Tag Archives: John B. Calhoun

Cinema and Failed “Rat Utopia” Over on the H-Word

The H-Word blog over at The Guardian has just published a piece on the influence of rat experiments on the novel High Rise, the basis for a newly released film of the same name. As author Jesse Olszynko-Gryn notes in his post,

the most influential example of “pathological togetherness” lifted from the animal kingdom was not a bird. It was a rodent and, in particular, the laboratory experiments performed on rats in the 1960s by ethologist John B. Calhoun at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Calhoun built a “rat city” in which everything a rat could need was provided, except space. The result was a population explosion followed by pathological overcrowding, then extinction. Well before the rats reached the maximum possible density predicted by Calhoun, however, they began to display a range of “deviant” behaviours: mothers neglected their young; dominant males became unusually aggressive; subordinates withdrew psychologically; others became hypersexual; the living cannibalized the dead. Calhoun’s “rat utopia” became a living hell.

Calhoun published the early results of his experiments in 1962 in the now-classic Scientific American article, “Population Density and Social Pathology”. As historians Edmund Ramsden and Jon Adams have shown, Calhoun’s rats circulated widely as “scientific evidence” of the dangers of urban overcrowding in human society. His concept of the “behavioural sink” chimed with despairing journalistic reports of “sink estates” and “sink schools” in 1970s Britain.

The full piece can be read online here.

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