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Universe 25 – A paradise lost

John Calhoun crouches within Universe 25
John Calhoun crouches within Universe 25

Utopia, depending on who you ask you almost certainly will get a different answer on what the perfect world would look like. No, not what the world COULD be, but what the perfect world would look like. If you could snap a finger and alter the very fabric of reality to create the perfect world, it would almost certainly look very different than the world someone else would create. Maybe that’s why paradise is best left to novelists. Still, what would happen if we could create a general paradise? This is a story of mice and men.

The Matrix was one of those movies that changed the entire genre and still is impacting movies and society to this day. While the Wachowski’s have been clear that the movie was a trans allegory, like any good piece of art they managed to hit on a lot of topics that were and will remain relevant. Unfortunately that also means being used counter to the point of the movie, but that’s a whole other post. One that stuck with me more than any other was, and spoilers for a …. oh dear gods…. ~23 year old movie, was when Agent Smith, one of the sentient creations of the Matrix explained that the first Matrix was built to be a paradise. It’s failure led him to believe that humans define reality by suffering. A perversion of Descartes, something like, I suffer therefore I am. But what if the truth is more fundamental? What if our brains just aren’t wired for a paradise?

If a seemingly infinitely powerful machine from the far future couldn’t create paradise, what chance do we have? I don’t think mice and men are comparable, but for model organisms, studying mice behaviors could help give us insights into men. So what would happen if you built a mouse paradise? It probably would be easy… right?

Well Universe 25 got it’s name for a reason, it took 25 times to get it right. But much like what happened in the Matrix, it was a failure. Or rather, paradise wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. Universe 25 was the perfect environment for a mouse. It had enough food and water for thousands of mice to eat and drink at the same time, a requirement since mice are social creatures. What paradise would be complete without little mice condos and nesting materials? It was a world that was clean, disease free, and had everything mice needed. I think if we all boiled our basic needs down we would agree that food, water, shelter, and healthcare would be pretty perfect. So why did it fail?

Dr. John Bumpass Calhoun was the man behind the study. Interested in studying behavior and population density, he used rats/mice (I’m told not to mix those up by other researchers so to be clear his later studies with Universe 25 were with mice) to study how population density impacted behavior. Prior to Universe 25, none of the experiments could be run to completion because (ironically) lab space constraints. While the other “universes” failed, Universe 25 after a quarter of a century of research was perfected. It was also huge mind you even for person standards, 9 feet (2.7 m) squared and almost 5 feet (1.4 m) high, started off as a huge success. It is generally talked about in the phases of population growth, so that’s how we’ll talk about it.

In 1968 the experiment started with just four pairs of mice. This was the start of “phase A” and was considered the “adjustment” phase and was listed as lasting 104 days. Basically the mice making sense of their new home. Phase B was the the population boom and between phase A and B, everything seemed to be going amazingly well.

Phase B (population boom) was where the population doubled every 55 days (yes, that’s exponential growth… eek). On day 315 the population of Universe 25 was 620 mice. This is where things took an interesting turn. Despite space, food, and water being plentiful mice crowded in select areas and they feed on the same food sources. Basically they made eating a communal activity, but the universe was built to (theoretically I suppose) handle 4x that number of mice eating (or drinking) all at once.

This was the beginning of the end sadly. As they huddled together more, they stopped mating as much. Thus the birthrate started to fall precipitously, doubling only every 145 days . This led to an imbalance where one-third of the mice became socially dominant and the other two-thirds became less socially adept. By dominant you can read that as aggressive, because that’s what started to happen. Some mice became violent, others became outcasts. Which led into phase C.

Phase C saw the split become even worse, the dominant (see: aggressive) mice became even more violent, for no apparent reason. Sometimes they would even roam around and violate (read that as you will) other mice regardless of gender. These were the “alpha” males. The beta males, the mice between the alpha and the outcast, became timid and passive receptors of violence, which ended very badly. The outcasts living at the bottom of the “universe” were rejected by females, so they stopped mating. They became “outcasts” because they didn’t have a role in the society, so they would wander off and would sleep and eat alone. On occasion they became violent toward one another (among the outcast).

In traditional mice families males protect the female and the young, but this was abandoned. Males no longer followed the traditional roles in a mouse society and the female mice arguably overcompensated. They became aggressive, but not only to outsiders, they would turn violent toward their babies or would abandon the children all together and withdraw from mating. Thus infant mortality skyrocketed reaching ~90% during this phase. There is no good news, unfortunately and despite the plentiful food some even resorted to cannibalism.

Calhoun named phase C the “stagnation phase” for obvious reasons. He attributed the over aggressive and passive behaviors to the breakdown of the social roles and the increase in over-clustering of the mice. For lack of a better way of describing it simply, the mice formed their own groups and as those groups started to separate away from each other things started to deteriorate. Thus at day 560 the population ceased to increase and the mortality rate was nearly 100%. This sadly brings us to the fourth and final phase, phase D or the “death phase.”

The “death phase,” which as the name suggests was the end of life for universe 25. With the increased violence and the lack of mating, a younger generation of mice became adults, but had never been exposed to a “normal” society. To put it simply, they were just mice living in a world that didn’t teach them how to be good mice. They had no exposure to normal social skills, they did not learn normal or healthy relations, and there were no familial structures for these mice to witness anything remotely “normal” for mice behavior. So what was a young adult mouse supposed to do?

Calhoun named them, appropriately so, the “beautiful ones.” They had no concept of marking territory, mating, or parenting. Instead all they did was eat, sleep, and groom themselves. They chose to be secluded so they didn’t experience any violence or conflict, but also made no contribution to society. They were simply existing and this is where Calhoun postulated the first death occurred.

He noted that the death phase came in two stages. The first death was the death of “spirit,” and meant that the mice had no purpose beyond existing. As noted above, the mice had no desire to mate or have any role in the mouse society. The second death was the literal one, the end of mice life.

Over time the number of mice that no longer wanted to mate or participate in society grew until they outnumbered the “gangs” of mice. Universe 25 came to its unfortunate end on day 920 when mice stopped breeding completely. The population capped at 2,200 mice, still far under the capacity of the universe (which could comfortably house 3,840 mice). There was still an endless supply of food, water, and resources, but it didn’t matter. Calhoun coined the term “behavior sink” and it had already taken hold so not long after, the mice were dead. Sometime paradise isn’t enough.

While Universe 25 is the most famous, the result was roughly the same as the other 24 attempts. Calhoun found that the population would grow rapidly. At a certain point, the mice or rats, for whatever reason, would engage in antisocial behavior and the social order would collapse. All the mice would shift to solitary activities, reproduction would plummet, and eventually, the population would go extinct. That shift, that’s what Calhoun is referring to by “behavior sink.” But what does all this mean?

The problem is the results could be interpreted in a lot of different ways. Some would (have) argued that this result was due to overcrowding and overpopulation, which is a valid enough hypothesis, but you’ll recall a two paragraphs ago I said that the capacity of Universe 25 was never even close to being hit. There was space, food, supplies, etc. for all the mice so there was no shortage of resources.

Other theories range from too much socialization — as in the mice couldn’t “leave” the universe — to not enough socialization –again mice couldn’t leave the universe so they never encountered new mice. Other theories rely on picking apart the social roles and the breakdown prior to the “behavior sink” that was the problem. There are only so many roles for a mouse in a society, so when you have more mice than roles you’re creating outcasts.

Now this is just with respect to mice. The experiment has been used to (attempt) to explain human behaviors too, even by the man Dr. Calhoun himself. As you may imagine the experiment has been used to explain behaviors of people in overcrowded cities for example or the breakdown of the “traditional” family. But mice are not human and while it’s tempting to draw parallels it’s not very fair. Performing the same experiments in humans would be very challenging, take decades, and would require imprisoning people for several lifetimes and that touches on an often overlooked aspect to Universe 25.

It was built like a prison, I mean it even looks like a literal prison. While there was room for all and more, there wasn’t any space. Imagine for a second if I gave you a home, food, water, etc. but you couldn’t leave. That was Universe 25 and in that context the behavior of the mice makes startling sense with the dominate mice taking control over the social structure, groups form, and generally behaviors change to the point that a mouse can no longer (or will no longer) contribute to the society as a whole. This sounds an awful lot like what happens in the (U.S. specifically, but I’m sure others too) prison system. To the point that people often find themselves more comfortable in prison because they are no longer adjusted to survive outside that type of environment.

Then again humans are not rats/mice and can think (mostly) logically and reason out of situations that mice may not have the capacity to do. So it’s hard to draw parallels between humans and mice, but that still doesn’t stop people from using the experiment to justify any sort of line of reasoning. Similar to how some have weaponized certain themes from the Matrix, just to bring that one back into the conversation. At the end of the day though the saddest part about the whole thing is simply, from a scientific perspective, Calhoun’s experiments aren’t really useful for explaining anything. That’s how science goes sometimes, but more importantly demonstrates the need for thoughtful experimental design.

In the end we may never know if people could be happy in a paradise or if it would turn out to just be one giant prison. So maybe Agent Smith had a point after all.

Hear more about Universe 25 from the maker himself.

A brief post word:

Universe 25 wasn’t the last attempt at a mouse paradise. In fact, Calhoun thought he finally cracked the issue and attempted several times to “fix” the problem. He believed that if overcrowding couldn’t be changed (the problem which he assumes was the cause of the behavior sink) then “conceptual spaces” would. By relying on building a society on creativity, artistry, and the type of community not explicitly built around social hierarchies that mice tend to use the dreaded behavior sink could be avoided. His later universes were both “spiritually” and physically utopic. Where the mice interactions were carefully controlled to maximize happiness. Sadly we don’t get to pick what we’re remembered for and people were far more interested in the collapse of a utopia than a fix to the problem. So the best laid plans of mice and men… he eventually lost funding, popularity, and will (probably) forever be remembered as the creator of Universe 25. In 1986, he was forced to retire from the National Institute of Mental Health and nine years later, he died.


7 responses

  1. Love it thank you for sharing very interesting

    Liked by 1 person

    February 19, 2023 at 8:26 pm

    • Thanks for reading! I hope you’re doing well!!


      February 20, 2023 at 11:31 am

  2. I’d never heard of this. Interesting (in a grim sort of way).

    People who keep mice as pets, and do a good job of it, are arguably creating a lot of little “mouse paradises” all over. So between that and the later experiments, I don’t feel led to conclude that mice can’t live in paradise. More like you can’t put a large society of mice in a box with resources and just leave it to itself.

    Mice are, unfortunately, adapted to having their numbers pruned constantly by a variety of predators. So they’re naturally very fertile. I wonder if some of the social collapse disorders that started happening were like safety mechanisms, meant to pull the reproduction rate down before they literally ran out of room or began starving. If a predator had come along in time (or if Calhoun had simply removed some of the mice), perhaps the mouse “society” would have recovered before effectively losing its culture. I also wonder how this would go for a top-of-the-food-chain species. How would a wolf paradise or an elephant paradise turn out? Not that I would support anyone trying that even if it were feasible, because putting animals in an unnatural situation and then just watching and scribbling notes like an indifferent god when things go horribly wrong, is a sick thing to do in my opinion.

    As for humans … yeah, if all our physical needs were met and we were provided with a safe, comfortable environment, I think we’d still have problems. Because many of our needs aren’t physical, and also a fair number of our problems come from our own choices. But I don’t think that means the absence of environmental hardship is the cause of all our other problems. More like the other issues can become more prominent or visible when environmental hardship isn’t there.

    When we’re thrashing around just trying to survive, we probably don’t have as much mental energy to worry about the realities that lead to subtler forms of suffering: loneliness, boredom, existential dread, sehnsucht, and so forth. That doesn’t mean none of those problems exist. They’re just hidden from us by more immediate threats to our existence.

    Also, when we have a higher “baseline” level of safety and comfort, we tend to demand more out of life. People from previous eras of history might be delighted by a standard of living that feels full of deprivation to us. I don’t think this sort of perpetual discontent is a bad thing necessarily – there is no level of tragedy that we should be willing to accept. I don’t think we experience this because we need suffering and therefore see it where it isn’t; I think we experience it because there is an awful lot of suffering, and we’ve come nowhere near removing it all.

    Lastly, if you’re bored in utopia and think you need some suffering to feel fulfilled, you can always make your own. People did that in the Culture book I was just reading; there was basically no danger in their far-future space colonies, so some of them would take up extreme sports and (for example) get severe burns rafting down a lava river, just for the privilege of having gone through something risky and hard. But that at least was a choice. Nobody who didn’t like it or couldn’t handle it had to go through it.

    “Sadly we don’t get to pick what we’re remembered for and people were far more interested in the collapse of a utopia than a fix to the problem.”

    I fear there might be more to that than people just having a fascination with tragedy. “Nobody can live in paradise” is a very convenient line for those who, for whatever reason, have no interest in creating an improved society. Like the types who insist we need war because otherwise we’ll “go soft,” or need famine and disease because “otherwise we’ll overpopulate” (eco-fascism).

    I think it’s also easy to slip into the trap of thinking, perhaps subconsciously, “life needs some imperfections … but they should always fall on other people. Other people need to die in accidents so that I can have thrilling near-misses. Other people need to go hungry so that I can properly appreciate my good fortune in having enough to eat. In Paradise there could be no great deeds of triumph or heroism (I’m assuming I’m the hero and not one of the Red Shirts who establishes risk by failing and getting killed).” If some of those who wax eloquent about humans being unable to live in paradise ever properly experienced the current not-paradise, I wonder if they’d change their tune rather quickly …

    This, I think, is exactly how Smith exploits the idea in The Matrix – as an excuse for his complicity in oppressing people. And if we include the sequels in this discussion, eventually it helps turn him into a monster who believes that, because living things are defined by suffering, everyone needs to die.

    I can see why some viewers have complaints about the second and third Matrix movies, but getting to the end of the third and watching Smith proclaim the triumph of his nihilism – and then get defeated anyway – was very satisfying to me.

    Uh well that went on a while, you got me thinking I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 19, 2023 at 10:24 pm

    • I’m glad I got you thinking! haha I’m always surprised when I touch on something others haven’t heard of. I guess I learned about this one in undergrad bio… I think? It’s hard to keep where the facts came from straight honestly.

      You make a lot of good points. Most of which I tend to agree with. I tend to read Calhoun’s work, or at least early failures (including universe 25) as simply if you want a mouse paradise it should be designed by mice. It’s hard for us to give mice everything they need./want when we don’t fully understand it. Reading too far into the Matrix, that could’ve been the same issue, as smart as the machines were they just didn’t understand what humans needed, thus the assumption that suffering was required because that’s all we knew.

      Then again your take on culling is probably an apt one. It’s hard to go against evolution so strongly like that. Without the pressure of a predator there probably where some odd ball effects going on. Often scientists chalk it up to “cage” effects as in keeping an animal in a cage, but I also didn’t mention that the mice lived unnaturally long lives (mostly) and that the older mice tended to be very violent to the newcomers and with the old mice in roles that should’ve gone to the younger generation, well we know how it ended. I can’t help but feel like there’s similar behavior in society today, despite not wanting to do draw that sort of conclusion from the experiment. I often think about the “beautiful ones” and how we have celebrities whose claim to fame are just that. I don’t think I’ll be around to see the collapse of human civilization mind you, but it’s interesting to think about how it may come about.

      I do agree that a “we can’t live in paradise” line is more appealing for companies/governments than actually attempting to make things more equitable. After all whole industries are created telling people they are ugly/fat/lazy/etc. and if you buy their products, you’ll be fixed!

      Liked by 1 person

      February 20, 2023 at 11:45 am

      • Well, the last time I had any biology was highschool. Interest notwithstanding, I am a machine princess who has not had time for that, haha.

        All else being equal, as a population grows its needs grow, and therefore I would expect the number of role openings to grow also. This includes leadership roles, to a degree; we can only ever have one President, but there’s room for an expanding pyramid base of local politicians and managers. That’s why I think complaints like “immigrants will take our jobs” are mostly bunk: yes immigrants need jobs, but they also need services, and that creates additional jobs. People living longer and staying in the workforce longer shouldn’t be an issue for the same reason.

        Of course, this breaks down if you have an entrenched power clique that holds the number of new role openings below the level of demand, in order to limit competition. I’ve previously mentioned the theory that our medical system is run like a cartel that deliberately makes it difficult for new players to enter the space – that would be one example of this kind of thing.


        February 20, 2023 at 9:54 pm

  3. karre

    I have missed you and your weird side stories. I bet it feels awesome to write something that’s not tied to work. My husband took a really terrible course on music and biology a few weeks back. The lectures were pure torture, but the one thing that filtered through watching them over his shoulder was a snippet about art, music and drama being an attempt at giving the audience a chance to see from your point of view. Sometimes I find your view really difficult but always interesting. You have such a creative component to your soul. Don’t neglect it, that is the way out of paradise. Humans are thrill seekers, never comfortable being too comfortable. Somehow I always end up sounding like a fortune cookie horoscope… Your lucky numbers are 7,17, and 42 jade green is your color and road runner your bird, eat your vegetables. Have a great week, it was good to hear from you.

    Liked by 1 person

    February 20, 2023 at 8:10 am

    • Thank you! It was nice to write something else, you’re right. I’ve been a bit sick sadly, but I’m on the mend, so that’s nice. I appreciate the kind words (and the lucky numbers, haha). I hope you and your family are doing well and that school is going smoothly for your son. Have a great week as well!


      February 20, 2023 at 11:51 am

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