The “Universe 25” experiment is one of the most terrifying experiments in the history of science. The behavior of a colony of mice helped scientists to explain human societies. The idea of ’Universe 25′ experiment came from the American scientist John Calhoun. In 1968, he created an ‘ideal world’ for mice in which hundreds of mice would live and reproduce. It was a large pen — a 1.5 metre cube — with everything a mouse could wish for. Three was plenty of food, plenty of water, a perfect climate, and reams of paper nest making. There were 256 separate mouse family apartments, accessible via mesh tubes. Free from predators and other worries, a mouse could live to an old age without worry.
This was not John Calhoun’s first mouse utopia. By this time he knew mouse heaven could change to mouse hell. As a zoologist, he worked with a team to eliminate rodent pests in cities. There were issues because no one could figure out what aspects of rodent behavior, lifestyle, or biology to target. They needed to discover what factors drove the population growth of rodents.
In his famous 25th experiment in 1968, he placed four pairs of mice into his ideal living conditions. They shortly began to reproduce, resulting in their population growing rapidly. After a settling in period, the mouse population doubled every fifty-five days. However, after 315 days their reproduction began to decrease significantly. When the number of rodents reached 600, a hierarchy began to form. One class became called the “wretches”. The larger rodents began to attack the group, with the result that many males begin to collapse psychologically. Females failed to protect themselves, becoming aggressive towards their young. As time went on, the females showed aggressive behavior, isolation characteristics, and lack of reproductive interest. There was a low birth rate and, at the same time, an increase in mortality in younger rodents. The population peaked at 2,200 mice in the nineteenth month.
The strong growth brought some serious problems. In the wild, infant mortality is high. Many young mice died from disease or cold or were devoured by predators. In John’s mouse heaven, juvenile mice rarely died. This meant that there were far more young mice than normal. This brought new problems.
Rodents have social hierarchies, with dominant alpha males controlling harems of females. Alphas establish dominance by fighting. Normally a mouse that loses a fight will scurry off to some distant place and start again. But there was no place else to go. John Calhoun called them “dropouts”. Due to the low death rate of youths, large numbers of these dropouts would congregate in the centre of the pen. They had cuts and scars from fights and scuffles. Occasionally, huge fights would break out in the form of vicious free-for-alls. Senseless violence was occurring.
Alpha males also had problems. They kept their harems in private apartments, which they defended from challengers. Now that more mice survived to adulthood, there were more fighting challenges. The alphas soon became exhausted. Some alphas stopped defending their apartments. Apartments with nursing females were often invaded by rogue males. The mothers fought back, but often to the detriment of their young. Many stressed-out mothers pushed their offspring from the nest early, before the youths were ready. Some mothers might abandon their young whilst fleeing to different apartments. The abandoned pups would die of neglect.
Other deviant behavior emerged. Mice who had been raised improperly or kicked out of the nest early often failed to develop healthy social bonds, and therefore struggled in adulthood with social interactions. Maladjusted females began isolating themselves like hermits in empty apartments. Maladjusted males took to grooming themselves all day. Calhoun called them “the beautiful ones”. While obsessing over appearance, these maladjusted males had zero interest in courting females and no interest in sex.
This maladjusted behavior could spread from mouse to mouse.
The lack of sex lowered the birth rate. Pups were not raised appropriately. These caused the population to fall. By the twenty-first month, newborn pups rarely survived more than a few days. Soon, new births stopped altogether. Older mice lingered for a while — hiding like hermits or grooming all day — but eventually they died out as well. By spring 1973, less than five years after the experiment started, the population had crashed from 2,200 to 0. Mouse heaven had gone extinct.
No clear conclusions can be drawn from this study when related to human populations. However, the last two centuries, population has boomed across the world, largely due to drops in infant mortality — similar to the mouse experiment. Recently, however, human birth rates have dropped dramatically in many developed countries — often below replacement levels—and young people in those places have reportedly lost interest in sex.
Behavioral biologists have tried to blame the strange behaviors of the mice on a lack of natural selection, which in their view culls those they consider weak and unfit to breed. This lack of culling led to widespread mouse stupidity and aberrant behavior. (These researchers argued that the brain is especially susceptible to mutations because it’s so intricate and because so many of our genes influence brain function.)
Extrapolating from this work, some political agitators warn that humankind will face a similar decline. Women are supposedly falling into Calhoun’s behavioral sink by learning “maladaptive behaviors”, such as choosing not to have children. Other commentators comment on the supposed loss of traditional gender roles, leaving effete males and hyperaggressive females. Some point to the undermining of religions and their imperatives to “be fruitful and multiply”. The changes now occuring will lead to the decline of the West.
Others say that the colony collapse illustrates the dangers of welfarism which tends provide material goods but removes healthy challenges. Others suggest that the cities we live in are a “perversion of nature”. Urban life is problematic.
Some suggest that runaway population growth destroys family life. Others suggest the mice collapse in terms of the ultra wealthy and wealth inequality.
Arguing that overcrowding might lead to widespread shortages of food is the opposite of what happened in mouse utopia. Population booms can occur in struggle environments.
Any comparison between human birth rates and Universe 25 birth rates is complicated.
What lesson can we draw from the experiment?
Mouse heaven’s issues involved status. Males who lost the fights for dominance could not leave to start over elsewhere. They were stuck in humiliating roles and lacked a meaningful role in society. Similarly, females had no role to nurse and raise pups. Both groups became depressed, violent, and angry. Mice are social animals. They need fulfilling social roles. Humans are social animals. Humans need meaningful roles.
The experiment is illuminating, but be careful drawing conclusions from John Calhoun’s work.
We are currently witnessing direct parallels in today’s society… weak, feminized men with little to no skills and no protection instincts, and overly agitated and aggressive females with no maternal instincts.