The experiment was not, as many surmised, about overpopulation, so much as population crashes after a group succeeds. This makes it a prime subject in our study of The Human Problem, which is how all human groups seem to become corrupted and self-destruct because of social pressures to be inclusive and egalitarian.
In fact, as one followup study opined, the Mouse Utopia experiment was about the tragedy of success, mainly because it created a Huxleyian Utopia and the mice still died out:
The NIH Record spoke to medical historian Edmund Ramsden about Calhounâ€™s work:
Ultimately, â€œ[r]ats may suffer from crowding; human beings can cope,â€ Ramdsen says. â€œCalhounâ€™s research was seen not only as questionable, but also as dangerous.â€ Another researcher, Jonathan Freedman, turned to studying actual people â€” they were just high school and university students, but definitely human. His work suggested a different interpretation. Moral decay could arise â€œnot from density, but from excessive social interaction,â€ Ramsden says. â€œNot all of Calhounâ€™s rats had gone berserk. Those who managed to control space led relatively normal lives.â€
Emphasis mine. When a society succeeds, such that it is secure and food is abundant, it no longer possesses the natural external conditions — disease, famine, warfare — which kept its population doing what was necessary to adapt. As it turns out, at that point, many are just going through the motions because they had to, not because they understand why or have a natural inclination to.
Social behavior is expressed through good intentions, not realities. It is thus a natural counterbalance to realistic thinking, and not just its opposite, but an enemy that will displace it. When there is no longer a struggle for survival, interpretation of reality becomes arbitrary, except for those hard-wired to be healthy, sane, normal, productive, creative, and moral.
The problem occurs when the conditions of that civilization change those who are in it to be unrealistic:
The few secluded spaces housed a population Calhoun called, â€œthe beautiful ones.â€ Generally guarded by one male, the femalesâ€”and few malesâ€”inside the space didnâ€™t breed or fight or do anything but eat and groom and sleep. When the population started declining the beautiful ones were spared from violence and death, but had completely lost touch with social behaviors, including having sex or caring for their young.
The elites — those who are more intelligent, healthy, and attractive than the rest, generally — are not destroyed by the actions of others, but by their own. They no longer are aware of how to reproduce. Therefore, they are the last generation. However, they are masters of social interaction, which is how they got to be elites, and that shows us what has replaced natural instinct.
Through this mechanism, success defeats civilizations. Once they are wealthy enough to ignore the rules of nature, they become self-obsessed because in order to succeed within the civilization that now rules in place of nature, the individual must master social rules which reward backward thinking.
This backward thinking arises entirely from the social need to be accepting, which does not so much mean “inclusive” as it means that someone is unwilling to lower the status of others because of their actions. Socialization consists of being “nice” to the degree that one does not retaliate against those who do bad so long as it does not affect the nice person personally.
To be nice, you avoid bad people. You do not do anything that will cause them to suffer any loss of social privileges because that might backfire on you, with the usual exception for murder, assault, and other crimes against the body of an individual. You definitely do not take the “hateful” step of categorizing them as lower or even bad. You just move along.
Inversion occurs through this process. When a group is formed of capable people, everyone agrees on its purpose and those who are fulfilling the purpose are accepted. When it succeeds, it becomes a zombie, since now it has no purpose, and so its purpose shifts toward taking care of its members independent of whether or not they contribute anything. That is “nice.”
With this inversion, the tool becomes the master; no one wants to fail at an actual task, so dedicating our time toward the tool we use to achieve civilization — people — instead of civilization itself provides lower risk and higher margin reward because it is easier and requires less time investment.
The same was true in Mouse Utopia. Once the mice had enough for everyone to eat, there was no longer a purpose for most mice. They had been acting simply for their own survival and had no other joy in life, only fear.
Every group experiences pushback against fulfilling or continuing its purpose because having a goal is terrifying to most people. It means that they can fail, because if there is a purpose to the group, then every act either furthers that purpose or does not, and people are ranked by their achievement. This scares people.
They prefer a society where they are ranked according to what they have achieved for themselves, a far easier measurement that also allows them to indulge their individualistic pursuits. As soon as they are given the choice, most people will agitate for a human version of Mouse Utopia.
The Human Problem afflicts people in groups from small to large. Rock bands, church volunteers, hunting clubs, school boards, corporations, organized religions, and whole civilizations all suffer from this problem. As soon as they succeed, they cast aside their goals and focus instead on sustaining the people that they have attracted, which causes a decline in quality to the lowest common denominator.
At this point, humanity remains stranded on this problem. To succeed is to self-destruct, and only groups which are fanatically motivated by some external threat or goal remain able to avoid entropy for long.
As far as solutions go, they are far and few. The only one that makes sense is a rigorous but informal hierarchy, so that people do not know how to get ahead, only do so on the basis of being able to understand and advance the implicit goal of their civilization, which is to constantly improve itself and keep as much time in Periclean golden ages as possible.
But what makes this problem so interesting is that it is a case of being punished for doing right, as we see it as human beings. To succeed seems like a goal in itself, but it turns out that one has to succeed to a certain degree while operating toward a certain implicit goal, and this places the question into the range of things that most people will not understand.
Despite that, many of us are able to recognize when someone has failed at the implicit task of being civilized, good, and productive in more than a “showed up and performed a repetitive function” measurement. We automatically esteem those who undertake tasks that benefit us in the long term without being self-rewarding or even group-recognized.
In a broader sense, what The Human Problem means is that we must always be suspicious of our best intentions. If we create a society that saves everyone from themselves, it will steadily amplify the bad among us just like the Mouse Utopia experiment; if we conquer all want, then we will either become chaotic monsters or navel-gazing bourgeois who forget how to reproduce.
Another way to phrase this is that we need non-human goals. This is why virtue and science are appealing: they set up goalposts that do not involve people, only understanding the world itself and determining what might be an optimal path through it. In contrast, human goals relate to our emotions, both as individuals and groups, but may turn out to be wrong.
Utopia itself could be categorized as a classic human goal: to make a perfect civilization, where everyone feels accepted and important, and people are able to do whatever they want. It is like Star Trek, or a vision of Heaven brought to Earth, but it assumes that people know what they need, which the Mouse Utopia experiment rejects. People know what they want instead.
By the same token, diversity makes enemies of us, despite on the surface seeming like the right thing to do. Democracy turns us at each other’s throats, because instead of abolishing power, it creates a constant struggle for power. Social mobility makes us greedy. Free stuff makes us lazy and indecisive. Perfect healthy food would probably kill us with autoimmune diseases.
For this reason the ancients chose non-human goals that nevertheless benefited humans both in the attaining and the striving. Where they may have gone wrong is by not vigorously filtering out those who could not understand these goals, because as their societies succeeded, they clearly became overwhelmed by such people.
Part of the difficulty found here is that non-human goals require a context of interpretation because they are highly abstract. It is well and good to say that we aim for “the good, the beautiful, and the true” and a morality not of pacifism but of “the good to the good, and the bad to the bad,” but for most people, these seem like absolutes in search of an object.
Perhaps there was wisdom in the idea that education was not immediately practical, but consisted of going through literature, philosophy, art, science, mathematics, and history in a systematic fashion so that we — or at least the top 10% of the population by intelligence and moral character — could understand what it is to have a goal larger than oneself and why it is important.
If the twentieth century has a moral, it is that love will tear us apart. Every time we humans try to make a “perfect” or inclusive system, we end up creating the worst of horrors, because what we as humans desire in social groups is not related to reality, because it is designed to bring the group together and shuffle them off as a mass toward some smaller goal or another.
In short, socializing will destroy us because it forces us to re-interpret everything that we do through the filter of not a goal, but a method, which is controlling what other people think. As yet another attempt to make civilization work — egalitarianism — winds down in a morass of globalism and diversity, it is worth looking toward what might come next to see if we can beat this problem.