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John Calhoun's Mouse Utopia
August 18, 2011 8:39 AM   Subscribe

How do you build a mouse Utopia? In 1972, John B. Calhoun detailed the specifications of his Mortality-Inhibiting Environment for Mice: a practical utopia built in the laboratory. . . . 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.
posted by saladin (27 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

 
If only they'd had a God Emperor all of this could've been avoided!
posted by curious nu at 8:49 AM on August 18, 2011


If only they'd had a God Emperor

"How do you call among you the little mouse, the mouse that jumps?" Paul asked, remembering the pop-hop of motion at Tuono Basin. He illustrated with one hand.

A chuckle sounded through the troop.

"We call that one muad'dib," Stilgar said.
posted by nathancaswell at 8:55 AM on August 18, 2011 [16 favorites]


Fuck shark week on the Discovery channel - I luuuv Dune week on Metafilter waay more.
posted by helmutdog at 9:00 AM on August 18, 2011


Man, guy was the Vault-Tec of mce.
posted by The Whelk at 9:01 AM on August 18, 2011 [7 favorites]


Man, guy was the Vault-Tec of mce.

Seems to have worked out just about as well...
posted by valkyryn at 9:02 AM on August 18, 2011


his conclusion: overpopulation meant social collapse followed by extinction...could the same happen to humankind?

Not on the basis of his data.

More than six hundred mice now lived in Universe 25 (101 inches square, enclosed by walls 54 inches high), constantly rubbing shoulders on their way up and down the stairwells to eat, drink, and sleep. (On this basis he claimed that) crowding itself could destroy a society before famine even got a chance

Sure, it would be hard to mate with my wife if there were 50 people trapped with us in my apartment. That might cause mental health issues so severe that we would never have kids even if the population dropped. What does that bizarre scenario have to do with worries about the world population going to 20B people? The real world problem is feeding people, not the entire surface of the world being packed shoulder to shoulder.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:09 AM on August 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


some illustrations and other coverage here and here
posted by rebent at 9:10 AM on August 18, 2011


All this talk of rubbing shoulders reminds me of the story of the Locust, which, until recently, was thought to be a different species than the Grasshopper. Now we know that, when a grasshopper is touched a certain number of times per second (as a result of overpopulation) it morphologically changes into the Locust.
posted by rebent at 9:15 AM on August 18, 2011 [9 favorites]


Mortality-Inhibiting Environment

Talk about a missed acronym opportunity. He could have thrown "Co-habitation" in there for the perfect acronym.

However, his "Universe 25" doesn't look like Heaven at all. Oddly enough it looks almost exactly like a supermax prison. Which I suppose really is a human-sized Mortality-Inhibiting Environment.
posted by loquacious at 9:25 AM on August 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


The real world problem is feeding people, not the entire surface of the world being packed shoulder to shoulder.

I think the problem is that people tend to misinterpret Calhoun's research - he's not talking about the social problems of 1970 urban New York, he's critiquing the transhumanist utopia where we've "solved" scarcity and extended the human lifespan. I think he was also much less pessimistic than his adherents
He disagreed with Ehrlich and Vogt that restrictions on reproduction were the only possible response to overpopulation. Man, he argued, was a positive animal, and creativity and design could solve our problems.
posted by muddgirl at 9:26 AM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: the beautiful ones...
posted by ennui.bz at 9:27 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


And the obvious one:

Metafilter: a practical utopia built in the laboratory
posted by Hairy Lobster at 9:31 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Super freaky symposium report here.
posted by monocyte at 9:32 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, some branches of science were really... out there in the 60s (often in a good way). I don't think that you could get this kind of thing published nowadays, but maybe I'm wrong:
Threatening life and evolution are the two deaths, death of the spirit and death of the body. Evolution, in terms of ancient wisdom, is the acquisition of access to the tree of life. This takes us back to the white first horse of the Apocalypse which with its rider set out to conquer the forces that threaten the spirit with death.
posted by muddgirl at 9:40 AM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's not clear to me on a light read/skim through the first few paragraphs... Did he remove the mice that died?
posted by maryr at 9:44 AM on August 18, 2011


Protip: Equip your mice with little crystals in their palms and schedule Carousel when they reach one year old.
posted by PlusDistance at 9:51 AM on August 18, 2011 [5 favorites]


I think the neatest part of all of this is his work at the end building off the discovery that creativity increased in some mice. He tried to make an overpopulated 'utopia' that worked: changed the mice into something else (like grasshoppers/locusts) but without killing them or driving them mad. Does anyone know how that research panned out? Or should I just go watch The Secret of NIMH?
posted by brenton at 9:56 AM on August 18, 2011


It's not clear to me on a light read/skim through the first few paragraphs... Did he remove the mice that died?

He cleaned "the universe" every 4 to 8 weeks, I assume that included dead mouse removal.
posted by heatvision at 9:58 AM on August 18, 2011


What about John C. Calhoun's mice...?
posted by melissam at 10:03 AM on August 18, 2011


Awesome. I know what my next few nightmares are going to be about now, especially after seeing the photo of him standing in the middle of the "universe" surrounded by crowded, asocialised mice. With their beady, resentful eyes and snipping little teeth... /me shudders

maryr, from the proceedings article that monocyte linked to:
The Chairman thought Dr Calhoun had not mentioned
pollution and asked what remains the animals left and
how these affected the situation?

Dr Calhoun said that they (the investigators) were not
very sanitary in their husbandry, if that was the kind
of pollution inferred. The environment was cleaned,
most fices and soiled bedding removed, every six
weeks or two months, but nothing was ever sterilized.
He did not consider this necessary in such a closed
system and the mice had better survival than in most
laboratory colonies. Dead bodies were eventually
removed for examinations
, but the major pollution
was the excess of living bodies; this was the essential
factor. The pollution was social in that there were too
many interacting elements, exceeding the social
system's capacity for incorporation of new individuals.
Capacities were genetically determined and situationally
modified.
...I don't think there's any mention of how frequently it was done, but I'd assume that they were just scooped out with the rest of the bedding. No way in hell you could get away with running this experiment these days, of course; animal experimentation laws have come a long way.

rebent - Now we know that, when a grasshopper is touched a certain number of times per second (as a result of overpopulation) it morphologically changes into the Locust.

That's amazing and unaccountably creepy. The wiki page for Locusts talks about this a little bit, but not in much detail. It sounds a lot like quorum sensing, which some bacteria do at the start of an infection: they sit around quietly reproducing and keeping their heads down then, when the "hello!" signals from friendly neighbours are finally coming in thick and fast, the whole population suddenly changes into a virulent form and goes on the rampage. It had never occurred to me as something that insects might do. Cool, but creepy.
posted by metaBugs at 10:21 AM on August 18, 2011 [7 favorites]


I thought this was a fascinating read. Thanks for posting it!
posted by DWRoelands at 10:21 AM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Or should I just go watch The Secret of NIMH?

God, no. You should read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH instead. That movie is one of the strongest examples ever of "the book is so much better."
posted by Mister Moofoo at 10:33 AM on August 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


derail: I totally got an A+ and a "I thought so too" teacher comment on an essay we had to write after reading the book and then watching the movie and I said the movie was bad cause it wasn't scary and the rats don't get out on their own
posted by The Whelk at 10:38 AM on August 18, 2011


Mister Moofoo & The Whelk: I LOVE Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. (I also like the movie adaptation, but it is SO not as great. The book is much, much better.) I discovered a few years back that Robert C. O'Brien was actually inspired by Calhoun's mouse study to write the story!
posted by sc114 at 12:20 PM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


My second-favourite book of all time, Play Little Victims, was released eight years after this experiment. It blew me away in high school, and it still blows me away now when I re-read it (and I KNOW how it ends but it still shocks me).

And now I learn that someone actually built a mouse utopia, and it resulted in... something akin to the ending of the satire (avoiding spoilers in case I can convince someone to read PLV)? I'm shuddering and amazed and gobsmacked.

Unfortunately Kenneth Slessor is long dead so I can't ask if this was his inspiration.

Thank you, saladin, great post!

posted by malibustacey9999 at 4:30 PM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


Observing that mice become socially disfunctional after they get to ludicrously high population densities and stop breeding altogether is kind of interesting. Connecting this to human inner-city social problems is a stretch to put it mildly. And then there's this philosophical stuff:

Mortality, bodily death = the second death
(snip more pseudo-algebra)
Therefore:
(Death)2 = the first death

And he got this published?

Did anyone else think of Kurtz raving about snails on straight razors in Apocalypse Now? "he was a good man [but] his ideas, methods have become ... unsound."
posted by Slogby at 4:44 PM on August 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


The part the struck me was "...there were far more mice than meaningful social roles." This, more than the overcrowding, resonates with me.
posted by lekvar at 4:51 PM on August 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


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