Wed. Jul 24th, 2024

The Rats City

Mice were given everything they needed except space in John B. Calhoun’s early swarming experiment. Followed by severe psychological disturbances, the result is a population explosion so that the animals die to extinction. The horrific spectacle of behavioral sinking is an exciting symbol of the problems that await overpopulation for those who are pessimistic about the world’s carrying capacity.

In humans and mice, the takeaway message is that overcrowding causes pathological behavior. Calhoun’s work enjoyed considerable popular success. However, cultural influences can run in many people. Calhoun’s experiments resulted in a popular simplified version of his work. Calhoun’s neighbors agreed to let him build rat cages in the disused woods of his backyard in Towson, Maryland, in 1947.

Later, Calhoun would ponder that his neighbors might want some rat cages. What Calhoun had built was a quarter-acre stable. He called it the city of rats, planted with five pregnant females. In addition, he also calculated that the habitat is sufficient to accommodate as many as 5000 rats. Instead, the population leveled off at 150. In the two years Calhoun watched, it stayed within 200.

However, a population of only 150 seemed ridiculously low. Calhoun repeated the experiment in a rodent universe he specially built, employed in the Psychology Laboratory of the National Institute of Mental Health from 1954.

Hell in a Cell

The cage is the size of a room that we can see from the attic above through a window through the ceiling. Again, he provided shelter, bedding, and food for its population using various rat strains. Calhoun described his experimental universe as a haven for mice with no exposure to disease, and he kept predators to a minimum. Animals reproduce with mouths and with all their visible needs met.

As the population grew, it became more and more problematic, and the only limit Calhoun imposed on the population was space. One of his assistants described the rodent utopia as having become hell when the stables were full of animals. Some males move in groups, are dominant but aggressive, and attack young females. Mating behavior is disrupted, and some become exclusively homosexual.

Others try to ride any rat they come across, and still, others become hypersexual and pansexual. First, failing to build a proper nest, parents neglect their babies. Recklessly, they then abandon and even attack their children. The infant mortality rate is nearly 100% in certain enclosure parts. Dead cannibalistic adults and subordinate animals withdraw psychologically. They survive physically.

However, the consequences come at a colossal psychological cost. As well as being unable to reproduce, the population is not recovering and declining.

Calhoun’s Research

Rats make up the majority in the final phase of growth. Some were huddled in the middle of the cage, and some as empty masses. After population numbers again fell to low levels, the swarming rodents lost the ability to coexist harmoniously. They stop acting like mice and rats at a specific density, and the changes are permanent. The outcomes of Calhoun’s mouse research at NIMH were printed in a 1962 issue of Scientific American.

Cited more than 100 times in one year, Population Density and Social Pathology became one of the papers from Roger R. Hock’s Forty Studies That Changed Psychology. It joins papers by luminaries such as John B. Watson, B. F. Skinner, and Hermann Rorschach. Calhoun’s rat has taken on almost iconic status as an emblem animal. It exemplifies how behavioral experimentation simultaneously violates and marks the animal-human difference.

Quickly, the grisly spectacle of crowded psychopathological rats and the available comparisons to human life in crowded cities ensured the experiment’s adoption as scientific proof of social decay. In addition, the Calhoun rat has also become part of the general cultural stock, and people have referenced it far beyond mental health and ecology. The experiments were essential in developing scientific disciplines and research fields and their public popularity.


As he strives to get people to follow through on and understand his message, the paper will explore how popular, artistic, and scientific imaginations began to fuse. Humanity must undergo a compassionate and conceptual revolution and descend into death and stagnation. He increasingly saw his laboratory rodents provide evidence for the alternative future that George Orwell and H. G. Wells (inspiration of Calhoun) envisioned.

Just as mice and underlings struggle to find more creative solutions to the problem of increasing density, he charts the development of rodent populations, self-careers, and human cultural evolution against each other. Like other creative thinkers, he is on the boundary between the biological sciences and the social sciences and is struggling professionally that too often, he is on the fringes.

Calhoun’s use of cultural references promotes a more positive vision of the future of humanity in a less densely populated world. He worried that the pessimistic Orwellian future with which he had too quickly aligned was about to become a reality, with his failure to gain institutional support to complete his project in the 1980s. At Scientific American, Calhoun’s experiments came at an auspicious time when crowd interest was piqued.

Calhoun’s rats burst into public spaces, and a receptive audience was assured.

Popular Culture

The period following its publication in Scientific American saw a surge in popular films and books that exercised apocalyptic views of a future that overpopulated was crippled. However, Calhoun’s interest in social breakdown, disruptive behavior, isolation, crowding, and vices aligned his research with some of the dominant themes of postwar literature. For example, Anthony Burgess’s The Wanting Seed explores how massive overpopulation resulted in airborne isolation, compulsory homosexuality, and ultra-violence.

The reference type is also partially tame; Burgess uses fictitious cases to promote policies. On the other hand, there is John Wagner’s Judge Dredd. In the comics, the main character brutally controls the massively overcrowded MegaCities. The urban environment has surpassed what Calhoun calls a mega-crisis, a point at which the problem of overcrowding becomes unsolvable for society.

The more seedy, underground comic books found Calhoun’s work especially appealing. A California horror comic called Insect Fear made a short run in 1970, a collaboration between William Burroughs and Robert Crumb. Graphically, the content documents self-abandonment, aggression, and excesses of lust in an urban environment, subtitled Tales from the Behavioral Sink.

By fully associating Calhoun’s powerful influences and experimental pessimism, we can understand that he described his rodent universe as utopian.


His utopia has a full cafeteria, a 16-floor apartment, no hunger, and no epidemics. He questioned the feasibility of welfare democracy. With his subsequent descent into hell, the deeper the problem, the more resources he gives to his rats. In pursuit of social equality, he failed from the start, and Calhoun’s use of the inbred strain ensured that his mice and rats were genetically identical.

However, it also becomes increasingly destructive with increasing density, not only social hierarchies are inevitable. There are only those at the bottom to withdraw and those at the top of the social hierarchy to use violence. Therefore, Calhoun was interested in Orwell’s language, quoted, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” It became a connection that he would also return to with increasing frequency.

On the other hand, social hierarchies are restricted in access to mates and suffer from higher mortality and morbidity rates; weaker animals are pushed to the edge of the ecological range and maintain population stability. For Calhoun, ecological ideals such as the balance of nature no longer apply to humans. Just as Calhoun no longer applied to his mice and rats, the population he supplied with adequate resources remained lower.


When growth crosses a certain threshold, it becomes extinct. The social roles and norms of behavior that once held society together now undermine it. The withdrawal became more severe, and the violence became more acute. Therefore, we will go mad long before we starve, even kill each other long before hunger kills us. In addition, Calhoun also adopted Heinz von Foerster’s doomsday prediction based on extrapolating humanity’s ever-increasing reproductive rate.

Von Foerster was one of the founders of cybernetics and had calculated that population growth would be infinite by 2026. That became the logical conclusion that people drew from Calhoun’s research for many. Overpopulation will result in social breakdown, and the solution is disarmament, a process involving a series of equally horrific oppressive policies. However, Calhoun directly challenged the grim theorem of Paul R. Ehrlich.

According to Ehrlich, every additional human is considered to harm the environment. Therefore, Calhoun considers this kind of restriction we neither need nor want. However, Ehrlich considers humans as positive animals in which the density pressure has encouraged social complexity and innovation. It leads to a new division of roles and social work. Thus, physical space decreases, and humans have to expand their conceptual space, such as technology and network of ideas.

Dystopia or Utopia?

Given their biological makeup, they must allow for more efficient use of resources while ensuring that each individual maintains a limited number of consistent, meaningful social interactions. A series of mechanisms regulate positive feedback, enabling increased population growth. However, there are limits to conceptual and numerical growth. Our physical and social infrastructure will be mastered.

On the other hand, the human potential will stagnate if the population becomes stable at its current density. As Calhoun had said, any vacated roles would be appropriately filled by similar ones. Such predictability and stability are also rarely the way of evolution over protracted periods where stable products seldom persist. The message from the rodent universe is that some level of hierarchical inequality becomes necessary.

Society’s conception of utopia as an environment must consider psychological, biological, and social needs. Indeed, we live in a world where social hierarchies have become obsolete, and the basic requirements of the population have become full. The line between dystopia and utopia is not only easy for us to cross, nor is it fictional. As such, humans face hardships and even ruin if they try to make everyone truly fulfilled and happy.

Again, Calhoun found Orwell a helpful reference point. Population growth that stimulates culture, technology, and innovation will enable other electronics and communications revolutions.

Behavioral Sink

Initially, Calhoun predicted the revolution would occur in 1988. At a point, existing communication networks proved ineffective due to increasing conceptual and physical density. Later, he changed the date to 1984 to honor Orwell’s hunch about the dangers inherent in the new control power. However, he is not suggesting that alternative futures of extinction or stagnation are as inevitable as Orwell’s.

In such respects, he is a very different case, someone whose work greatly interests a popular audience. His early experiments captured the public’s imagination, strove to promote his work in the popular media, and expressed his findings in terms that people could transfer immediately. Strikingly, it echoed the prevalent concerns of the time. On the other hand, the pessimistic conclusions he promotes and propagates due to the process are only half of the story he wants to spread.

He agreed that overcrowding had dire consequences and agreed that overpopulation was likely. However, he disagreed that humanity would be destroyed. On the contrary, he has the intention of improving. In such a frenzy, Calhoun found that his improvement message had become drowned; everyone wanted to hear his diagnosis, and nobody wanted his cure. Ultimately, the behavioral sink, ironically, stigmatizes and tarnishes him.


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