OF MICE AND MEN

June 22nd, 2023

In his iconic masterpiece, The Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde made a profound observation that continues to resound with enduring relevance: “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Wilde’s shrewd use of the seemingly limiting word “nowadays” actually transcends temporal boundaries, vastly expanding the scope of his statement. He was being ironic – in reality suggesting that this human weakness holds true regardless of the era or location.

As the French saying goes, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Human nature is oblivious to the constraints of time and place, and the fundamental flaws of the human condition that misdirected our ancient ancestors continue to challenge and confront us down to the present day.

Broadly speaking, who we are and how we behave is the result of our animal instincts, and not – as we’d like to imagine – the result of our elevated souls and human superiority. Which brings me to the extraordinary story of the Universe 25 experiment, conducted by ethologist John B. Calhoun (1917-1995) between 1968 and 1972, the details of which were featured in a recent article in The Scientist.

Universe 25 was a groundbreaking study that originally aimed to investigate the effects of overpopulation on social behavior in a controlled environment – but which ultimately became a study charting societal collapse. The experiment involved creating a self-contained world, referred to as Universe 25, designed to provide all necessary resources and protections in abundance – including food, water, shelter, and no predators – for a community of mice.

The experiment began with four mice “couples”, and during the initial stages the mouse population flourished, with individuals forming social groups and exhibiting normal behaviors. But as the population grew, the social dynamics began to deteriorate. The mice became increasingly aggressive and territorial, displaying a range of abnormal behaviors – such as excessive grooming and self-isolation.

As the experiment progressed, and despite there being room for more mice in the enclosure, a phenomenon emerged that Calhoun called “behavioral sink” – essentially, a state of social collapse characterized by the breakdown of social bonds, loss of reproductive capability, and ultimately, total extinction. By Day 315, lower-ranking males faced rejection from females and disengaged from mating altogether. Estranged from the larger groups, these outcast males resorted to purely solitary activities.

In contrast, the alpha males displayed heightened aggression and combative behavior, often initiating violence without clear provocation or motive. Disturbingly, these dominant males engaged in indiscriminate acts of rape against other mice, regardless of gender. On several occasions, violent conflicts escalated into brutal battles, culminating in cannibalistic acts by the victors.

And as the male mice deviated from their traditional roles, females were left to take care of their nests on their own. This led to a significant shift in behavior, with many females displaying increased aggression, even towards their own offspring. Some females completely neglected their maternal duties, abandoning unraised litters and withdrawing from further mating.

These behavioral changes resulted in severe consequences – among some clusters, the infant mortality rate reached alarming levels, exceeding 90 percent. Unsurprisingly, the mouse population peaked about two years after the experiment began – even though they had not yet outgrown the enclosure. After that the colony stagnated, and then declined precipitously, with the last mouse dying in 1972.

To Calhoun, the message was quasi-religious, and certainly not limited to mice. As he put it in his comprehensive 1973 article: “I shall largely speak of mice, but my thoughts are on man, on healing, on life and its evolution. Threatening life and evolution are the two deaths – death of the spirit and death of the body.”

Although the mouse enclosure was originally conceived as a “Mortality-Inhibiting Environment for Mice” – it was unofficially referred to as “mouse heaven.” But before long it had turned into a death trap, more appropriately referred to as “mouse hell.” Despite having no problems with hunger, thirst, predators, mousetraps, cold winters, or company – the natural animal instincts that ordinarily protect animals from extinction turned the tables on these privileged mice, dooming them to a tragic demise. Once their spirit had died, their physical death was a foregone conclusion.

The bottom line is simple. Having everything without having meaning in your life breeds discontent, as exemplified in recent history by the eventual collapse of communism. Communism’s utopian promise of equality, when put into practice as it was in the Soviet Union and countries of the Eastern Bloc, resulted in an oppressive Universe 25 environment, bereft of personal freedom and initiative.

Although communism provided the basic needs of its people, it suppressed their individual ambitions and aspirations, except in the field of gaining power and perpetrating violence, a situation scarily analogous to the “mouse heaven” of Universe 25. Both these examples demonstrate a universal predicament: an excess of provision and a lack of challenges, in an environment devoid of any kind of spiritual objectives, will unavoidably lead to stagnation and decline.

This is not a novel insight. The “nowadays” of today has its parallels in the “nowadays” of the past, most notably, perhaps, in the biblical story of Moses’ cousin Korach. Korach is a Universe 25 poster child: wealthy, entitled, and living in a divinely blessed environment – in which he could enjoy abundant manna from heaven, endless supplies of water from Miriam’s well, and protection from any danger inside the cocoon of God’s clouds of glory.

But despite these blessings, Korach’s spirit began to wane, and his alpha-male personality took over. Driven by an overblown sense of privilege and an insatiable hunger for power, he staged a needless rebellion against Moses, who was the very epitome of humility and selfless leadership.

Just like the mice of Universe 25, Korach and his co-conspirators spiraled into a behavioral sink, their spirit corroded under the weight of material plenty and pointless ambition. Korach’s subsequent death serves as a stark reminder from the dawn of Jewish history of the dangers of a plentiful life lived in the absence of spiritual aspiration.

In contrast, Moses’ leadership reflected a deep understanding of maintaining the balance between prosperity and the service of God. Moses not only cared for his people – he also realized that temporal power and the satisfaction of physical needs only gain significance when they are coupled with spiritual aspirations and devotion to a higher purpose. Only then can a society endure; otherwise, it is fated for oblivion.

In our contemporary Western society, which is marked by abundant material wealth and an alarming decline in spiritual pursuits, the cautionary tales of Universe 25, communism, and Korach hold significant relevance. Prosperity and abundance, devoid of meaningful purpose and spiritual underpinnings, too often lead to societal stagnation and eventually, a precipitous decline. Meanwhile, a harmonious balance of physical prosperity and spiritual aspiration paves the way for a robust and sustainable civilization.

Even after the passage of three millennia, the Jewish people continue to embody and disseminate this critical message. The Jews serve as a living testament to the power of blending material success with spiritual purpose.

Perhaps we should thank Korach – after all, his failure provided a lasting lesson, one that came early in our history, but which continues to echo down the corridors of time, reminding us of the importance of marrying worldly accomplishments with transcendent goals. To do otherwise would be the beginning of the end.

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