9th July 1968. National Institute of Health of Bethesda, Maryland. The scientist John Calhoun places 8 white mice inside a fenced area 2.7 m (8.8 ft) wide and 1.3 m ( 4.3 ft) high, uncovered on the top in order to allow the observation of the animals.

Calhoun does not know this yet, but his experiment will be destined to open a worldwide discussion which will affect ethologists, psychologist and academics all over the world

However that day of over half a century ago, John Calhoun, is not aware of this whatsoever. He is an ethologist in his 50’s specialised in animal behaviour. Perhaps he has glimpsed that the human population is growing exponentially hence he wants to foresee  what might happen in the eventuality that the natural environment was to become too tight for its inhabitants.

He does not know that 50 years later, in 2020, a world population of almost 8 billions people with a drastic reduced animal habitat, will have to face a pandemic which will paralyse the whole planet with consequences yet to be imagined.

The mice chosen for the experiment are the best of breed coming from the NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health). They are put in a world where there is no need to worry about how to obtain food, protect themselves from predators or disease.

They just have to feed and reproduce

The cage in the Universe 25 project had free horizontal space and many recesses along the vertical walls, reachable by the mice thanks to grids secured to the perimeter. The recesses were linked to 4 tunnels and would include a total of 256, number which technically could have hosted 3,800 mice. The cage used to get cleaned every 4 weeks.

The habitat could have technically hosted an average of 3,800 mice in total

The life within the walls was theoretically a paradise. No cats, no traps, chill or heat, not even the fear of being vivisected with syringes and scalpels as a test animal. None of that, just simply eating and breeding.

And actually the increase of new lives begins to happen steeply

Below: a video of the Universe 25 project

The population, after a period of approximately 3 months of adjusting begins to double every 2 months. Before 20 mice, then 40, then 80 and so forth. The curve started decreasing yet the population hit the 620 units in August 1969, a year after the start of the experiment. After 560 days (hence a year and a half from the 4 original couples were introduced inside the box), the Universe 25 peaked with its 2,200 mice.

From then on, things started to change

The living mice were exceeding by far then number of available social roles, and the researchers started noticing anomalies to the mice behaviour that was turning into more and more unnatural. Some males would start attacking females and newborns, others became pansexual. The females, left alone, were at risk as threatened by the males. They took refuge in the higher nests and carried their offspring but without the possibility to provide for them since engaged in the defence of the territory. The vast majority of the progeny is left to die and no one takes care of them.

In some areas of Universe 25 the death rate reached the 96%

Other examples inside the box, defined by doctor Calhoun the “beautiful ones” did not care about anything if not eating and combing their hair and are the only ones which did not get injured  from combats with the others. The groups of mice left were disproportionate: 1 male for 10 females or 20 males for 10 females.

In this situation violence, pansessualism and sometimes cannibalism blew up, despise the food was abundant. A complete collapse of the Utopia in Universe 25 was about to take shape.

From day 600 onwards, the population began to decrease with the last born happened on day 920, 1° May 1970. The experiment terminates 5 years after its begin in 1973, with the mice society totally extinct.

Below: the diagram with the demographic evolution in Universe 25. The dotted line shows the trending after day 700

What was supposed to be a Paradise ended up turning into a burning Hell

The mice society in which there was no necessity if not those ones of social interaction had collapsed, destroyed by that absence of social roles to employ, due to the overpopulation, shattered by its own members.

Calhoun’ conclusion

In 1973, Calhoun published his research about the project Universe 25 with the title “The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population”. The publication was an intense academic reading. On its inside there are Apocalypse quotations such as:

“Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth”.

The mice were defined with human names such as “the beautiful ones” for the quiet ones which did not mate, or “social drinkers” as in the ones which crowded around the water bottles. The Doctor described the collapse of the society as:

Behavioural Sink

That was not an academic way of expressing himself, however it was perfectly fitting the experiment conditions and the thoughts that its creator had developed about it.

Calhoun’s conclusion was shocking:

It does not matter how sophisticated the human being believed himself to be, when all available space is taken and all social roles filled, competition and the stresses experienced by the individuals will result in a total breakdown in complex social behaviours, ultimately resulting in the demise of the population

Below: John Calhoun meets pope Paolo VI on the 27th September 1973. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons 3.0

The conclusion of the scientist, debated largely and object of both approval and controversy, would shock the then scientific society, which was seriously worried about the demographic explosion (going from the 60’s to the 90’s only slowed down in 2000) that was not aware of what that could have entailed.

Below: the population curve growth in the world

It would be curious to know what John Calhoun would think of the nowadays world after the effect of the pandemic and our social distancing rules. Maybe, on top of the uncovered gates above us, he is observing like we was observing his mice while  destroying the society they (we?) had created.

Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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