The Universe 25 Experiment


John Calhoun in his Mice Enclosure

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One of the themes that dominates today is that humanity is headed to its doom because of overpopulation, lack of resources, hunger, disease, climate change, you name it and it’s a thing. Politics the world over are obsessed with leveraging those ideas for power, movie characters like Thanos are built around it, and a great deal of current conspiracy theories are centered around these ideas as well. One of our biggest collective fears is the runaway train to doom.


And that’s not all bad, we should be concerned about at least some of these issues on some level. 


But let’s slow down a bit, look around you. I mean really look around and think about your environment versus someone 50 – 100 – 1000 – or even 10,000 years ago. 


The reality, though we often don’t see it, is that we have it made compared to all those countless generations before us. There is not a better time to be alive on planet earth. We have an abundance of security and comfort. Entire industries devoted to health, and maybe even more telling is entire industries devoted simply to leisure and pleasure.  Even as COVID mania grips the world, you probably still have warm clothes, running water, plenty of food, an iPhone, a way to get around town, a nearby hospital in case you need it, and access to more information than you could possibly ever process. We aren’t running out of food, quite the opposite is reality, the sky is in fact not falling, and even when a plague spreads across the planet, we can mitigate it to a tremendous degree that our ancestors probably couldn’t even imagine. Sure, there are still homeless people, and struggling parts of the world, and those are serious issues, but even at that, those people are most likely better off today than being destitute in the much more brutal and unforgiving world of the past. 


What our real problem, the thing we should really be worried about, is that we are too comfortable, to safe, and live lives so luxurious compared to the past that we are losing touch with how we got to and maintained a prosperous liberal society in the first place?


This of course is the premise of the classic comedy Movie Idiocracy, which if you haven’t seen it, you absolutely should. 


But the main story I wanted to cover in this episode is more real, and perhaps bleaker and depressing than thinking Climate Change, Covid, vaccines, wars, or starvation is the thing that’s going to take us out….


Starting in the late 1940s and extending into the 1970s, a researcher named John B Calhoun carried out a series of experiments involving rats or mice. His goal was to study their behaviors and societal structures if you will, except without any of the natural pressures a mouse might encounter in the wild.

John B. Calhoun, photo by Cat Calhoun CC BY-SA 3.0

The most famous one, dubbed Universe 25 started in the late 1960s. Calhoun built a mouse Utopia, a large enclosure that could sustain nearly 4000 mice. Unlimited food, unlimited water, unlimited nesting material, no predators, perfect temperatures, a greatly reduced threat of disease through sanitation.


He started with 8 mice, 4 males and 4 females from the National Institutes of Health. In the first 104 days the mice were adjusting to their new world, deciding whose corner was whose and learning to live with each other in this new universe. 

The Mice Enclosure

After the first 104 days dubbed “Phase A”, the population began to explode, doubling about every 55 days until it reached a population of 620 mice. They kept track of individual mice by marking them with different colors.

But at 620 mice, the population slowed way down. The social order of the mice could be seen favoring mice in certain areas of the enclosure despite all parts of the enclosure being identical. The more productive males and females seemed to stay together as did the less productive males and females. The more dominate males were also the most reproductive, and the less dominant the male the less reproductive. 


The most dominant male was also associated with the most productive group of female mice. You can see a picture of the enclosure and the numbers of young born in different parts of the enclosure at that will give you a clear idea of how this mouse society arranged itself. By the end of this “Phase B” as Calhoun called it, there were more young mice than old mice.


Around this time the population growth took about 145 days to double. And something new started to happen. In nature, mice without a role or failing to achieve a place in the hierarchy could leave area to try anew.  But not in the enclosure. 


Males that failed to establish themselves withdrew from society and congregated with other failed males away from the feeders and the nesting boxes in the center of the enclosure. They became less active, and so non-threatening that the alpha males would leave them alone. But, amongst the outcast males, they would still fight ferociously amongst themselves. Notably the withdrawn males seemed to get the rowdiest whenever a few members of their group returned from eating or drinking. And a mouse who was the victim of an attack, would later then become an attacker. 


Females that lost out on the hierarchy congregated around nesting boxes further away from the dominant females. 

Map of births in the enclosure. Click here for original 


Aging alpha males, could not perpetually defend their territory and status from the never-ending onslaught of younger challengers. As the older males failed and younger replaced them, it led to constant disruptions in the nesting boxes of nursing females with young, who in turn became aggressive towards the new males and in time, ultimately replaced the dominant males as the primary force in the nesting areas. 


The once calm females now became so aggressive that they would even turn on their own young, who now had to leave the nest days before prior generations would have had too, even if they weren’t entirely weaned. 


Maternal instincts began to fail, mice reproduced less, and some newborns would be abandoned altogether. By the end of this “Phase C” as Calhoun called it, the mouse society was beginning to collapse.


At 560 days into the experiment, “Phase D”, population growth would stop. Pregnancy declined rapidly and deaths began to exceed births. By day 920, only a Couple hundred mice remained as the population was in freefall, and the average age of a female mouse was now 200 days past menopause. The Last surviving male wouldn’t be around for much longer either. 


Calhoun noted that about halfway through Phase C, the signs of the mouse apocalypse were getting more obvious. Young mice were abandoned by their mothers earlier than previous generations. With inadequate social bonding experience, and a chaotic environment that didn’t allow them to learn without interruption, and for the other mice, maximizing gratification meant having shorter less frequent interactions which sounds like it may be a compounding of the problem. 


Calhoun ran a separate smaller experiment with female mice alongside this one too, showing that at the change from Phase C to the death knell that was Phase D, only 18% of the female mice in the separate control study had reproduced at all. When in a normal environment, females at that age would generally have had between 3 and 5 litters, pointing back to behavioral failures that began to grow in phase C regarding social interaction, courtship, and territory. 


Males in the separate control group suffered as well, though in a different way. They were called “the Beautiful Ones” content to groom themselves and eat all day, virtually never fighting, and virtually never reproducing, or doing much of anything at all. 


So, by the time the older males and females had either died off or became infertile, the younger males and females that replaced them had never even reproduced or established themselves in such a way that kept society running, and eventually simply lacked the capacity to figure out or care for these behaviors at all. 


In the late stages of Phase D with the population dwindling, they would even remove these socially awkward males and females from the experiment and put them in a more optimal and intimate environment to see if they would then reproduce and start a new society. They didn’t. the capacity to do so was almost entirely absent. 


And thus, a once booming mouse society that had its every physical need met in spades, came to virtual extinction in only a few years. 


It’s terrifying when I think about it. Because although humans are more complex than mice, it demonstrates a lot of the same pitfalls our own society is facing. 


The primary danger it seems, isn’t one of material needs like food or shelter. It’s a problem of meaning, of love, and of willpower. 


As society becomes inevitably safer, we don’t have to do many of the risky behaviors that although risky might lead to meaning and purpose. In Universe 25, I think about the inability of rejected mice or older mice to simply escape the chaos and try again. And the inability of young mice to get meaningful social interaction because of the onslaught of unintended interactions, which reminds me a lot of our digital landscape and the looming meta verse. Beyond that we live in a world that is so connected and so unforgiving of our basic failures, that in many ways there is simply nowhere else to go for many people. And as a result, reinforcing bad or antisocial behavior is the most comfortable thing to do and that’s bad for everyone.


I’m not intending this next statement to be some hard right 1950s “Women in the workforce” thing, but it is telling how in the mouse world, the distracted mothers who ultimately had to pick up some of the traits of distracted, beaten, and aging alpha males, to hedge against the younger aggressive less socialized males, in time led to much worse outcomes for the offspring. This fault isn’t tied exclusively to the female, in fact remember it’s a result of the failures in the male hierarchy. And in just a couple of generations it destroyed the mouse society altogether. It was all connected, balanced, but when young mice failed to develop meaningful social intelligence and meaningful social bonds, society’s collapse wasn’t far behind. Many mice, especially young males lived violent lives away from everyone else in the center of the enclosure and became more violent and outcast than they were when they got there. The females became less receptive to the males that did still function, maternal instincts failed, newborns were left to die, and eventually they may as well have not been male or female mice at all. Sound familiar? 



The bigger danger than food or climate or whatever to our modern society I think, is the collapse of these social structures. The death of family in some grand sense, the death of belonging, and a failure to acknowledge that our differences often have deeper meaning, and our social actions have consequences that affect those meanings and in the long term affect the society as a whole. 


If things get worse over a period of generations, we may get to a point where there is no concept or impetus to have or maintain a society at all. And in time, that becomes the real depopulation crisis. And unlike the mouse utopia, the food and water and shelter aren’t provided by some third party, it’s provided by people, and at that point, maybe at that point is the real “apocalypse”.  You won’t be able to just sit safely in a nesting pod and have all your needs met as groom yourself all day. 


On some level, even if we don’t think about it, I think we all feel it, and we’re all aware of it. Many countries, including here in the USA are facing major demographic problems in the coming decades and the labor shortages aren’t going to be something merely related the endemic or pandemic or whatever situation we are in as of January 2022. There is an active push to automate and use technology to account for this, one that we often look at through rose colored lenses, but don’t forget one of the reasons it’s happening in the first place! Our comfort and our Safety could quickly become our own worst enemy if we take for granted the sort of meaningful and often metaphysical things it takes to keep a civilization alive. 


If I’m honest, I think our human civilization is somewhere near that middle point in Calhoun’s “Phase C”. We haven’t tipped over the edge towards Phase D, but it’s becoming easier and easier to see how that could be possible. The Universe 25 experiment was and is still a revealing lesson about what might happen if we aren’t really paying attention to things beyond the material. 


Be sure to check out the link in the episode description for some pictures, and references on this topic, and subscribe to the Lore and Legends YouTube channel.  


That’s all for this episode Cya Next time