Monday, November 13, 2017


"I look at Gotham, my friends, and what do I see?  Gangs roam the streets attacking at will” (spoken by the arch villain Ratcatcher in a Batman adventure, circa 1995).
The dystopian vision of a comicstrip may not be as farfetched as we think.  Let us recall the work of Thomas Malthus whose essay, Principle of Population (1798), foreshadow modern concerns of over-population versus sustainability.  When human population growth far outstrips the available food supply, the result is called the Malthusian Catastrophe … a apocalyptic descent into poverty, starvation, armed conflict, and death.

Citing modern advances in agriculture and birth control, contemporary critics reject the ideas of Malthus.  Not so fast, I say.  Let us recall Rumi's time-honored tale about the blindfolded men and the elephant.  Even a consensus view fails to complete a picture.  A research hypothesis rarely offers a fully satisfying explanation. More often, studies raise more questions than answers.

How can we account for a rash of mass murders that defy explanation but have become all too commonplace?

Perhaps it is time to revisit the research of John B. Calhoun, who studied the effects of over-crowding on social animals at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).  Originally published in 1962, his findings have profound implications in the fields of architecture, urban planning, criminology, and the psychosocial sciences.

Imagine a fully enclosed 9-foot by 9-foot square box.  Introduce fours pairs of breeding mice and supply unlimited amounts of food, water, and nesting material.  In essence, Calhoun created a perfect utopian environment free from predators.  All things being equal, the only test variable under study was the confined space of a box.

Calhoun watched the population double every 55 days.  He observed profound breakdowns in social structure over time and a dramatic increase in the rate of internecine violence.  After 315 days, dominant males ceased courtship; non-dominant males no longer defended themselves; immature mice were expelled from nests before weaning, and females ceased to reproduce altogether.

By Day 600, the population had grown to 2,200 mice after which time the population crashed … to extinction. Mice removed from this overcrowded environment remained permanently damaged and never recovered.

Does Calhoun’s experiment serve as a metaphor for the future fate of human beings on this planet? Was Malthus right after all? When will the next Ratcatcher Strike?


  1. This post immediately brought my father to mind. He always maintained over population could very well be the greatest threat to human social existence.

    Profound food for thought (O)CT(O)PUS. It is likely those who most need to consider this will never see it. Or, they'll just ignore it.

    1. One problem I always have with psychosocial research studies. Sometimes you have an intuitive sense that cannot be measured or quantified, some phenomenon that transcends primitive tools to study it.

  2. Does Calhoun’s experiment serve as a metaphor for the future fate of human beings on this planet?

    Off the top of my head, I am forced to say no. Yes over population is a dangerous problem but if the factors were as cut and dry as the experiment with mice then shouldn't all densely packed urban centers be living hells? Yes, some cities are just that but frankly I've some others that are cleaner and have a more stable (rational) population than many rural small towns.

    As far as gun violence is concerned, I believe our particular culture here in the United States is the main reason for mass shootings. Weapons have been glorified for years in movies as a means to solve problems. Several of my coworkers regularly discuss how some bad driver almost sent them into a road rage "forcing" them to pull out their pistol from underneath the driver's seat.

    On this last part about mass shootings I have to admit to an ingrained bias against American gun culture. I own a .45 semiautomatic but don't feel the need to carry it around or wistfully speak about using it because some a-hole made me slam on brakes.

    1. Perhaps I could re-title this post; Day 314 -- a mere 24 hours before a full dystopia manifests itself. A post like this is more allegorical than correlational; in the same vein of science fiction stories that serve as parables of our time. I can name another: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It's not some fanciful tale of people taken over by big green pods; it serves as an allegory for how fascism gradually takes over and turns us into lifeless cyphers.


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