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CABINET // The Behavioral Sink
other natural resources as early as 1948, and both published bestsellers on Magazine Events Books Projects Info Rental Subscriptions Shop Search the subject. The issue made the cover of Time magazine in January 1960. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, an alarmist work suggesting that the overcrowded world was about to be swept by famine and resource wars. After Ehrlich appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1970, his book became a phenomenal success. By 1972, the issue reached its mainstream peak with the report of the Rockefeller Commission on US Population, which recommended that population growth be slowed or even reversed.
ISSUE 42 FORGETTING SUMMER 2011
The Behavioral Sink
Cabinet and the author regret that a previous version of this article omitted its sources. To readers who are interested in learning more about Calhoun's research, we highly recommend "Escaping the Laboratory: The Rodent Experiments of John B Calhoun and Their Cultural Influence" by Edmund Ramsden and Jon Adams, LSE Department of Economic History, 2008, to which this article is indebted. How do you design a utopia? In 1972, John B. Calhoun detailed the
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specifications of his Mortality-Inhibiting Environment for Mice: a practical utopia built in the laboratory. Every aspect of Universe 25—as this particular model was called—was pitched to cater for the well-being of its rodent residents and increase their lifespan. The Universe took the form of a tank, 101 inches square, enclosed by walls 54 inches high. The first 37 inches of wall was structured so the mice could climb up, but they were prevented from escaping by 17 inches of bare wall above. Each wall had sixteen vertical mesh tunnels—call them stairwells—soldered to it. Four horizontal corridors opened off each stairwell, each leading to four nesting boxes. That means 256 boxes in total, each capable of housing fifteen mice. There was abundant clean food, water, and nesting material. The Universe was cleaned every four to eight weeks. There were no predators, the temperature was kept at a steady 68°F, and the mice were a diseasefree elite selected from the National Institutes of Health’s breeding colony. Heaven. Four breeding pairs of mice were moved in on day one. After 104 days of upheaval as they familiarized themselves with their new world, they started to reproduce. In their fully catered paradise, the population increased exponentially, doubling every fifty-five days. Those were the good times, as the mice feasted on the fruited plain. To its members, the mouse civilization of Universe 25 must have seemed prosperous indeed. But its downfall was already certain—not just stagnation, but total and inevitable destruction. Calhoun’s concern was the problem of abundance: overpopulation. As the name Universe 25 suggests, it was not the first time Calhoun had built a world for rodents. He had been building utopian environments for rats and mice since the 1940s, with thoroughly consistent results. Heaven always turned into hell. They were a warning, made in a postwar society already rife with alarm over the soaring population of the United States and the world. Pioneering ecologists such as William Vogt and Fairfield Osborn were cautioning that the growing population was putting pressure on food and other natural resources as early as 1948, and both published bestsellers on
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and groomed. Mouse utopia/dystopia. Mice found themselves born into a world that was more crowded every day. and there were far more mice than meaningful social roles. Left on their own in nests subject to invasion.org/issues/42/wiles. 1983. and the others were neoMalthusians. All images from Animal Populations: Nature’s Checks and Balances.cabinetmagazine. and with it the ability of mice to form social bonds. The victims of these random attacks became attackers. This was. “heaven”—a title Calhoun deliberately used with pitch-black irony. The only thing that was in short supply was space. infant abandonment and mortality soared. and sleep. Calhoun (middle and bottom). cannibalism.php Page 4 of 10 . and violence became endemic. their listless withdrawal occasionally interrupted by spasms and waves of pointless violence. More than six hundred mice now lived in Universe 25. Other males. In Calhoun’s heaven. Mouse society had collapsed.” never sought sex and never fought—they just ate. pansexualism. The failures and dropouts congregated in large groups in the middle of the enclosure. Normal social discourse within the mouse community broke down. drink. But there was no scarcity of food and water in Calhoun’s universe. With more and more peers to defend against. arguing that population growth would cause our demise by exhausting our natural resources. population growth slowed. So what exactly happened in Universe 25? Past day 315. leading to starvation and conflict.php Page 3 of 10 http://www. so they abandoned the activity. Normal http://www. Procreation slumped. males found it difficult and stressful to defend their territory. so they abandoned the activity. after all. But Calhoun’s work was different. Elsewhere. slept. The point was that crowding itself could destroy a society before famine even got a chance. as designed by John B. Lone females retreated to isolated nesting boxes on penthouse levels. nursing females attacked their own young. Ehrlich. hell was other mice. a group Calhoun termed “the beautiful ones. constantly rubbing shoulders on their way up and down the stairwells to eat.org/issues/42/wiles. wrapped in narcissistic introspection.cabinetmagazine. Vogt.CABINET // The Behavioral Sink 22/01/2014 14:11 CABINET // The Behavioral Sink 22/01/2014 14:11 stressful to defend their territory.
once the number of individuals capable of filling roles greatly exceeded the number of roles. not even after numbers had dwindled back to those of the heady early days of the Universe. A few mice survived past weaning until day six hundred. the creatures had ceased to be mice long before their death—a “first death. hypersexual activity followed by asexuality. divided by electrified barriers into four rooms connected by narrow ramps. Acquisition. On day 560. . its path to extinction was clear. had lost the social ability to do so. 1983. and selfdestruction. when Calhoun had estimated that it could rise to as many as 5. after which there were few pregnancies and no surviving young. In a way. Maryland. only violence and disruption of social organization can follow. humankind? For Calhoun. fixed with the rigor of a scientific equation. The population reached eighty before succumbing to the same catastrophes that would afflict Universe 25: explosive violence. a little more than eighteen months into the experiment. where he would remain for three decades. Calhoun was employed by the National Institute of Mental Health in Rockville.cabinetmagazine. bodily death = the second death Drastic reduction of mortality = death of the second death = death squared = (death)2 (Death)2 leads to dissolution of social organization = death of the establishment Death of the establishment leads to spiritual death = loss of capacity to engage in behaviors essential to species survival = the first death Therefore: (Death)2 = the first death This formula might apply to rats and mice—but could the same happen to Mouse utopia/dystopia. There would be no recovery. The mice had lost the capacity to rebuild their numbers—many of the mice that could still conceive. In 1962. such as the “beautiful ones” and their secluded singleton female counterparts. the more the outcome came to seem inevitable. The more he repeated the experiment. as designed by John B. In 1954. but space was tight. The population reached eighty before http://www.CABINET // The Behavioral Sink 22/01/2014 14:11 CABINET // The Behavioral Sink 22/01/2014 14:11 maximum of forty-eight rats.. creation and utilization of ideas appropriate for life in a post-industrial cultural-conceptual-technological society will have been blocked. in 1947.000—something was evidently amiss. He built a ten-by-fourteen-foot “universe” for a small population of rats. ruining their spirit and their society as thoroughly as the later “second death” of the physical body. As the population had ceased to regenerate itself.. Individuals born under these circumstances will be so out of touch with reality as to be incapable even of alienation. capable of supporting a maximum of forty-eight rats. The population of that first pen had peaked at 200 and stabilized at 150. Calhoun published a paper called “Population Density and Social Pathology” in Scientific American. No matter how sophisticated we considered ourselves to be. the population peaked at 2. Food and water were plentiful. there was little question about it. laying out his conclusion: overpopulation meant social collapse followed by extinction.php Page 6 of 10 . Calhoun had built his career on this basic experiment and its consistent results ever since erecting his first “rat city” on a quarter-acre of land adjacent to his home in Towson.cabinetmagazine. he even laid out its fate in equation form: Mortality. Maryland. Calhoun.200 mice and its growth ceased. Their most complex behaviors will become fragmented.” as Calhoun put it.org/issues/42/wiles.org/issues/42/wiles. All images from Animal Populations: Nature’s Checks and Balances. By the time he wrote about the decline and fall of Universe 25 in 1972.php Page 5 of 10 http://www.
Courtesy Grant Thiessen/BookIT. Once the event horizon of the behavioral sink was passed. This is precisely what Calhoun intended. Brunner’s title comes from the notion that the world’s population in 1968 could fit (if everyone were standing tightly together) on the Isle of Man. which appeared in the same year as Calhoun’s Scientific American paper. “O Rotten Gotham! Sliding Down into the Behavioral Sink. And that lesson found a ready audience. human society would succumb to nihilism and collapse. and cannot help but see ways in which it is like our own crowding world. drugs. and when we look at Calhoun’s rodent universes today. When we hear of the death throes of Universe 25—the cannibalism.” This handy use of anthropomorphism is unusual in a scientist—we are being invited to draw parallels with human society.” Calhoun noted drily. Indeed. “Population Density and Social Pathology” was. Calhoun’s deathsquared formula was for social pessimists what the laws of thermodynamics are for physicists. being cited up to 150 times a year. it emerges. the population of a grotesquely crowded New York is mired in passivity and dependent on food handouts which. Particularly effective was Calhoun’s name for the point past which the slide into breakdown becomes irretrievable: the “behavioral sink. making a sound like a pen full of starlings or rats or something. and his grim view of modernist housing projects as breeding grounds for degeneration and atavism. drew in pathological behavior and exacerbated its effects. Cover of John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar.” “The unhealthy connotations of the term are not accidental. rape. meaning the death of the species.” Wolfe wrote. modernist urban fantasies of architects such as Ludwig Hilberseimer. In the 1973 film Soylent Green. a smash hit. while the projected population in 2010 would fit on the larger island of Zanzibar. It was a sandwich board with “The End Is Nigh” written on one side.org/issues/42/wiles.” he refers to “juvenile delinquents” and “dropouts.cabinetmagazine. and random violence—these are the works that come to mind. The floor was filled with the poor white humans. the end was certain. family breakdown. blinking their eyes. Calhoun referred to the dwelling places within his Universes as “tower blocks” and “walk-up apartments. mentally inhabit the mouse universe. The “sink. with social policy grappling helplessly with the problems of the inner cities: violence.” The behavioral sink meshed neatly with Wolfe’s pessimism about the modern city. are the very image of some of the uglier products of mouse utopia. withdrawal.org/issues/42/wiles. based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!. 1968. Universe 25 resembles the utopian. The ultraviolence-dispensing. “It got to be easy to look at New Yorkers as animals. In Stand on Zanzibar.” anthologized in The Pump House Gang in 1968. “especially looking down from some place like a balcony at Grand Central at the rush hour Friday afternoon. and “QED” on the other. in the design of his experiments and the language he used to describe them. for an academic paper. running around. dodging.” a para-pathology of shared hopelessness. are derived from human corpses. Pathological behavior would escalate beyond any possibility of control. If its growth continued unchecked. gangraping. society is plagued by “muckers. A rich literature of overpopulation emerged from the stew. overpopulated world. The writer Tom Wolfe alighted on the phrase and deployed it in his lament for the declining New York City.CABINET // The Behavioral Sink 22/01/2014 14:11 CABINET // The Behavioral Sink 22/01/2014 14:11 times a year. purposeless “droogs” of Antony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange.php Page 8 of 10 . Particularly effective was Calhoun’s name for the point past http://www. John Brunner’s 1972 novel of a hyperactive. Wolfe wasn’t alone. we can see in them aspects of that literature. the plight of Calhoun’s rats and mice is one we easily identify with—we put ourselves in the place of the mice. The warnings inherent in Calhoun’s research fell on fertile ground in the 1960s. killing and wounding others.php Page 7 of 10 http://www.” individuals who suddenly and for no obvious reason run amok.cabinetmagazine.” As well as the preening “beautiful ones.
nlm. Man. Calhoun found they sometimes became more creative.lse. Available at http://psycnet. They were forced to. The misery of the rodent universes was not uniform—it had contours. 42. it found fans among conservative Christians. in the way that writers like Wolfe and the historian Lewis Mumford deployed reference to it." The Journal of Social History. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation by visiting here.org/issues/42/wiles. which might sap the spirit and put us on the skids to the behavioral sink. And. the one work of fiction that stems directly from Calhoun’s work. 2 (February 1962). Goldman Sachs Gives. the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1644264. a monthly architecture and design magazine. vol. pp. As for the losers. John B. and many generous individuals. vol. the Katchadourian Family Foundation. Mrs. More cheerfully. was a positive animal." Scientific American. and expands imaginatively on his attempts to spur creative thought in rodents. Poster for Soylent Green. "Escaping the Laboratory: The Rodent Experiments of John B. As such. exhibiting an un-mouse-like drive to innovate. © 2011 Cabinet Magazine http://www. Later in his career. Calhoun. Calhoun’s research remains a touchstone for a particular kind of pessimistic worldview. the Danielson Foundation. His debut novel. however.org/psycinfo/1963-02809-001.cabinetmagazine.nih. and as part of a multidisciplinary group called the Space Cadets promoted the colonization of space. But in fact the full span of Calhoun’s research had a more positive slant. John B. no. a warning against cosmopolitanism or welfare dependence. the Orphiflamme Foundation.apa. “High social velocity” mice were the winners in hell. in order to survive. however. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. the National Endowment for the Arts. He disagreed with Ehrlich and Vogt that restrictions on reproduction were the only possible response to overpopulation. is optimistic. rather than the stew of gloom that it was stirred into. Calhoun.php Page 10 of 10 . it can be seen as bleakly reactionary. It was a source of lasting dismay to Calhoun that his research primarily served as encouragement to pessimists and reactionaries. vol. which turns out to be made from processed human flesh.CABINET // The Behavioral Sink 22/01/2014 14:11 CABINET // The Behavioral Sink 22/01/2014 14:11 cheerfully. and creativity and design could solve our problems.org/issues/42/wiles. He advocated overcoming the limitations of the planet. rather than stimulating the kind of hopeful approach to mankind’s problems that he preferred. Available at http://www. Calhoun worked to build universes that maximized this kind of creativity and minimized the ill effects of overcrowding. he argued. O’Brien’s book for children. Available as a working paper at http://eprints. the one work of fiction that stems directly from http://www. Sources: Edmund Ramsden & Jon Adams. 139–150. will be published by HarperPress in February 2012.php Page 9 of 10 Cabinet is a non-profit organization supported by the Lambent Foundation. 206. "Population Density and Social Pathology.ncbi. Calhoun consistently found that those animals better able to handle high numbers of social interactions fared comparatively well. about a colony of super-intelligent and self-reliant rats that have escaped from the National Institute of Mental Health. Calhoun even met the pope in 1974. He is deputy editor of Icon. the New York Council on the Arts. Care of Wooden Floors.ac. Will Wiles is a London-based author and journalist. no." in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine. and some did better than others. 1973. The film depicts a futuristic society in which overpopulation is so catastrophic and food in such short supply that the populace survives on rations of the titular food product. pp. 66 (January 1973). 3 (2009).cabinetmagazine. the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs. 80–88. Calhoun & Their Cultural Influence. "Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population.uk/22514/. This is Robert C.
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