A Great Rodent Dystopia About The Future Of Humans: Universe 25


Overpopulation has been one of the most debated issues of our century. When it comes to the question of whether it will ever end, a great experiment leads us to the answer: Universe 25.

John Calhoun was an ethologist and animal behaviorist who had had a long standing interest in how rodents interact and create societies.

Starting in 1947, Calhoun began experimenting with rats and mice on a rural property in Rockville, Maryland in order to investigate the behavioral effects on the animals when provided with unlimited food and resources; essentially a rodent paradise. One of his main interests was the potential effects of overcrowding on human society and behavior, which was seen as a very real potential problem in the post-war 1940s, where worldwide populations were growing rapidly. 

In his early experiments, Calhoun observed a colony of Norway rats for 28 months, during which time he provided the animals with as much food as they needed as well as total safety from predators. It was expected that the population would skyrocket uncontrollably to around 5,000 animals during this period of time, however, the population oddly never went past 200. He also noticed that the colony split into smaller, separate groups of no more than 12 individuals per group.

Intrigued by these results, Calhoun continued his work with rats and mice, and finally in 1958 he created his own lab in the second floor of a barn.

The experiment (called universes) consisted of creating a series of what he called “Universes” which were habitats designed to be rodent utopias, free of disease, predators, and providing unlimited resources. In each instance, the rodent populations experienced a rapid rise in population followed by a leveling off that seemed to go hand in hand with a variety of unusual, deviant behaviors, before finally, the birthrate screeched to a halt, after which the rodent society would implode and cease to exist.

These experiments culminated in Calhoun’s most famous and ambitious experiment of them all, “Universe 25.”

Calhoun created a complex, controlled environment that was a large room that measured 9 square feet and was split into 4 separate interconnected pens. Surrounding this Universe were 16 tunnels leading to food, water, and various burrows, and there was a total of 256 “apartments,” each able to accommodate up to 15 mice, all connected for easy access by a series of ramps. Four breeding pairs of mice were introduced to this spacious enclosure and were given unlimited, easy access to food and water. This sort of habitat was referred to as a “mortality-inhibiting environment,” basically with the aim of limiting transmittable diseases, providing limitless food, water, nesting material, and other valuable resources, and basically doing everything possible to make sure the rats didn’t die or face any real discomfort; in essence emulating the conditions of many humans in similar environments. The temperature was kept at a constant, balmy 68 degrees Fahrenheit or more, and the mice had free reign to roam wherever they liked within the habitat. Throughout the whole experiment, the enclosure would be kept clean and disease free, with the health of the mice constantly monitored by veterinarians. The only limitation faced by the mice would be that of physical space.

Then Calhoun sat back and waited to see what would happen.

The rodents first spent around 104 days getting accustomed to their environment, a phase that Calhoun referred to as the “strive period,” or an initial period of adjustment when the mice were basically just establishing territories and creating nests. Then the mouse population at first began to increase at a rapid rate just as predicted, a phase that was called the “exploit period.” During this phase, the mouse population of Universe 25 roughly doubled every 55 days until by day 315 their numbers had reached 620.

At this point, the large enclosure was becoming a bit crowded in some places and the birth rate plunged to a much lower rate, about one third of what it had been before.

It was also noticed that food was being consumed more in certain areas, despite the fact that all of the compartments were identical. The mice began to associate eating and drinking with being with others, rarely if ever eating alone, and the population started to gravitate towards certain compartments where all of the eating took place. This made some apartments and compartments crowded well beyond their intended capacity while others remained sparsely populated or even empty. The enclosure wasn’t truly overcrowded, as it had been designed for up to 3,000 mice, but rather, it had developed a very unbalanced distribution of individuals. 

This persistent gathering and eating in overcrowded gathering points seemed to result in three times more socially immature mice than socially established ones, suggesting that they were somehow losing their ability to form social bonds. That was around the time when the perfect society of unlimited resources that Calhoun had so meticulously created began to crumble.

From around Day 315 of the experiment, a wide variety of odd behaviors started to surface among the animals.

Some male mice who had no social role in the face of the burgeoning population suddenly seemed to lose their sense of purpose and became detached from these natural roles. They stopped trying to defend their own territory or pregnant females, lost interest in those around them, and whereas they would normally emigrate to other broods they found none willing to accept them and so became listless wanderers tending to congregate in the center of the Universe where they spent their days mindlessly eating or fighting amongst themselves. These males were seen as the “outcasts” of the society. The more dominant males among these became markedly more vicious and violent, attacking others without provocation and fighting for no apparent reason. 

Many of these roving males would roam about attacking or mounting, essentially raping, other mice indiscriminately, regardless of gender or relation. The non-dominant males conversely became extremely meek and passive, with some of them becoming the targets of repeated attacks by other males while refusing to fight back. In some cases, cannibalism occurred among the mice, and there was generally a descent into feral, violent behavior punctuated by intense bursts of shocking brutality.

The final phase of the experiment was ominously referred to as “the death phase” or “die period.”

By Day 560, the population increase had plunged to next to nothing, partly due to the alarming mortality rate that had reached nearly 100% and partly due to a disinterested attitude towards procreation that began to be exhibited in many of the male mice.  Amid all of this turmoil and degradation within Universe 25, there was also a new generation of mice emerging that had not ever been subjected to a normal social upbringing and showed absolutely no interest in fighting, courtship, mating, raising young, or much of anything really. 

Calhoun referred to this aberrant group of mice as “the beautiful ones.” These “beautiful ones” were completely detached from society, had completely lost touch with normal mouse behavior, and spent all of their time eating, sleeping, or incessantly grooming and preening themselves, leading them to have a fine, robust, healthy appearance with keen and alert eyes, hence their name. Calhoun often referred to these mice as “handsome,” however, their beauty was truly only skin deep. Inside they were empty. 

The beautiful ones lived peacefully secluded and withdrawn from the rest of the society in the less crowded areas; eating, sleeping, avoiding conflict, grooming, and not mating in any way, and seemed to be spared any violence that broke out among the other mice, yet they did nothing to further the society either. They had essentially lost all of their desire to interact with others and spent their days in a lackadaisical daze.

Calhoun would later muse on the reasons behind the rise of these “beautiful ones,” these mice which were healthy in appearance yet had died in spirit.

He theorized that mice were in many respects like mankind and that in the absence of any tension, pressure, or stress they had lost their focus and sense of purpose and identity. With an overabundance of vital resources and no need to do anything to obtain them, the need for societal roles or jobs had faded, leaving the mice in a state of being unable and/or unwilling to perform all but the most basic functions of sustaining physiological life such as eating and sleeping.

In essence, the thinking was that these mice, and indeed it could be inferred human beings as well, required conditions of stress, pressure, obstacles, and a clear purpose in order to have a destiny and a desire to engage in society.

With the majority of mice becoming those who refused to mate, engage others, or indeed perform any useful societal functions at all, the population increase of Universe 25 ceased altogether, with the last conception recorded at Day 920.

By this time the population had reached its peak of 2,200 individuals, which was somewhat crowded but still well under the enclosure’s maximum capacity of 3,000. With zero population increase, a shocking mortality rate, and a majority population now completely disinterested in procreation and living on the upper levels of the enclosure in seclusion, the rest of the remaining mice were still forming marauding gangs, congregating into crowded areas and devolving into a morass of endemic violence and cannibalism, with many of them completely missing tails or exhibiting brutal battle scars. 

Bear in mind that even at this turbulent point in time, the mice still had free access to all of the food and resources they could ever need. This was the unstoppable slide to catastrophe, the point of no return, the “behavioral sink” that Calhoun had talked about, and the mouse utopia’s apocalypse came crashing down as all of these factors conspired to cause the population to start barrelling rapidly towards extinction until there were none left. Universe 25 had ceased to exist.

Calhoun was alarmed by the spectacular descent into ruin of the colony, and before the apocalyptic end of the “death phase,” he removed a few of the “beautiful ones” for the purpose of seeing if they could reintegrate into a mouse society under different conditions.

A few small groups of these “beautiful ones” were removed from Universe 25 and placed in equally ideal conditions, yet with a small population and unlimited space. They were essentially placed in more or less the same conditions that had been faced by the original breeding pairs of Universe 25, and it was expected they would snap out of their daze and begin populating the new habitat, in essence, rebuilding society. Calhoun and associates were somewhat taken aback when the displayed absolutely no change in their previous behavior. They continued to show a complete disinterest in social interactions or reproduction and refused to mate, which led to no new births in the new habitat whatsoever. 

In the end, this small group of mice died of old age, having never shown the slightest interest in repopulating or rebuilding their society, despite living in ideal conditions.

Calhoun’s findings and observations on Universe 25 were published in the rather spookily titled paper Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population, which immediately shot into the public consciousness and became at once controversial and a sobering looks into what could happen to humans as well.

It was also widely misinterpreted and misunderstood. The public mostly took the findings in a negative way, and with the country as it was at the time why wouldn’t they? After all, the Universe 25 study was done at a time when the population was soaring, urbanization was burgeoning, and at around the same time as incidences of urban violence such as the Watts Riots in 1965 and widespread civil unrest across the country in in the wake of the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination in 1968. Everywhere one turned it seemed that there was some riot, mass panic, an outbreak of violence, or other signs of an imminent breakdown of social order stemming from the crowd, and Calhoun’s study of Universe 25 seemed to eerily mirror the world that seemed to be unraveling around them.

The study seemed to confirm the public’s darkest fears; that society had reached a tipping point towards disaster and that overcrowding directly equated to doom and degeneracy, nihilism, and inevitable collapse.

It certainly didn’t help matters that various books and movies were being released at the time that approached this topic in a negative way, such as Soylent Green in 1973, which depicts an overpopulated society unknowingly being fed the remains of the dead, as well as the book A Clockwork Orange in the 60s with its roving gangs of directionless, ultraviolent hooligans, among many others. In light of all of this, Calhoun’s paper became a dire warning, an omen even, of things to come and fueled a particularly bleak, pessimistic public attitude.

In spite of the negative connotations related to his work, Calhoun remained hopeful that mankind could utilize our innovation, creativity, imagination, and positivity to overcome our limitations. However, not everything was a cheerful, sunny vision of the future.

For all of his optimism for the future and faith in mankind’s ability to change it, Calhoun still warned that in spite of our sophistication and intelligence as a species, we still faced grave danger if we did nothing to change the way our cities operated. He still insisted that human society would face explosive collapse once the number of people capable of filling societal roles dramatically exceeded the number of roles available. The behavioral sink still loomed threateningly over us, and Calhoun maintained that once humanity had reached this event horizon, pathological behavior and deviance would spiral out of control and we would have reached a tipping point from which there would be no return, just as had happened with the mice of Universe 25. If we reached that point, he theorized, we were doomed.

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