Graphic with multiple lines, points, and sides.

The Falls of 1972: John B Calhoun and Urban Pessimism

Circulating Now welcomes guest bloggers Jon Adams and Edmund Ramsden. Adams, of the London School of Economics, and Ramsden, of the University of London, share insights on the work of renowned National Institute of Mental Health researcher John B. Calhoun, as captured in a film featuring interviews with Calhoun and footage of the “mouse universes” he maintained for study. The film is one of several in the Library’s manuscript collections documenting Calhoun’s work and is currently highlighted in our Medicine on Screen project.

Three men stand around a room sized partitioned rodent habitat.
Dr. Calhoun (right) and his colleagues overlook the mouse enclosure.
John B. Calhoun Papers, 1909-1996. MS C 586 box 142, folder 28.

“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.

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.

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. The stench of two thousand mice.

A cluster of mice cling to a metal grid.
Mice crowding one another to get water.

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.

A man writes RxEvolution on a chalkboard.
Calhoun presents his overpopulation equations.

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.” Certainly, Calhoun was happy to use the language of apocalypse—quoting Revelations in the introduction to one paper from the time. For what might happen aboard the airlocked Spaceship Earth; see Universe 25.

Graphic with multiple lines, points, and sides.
A labeled diagram indicating relationships among environment, needs, conditions, and adaptations within a population.
John B. Calhoun Papers. 1909-1996, MS C 586 box 143, folder 1

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?”

A small white mouse sits on a man's hand.
A ‘Beautiful One’ balances on Dr. Calhoun’s hand.

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.”

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.”

Sartre: L’ enfer, c’est les autres. 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. …

To read the full essay and to see the film go to NLM’s Medicine on Screen: Films and Essays from NLM, a curated portal including original research on selected films from NLM’s collection.

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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