Mouse Utopia, and the Density Scare

John B. Calhoun wrote in the 70s about studies he'd conducted that looked at how mice would react when "overcrowded". Since his utopias often turned ugly, he (and many others) extrapolated the results to humans, giving density a bad name.

Ecologists and science-fiction writers of the time hopped on the bandwagon, painting pictures of the public of overpopulation turning the cities of the world into horrible places of limited resources:

"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 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."

Will Wiles looks at the results of the original mice studies, and the media frenzy that erupted around Calhoun's conclusion with steadily increasing population, "only violence and disruption of social organization can follow..."

Full Story: The Behavioral Sink



Confused Article About Density

“High social velocity” mice were the winners in hell. As for the losers, Calhoun found they sometimes became more creative, exhibiting an un-mouse-like drive to innovate. They were forced to, in order to survive.

This seems to be the article's conclusion, and of course, it is the conventional wisdom of our time: We have to innovate to survive economically.

But the article doesn't even mention the two most obvious points about this study:

-- It confuses density and overcrowding. Eg, millionaires living in high-rises on Park Ave live at high density, but they are not over-crowded. They have large apartments with plenty of room for everyone. This was an obvious error of this study from the beginning: the rats were crowded into a small space, and the lessons were applied to humans who can build themselves larger spaces.

-- The rate of population growth has slowed dramatically. In the 1960s, rapid population growth definitely did threaten to deplete resources. (It would not necessarily have crowded people into small spaces, like the rats in the experiment, but it would have ultimately exceeded the capacity of the world's farmland to feed people, the capacity of the world's energy resources, etc.) But, to give one example of how much population growth has slowed, the average Mexican woman in the 1960s had 6 children, while the average Mexican woman today has 2 children, below the replacement rate.

Charles Siegel

What about mouse suburbs?

Someone should next do a study mimicking suburban densities. They could divide the mice into breeding pairs and put them into containers large enough for a small mouse family (a mouse suburban home), and then connect the containers by tunnels that are so long that the mice are strongly discouraged from using them, and thus remain in their "suburban home." Then, put the food and water dispensers in some central location that is accessible only with the use of these long tunnels. You don't want the mice nesting in the tunnels, because this would amount to people living in the streets (i.e., homeless people), definitely a big no-no in a suburban community. So, maybe the tunnels automatically administer an electric shock if a mouse remains in the tunnel for longer than is required to make a trip to the food/water dispensers and back to its suburban home. The shock would just be strong enough to make sure the mouse kept moving, sort of like a police officer that shoos away homeless people for loitering.

My guess is that a mouse society structured this way would collapse just as the "high density" society collapsed. This is because mice, like people, have the need for private space as well as social space. Low density is just as bad as high density because the social needs of the population cannot be met if the density is too low. This is because effective social space requires a certain minimum density. There is a range of optimal human densities where people can meet their social needs and efficiency is maximized while still providing sufficient private space. The high density (mouse) environments collapse from lack of private space, and I hypothesize that the low-density environments would collapse from lack of effective social (shared) space.

Reinforcing the idea that societies require social space are the findings from anthropology which suggest that the first human settlements were temporary cities inhabited for only part of the year, where people would pair off and start families. By coming together in large temporary settlements for the purposes of breeding, a larger gene pool is provided which enhances the survival of the species.

Temporary Cities as First Human Settlements

"findings from anthropology which suggest that the first human settlements were temporary cities inhabited for only part of the year, where people would pair off and start families."

I would appreciate it if you could provide references. This fits right in with research I am doing about evolutionary psychology and architecture/urbanism.

Charles Siegel

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