Universe 25

Life is possibly the most tenacious idea we have ever been presented with. Forget business, love, work, just the actual idea of a continually self replicating, functional biological machines that as soon as they are born don’t need a manual on how to be themselves – you feed them and put them in the right environment and they will thrive. From humans on one end to extremophiles (biological beasts that have learned to adapt to some pretty extreme environments) on the other – life itself is characterised by the fact that it is hard wired to survive.

Except when it isn’t.

John Calhoun made a number of experiments in the 1960’s and 70’s around mice populations in controlled environments with an abundance of everything where all the natural threats to them had been removed. They ended in disaster. For the mice. Society tore itself apart. http://www.mostlyodd.com/death-by-utopia/ – You can read it for yourself – it contains links to other similarly well written articles as well. There were a couple of important conclusions that Mr Calhoun makes. The first was in mathematical form:

Mortality, bodily death = the second death
Drastic reduction of mortality
= death of the second death
= death squared
= (death)2
(Death)2 leads to dissolution of social organization
= death of the establishment
Death of the establishment leads to spiritual death
= loss of capacity to engage in behaviors essential to species survival
= the first death
(Death)2 = the first death

This formula might apply to rats and mice—but could the same happen to humankind? For Calhoun, there was little question about it. No matter how sophisticated we considered ourselves to be, once the number of individuals capable of filling roles greatly exceeded the number of roles, (attribution – this is quoting from the website)

only violence and disruption of social organization can follow. … Individuals born under these circumstances will be so out of touch with reality as to be incapable even of alienation. Their most complex behaviors will become fragmented. Acquisition, creation and utilization of ideas appropriate for life in a post-industrial cultural-conceptual-technological society will have been blocked.

Now to take a step back and apply this to the current condition for humanity as it nears the third decade in the 21st century.

There is no doubt that humanity is becoming very bottom heavy. Educated and industrial nations’ birth rates are sinking, many well below the replacement mark of 2.1 children per adult couple. The natural response to this is to bring in people from other countries. Long story short, in most cases, the population keeps rising. This is ok as long as there are jobs and stability and the required infrastructure is built and able to cope – the net effect is that the engines of growth and the tax base are happy. This reaches a plateau at some point however, after which things like social integration of foreign cultures, inter-racial tensions etc go from being something that from time to time is noticed to becoming more and more of a problem that is constantly there and needs to be dealt with.

So in this there is a direct link to the conditions (NOT outcomes) that Mr Calhoun describes – increasing population, no or limited resource problems, finite space in which to house people. Add in religion and cultural differences and after a point of continual expansion, you reach a point where no one wants any more incomers. It’s entirely an issue of perception and who to blame when things start looking as though they are taking a turn.

If you take one step back from the detail of the experiment and look at the wider picture of exactly what he did – a simulation of more or less ideal conditions for these creatures to thrive – no predators, no widespread disease, plentiful food, and the two constraints – finite space, and less obviously finite functional roles within a society, this was a combination that proved to be deadly to the survival of the species.There was no decline and stabilisation, there was at some point, the destruction of the idea, even at something of as simple a level as a rodent, of the society in which they lived. It seems that past a certain point of social disintegration that even depopulation didn’t turn the situation around – something fundamental to survival was lost, and nothing internal to the remaining population could bring it back – there was no innate sense of structure left.

Life’s natural balancers to this are conflict and disease (and predators, if you’re not at the top of the food chain) – and a sort of equilibrium can be maintained. What we have currently in the world can best be described as a major shift in equilibrium, at worst, I have no idea. Not good though. The point is, with an abundance of everything, the mouse society broke. Not just went into a balance at a lower population, but simply went out of existence – the skills the new mice needed to keep society running vanished.

Previously I had an optimistic outcome for us – that mirrored what Calhoun’s intentions for the experiments were – he set about trying to understand and design environments where the problem of lack of space could be minimised. This was originally written in 2015, when I thought there was still room for some adjustments that would have kept us away from disaster. But here we are once again, after a massive influx of migrants into Europe, who cause chaos, and one questions whether or not after a certain point the same conditions within the human system could bring about a similar fate. As time goes on and the dislocations grow larger, I think it’s very difficult to tell what will happen. But I will make two very open caveats – inequality and the disconnection of the wealthy – the growing unrest that this seems to cause could be a catalyst for breakdown – but this falls outside of the mode described above, the other is open revolution. And I’ll write about that separately.

For me the parallels between the mouse world and ours are this:

Growing dislocation – the poor having to abandon family to try and do anything to survive. Families survive better when they are together. This is working its way from the poorer classes on into the middle classes these days. In the mouse world it meant that instead of proper rearing of the young, they were kicked out at an early age and had to fend for themselves.

Fewer and fewer meaningful positions – if you look amongst any biological group, roles and responsibilities are a natural occurrence, and our society is progressively devaluing and removing these, with fewer alternatives.

Isolation. some groups, instead of partaking in society, shit themselves off in isolation – and forget how to interact with other members of society (in Calhoun’s world, he called them the “Beautiful ones”, in ours, we have various names for them, depending on where you are from. The “Hikkikomori” of Japan is one that has been examined in detail. There is no shortage of media coverage about how social anxiety is on the rise.

So – I think the parallels are there, to some degree. It’s what we are going to do about them – what we think is important to keeping our society together and acting on that, that counts long term.