The mini-park outside the Chicken House in the off season.

* * * * * * * * * *

I view the species Homo sapiens with a gimlet eye, as I think I have already made clear. This is in spite of the fact that I harbor an immense fondness for some few individual specimens of that species. It seems clear to me, based upon the information currently available, that the species Homo sapiens is the most voracious and rapacious species that has ever trod the face of this little planet. Homo sapiens not only display an intra-species viciousness, but also direct their viciousness at other species inhabiting the planet. There is good evidence that there have been other periods of great extinctions in the past. The great extinction of species currently underway, however, is for the first time directly attributable to the conduct of one of those same species--the supposedly self-aware one--Homo sapiens.

How is one to make sense of this? For my part whenever I encounter some further example of the cruelty of our species, particularly the thoughtless, untoward behavior of some of our species toward others of our own species, I have tended to invoke the nostrum that there are “too many rats in the cage.” The human population of the planet is after all hurtling toward 9 billion, an unimaginable number. While there remain vast stretches of inhospitable, formidable landscapes on the planet that are sparsely inhabited, specimens of our species tend to huddle thickly together in relatively small, friendlier areas.

After some years of casually tossing off that explanation “too many rats in the cage,” I determined to look further into the science underlying it. I am an Enlightenment kind of guy after all. That brought me around to the work of ethologist John B. Calhoun, the man who actually put the rats, and sometimes mice, in those cages and watched and reported. I fully recognize the pitfalls of extrapolating from the behavior of rats and mice to explanations of human behavior, but one can hardly help oneself. The manner in which Professor Calhoun wrote up his observations does not discourage that either. Perhaps he is to be criticized for that.


I found that Professor Calhoun conducted a whole series of such experiments, each of different design, some involving rats and some involving mice. For our purposes here, I shall give a brief description of two general types, the rat thing and the mouse thing, as well as the results as I understand them.  

His early experiments in the late 1950’s involved domesticated Norway rats. He constructed a large cage in a barn with three or four “rooms” between which the rats could travel freely. Unlimited food and water. No predators. No disease. A rat “utopia.” He initially stocked the cage with a number of rats for which there was ample space. First, he noticed that even though there was ample food and water in all of the “rooms,” the rats tended to crowd together in one of the rooms where they ate together leaving the other “rooms” largely unoccupied. (This might perhaps explain why all of our great restaurants are in urban areas and require reservations.) Thus, overpopulation developed in one room while the other rooms were mainly empty.

Then, as the population increased, as populations will, he noticed changes in the little rat society. The female rats began having difficulty carrying their pregnancies to term. There was increased maternal mortality among those who did. The mothers who survived giving birth paid little or no attention to their motherly duties. As for the males, they become hyperactive, extremely aggressive, cannibalistic, and pathologically withdrawn. They also displayed “sexually deviation,” in Professor Calhoun’s words, a subject that I shall leave untouched here for good reason, one rat's "sexual deviation" being another rat's delight, I say. There was a societal breakdown as a result of what the good professor called “behavioral sink,” which then led to the extinction of the rat population.

Briefly, the mice experiments in the 1960’s can be described this way. In this case Professor Calhoun introduced four pairs of mice into a nine foot square pen complete with nesting boxes, food, and water. The only limiting factor on their reproduction was that space, but a space with nesting boxes sufficient to accommodate 3,840 mice. Initially, the population increased apace reaching 620, but then the population increase started to slow. The mouse society began to break down with the mice displaying the same aberrant behavior to that of those Norway rats. A female mouse successfully gave birth on day 600, which was the last successful birth in the colony. The population at that point stood at 2,200 mice.  The society had totally broken down at that point what with the aberrant behavior, however, and the colony began its descent into extinction.

As I was contemplating the implication of all that, I encountered a newspaper column by a writer whom I admire, Leonard Pitts, Jr. It occurred to me that if it is fair to extrapolate from rodent behavior to human behavior, then it is equally fair to extrapolate from human behavior to rodent behavior. It is entirely possible that Professor Calhoun simply happened to put rats and mice in those cages that did not like each other.

Views: 535

Comment by Stephen Brassawe on March 13, 2017 at 8:09pm

Nerd cred,  the "tools we use" now is precisely the point.

Comment by Theodora L'Engle Knight on March 13, 2017 at 11:27pm

love this. not a great fan of sapiens a lot of the time. i'm reading a book of the same name that is kind of fascinating. might be up your alley.

i too had pets rats. before i could have anything else. first there was Algernon. she was brilliant. it being L.a. , there was a class for cats who want to be in the movies. the teacher said Algie could join. she was the bravest creature i've ever seen. in 3 weeks, she was eating her snack along with all the other critters. there was a possum named pinnochio and a rabbit named Appollonia. Algernon would sit on top of a cat. she could climb a latter and sit in a chair and could probably have made breakfast if i'd known how to train her.

sorry. long story i'll share at some point about how this story ended up going around the world. I

then had ben and jerry and half-pint the dwarf rat. all wonderful in their own ways. eventually i got a cat which was so unfair. i was always finding half-pint in the cushions of the sofa. so i closed her cage. it was shaped like the Taj Mahal and quite lovely.

shutting up now. love a post that gets me thinking and reminiscing.

Comment by Rosigami on March 14, 2017 at 1:21am

It's the big picture we often fail to see, isn't it? I don't know if it even matters whether we can extrapolate the rat and/or mouse experiment results to describe human behavior.  The world changes. It always has and it always will, right up to its inevitable end. Our species has developed the ability to exacerbate changes on scales both local and global. We've left debris on the Moon and littered space, since crapping up Earth wasn't enough. The workings of society haven't changed all that much, though the methods of communication have reached an incredible pace. We think we are anonymous but that is a self-deception. I know we got here through a long evolution punctuated by attenuated leaps, but I don't think we've seen much actual change since recorded history. 

In the smaller, self-involved view, I am mostly happy to be here (in the world) (okay, and here on this site) and happy to do what I can to live with some sense of purpose. I have not one whit of concern about what comes after this life. 

Also, I like rats and have known a few. As companion animals they are vibrant and fun, but they simply don't live long enough. 

I loved your comment about great restaurants and urban areas. 

Comment by Rosigami on March 14, 2017 at 1:21am

It's the big picture we often fail to see, isn't it? I don't know if it even matters whether we can extrapolate the rat and/or mouse experiment results to describe human behavior.  The world changes. It always has and it always will, right up to its inevitable end. Our species has developed the ability to exacerbate changes on scales both local and global. We've left debris on the Moon and littered space, since crapping up Earth wasn't enough. The workings of society haven't changed all that much, though the methods of communication have reached an incredible pace. We think we are anonymous but that is a self-deception. I know we got here through a long evolution punctuated by attenuated leaps, but I don't think we've seen much actual change since recorded history. 

In the smaller, self-involved view, I am mostly happy to be here (in the world) (okay, and here on this site) and happy to do what I can to live with some sense of purpose. I have not one whit of concern about what comes after this life. 

Also, I like rats and have known a few. As companion animals they are vibrant and fun, but they simply don't live long enough. 

I loved your comment about great restaurants and urban areas. 

Comment by Terry McKenna on March 14, 2017 at 5:45am

We have been playing an economic game that is described in the "tragedy of the commons" - each individual can maximize his own return but if they all do, they deplete the resources that they all need.  Other species are not as able to control the environment.  But if my dogs are reliable examples of another species, they too would maximize their return if they could. 

Comment by Foolish Monkey on March 14, 2017 at 6:06am

we are a plague.  this pains me because 1. I love people. 2. I have grandchildren who are inheriting this hot mess 3. I am observant of visible change and I am seeing too much of it and it's not beautiful or even hopeful.

I"ve been saying this for years - there are too many of us.  we can't stop - it's a powerful downhill projectary our kind is riding.  it's impossible to stop ourselves, and even if "we" do, there are others who believe nothing less than having 20 kids in a lifetime is the way to go.  

what makes humans so obtuse, I cannot even imagine.  how can we continue this way without seeing or trying to change direction.  I didn't put a question mark on my last sentence because it's not a question and there is no answer.  I think we're at the end of our line.  

I feel like an elderly character in a drama speaking from the span of a lifetime observing the story of the end of an era.  

brass, I can't see how we get out of this in one piece.  how we can control an environment we've so thoroughly raped and poisoned, that we can come out of this with any sustanance for the young humans that remain, for the billions of humans who only want to live a life.  

perhaps the reason we're not coming together to put a halt to it, is because that would mean actually looking at all the myriad and endless enormous facets of this problem and begin dealing with them as a whole.  I don't think that can be done.  

Comment by greenheron on March 14, 2017 at 6:21am

Oy. There are days I feel like Monkey does, but I can't linger there. It seems human nature to view ourselves as the beginning and the end, rather recognize that we are merely teeny tiny ant specks, not particularly special or important in the bigger longer picture.

For decades, I've put my efforts into the next crop of young people. I see that as an investment and I worry for them, a lot, yet also don't, because I know how amazing they are, far more level headed than my generation was. They are having none of this populism stuff, and provided that Trump doesn't tweet us all into a nuclear winter, what we're in now is the last graspy gasp of white patriarchal rule. The kids in general reject this and once they're firmly onstage, I have a lot of hope, even though I'll be gone. 

Comment by JMac1949 Today on March 14, 2017 at 6:31am

Brass, I was a senior in high school when I did my own version of Calhoun's mice in a cage experiment.  It was a formative experience: 1967 - Cigarettes & Coffee, Overpopulation & Beheading Mice.  R&L

Comment by Keith Joiner on March 14, 2017 at 6:41am

I had some chinese hooded rats for a while as an adolescent. I can confirm they will overpopulate the cage ending in their own destruction. It wasn't pretty. Twas a self inflicted genocide. 

We need each other. Desperately sometimes. But too much can certainly be too much. 

Comment by tr ig on March 14, 2017 at 7:38am

Glad to have you back. Enlightenment kind of guys are in short supply. Well, don't know just what to say in regards to the rats, except that I suspect the results do translate directly to humans as we are more interconnected, similar, than we might suppose. The Mississippi delta from space looks like a leaf of tree examined closely, which looks like veins and capillaries in humans, and I'm assuming rats too. We are due a "correction" I believe, us humans. More like roaches than dinosaurs though (or maybe a roach is a dinosaur anyway), I don't see us being wiped out. Then again, I am often wrong.

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