Home > Global > WHO Bulletin, Feb 2009 – The urban animal: population density and social pathology

WHO Bulletin, Feb 2009 – The urban animal: population density and social pathology

The urban animal: population density and social pathology in rodents and humans

Edmund Ramsden. School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Exeter, Rennes Drive, Exeter, EX4 4RJ, England.

Correspondence to Edmund Ramsden (e-mail: E.Ramsden@exeter.ac.uk).

Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2009;87:82-82. doi: 10.2471/BLT.09.062836

In a 1962 edition of Scientific American, the ecologist John B Calhoun presented the results of a macabre series of experiments conducted at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).1 He had placed several rats in a laboratory in a converted barn where – protected from disease and predation and supplied with food, water and bedding – they bred rapidly. The one thing they were lacking was space, a fact that became increasingly problematic as what he liked to describe as his “rat city” and “rodent utopia” teemed with animals. Unwanted social contact occurred with increasing frequency, leading to increased stress and aggression. Following the work of the physiologist, Hans Selye, it seemed that the adrenal system offered the standard binary solution: fight or flight.2 But in the sealed enclosure, flight was impossible. Violence quickly spiralled out of control. Cannibalism and infanticide followed. Males became hypersexual, pansexual and, an increasing proportion, homosexual. Calhoun called this vortex “a behavioural sink”. Their numbers fell into terminal decline and the population tailed off to extinction. At the experiments’ end, the only animals still alive had survived at an immense psychological cost: asexual and utterly withdrawn, they clustered in a vacant huddled mass. Even when reintroduced to normal rodent communities, these “socially autistic” animals remained isolated until death. In the words of one of Calhoun’s collaborators, rodent “utopia” had descended into “hell”.3

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