Overcrowded rat colonies lead to social breakdown and degeneracy. But are humans the same?
Individuals can be heroic, even God-like, but crowds are animals. Put us in the plural and we become a herd, a rat race, a swarm of worker bees. Groups apparently behave worse, too: at the end of last year, the London Assembly published a report describing how commuters on the packed (sardine-like, if you will) subway system adopted a “dog-eat-dog” attitude. One passenger told researchers, “I'm a different animal on the tube to normal life. I'm not me.” The history of how crowds got such a bad name is a long one. We could point to the coming of urbanisation and mass democracy, or the damning theories of groupthink laid out by Freud, and Mussolini's favourite psychologist Gustave Le Bon. The most intriguing contribution of all, however, comes from John Calhoun and his experiments on rats.
As a scientist for the U.S. government from the 1950s to the 1980s, Calhoun was obsessed with testing the psychological effects of crowding. Out in the Maryland countryside, he created a “rodent universe“: room-sized pens amply stocked with food, water and bedding. The only restriction Calhoun put on his rats and mice was space — and as they rapidly bred, the “rat utopias” turned into lab versions of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Young male rats formed gangs that preyed on females. Mothers abandoned their babies, then attacked them. Some rats mounted any animal they could. Cleaning the pens, Calhoun's assistants would find discarded rodent skins turned inside out — the creature within had been eaten whole.
All those who saw urban overcrowding as leading to degeneracy could now claim science was on their side. Calhoun would himself begin papers by quoting Malthus's view that “vice and misery impose the ultimate natural limit on the growth of populations.” Plenty had been written about how too many people led to the misery of food shortages and disease — but the psychologist had found proof of how it also created a “behavioural sink” of vice.
As a result, he'd also found international renown. In a recent paper titled “Escaping the Laboratory: the Rodent Experiments of John B Calhoun and their Cultural Influence,” historians Ed Ramsden and Jon Adams chart how their subject's reputation took off, with his arguments reported in newspapers and quoted frequently by politicians, architects and urban planners.
Those rat cities and rodent tower blocks also entered the popular culture with almost viral ease. J.G. Ballard set a novel, High Rise, in a 40-storey development in London's Docklands where the residents descend into barbarism. The creators of the Judge Dredd comic strip acknowledge Calhoun's influence in the depiction of their lawless “megalopolis,” Mega City One.
Yet the argument that simply putting lots of humans in close proximity to each other leads to social breakdown has never stacked up. The well-heeled inhabitants of Park Avenue's apartment blocks don't live in the scientist's dystopia; in South Central LA, on the other hand, lack of space isn't a problem, but lack of money is.
Still, the rat experiments have a symbolic power that far outstrips their usefulness. Ramsden and Adams were approached recently by TV producers about a programme on Calhoun. At one point, the proposal was for a human re-enactment of the rat experiments, to pack lots of them in a mini-city. But what, asked the academics, if the subjects began killing each other? The idea swiftly died, but the producers were on to something; Calhoun's experiments are about as close as mainstream science comes to reality television. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010