The Universe 25 experiment created a spectacular outcome when a population of rodents was provided with total safety from any external risk and uncertainty. Free, private-law, societies should be the best way to avoid any risk of sharing Universe 25’s fate.
This is a tale of Mice and Men. In the 1940s and 50s, a scientist called John Calhoun conducted a series of experiments on mice and rats, essentially the same experiment on his rodents 25 times, always with the same result. The last, most spacious and elaborate, version of the experiment was therefore known as Universe 25. On the 25th run, he followed up the main experiment with a secondary experiment – on the so called ‘beautiful ones’ which is a real sting in the tail.
THE UNIVERSE 25 MOUSE EXPERIMENT
I was introduced to this experiment by a post from Doug Casey of the International Man site, who looks at global investment and politics from a sceptical, libertarian view point.
I googled the experiment and found different accounts of it. They varied both as to the facts of the case and in terms of the writer’s preferred explanation of the results. So I present another account, which may also be selective and biased. Here we go.
Calhoun asked himself what would happen to a population of mice put into a position of perfect safety, in a rodent utopia as it were. He built an enclosure with everything a mouse could desire. Food hoppers provided abundant food. The temperature was kept at a constant 20 degrees centigrade which is apparently just right for a mouse. There were no diseases and no predators. Clean nesting material was available in unlimited quantities.
Each and every mouse in the Universes faced a life of perfect ease with no danger whatsoever. There was nothing more to strive for or, seemingly, to fear. In short, the mice could not affect their comfortable fate either for better or worse. They had, arguably, no purpose in life, no need to struggle. Purpose would be things like simply trying to survive, to fight off predators, to find one’s a place in a community, to collect resources to support a family, to find a mate and protect the females until the progeny appeared, and to bring those offspring to effective maturity. Calhoun wanted to see what effect unearned, secure, abundance ‘on a plate’ would have on the mice.
An alternative view is that the experiment was about the effects of overcrowding rather than of abundance. The mouse enclosure, at least in the final, biggest, version of the experiment, provided capacity for 3,000 mice. In the event the mouse population peaked at 75% of notional capacity, or just over 2200 mice. There was relatively abundant space. There were more than 250 ‘apartments’, and even spacious upper levels for the notionally well-heeled, or well-pawed, mouse about town. There seems always to have been enough room for individual mice to get far from the madding crowd. This would seem to contradict these experiments being about overcrowding. Human communities with few signs of social breakdown are known from crowded but productive urban settings. I think it is about the possibility that rodents, and by extension humans, cannot cope with having existences which are so safe and secure that they are pointless.
I think Calhoun was also thinking primarily in these terms. The possibility that overcrowding could occur is inbuilt into any such experiment. If you let mice do what comes naturally with unlimited food resources, their population can double every 55 days. So an enclosure the size of Manhattan could become ‘overcrowded’ quickly.
(The maximum rate of human population growth seems to be about 4% per year which is a doubling in around 18 years, but many if not most countries on Earth have birthrates below replacement level.)
In any case, signs of trouble appeared well before the question of overcrowding would appear to be relevant. Four mice couples were placed in the mousey paradise and left to get on with it. Everything went swimmingly for nearly a year. At that point there were 600 mice carrying on traditional mouse behaviours. They established territories and pecking orders which reduced conflict. They set up house together. They congregated sociably near the abundant food sources, leaving much of the enclosure empty – even when the population peaked at over 2,000 individuals after three years.
Then it began to change. Calhoun’s interpretation appears to be that there were now many male mice which were somehow not finding their place in mouse society. There seems no reason why they should be unable to do so, but the disorientated males congregated away from the food hoppers, in the middle of the enclosure. There they showed a range of aberrant behaviours. Some became extremely passive and some extremely aggressive. Unprovoked violent attacks, incessant fighting, cannibalism, and ‘rape’ (coerced ‘mounting’, as it were, of members of either sex) appeared.
Male aggression and disorientation was mirrored in an increase in female aberrant behaviour. Not just more aggression but more neglect of offspring appeared. The upshot was a lot less maternal effort going into training young mice in the traditional ways of mousedom, including how to interact with others, to mate and to care for progeny.
The rate of population growth slowed markedly as fewer matings ensued. Many of the young died of neglect or were eaten by the neighbours. Shortly after the population peaked at just over 2,000 individuals at the end of the third year, the last conceptions of all occurred. Two years later the last rodents died and the community was entirely extinct. And this happened in each and everyone of the 25 experiments culminating in Universe 25.
Note, by the way, that this cannot be a simple story of overcrowding. Surely, as the mouse population fell towards zero it must have recrossed any possible threshold of overcrowding, so the mouse population should have stabilized at some point. But it did not.
THE BEAUTIFUL ONES
As the mouse community deteriorated, many of the mice who had been deprived of effective maternal care and training as infants developed into surprisingly attractive adults. They avoided fighting and indeed interaction of any kind, including mating, with other mice. Instead, they devoted themselves wholly to personal grooming, eating and sleeping. They had not learned how to be traditional mice. But because they were living in utopia, they could not be killed off in the struggle for life that their ancestors had once experienced.
Calhoun called them the beautiful ones. Fresh, handsome and unscathed, these were externally attractive mice. But they were empty inside. They played no role in mouse society at all. They were without purpose or use. They would not lift a finger, or anything else, to arrest the demographic decline of their society. As these mice languished beautifully in splendid isolation on the habitat’s upper levels, the dwindling ‘normal’ mice on the ground floor fought constantly in a dystopian, destructive mouse hell.
Calhoun tried one last experiment. He removed four male and four female beautiful ones from the teetering Universe 25 community and put them in another pristine enclosure complete with all home comforts. Effectively he restarted the entire thing again but just with the beautiful ones.
Did they buckle down to reproduction and restart their mouse world all over again? Nope. They died as uselessly and lifelessly as they had lived, without producing any offspring. What they hadn’t learned at their mothers’ knees, they could not learn later.
For another account of the Universe 25 experiment, I attach the link below:
WHAT CAN WE CONCLUDE FROM UNIVERSE 25?
Well, the first reasonable reaction might be; we are not mice! Another version of this might be; we are not all mice. Maybe the experiments are not so relevant. But we are also mammals, with a mammal’s (nearly) unique maternal care, and our own suite of behaviours, innate and taught. These behaviours arose during our biological and cultural evolution. They helped our ancestors to survive and even prosper, in comparison with those who didn’t pass them on. Mice and men have similar purposes in terms of finding a worthwhile place in the world, getting together resources, finding partners and establishing households.
So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Universe 25 experiment is somewhat relevant to the human condition. What was the problem that crushed our mice colonies, and what has it to do with the libertarian world view? The answer is that the Universe 25 experiment replicated the desired outcome of current political trends. Those trends remove meaning and therefore purpose from life by ensuring ample, uniform and ‘safe’ lives for all.
I refer to the current emphasis on ‘equity’. This means that outcomes should be the same for everybody. More productive people, the ‘middle class’ or ‘bourgeoisie’, are to be taxed and regulated down to the level of the less productive who in turn are to rely on welfare systems which will sooner or later become a Universal Basic Income. It is people maintained by welfare system or by state subsidized employment in idleness who are perhaps closest to sharing the environment created for the mice in Universe 25.
Most people assume that they belong to the collective rather than owning themselves (see www.awah.uk ‘Belonging to Yourself or to the Collective’), or at least their problems do. People hanker after material plenty regardless of effort, and absolute safety.
And to be fair to politicians, this view must drive them to try to meet this expectation. Partly as a result we have growing regulatory burdens. They hamper production and competition. They take wealth from the politically powerless, consumers and small businessmen - the many – and shift it up to big companies and their allies in the state apparatus, - the few. And that is their general purpose. But the regulation of everything is accepted by the public because so many people want politics to remove all risk. The result, however, may well simply be a fatal Universe 25 style dependency.
Calhoun talks about there being too few social roles in his cossetted mouse society for everybody, well every male, to find his place. Perhaps he meant that it made no difference whether mice stepped up to social roles since all could live abundantly regardless. I would like to suggest that – insofar as a comparison between mice and men is allowable – a libertarian human society is much more likely to avoid the Calhoun trap of inexorable extinction in the midst of abundance.
It is the WEF/Davos Crowd fake utopia – itself the ultimate welfarist fantasy – that most resembles Universe 25. The attractive human models on the WEF Great Reset page next to the caption ‘in 2030 you’ll own nothing and you will be happy’ may be the equivalent of Universe 25’s ‘beautiful ones’. The Great Reset is the ultimate statement of collective ownership rather than self-ownership. The few meaningful social roles left would be in the global elites. Someone is going to own everyone’s house in 2030 after all. Who will it be?
FREE SOCIETIES SHOULD BE IMMUNE TO UNIVERSE 25 SOCIAL DYSFUNCTION
Why would a libertarian, private-law, society be so much better? The answer is that everybody will have real ‘skin in the game’ in Nicolas Taleb’s phrase. Adults who have been properly brought up will be able to make voluntary agreements to cooperate with others.
They will successfully attract partners for the greatest cooperative endeavour of all, creating and bringing up the next generation, properly. Each household will be a generally flourishing but solidly risk bearing mini ‘economy’ (the word originally derived from the Greek Oikos – an extended family household and its possessions and lands).
There will be many fewer large corporate organisations and no state ones at all. The reckless billionaire elites and their enormous global corporations – all dominated by a very few institutional investment companies – could not exist on the same scale. They are mainly the creation of state regulatory cartelization of markets (see www.awah.uk ‘Regulation, Fascism and Crony Capitalism’), of easy access to cheap money used to buy out the small fry (see www.awah.uk ‘The Cantillon Effect: Finance displaces Productive People’) and of taxation and control of savings (see www.awah.uk ‘Saving your Way to Growth in a Free Society’).
With fewer massive organisations, and many more competing small enterprises, there will abundant meaningful, independent social roles to be occupied, unlike in statist utopias. In short society would be almost entirely composed of productive people – precisely those which the state is now deeply discouraging and alienating.
Where there is the possibility of untrammelled individual success, there must necessarily be the possibility or risk of failure – either through errors of judgement or plain bad luck. Risk or at least uncertainty is unavoidable, given the cost, difficulty or even impossibility of acquiring useful knowledge in a constantly changing world. But a free society will contain effective, independent welfare arrangements, offering still more niches for caring individuals to occupy. And a free society will have other roles, for example in private militia units, which cannot exist in our over-centralised top-heavy societies.
We know from historical examples that (quasi) free societies had mutualist and charitable provision (see www.awah.uk posts ‘Healthcare in a Free Society’ and the mistitled ‘Legislation is a Racket to Fleece the Productive’ which is really about Adam Smith’s discussion of human cooperative and charitable impulses). Nevertheless, there was a real incentive to do one’s best in every part of life, if only to avoid depending on others.
Maybe it is only in comparatively free societies, which can combine abundance, stability and social peace, while at the same time ensuring that meaningful effort remains essential, that we can avoid the kind of dysfunction that terminated all life in Universe 25?