I think that the experiment provides a vital tool to the wellbeing of humanity. If humans are taught to conserve space in large cities they are also provided the opportunity to care for the wellbeing of nature and animal life. Some rats may have been expended in this procedure but the future of rats in the world will be preserved, as many rats live in the sewers amongst the world’s most populated cities. Let me ask you Henk, are you also a vegetarian, do you not eat meat or chicken?

     
  27. Pat

    Kind of reminds me of what is happening to today’s inner cities.

     
  28. ran

    thanks for the artical id like to find his other later experiements were he increased outside stimuli and or decreased the lvl of forced social intereaction, heres somethign kinda related
    http://sub.garrytan.com/its-not-the-morphine-its-the-size-of-the-cage-rat-park-experiment-upturns-conventional-wisdom-about-addiction?fb_action_ids=10100610983032145&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map={%2210100610983032145%22%3A711601315520870}&action_type_map={%2210100610983032145%22%3A%22og.likes%22}&action_ref_map=

     
  29. ryan

    found a synopsis of his work he did manage to find a solution to the behavoural sink for rats it involved privatefeeding and drinking once crowding became a issue thoug infant mortality went up to 80% (96%) if a behavoral sink was in effect it makes me wonder about armys though and mess halls, i think some ppl understood behavoral sink a long time ago lol i know i dont trust conventonal armed forces anymore after reading all this less infact they aply all the stresses to induce a behavoral sink then atempt to focuse them all into “ferals” and boo out the “outcast” and bootifull” types as far as i can tell

     
  30. ryan

    the bigest lack in calhouns experiments was the ability of the overpopulated mice to invade less populated areas i want to setup a behavior sink then alow ferals to migrate to a lower pop area and see what aditional changes take place in the pasives once the imediate preditation and example of preditation by ferals is gone, then i want to reintroduce the ferals back into mix and see if they behave like a seperate class or species i think i can make mouse pesants and nobility after a few migrations. but humans even though we live on 1 planet are broken into numourouse citys and were 1 degenerates to badly ppl migrate, we dont have the food on the planet to simulate his experiemnts fully it dose aply well to individual citys but thers more then 1 city and ppl migrate

     
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  32. Anonymous

    Strange… This really genuinely

     
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  39. BeauEvil

    I immediately saw this as a useful experiment to find limits to densely grow food animals. There are a few major differences. Hogs and chickens will cannibalize, but cows and sheep will not. In the (shameful) present-day feedlot production of beef, the situation seems essentially the same as described, limited space and unlimited food, except that we are the sole “predator”. But,we are not a natural predator which selectively culls the weak and infirm. We harvest an entire generation at a proper age. So, the situation isn’t comparable after all.

    What happens in that rat temple in India where people feed rats all day? What is different? I assume that the place must be more of a cobra utopia than a rat utopia since the predators cannot be controlled.

     
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  41. Shojo Bakunuy (@ShojoBakunyu)

    I see two types of people in the world today; the mindless breeders that have unplanned child after unplanned child and suckle Uncle Sam’s teat to be able to provide back care for these unplanned children and those that plan and plan and plan, not having any children or only having 1 or 2 and the outcomes of these two groups almost seem as if they are different species.

    Group one is made up of trauma survivors, addicts, the mentally ill. They end up mindlessly breeding due to the fact that sexual activity is their only means of emotional regulation and self esteem and they maintain a repetition compulsion that just perpetuates the intergenerational tramission of trauma and poverty…

    Group two is made up of people that overcome their mental illness, addiction, and trauma by not being born into a family that has normalizes acting out and thus they have a support network that seeks to get them treatment so their “nature” is overcome by “nurture”.

    Universe 25 looks like the girls I went to high school with that started having sex under age 15 and were doing coke and meth by 19… And started having kids before 19… And now they’re in their 30′s and have between 3 and 5 kids that are being exposed to the same abuse their parents were exposed to…

    U25 explains the Chicago housing projects…
    It explains the trailer parks of Alaska and Mississippi…
    It explains why our entitlement culture leads to multi generational poverty and acting out rather than as a stepping stone to indipendance and self reliance…
    It explains empty celebrates like Paris Hilton and the Kardashians.
    It explains Occupy Wall Street…

    We have l the food and booze and drugs we need and no goals but seek to gather more stuff and alter our perceptions.

    We work to get more ways to distract ourselves and have lost all ambition and satisfaction from the process of working towards a goal…

    As with the mice before the fall, we worry about our hair, worry about being mugged or our cars broken into, and seek oblivion through sexual acting out and substances.

     
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