The Behavioral Sink: A Fable For Our Times

Not long after the last of the last American soldiers returned home at the close of WWII, a little-known ethologist named John B. Calhoun set up a quarter acre pen somewhere on the outskirts of Rockville, Maryland and populated it with several dozen Norwegian rats. His experiment was meant to see just how large the population density would become if they were provided with adequate food, water, shelter and protection from predators so that all of their needs were met. Fellow researchers dubbed his experiment rat utopia and before long he had discovered the answer to his question.


When his research caught the eye of bureaucrats at the National Institute for Mental Health, they approached him with an offer of unlimited funding for another project along the same lines under stricter conditions than the bucolic environs of a pasture just north of Washington, D.C. By 1954 he had devised a complex interior setup for his rats to inhabit that divided the environment into four cells, each configured to provide a continuous supply of food, water and bedding with plenty of space for nests and open areas for social interaction. Into each of these he placed an equal number of both male and female rats and simply watched as they began to at first explore and then to colonize and dominate their surroundings.

There is very little material available about his research today, though at the time he was a media darling. During this period Americans had become concerned with the concept of overpopulation, due in large part to popular media and its constant focus on a “population bomb” that threatened to exhaust the Earth’s resources if something wasn’t done about it. As his research was just beginning to demonstrate the consequences of overpopulation the New York Times book review was pushing dystopian works such as Stand on Zanzibar and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb.

Years before Mao began his enforced One Child Policy, American cosmopolitans were aggressively selling the concept of ZPG, or zero population growth in the pages of Time. Back in the government lab that housed the ever-growing population of rats, certain unpleasant realities were beginning to manifest themselves in the behavior of the colony. Calhoun was able to observe a recurring pattern, broken into four distinct phases that repeated itself each time he re-stocked his utopian environment; Exploration, Exploitation, Stagnation, and Death.

In the first phase the rodent experiment the numbers were such that the social order was rapidly established, hierarchies arose within days and the dominant males created harems of available females and guarded them against the lower ranking competitors. Feeding areas were designed so that no individual could eat alone but rather had to share communal trays. The choice nests were established at ground level while the lowest ranking members of the colony had to climb towers to their nesting spot.

With plenty of space and endless supplies with a small population resulted in a living space that was, as far as brown rats go, copacetic. During the exploitation phase two discernible differences arose- a rapidly growing population and an increasingly hostile environment. The dominant males controlled access to the quadrants where their harems lived while the lower ranking members turned to an endless cycle of violence towards each other as well as the younger generation of rapidly maturing rivals.

As the population grew to the point where no rat was able to find privacy, the third phase began in earnest. At this stage Calhoun observes that the rats have entered what he calls a behavioral sink, a situation where aberrant and destructive behavior becomes the norm and normal behavior is no longer possible. For example, the females abandoned their young, attacked them, or oddly enough, became sterile. Certain numbers of both male and female became- according to Calhoun- somnambulists.

They slept the majority of their lives emerging only to gorge themselves at the feeders while the rest of the colony slept, slowly becoming enormous and dying far earlier than the other rats. The subordinate males clustered together between the quadrants and controlled the access to food for the younger rats, violently attacking them and each other. They also turned into pansexuals, neither interested in mating but rather engaging in homosexuality and self-gratification in their nests for extended periods of time, often damaging and disfiguring their genitalia and pulling out their fur.

The remainder became probers, a constant source of irritation to the dominant males who used every available means to keep them away to the point of exhaustion and eventual submission to groups of predatory male rats who would kill them and raid their harems, killing the offspring and even the females. At the peak of the population which reached over 2,200 the entire colony entered the terminal phase and once reproduction ceased it was simply a matter of time until the natural cycle of rodent mortality ended the experiment yet again. Over and over for years until NIMH pulled the plug and ended its funding of Calhoun’s Mortality-Inhibiting Environment for Mice. Utopia, at least for rodents, remained elusive.

In the years following the release of his publication entitled Population Density and Social Pathology plenty of people jumped on the bandwagon and tried to turn the results into a commentary on modern urban living and overpopulation. Tom Wolfe’s final chapter of The Pump House Gang was originally a short essay entitled “Oh Rotten Gotham! Sliding Down Into the Behavioral Sink” followed by a novel, later turned into the children’s movie The Secret of NIMH, by Robert O’Brien, a very dark and decidedly un-child friendly dystopian cartoon featuring scientists carrying out a rodent genocide. Calhoun continued on with his work, but never returned to the rats again, calling the outcome of his experiment ” a Malthusian dilemma born of a Utopian vision”.

The planners at the World Economic Forum have a lot of ideas about the future of the Earth’s population and if you’ve somehow missed the agenda they have outlined, maybe now would be a perfect opportunity to see what they are lining up for us. Concentrating people into urban clusters, providing us with all the food we could ever need, eliminating privacy, and on and on in the Great Reset.

One could reasonably conclude that all of those experiments done on the taxpayer’s dime so many years ago at the National Institute of Health would have made some kind of impression on the people who are paid to look at such outcomes. It could be safely assumed that they understand that by confining any living creatures in large numbers and in tight spaces, regardless of the necessities provided, would lead to certain consequences. Perhaps they have looked at the data and they do understand what occurs when a Utopian society is allowed to flourish and that is the endgame.

But then we’re not brown rats.