Muskrat Love and the Descent of America

Richard Stanley

The following excerpts discuss rodent population experiments that helped fuel re-newed concerns over excessive population growth, resulting in works like Soylent Green. But here, please note the last optimistic paragraphs of the excerpts. Extrapolating from other species to humankind is frequently problematic and here humans are extremely adaptable, though not so good as cuckroaches. I have earlier presented a more optimistic view here on The Population Bomb, that demonstrates that humans automatically reduce their birth rates upon reaching a 'perceived' threshold of economic security.

In any case, I am sure that the dismal results of the experiments would have been significantly different if muskrats had been employed, albeit that the song itself marked the descent of the band America. America people. Reality imitates art imitates science. See related Wikipedia excerpts at bottom.

But Calhoun’s work was different. Vogt, Ehrlich, and the others were neo-Malthusians, arguing that population growth would cause our demise by exhausting our natural resources, leading to starvation and conflict. But there was no scarcity of food and water in Calhoun’s universe. The only thing that was in short supply was space. This was, after all, “heaven”—a title Calhoun deliberately used with pitch-black irony. The point was that crowding itself could destroy a society before famine even got a chance. In Calhoun’s heaven, hell was other mice.

So what exactly happened in Universe 25? Past day 315, population growth slowed. More than six hundred mice now lived in Universe 25, constantly rubbing shoulders on their way up and down the stairwells to eat, drink, and sleep. Mice found themselves born into a world that was more crowded every day, and there were far more mice than meaningful social roles. With more and more peers to defend against, males found it difficult and stressful to defend their territory, so they abandoned the activity. Normal social discourse within the mouse community broke down, and with it the ability of mice to form social bonds. The failures and dropouts congregated in large groups in the middle of the enclosure, their listless withdrawal occasionally interrupted by spasms and waves of pointless violence. The victims of these random attacks became attackers. Left on their own in nests subject to invasion, nursing females attacked their own young. Procreation slumped, infant abandonment and mortality soared.

In 1962, Calhoun published a paper called “Population Density and Social Pathology” in Scientific American, laying out his conclusion: overpopulation meant social collapse followed by extinction. The more he repeated the experiment, the more the outcome came to seem inevitable, fixed with the rigor of a scientific equation. By the time he wrote about the decline and fall of Universe 25 in 1972, he even laid out its fate in equation form:

Mortality, bodily death = the second death
Drastic reduction of mortality
= death of the second death
= death squared
= (death)2
(Death)2 leads to dissolution of social organization
= death of the establishment
Death of the establishment leads to spiritual death
= loss of capacity to engage in behaviors essential to species survival
= the first death
(Death)2 = the first death

This formula might apply to rats and mice—but could the same happen to humankind? For Calhoun, there was little question about it. No matter how sophisticated we considered ourselves to be, once the number of individuals capable of filling roles greatly exceeded the number of roles, only violence and disruption of social organization can follow. ... Individuals born under these circumstances will be so out of touch with reality as to be incapable even of alienation. Their most complex behaviors will become fragmented. Acquisition, creation and utilization of ideas appropriate for life in a post-industrial cultural-conceptual-technological society will have been blocked.
Calhoun’s research remains a touchstone for a particular kind of pessimistic worldview. And, in the way that writers like Wolfe and the historian Lewis Mumford deployed reference to it, it can be seen as bleakly reactionary, a warning against cosmopolitanism or welfare dependence, which might sap the spirit and put us on the skids to the behavioral sink. As such, it found fans among conservative Christians; Calhoun even met the pope in 1974. But in fact the full span of Calhoun’s research had a more positive slant. The misery of the rodent universes was not uniform—it had contours, and some did better than others. Calhoun consistently found that those animals better able to handle high numbers of social interactions fared comparatively well. “High social velocity” mice were the winners in hell. As for the losers, Calhoun found they sometimes became more creative, exhibiting an un-mouse-like drive to innovate. They were forced to, in order to survive.

Later in his career, Calhoun worked to build universes that maximized this kind of creativity and minimized the ill effects of overcrowding. He disagreed with Ehrlich and Vogt that restrictions on reproduction were the only possible response to overpopulation. Man, he argued, was a positive animal, and creativity and design could solve our problems. He advocated overcoming the limitations of the planet, and as part of a multidisciplinary group called the Space Cadets promoted the colonization of space. It was a source of lasting dismay to Calhoun that his research primarily served as encouragement to pessimists and reactionaries, rather than stimulating the kind of hopeful approach to mankind’s problems that he preferred. More cheerfully, however, the one work of fiction that stems directly from Calhoun’s work, rather than the stew of gloom that it was stirred into, is optimistic, and expands imaginatively on his attempts to spur creative thought in rodents. This is Robert C. O’Brien’s book for children, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, about a colony of super-intelligent and self-reliant rats that have escaped from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Peek adds that the single "easily hit the Top 40 on the strength of our past successes"[3] although "Muskrat Love" in fact marked a downturn in America's popularity with a low peak on the Hot 100 in Billboard at number 67; the single did better on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart reaching number 11.

In a 2012 interview Gerry Beckley said of "Muskrat Love": "It's a polarizing little number. After concerts, some people tell us they can't believe we didn't play it, while others go out of their way to thank us for not performing it."[4]