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An arm is stretched out with a well-groomed white mouse resting between the thumb and forefinger.John B. Calhoun Film 7.1
1970-72 / 38 minutes (edited version)
Producers: National Institute of Mental Health, Time-Life Broadcasting
Sound, color

The Falls of 1972: John B Calhoun and Urban Pessimism

Jon Adams (London School of Economics and Political Science)
Edmund Ramsden, PhD (Queen Mary University of London)

“Fall, 1972. Scenes Include Last Survivors.” This is the text on the opening slate. What have we missed? For now, it’s enough to know we’ve arrived late in the game. This is not the event, but its aftermath. This is post-apocalypse.

Black title slate with yellow lettering reads 1972, Fall, Univ. 25, Study 102, Scenes include last survivorsTitle slate from film.

We know—we think we know—what the post-apocalyptic world will look like. We’ve seen it in the movies (George Miller’s Mad Max), read about it (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road), and even played the video game (Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us). It’s a place where bands of ragged survivors roam over a defoliated wasteland, their engagements marked by the expression of terrible violence and unchecked sexual aggression.

For fiction, the post-apocalypse is a theatre in which to explore humanity’s barely subdued inhumanity. Functionally, it acts as a counterfactual, a reminder of the fragility of order, of how much our society depends for its continued operation upon our willing and mutual consent. Here’s how things would be if we didn’t play by the rules. Because in the post-apocalypse, nobody plays by the rules. Behaviour is as bad as it can be. The rules went away with the society they formed, everything now is pure id. Just the base instincts survive, and survival requires just the base instincts. Kill, steal, rape. This is how the world looks from the brain stem, this is the view from the cerebellum. Post-apocalypse represents regression to pre-history, of motivational surrender to the throbbing urgency of the lizard brain.

Four mice cluster on a shelf near a water bottle, with several more mice in nooks beneath them. Some have little fur, others look thin and dirty.Mice in poor condition in Universe 25, Study 133. Source: John B. Calhoun Papers, NLM MS C 586

Here’s an alternative scenario:

A world of perfectly clean and well tended inhabitants, coexisting harmoniously. No sexual violence—no sex at all. No violence, either. Lots of grooming. Regular communal meals. Because this is also a post-apocalypse. These are also the survivors of a societal collapse. They’re mice, and they’re the only living remnants of Universe 25.

Universe 25 is a nine-by-nine-foot square arena with five-foot high metal walls built within the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, MD. Its floor is a spindle of sixteen segments split by low dividers—just tall enough to keep mice from making contact, but not so high they can’t easily climb over. Good fences make good neighbours. Its designer, NIMH scientist John B. Calhoun, climbs down into the pen, watched by the camera that McGraw-Hill educational films have brought to record the interview. The interviewer stays outside. Calhoun’s daughter would later recall the smell, above all[1] The stench of two thousand mice.

20 or so white mice cling to a wire wall with a water bottle mounted on it, attempting to get a drinkMice cluster around a water bottle.

But only a few now survived—about 120 specimens. They’re clustered together around a single feeder, dumbly nuzzling and preening. Calhoun’s rodents had been through the Mad Max period: they had experienced their orgy of ultraviolence, sexual predation, incest, and cannibalism. Trapped inside Universe 25 with all their material needs met, the mice had bred until the stresses of over-population led them into a permanent state of fight-or-flight. Calhoun had termed this “the Behavioural Sink”—the tipping point after which all civility broke down, and the animals were drawn into an irreversible vortex of self-destruction, a frenzied mass panic from which only these huddled, withdrawn specimens now survive.

For contemporary audiences, that rapid escalation to annihilation might have brought to mind what nuclear theorist and Kennedy advisor Herman Kahn had recently called “spasm war” (On Escalation, 1965)—the endgame of the US-Soviet détente, the point at which everyone pressed all of their buttons.

But there was another device ticking insistently below everyday life: what Paul Ehrlich had recently called “The Population Bomb” (1968). The late nineteen-sixties and early seventies witnessed growing popular concern over the ability of our planet to sustain the seemingly unstoppable growth of the species. The strapline on Ehrlich’s book read: “Population Control or Race to Oblivion?” That same year, philosopher Garrett Hardin popularised the notion of the “tragedy of the commons,” a demand for regulated access to public goods that he would later revise into the altogether more troubling “lifeboat ethics” (1974). Meanwhile, an Apollo-era public mindful of the need for astronauts to carry all their own supplies were urged by Buckminster Fuller to think of our own “Spaceship Earth” as a similarly finite container. It was as if, as one commentator put it, humanity was doomed to a choice between two bombs: “we shall probably solve the population problem by nuclear extermination. In any case, the two major problems of our time—nuclear war and the population explosion—are closely linked together.”[2] Certainly, Calhoun was happy to use the language of apocalypse—quoting Revelations in the introduction to one paper from the time.[3] For what might happen aboard the airlocked Spaceship Earth; see Universe 25.

Dr. Calhoun faces a blackboard and writes with chalk: Rx (as in a prescription) followed by EvolutionCalhoun presents his overpopulation equations.

Yet if this mouse enclosure modelled our own eventual demise, then it turns out the post-apocalypse of popular culture was only a transitional phase, a station on route to this strangely calm dystopia. A blank white space, reminiscent of John Lennon’s video for 1970’s “Imagine,” or the sterile dream-rooms in the final reel of Kubrick’s recent 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The utopian and the dystopian osculate here. Kahn had asked: after a nuclear holocaust, “will the survivors envy the dead?”[4]

Anchoring it by the tail, Calhoun displays one of the mice on his palm, he notes its smooth pelage. It’s a balb-C albino, a common lab mouse, bred by the NIH Animal Center and more or less guaranteed disease-free and behaviourally normal. But these survivors are third- or fourth-generation descendants of those original specimens. In autopsy, their parents and grandparents had all been laced with scar tissue, tails chewed to stumps, ragged ears. Hypertrophy of the adrenal glands. These mice show none of that trauma. Calhoun and his researchers came to call them “the Beautiful Ones.”

An arm is stretched out with a well-groomed white mouse resting between the thumb and forefinger.A “Beautiful One.”

The Beautiful Ones of Universe 25, the Behavioural-Sink survivors, are no less selfish than the rampaging actors of McCarthy or Miller’s post-apocalyptic universes. But their particular brand of non-cooperation doesn’t involve destructive interference. Rather, they avoid the problems of unwanted contact by never developing the complex adult behaviours that lead to conflict in the first place. The Beautiful Ones broker a form of mutual peace predicated on a form of extended infantilism. In the film, Calhoun describes their arrested development: “They never learned to be aggressive, which is necessary in defense of home sites. They never learned to court, so there was no mating. Being no mating, there were no progeny.” At the time of filming, Calhoun was preparing a paper he titled “Death Squared”, in which he describes them in more existential terms:

“Autistic-like creatures, capable only of the most simple behaviors compatible with physiological survival, emerge out of this process. Their spirit has died ... They are no longer capable of executing the more complex behaviors compatible with species survival.”[5]

Sartre: L’ enfer, c’est les autres.[6] Hell is others. In a sense, these remaining mice never fully acknowledge the existence of the other. The Beautiful Ones survive by adopting the psychological equivalent of horse blinkers.

Dr. Calhoun stands next to a dark-haired man with a notebook and pen in his hand, in front of a chalkboardCalhoun with Bill Roberts of Time-Life Broadcast.

The interview, with journalist Bill Roberts, was the second Calhoun had given to Time-Life Broadcast, a pioneering non-network television news station set up in 1958. Roberts was the Time-Life Washington bureau chief, and the cameraman is almost certainly his fellow correspondent Carl Coleman. It was Coleman who had conducted the first Calhoun interview from 1970, available (unedited) on the same reel. Time-Life Broadcasting was acquired by McGraw-Hill Educational films in 1972, and it is to McGraw-Hill that both films are credited.

The bulk of Coleman and Roberts’ work was reporting on political developments in DC, but Time-Life Broadcast encouraged them to pursue a broader agenda, drawing on the journalistic resources of Time magazine. As a blurb in the trade-paper Broadcasting (Jan 2, 1961) explained: “Not intending to duplicate other news services, Time Inc.'s bureaus and correspondents provide depth reporting that spotlights the personalities and motivations behind the news — fill out conventional coverage and give it more meaning.” Time-Life also distributed or co-produced documentary series such as Alistair Cooke’s America and, also in 1972, were the first to bring the BBC series Dr Who to American audiences. Whether the idea of visiting Calhoun was suggested by Time, or generated independently by Roberts and Coleman, their DC bureau was close to the laboratory. A day trip, with the camera and lights on the backseat.

As principally political journalists, you’d expect Coleman and Roberts to invite Calhoun to make connections with human society: why else would they be interested in mice? But Calhoun doesn’t need prompting: he has long seen analogies between his infested rodent pens and our increasingly populous world. He called his early enclosures “rat cities” and, in several of them, explicitly sought to recreate the vertical organisation and pressure-points (stairwells, corridors) that were characteristic of much of the post-war mass-housing projects that had sprung up across the US.

Dr. Calhoun and his colleagues are seated at a counter that surrounds the mouse universe, several feet off the floor of the enclosure. Dr. Calhoun has a pen in his left hand and an open notebook in front of him.From left: Garrett Bagley, James Hill and John Calhoun look over “the famous mouse universe.” Source: John B. Calhoun Papers, NLM MS C 586

Calhoun is relatively short, mid-fifties. He seemingly hasn’t lost a strand of his hair, which is brown, mid length, greying at the sides. With his white goatee and southern manners, he might remind you of a more serious Colonel Sanders. But his eyes are narrow, wary between drooping lids, giving him more the look of a benign Charles Bronson. Sartorially, there’s the slightly-mislaid formality characteristic of a certain type of academic: in the earlier interview with Carl Coleman, Calhoun is wearing two cardigans—the first buttoned up like a vest, a second open over the top, like a jacket. As if they were a three-piece suit.

Before moving to the NIMH in 1954, Calhoun’s career had begun as an ethologist employed by the Rodent Ecology Project at Johns Hopkins between 1946-49. Charged with controlling the burgeoning rat problem in Baltimore, they noticed that increased numbers in a restricted area dampened rat population; promising a new and more effective ecological approach to rodent control through the control of space: when the animals were confined to an area such as a neighbourhood block, beyond a certain limit of numbers and resources, rat society began to break down, violence erupted, and diseases spread.

A drawing of the rathabitat shows food hoppers, water bottles, elevated burrows, and ramps connecting the four pensStudy 134, Rat Habitat. Source: John B. Calhoun Papers, NLM MS C 586

Calhoun believed that his study of rodent population dynamics had direct relevance for understanding the stresses, strains, and societal dysfunctions that troubled human populations in urban environments. Seeking to better understand the social and psychological pathologies associated with the increased population density that might be shared with the rapidly urbanizing human, Calhoun now designed a series of “rat cities.” He constructed his first “rodent universe” in a barn in Towson, MD. A ten-by-fourteen-foot pen, with an observation hatch cut through the ceiling. Each pen was divided into four by means of an electrified partition, two with a single ramp in enter and exit, and two with twin ramps. The animals wanted for little, being provided with food, warmth, bedding and housing, Calhoun describing “an always replete cafeteria ... no epidemic disease, no famine.”[7] Yet, as the population expanded, the structure of the environment began to prove critical to the well-being of the animals in each section of the pen. The animals began to suffer from the one resource they were lacking, space, and rat city became rat slum.

Hundreds of white mice push against one another in an enclosure with low dividers radiating out from the centerMice congregate in the center of the “universe.”

As the slums of the real world were cleared, and vast towerblocks built in their place, the twin strands of Calhoun’s research—population growth on the one hand, and the decline in behavioural norms under conditions of elevated social density (or more precisely, what he called “social velocity”: the frequency and volume of unavoidable social contact)—became entwined. Here in the dense urban core, human conduct seemed to exhibit aberrations disturbingly similar to those Calhoun was able to generate in his rat cities: hypersexuality, child abuse, neglect, ultraviolence. For those who sought it, Calhoun’s experiments provided a ready explanation for the criminality and social unrest that plagued the modern city. The cities weren’t just collecting bad people; they were actively turning them bad.

1972 had seen a turning point for the tower block. In March of that year, the demolition of Pruitt Igoe in St Louis had begun, a spectacular retreat from two decades of high-density public housing. The imploding buildings seemed a metaphor for the collapsing hopes for urban revival and, tangentially, following the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, of the optimism that had buoyed up the Civil Rights movement of the sixties.

Faith in human nature took a more anthropological turn when Colin Turnbull’s The Mountain People (1972) was published that same fall to considerable acclaim. Turnbull was an anthropologist-cum-travel writer who had previously written fondly of the Mbuti pygmies of the south-western Congo in a popular book called The Forest People. Like Margaret Mead before him, he saw in (or projected onto) the Mbuti a sort of prelapsarian innocence. But when he settled among the Ik of northern Uganda, he found a society in an altogether more Hobbesian state of nature.

White and gray mice cluster near the center of the mouse enclosure, pressing against and atop one another in places. Sixteen spoke-like dividers radiate from the center.“Pooled withdrawn males.” Source: John B. Calhoun Papers, NLM MS C 586

As Calhoun explains in the film, according to Turnbull’s narrative (the facts of which have subsequently been contested), the Ik had been a quasi-nomadic people driven off their hunting grounds to make way for a National Park. Forced into subsistence farming on a relatively small patch of land in the lower highlands, they had experienced a sudden concentration of their population. The attendant social tensions this created, abetted by famine, led to a catastrophic breakdown of civility, internal violence, and a neglect of familial duties:

the people were as unfriendly, uncharitable, inhospitable and generally mean as any people can be. For those positive values we value so highly are no longer functional for the Ik; even more than in our own society they spell ruin and disaster[8]

For Calhoun, watching his trapped and crowded mice attack one another, what happened to the Ik must have seemed like a natural experiment, the relevance sharpened by Turnbull’s zoomorphic phrasing:

The much vaunted gap between man and the so-called ‘lesser’ animals suddenly shrinks to nothingness, except that in this case most ‘lesser’ animals come off rather well by comparison.[9]

Here was an ethnographic counterpart to the observations Calhoun had been making of his rodents: if the mice were analogous, the Ik were surely homologous. The three cases—rodent collapse, Ik collapse, and urban collapse—become mutually reinforcing. The phenomena of the Behavioural Sink was transcendent.

Black title slate with yellow lettering reads 1970, 12 aggressive males from Study 102Title slate from film.

The “sober message” Bill Roberts ends on is the prospect of a community failure: of over-population leading to the sort of collapse experienced by the mice of Universe 25. But Calhoun always maintained it was the improper division of space that led to conflict, not population density per se; Pruit Igoe and Park Lane were indistinguishable in density. The difference lay in the design.

Good fences make good neighbours: the line is known from Frost’s “Mending Wall,” published in 1914, at the advent of the First World War, and three years before Calhoun was born in Monkton, TN. The poem sees two neighbours in the annual repair of a drystone boundary between their properties. Amused by their commitment to something that seems so unnecessary (“we do not need the wall,” he says, “here there are no cows”), Frost’s narrator teases his neighbor, who only replies: “Good fences make good neighbours.” The narrator is playfully stubborn:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

The poem obliquely suggest that such divisions are a cultural imposition, one we might do well to abandon. Man builds fences, but some mysterious force of nature seeks to tear them down: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” It’s as if we want to live in harmony together, but social conventions insist we keep ourselves apart from one another. The wall is a Rousseauian symbol of how civilisation diverts us from our natural happy state.

Yet Frost is rarely as simplistic as he seems, and “Mending Wall” embeds a characteristically barbed ambiguity: when you list the elements that break the wall each winter—entropy, erosion, carelessness, the hunter’s drive to kill (and, cannily, frost)—it’s hardly the stuff of hippy communes and kumbaya. The poem’s central question—“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”—hides a dark answer. The wall is there to keep us apart, and whatever seeks to bring it down wishes to see us clash.

A drawing of a 3-dimensional object with numbers, lines, and labels indicating the relationships within a population among environment, needs, conditions, and adaptations.A graphic illustrating connections among conditions, needs, adaptations, and environment. Source: John B. Calhoun Papers, NLM MS C 586

If Frost’s “Mending Wall” is one touchstone, another is Auden’s short poem, “The Birth of Architecture,” from 1965:

Some thirty inches from my nose

The frontier of my Person goes,

And all the untilled air between

Is private pagus or demesne.

Stranger, unless with bedroom eyes

I beckon you to fraternize,

Beware of rudely crossing it:

I have no gun, but I can spit.

The text is quoted extant as the epigraph to the tenth chapter of Edward Hall’s The Hidden Dimension (1966) and it’s an even bet that it had been Hall’s earlier book, The Silent Language (1959) that had inspired Auden in the first instance. Travelling across Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa during the thirties and forties, Hall had developed a theory of “personal space”—that “thirty inches” of perimeter Auden writes of—an extension of our corporeal being, a sort of cognitive halo, any violation of which was emotionally experienced if not physically felt. Hall befriended Calhoun in the 1960s, the two were jointly interviewed by CBS (viewable in another of the archive’s tapes), and both came to influence the landscape architect Ian McHarg, who regularly invited them to address his students in Philadelphia. McHarg’s ecological concern with the multiple uses of an environment would be instrumental in the development of what later became Geographic Information Systems, or GIS.

“Proxemics,” as Hall termed his theory, gradually faded from intellectual interest, as did the thinkers he had inspired—Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller among them. Calhoun’s work at the NIMH was phased out during the late seventies, replaced by more empirically verifiable, and commercially profitable, pharmacological research. He retired in the early eighties, and died in 1992. But Calhoun’s influence has quietly endured, even if his name has not.

About three dozen white mice cluster behind the brown-shoe-clad feet of a person walking through the enclosure.Mice “follow the piper” as he walks through the enclosure. Source: John B. Calhoun Papers, NLM MS C 586

It’s a peculiarly twentieth-century notion, distinctive of the urban condition, this idea that we need to be kept apart as much as we need contact; that solitude was every bit as important as company. E. B. White had, with typical precision, speared the issue in 1949, in the opening lines to his essay, Here Is New York (1949): “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” The city concentrated and made explicit that duality. How we read Calhoun’s experiments depends, to a significant extent, on the extent to which we side with Rousseau or Hobbes. Nature’s essential goodness versus its essential brutality.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. The post-apocalyptic mice of Universe 25 stand as testament to this. In Calhoun’s rodent pens, we’re reminded of the dual nature of the walls we build, and of their foundational importance to the very idea of civilization, as the guarantors of both our privacy and our loneliness. Those queer prizes we collectively desire, and the vital importance of architecture to their achievement.

Jon Adams grew up in Britain and Saudi Arabia, and studied at Keele and Durham. His first book, Interference Patterns, examined the possibility of making a science of literary criticism. As a researcher at the London School of Economics, he worked the dissemination of science, and the overlap between popular science and popular fiction. In 2011, he was selected as a "New Generation Thinker" by the British Broadcasting Corporation. He currently looks after his two children, but still works part time at LSE, where he interviews academics and produces short films about their work.

Edmund Ramsden is a Wellcome Trust University Award Lecturer in the history of science and medicine in the School of History, Queen Mary, University of London. His current research is focused on the history of experimental animals in psychology and psychiatry and on the influence of these fields on urban planning, architecture and design.

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[1] Interviewed for Critical Mass, dir. Mike Freedman, 2012.

[2] Hudson Hoagland, “Cybernetics of Population Control,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (February 1964), p.6.

[3] Calhoun, “Death Squared,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, Volume 66 (January 1973): pp. 80-86.

[4] On Thermonuclear War, Princeton, 1960; p.40.

[5] Calhoun, “Death Squared” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, Volume 66 (January 1973), p. 86

[6] No Exit, 1944.

[7] John B. Calhoun, speaking at Conference on Social and Physical Environmental Variables as Determinants of Mental Health, 22 May 1959, Washington D.C., Transcripts, p. 93, Calhoun Papers, NLM, Box 64 (“rat slum”).

[8] The Mountain People, 1972, Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 1987: p.32.

[9] Ibid.