‘Cosmos 25’: What it is and why its conclusion is disturbing

John Calhoun wanted to find out the effects of overcrowding and population density. His experiment was one of the most remarkable to date. Find out the results in the article below.

latest update: April 20, 2023

Although “Universe 25” may seem like the title of a science fiction novel to us, it is actually the name of one of the most important experiments in social psychology. In 1968, animal behaviorist and biologist John Calhoun constructed a utopian scenario using rats to find out the effects of overpopulation. Five years later, the metropolis was devastated.

What happened during this period showed that the effects of progressive overcrowding could be very harmful at all levels.. Although conclusions drawn from animal models cannot always be extrapolated to humans, they do provide a point of reflection worth reflecting on. Let’s see what the experience is like on a farm in Maryland.

“Universe 25” was originally the Eden of mice. As the years passed, it became a hell.

Chapter 25 Rat in the Space Experiment
Overcrowding can lead to violent behavior in most species.

What is the content of the “Universe 25” experiment?

John Calhoun was an animal behaviorist who spent most of his life working at the National Institute of Mental Health.. Overpopulation and overcrowding were issues of great concern to the scientific community in the mid-20th century. The renowned researcher has tackled these problems extensively since the 1950s.

In 1968, he began an experiment called Universe 25 on a rural property in Poolesville, Maryland. The aim is to study behavior in the context of species overpopulation. To do this, we built a true Garden of Eden for the mice, with multiple nesting areas and endless water and food resources.

This is a metal fence with a tunnel, 2.7 meters wide and 1.4 meters high. They have everything they need except space. Let’s see how it goes and how it turns out.

From the Garden of Eden to Extinction

In 1968, four pairs of mice were introduced to the habitat; over time, it was observed that the number of births doubled every 55 days. Nineteen months into the experiment, there were 2,200 rats in the habitat. This reproductive rhythm is explained by the absence of predators and access to food.

This is an ideal society; however, other phenomena occur that are of great interest to social psychology. Below, we’ll point them out.

  • A hierarchy has been established; A dominant alpha male who controls a harem of females.
  • Rat losing battle with dominant male They created “dissident” groups.
  • Fights and fights continue until the alpha male stops protecting his group of females.
  • Females must initiate defensive behaviors for their offspring. However, the level of violence was so high that they eventually abandoned or neglected their offspring.
  • Between days 315 and 600, abnormal behavior occurs that breaks the social fabric.
  • The females become aggressive and many no longer become pregnant.
  • Compulsive sex is born, Including matings between same-sex mice.
  • Cannibalism occurs.
  • Social relationships are no longer established.
  • Starting from day 600 They stop breeding, defending territory, and limit themselves to the basic tasks of health, Such as feeding and grooming.
  • People face an absolute rupture of all social patterns, Then began to gradually become extinct.

1973, Less than five years after the experiment began, the number of mice dropped from 2,200 to none.

Babies born in this chaotic environment dominated by violence are not protected and have no connection with them. This resulted in the complete extinction of the small society of rats.

What inferences were drawn from the social experiment?

Dr. Calhoun did not hesitate to anthropomorphize the behavior of rats, classifying them throughout the experiment as “juvenile delinquents” and “social deserters.” Over time, such terms came under criticism.The research is published in the journal Royal Society of Medicine The inference he drew was as follows.

1. “Behavior Sink”

Calhoun coined a new term. We call this set of abnormal behaviors that emerge in overcrowded environments and disrupt social order “behavioral sinking.”. When the number of people occupying a space exceeds balance and harmony, three types of reactions occur:

  • Compulsive and irrational violence.
  • The most basic bonds are neglected, such as caring for one’s own children and grandchildren.
  • Behavior that John Calhoun defined as “beautiful” also appears. That is, some people will withdraw and isolate themselves, focusing only on personal hygiene and survival (food) tasks.

2. Some innovative behaviors

The famous experiment also provided some promising data: some mice displayed innovative behavior. Faced with an environment of chaos, threat, and decline, some people built tunnels to escape that hostile environment. Others have built taller cubicles so they are not exposed to the most crowded and violent areas.

3. Undocumented individuals

It is a proven fact that when rats stop fighting for their territory, they lose their status. The same thing happens to females once they realize they can’t care for their young. The environment was so harsh that social hierarchies collapsed.. As a result, social behaviors emerge that reflect helplessness and abandonment.

The development of an organization or social community will not occur when social behavior and the role of each individual are immature.

4. (Problematic) analogies for today’s world

John Calhoun presented his behavioral studies in rats as an analogy for today’s world. Additionally, there is context. We are in the 1970s and the population is growing rapidly. Dr. Edmund Ramsden of Queen Mary University of London published an interesting article about this experiment in 2011.

  • Calhoun’s research seeks to reflect on or demonstrate the need for population control, especially in the most disadvantaged communities.
  • However, the experiment should be interpreted with caution. A debate began, largely academic, about whether this type of research could can be extrapolated to human society.

Chapter 25 Rat in the Space Experiment
In “Universe 25,” rats stop performing tasks such as breeding, reproducing, and defending their territory.

From “Universe 25” to the human world: What conclusions do we draw?

Now, Unlike the 1970s, birth rates in developed countries have fallen sharply; So much so that we are an increasingly aging society. To this, we must add another phenomenon: it is very common for young people to have no interest in sex. Have we reached Calhoun’s utopian scenario?

Be careful when extrapolating what happens in the lab to the real world

Social experiment on overcrowding reminds us that not all animal phenomena we observe in the laboratory can be transferred to the real world. Specifically, studying this fact in history is almost like a Rorschach inkblot: everyone sees what they believe.

Furthermore, outside the laboratory, there are so many variables that influence interactions that it would be impossible to study them in a controlled environment such as these rooms.

also, let us think The scenarios designed for these mice were artificial, with the obvious intention of causing population chaos through, for example, restricted space. Maybe the same thing doesn’t happen in a natural environment.

There is a bigger problem than overcrowding.

The biggest problem with experiments is not the loss of space or overcrowding, but the loss of individual functionality. The abandonment of roles creates social imbalance. Now, if we transfer this to the human world, we find similar problems.

If we have large numbers of people unable to fulfill their social functions, there will be alienation and social fragmentation. Problems arise if any time we lose the ability to comply with and perform complex behaviors due to environmental factors.

«Universe 25» compared to current reality

Humanity has the tools to avoid a repeat of what happened in Dr. Calhoun’s barn. We have technology, medicine, ever-evolving science, and even the possibility of exploring new environments beyond Earth.

As a species, our intelligence is purposeful. This is nothing more than promoting innovation to survive in complex scenarios.. This is what we have done consistently successfully.

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