The Behavioral Sink: On Mice, and Men

By Ana Teixeira Pinto
  • Ana Teixeira Pinto
    Ana Teixeira Pinto is a writer from Lisbon, based in Berlin. She is currently a lecturer at the UdK (Universität der Kunste) Berlin and contributes regularly to publications such as e-flux Journal, Art-Agenda, Mousse, frieze, frieze d/e, Domus, Inaesthetics, The Manifesta Journal, and Text zur Kunst.

In 1972, ethnologist John B. Calhoun devised an experiment to test the effects of overcrowding on mice. His design, called Universe 25, consisted of a 101-square-inch box, fitted with mesh tunnels, horizontal corridors, and abundant nesting boxes, 256 in total. All mortality-inducing factors were mitigated: Universe 25 had an optimal climate, resource supra-availability, disease control, and—since the mice could not climb over the steep metal walls—emigration was impossible.

When the architecture was completed, Calhoun brought in four breeding pairs of mice, supplying them with food, fresh water, and plentiful wood shavings for nest building. In the absence of predators and environmental adversities the mice began to multiply. After a period of initial adjustment, the population began to increase exponentially, doubling every fifty-five days. Soon, however, the high fecundity rate started to have an adverse impact on the mouse world. As more and more young were born, all social niches came to be occupied. Prevented from finding a territory of their own, excess mice had to contest for roles inside an overcrowded system. Males who failed to assert dominance over their territory began to withdraw from social interaction. They would congregate in large groups near the middle of the pen, and exhibit atavistic behavior. Long periods of inactivity were typically interrupted by bouts of violence, in which withdrawn males would viciously maul one another. Constantly called upon to defend their territory, dominant males were also under undue stress. Gradually they too began to waver in their dominance, leaving nursing females exposed to nest invasion. The females, in turn, started to prematurely wean, abandon, or even cannibalize their young.

As more and more mice were not properly socialized, mouse society started to break down. Mortality rates began to soar. Rejected by their progenitors, the surviving young were not socialized either. Some females began to withdraw to upper nests while their male counterparts isolated themselves and refused to engage in courtship or territorial fighting. Calhoun called this group “the beautiful ones”: their behavior restricted to eating, sleeping, and grooming, they exhibited an impeccable pelage. By day 600, as the population had ceased to regenerate itself, its numbers began to dwindle back to those in the initials stages. There would be no recovery however. Though physically able to reproduce, the mice had lost the social skills required to mate. Calhoun concluded the colony had experienced a “social death” long before its ultimate physical extinction and published the experiment’s results in an article titled “Death Squared. 1John B. Calhoun, “Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 66, 1 (January 1973): 80–88. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1644264/ (accessed 9 April 2015).” As Calhoun candidly admits in his introduction, however, he was not solely concerned with mice. His thoughts were on man, and on how the death of the spirit, under certain conditions, precedes the death of the body. “Death Squared” opens by quoting the Book of Revelation 2Apocalypse (Rev.vi.7): “I saw a pale horse, and its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him and they were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill with the sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.” and ends with an ominous warning. 3“For an animal so complex as man, there is no logical reason why a comparable sequence of events should not also lead to species extinction.” John B. Calhoun, “Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population”: 86. Calhoun’s description of his mice colony also lent itself readily to anthropomorphization: societal dropouts, welfare moochers, delinquent youth, feckless single mothers, and socialites warped in narcissism.

Animals, as Thoreau said, have to be put to their use, for they are all beasts of burden, in a sense, made to carry some portion of our thoughts. Calhoun’s mice were not really mice; they were a social metaphor. Not merely because mice and rats are assimilated into urban squalor and moral degeneracy, but also because Calhoun was a Malthusian. A previous paper, “Population Density and Social Pathology,” evokes the British economist in its introductory paragraph, but whereas Malthus stated that unabated demographic growth would lead to environmental collapse due to overconsumption, Calhoun thought that population density alone could preclude endless progress. 4John B. Calhoun, “Population Density and Social Pathology,” California Medicine, 113, 5 (November 1970): 54. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1501789/?page=1 (accessed 9 April 2015). “Vice” (behavioral pathologies), as he puts it using Malthus’s own terms, even in the absence of “misery” (physical pathologies), was enough to bring about societal collapse. He called this process the “behavioral sink,” a behavioral pathology brought about simply by an overabundance of resources, within a spatially confined environment.

Calhoun was by no means the first biologist to fall under the influence of Malthus. Modern biology, in fact, could be described as a branch of classical economics. Malthus was instrumental for Darwin’s take on evolution, namely in the formulation of the two main principles the theory implies: a principle of fecundity, which leads to overabundant natality, and a principle of selection, which in effect culls the undesirable. The political economist had famously argued that “positive checks”—a euphemism for premature deaths—were needed to avert exponential growth, and that these checks were provided by hunger, disease, and war. Fittingly, he was among the first to espouse a punitive approach to poverty: he opposed the “poor laws”—a system of poor relief which anticipated the modern welfare state—on the grounds that it would allow the destitute to multiply beyond their means and place an undue burden on the state; and he and his followers defended that workers wages could never exceed the cost of subsistence long-term. Though Darwin did not assign moral value to evolution, Herbert Spencer, who popularized social Darwinism and coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” also considered the division of labor in the political economy to be the social analog of physiological divergence and speciation in biology. What became known as Malthusian equilibrium—a stable stationary state maintained by the opposing forces of reproduction and starvation—also mirrors Darwin’s concepts of “fecundity” and “selection,” Adam Smith’s twin blades of “supply” and “demand,” and the dual principles of “work” and “waste” in William Thompson’s formulation of the second law of thermodynamics, concerning the dissipation of energy, i.e., entropy.

Unsurprisingly, Calhoun’s experiments would lend scientific clout to the rising anti-welfare rhetoric in the United States and the United Kingdom, which was to shape social policy from the late 1970s onward. His feckless and dysfunctional mice were construed as arguing the point that generous collective provision for unemployment and sickness was sapping the working-classes’ drive to work, and his fear-mongering and apocalyptic hyperbole about “social death” and “behavioral sink” was taken to encourage the Conservatives’ increasingly harsh rhetoric about those reliant on social security. Calhoun built a mouse dystopia, now the mice could reciprocate by helping dismantle the social contract and the consensus surrounding the welfare state.

As Eugene McCarraher notes, capitalism is an eschatological tale as well as a form of political economy, offering its own story of human fulfillment. For capitalist eschatology, salvation implies inclusion in a worldwide marketplace. 5Andrew Bacevich, ed., The Short American Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 189. Yet, below the threshold of consciousness, darker visions are at play. Be it through the implementation of ‘sacrifice zones’ or allowing just enough unemployment in the economy to prevent inflation from rising above a given target figure (NAIRU) , there is an uncanny continuity between Malthus’s insistence on having workers earn less than a living wage and the Chicago school’s policies. Simply put, just like in Calhoun’s colony where there was a limit to the number of meaningful social roles, under Chicago school economics there is a certain percentage of the population that cannot be redeemed back to the social.

Fast-forward to 2015. Calhoun’s experiment remains popular, 6I am indebted to Antonia Majaca for bringing this to my attention. having been reexamined in a paper by Edmund Ramsden and Jon Adams, “Escaping the Laboratory: The Rodent Experiments of John B Calhoun and Their Cultural Influence” and the subsequent “The Behavioral Sink,” an article by Will Wiles. 7The Journal of Social History, 42, 3 (2009). Available as a working paper at: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/22514/ (accessed 9 April 2015) and Cabinet, 42 (Summer 2011), http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/42/wiles.php (accessed 9 April 2015). Yet, judging by a recent article in io9, its meaning has changed. According to Esther Inglis-Arkell, it was not so much that Universe 25 was overcrowded but that the mice seemed to converge on the center, while pens at the end of each corridor had one single entryway, making it easy for the “beautiful ones” to seclude themselves from social turmoil. Instead of a demographic problem, it would seem that Calhoun’s experiment had a fair distribution problem. But one could also say that what appears as scientific objectivity is always made of finely congealed subjectivity. It is tempting to see a mice society as a stable entity whose modes of organization are guaranteed by the integrity of the species, but most animals are able to reconstitute their societies, to engage in ‘politics’ if you will. 8See Isabelle Stengers on primatology: The Invention of Modern Science (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 62–65. In a human environment the number of available roles is also not fixed; it grows with demographic expansion, and the social is predicated on the political rather than on the biological. To wit, whether or not Calhoun’s experiment provides a realistic representation of social interaction is highly debatable. But he certainly channels the zeitgeist.