Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Stepping on each other’s toes: Calhoun revisited

I feel like having me a whale of a time story telling. Indulge me folks.

As a teen, when we were scaring each other with horror stories, I used to be fond of telling the tale of over-crowded mouse enclosures where everything was aplenty but space at a premium. For me, it was the scientific bogey story to beat all bogey stories. Alas, my friends didn't seem to think so. They didn't remain my friends for much longer either. You see, there were no ghosts or zombies or aliens in my story and I was merely a morbid, pessimistic, storm crow.  When asked where I had heard the story, I carelessly said I had read it somewhere but couldn't remember. Their conclusion was obvious. I was a serious case of “nutjob”. I was to be left well alone, or, if touching was required, then, carefully, clad in a virus resistant coverall, with a ten foot long barge pole with a condom on it.  And, in Sri Lanka, in days when the number of humans was not that big and there was no internet for instant affirmation, my claims that rats and humans were interchangeable in the social ordering of exploding populations were deemed the stuff of a very seriously sickened imagination. 

 The story (for it does read that way) was one of the most famous social experiments of all time. It was designed and conducted by Dr. John B. Calhoun, the American ethologist and behavioral researcher and became famously known as the “behavioral sink”.  He started his work in 1947 and published his findings in the Scientific American in 1962. His paper became known as one of the 40 studies that changed psychology and went on to be quoted upward of a 150 times a year.

Here is a summary: 

Calhoun with his rodents
In 1947, John B. Calhoun built a quarter acre rat pen, or, what he called a “rat city,” which he seeded with five pregnant females. He calculated that the habitat was sufficient to accommodate as many as 5000 rats. Instead, the population levelled off at 150, and throughout the two years Calhoun kept watch, never exceeded 200. That the predicated maximum was never reached ought to come as no surprise: 5000 rats would be tight indeed. A quarter acre is little over 1000 square meters, meaning each rat would have to itself an area of only about 2000 square centimeters, roughly the size of an individual laboratory cage. Be that as it may, a population of only 150 seemed surprisingly low. What had happened?

He repeated the experiment in in 1954 at the Laboratory of Psychology of the National Institute of Mental Health where his “rodent universes” were populated using a variety of strains of rats and mice that were provided with food, bedding, and shelter. With no predators and with exposure to disease kept at a minimum, Calhoun described his experimental universe as “rat utopia,” or “mouse paradise.” With all their visible needs met, the animals bred rapidly. The only restriction Calhoun imposed on his population was of space – and as the population grew, this became increasingly problematic. As the pens heaved with animals, one of his assistants described rodent “utopia” as having become “hell” (Marsden 1972).

The first 100 days, Calhoun described as the "strive phase" where nests were built and territories marked. In the next 250 days, the population exploded, doubling every 60 days. This was described by Calhoun as the "exploitation phase". As the population increased, most associated eating and drinking with  - and in - the presence of others. Yet, use of resources became unequal although each living area was identical in structure and opportunity.

However, in the next period consisting of about 300 days, Calhoun found the population levelled off in what he called the “equilibrium phase”. He noticed that new generations of young were inhibited since most spaces were already socially defined. Unusual behavior was noticed. Violence became prevalent. Dominant males became aggressive, some moving in groups, attacking females and the young. Mating behaviors were disrupted. Excess males tried for acceptance and were rejected, withdrew and fought among themselves. Some became exclusively homosexual. Others became pansexual and hypersexual, attempting to mount any rat they encountered. The effects of violence became increasingly visible with some individuals targeted for repeated attacks. Other young growing into adults showed an even stranger behavior at this stage with new generations devoting themselves to grooming, eating and sleeping. They never engaged with others, nor did they fight nor did they have sex. Calhoun called them the beautiful ones. They were wonderful specimen of the species, with keen eyes and healthy, well- kept bodies. These however, were unable to cope with external stimuli and although they seemed alert and inquisitive they were in fact very stupid. 

Calhoun calls the last phase the "die phase" leading the population to extinction.  Mothers neglected their infants, first failing to construct proper nests, and then carelessly abandoning and even attacking their pups. In certain sections of the pens, infant mortality rose as high as 96%, the dead cannibalized by adults. Subordinate animals withdrew psychologically, surviving in a physical sense but at an immense psychological cost. They were the majority in the later part of the “die phase”, existing as a vacant, huddled mass in the center of the pens. In the shift from the equilibrium phase to the die phase, each animal became less aware of its associates despite all the animals being pushed closer together. Calhoun thought this was because the animals could not deal with repeated contact with many others. Unable to breed, the population plummeted and did not recover. The crowded rodents had lost the ability to co-exist harmoniously, even after the population numbers once again fell to low levels. At a certain density, they had ceased to act like rats and mice, and the change was permanent.

Like Pavlov’s dogs or Skinner’s pigeons, Calhoun’s rats came to assume a near-iconic status as emblematic animals, exemplary of the ways in which behavioral experimentation at once marks and violates the human-animal distinction. The macabre spectacle of crowded psychopathological rats and the available comparisons with human life in the densely-packed inner cities ensured the experiments were quickly adopted as scientific evidence of social decay (Ramsden and Adams (2009)).

Arrite! ‘nuff science. 

The parallels to modern human behavioral trends are quite obvious. While I have sufficient metaphysical evidence to be anthropocentric, in this case, I stand down on that stance. No one needs metaphysics or density studies to figure this one out.

The reason why each of us needs more space than our physical bodies inhabit is because of something zoologists call the “flight distance” (The minimal distance from another animal or human at which point it decides to flee). Beyond that point, any encroachment of space, or, "minimal point of territorial integrity", moves the animal closer to “fight distance” at which point the animal decides that it cannot flee but can only fight. 

With 7,125,000,000 people, 148,326,000 of total land mass and 29,242,234 (just 19%) of habitable land mass, each of us has approximately 4,104 sq. meters to live on. Let us try to apply the rat-universe parallel of a maximum of 200 rats per 1000 sq.m to human habitation. Taking that 400 rat bodies would approximately fit in to a single human body, add an alpha factor of 3.0 - 4.0 for the larger brain and we have already two-fold exceeded our peak point population vis-à-vis overcrowding. Two fold! When one takes into account that not all habitable land is actually occupied, we have a very large number of people living in many high density pockets (metros, cities, towns etc.) where the flight-distance is already invaded and in many cases, even the fight-distance has been compromised. 49 wars at present across the planet folks. FORTY NINE I tells ya... 49! Most of them group driven, ethnoreligious, genocidal, brutally extravagant in the type and form of murder and the direct and indirect body count. You want an example of Human Calhoun rats in stage 4? 2 million people murdered of which 50000 were children in the so-called war on terror in Iraq. 
Too many rats... ahem... people! 

So, while continuing our commitment to excess and waste, while continuing our desire to fornicate like rabbits and breed like rats, can we resolve conflict? No. Can we curb roaming gangs of politicians and thugs attacking anything and everything? No. Can we curb galloping same-sex relationships? No. Can we curb this preoccupation with manicures, haute couture, haute cuisine, haute gyms and umbrellas? No. Can we curb the explosion of shrinks and couches? No.

Yeah, who is not fighting these days? Who is not competing? Who is not highly opinionated? Who is not self-centered? Who is not angry? Who is not complaining? Who is not jealous? Who is not wounded? Who is not scarred? Who doesn't have eating disorders? Who isn't spending inordinate amounts of time in the salon? Who doesn't need a shrink?

We are beyond striving, exploiting and equilibrium now. We are, truly, in the last phase. We have cast the die and the die reads "die". 

Well then, what on earth are we doing here, going round and round the mulberry bush like rats in a trap, trying this democracy or that dictatorship, this rule or that law? Not a lot that bears mentioning.

Instead, what we have are psychopathological humans huddled over mobile devices, running away from social engagement, slamming themselves repeatedly into waves of information explosions comparable only to population explosions, running screaming away from that into vacant staring or equally vacant copulation, terrified of committing to anything, scared witless of breeding and feeding and caring, rationalizing every irrational behavior, throwing kids at daycares, killing teachers, raping mothers, humping anything that moves, bouncing from twenty-minute uppers to twenty-day downers, desanitizing bodies with every kind of drug imaginable, searching…searching…searching… uselessly for an escape from this overpopulated prison we call earth. 
Next time you have the urge to FaceBook, NightClub, WhatsApp, DrugNight, ScrewBinge, TVDinner, ChatFeed, SpouseCheat, MathMull, StratPlan, CutSlack, GrowBeard, DyeHair, FaceLift know this: #YouCannotEscape. You are the #Doomsday. You are the #StormCrow. 

You are the chaos point. You are the morbidity metric. You are the nectromantic vacant.

You? ...are the hell.

(I was describing this experiment to Srilal Perera a fellow member of the Mind On Matters (MoM) group on facebook at a recent meet and Naren Bartlett, with half-an-ear on the conversation thought it would be good to post this on the group so I wrote it up in some detail. Thanks for the motivation Naren and Srilal!) 

1 comment:

  1. The rat experiment is understandable. Extrapolating the results to humans perhaps needs more study, as the humans have far more reasoning powers and adaptability than mere rats and are perhaps not that likely to behave similarly under similar conditions...


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