The Science of Dystopia

We see the concepts of dystopia and utopia explored many times in SFF. Arguably, they were at the beginning of the genre, with Thomas More’s Utopia having been written 500 years ago now. You can still read his novel, through the magic of the internet, however. In recent years, it seems writers have been more focused on creating fictional visions of dystopias than they have been in trying to set up utopian societies. Given our cultural case of the blues for the last hundred years, this is understandable. Given also that attempts to create utopias over the last few centuries have largely ended badly, well, I’m not sure I can blame the modern writer for being drawn into the dark dystopian world.

Some of the influence on our collective grim mood toward achieving happiness as a society can be laid at the feet of a man who thought he had also found the way to get out of it. Dr John Bumpass Calhoun (and isn’t that a remarkable name?) built vast utopias, and watched them crumble and die. His work directly inspired a work of science fiction, Ms. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, but more, it influenced a perception that humanity could not survive the population explosion. There’s an excellent article I highly recommend here, but I’ve snipped it a bit below.

In 1973, Calhoun published his Universe 25 research as “Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population.” It is, to put it lightly, an intense academic reading experience. He quotes liberally from the Book of Revelation, italicizing certain words for emphasis (e.g. “to kill with the sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts”). He gave his claimed discoveries catchy names—the mice who forgot how to mate were “the beautiful ones”’ rats who crowded around water bottles were “social drinkers”; the overall societal breakdown was the “behavioral sink.” In other words, it was exactly the kind of diction you’d expect from someone who spent his entire life perfecting the art of the mouse dystopia.

Most frightening are the parallels he draws between rodent and human society. “I shall largely speak of mice,” he begins, “but my thoughts are on man.” Both species, he explains, are vulnerable to two types of death—that of the spirit and that of the body. Even though he had removed physical threats, doing so had forced the residents of Universe 25 into a spiritually unhealthy situation, full of crowding, overstimulation, and contact with various mouse strangers. To a society experiencing the rapid growth of cities—and reacting, in various ways, quite poorlythis story seemed familiar. Senators brought it up in meetings. It showed up in science fiction and comic books. Even Tom Wolfe, never lost for description, used Calhounian terms to describe New York City, calling all of Gotham a “behavioral sink.”

As I was reading about the Universe 25 research in this article, I was pondering the validity of the experiment. From a genetic standpoint, even starting out with 8 of the healthiest and best mice still gives you an awful bottleneck for population diversity. Genetic drift and adaptation can be marked in very little time, as little as a handful of generations. I’ve written at length about this on my own blog, but I’ll put a bit here and you can go there if you want to dig into the nitty gritty more.

The study I had seen on the Cabbage White Butterfly had looked at changes that were potentially fatal in the wild. Butterflies raised in cages grew smaller wings, heavier bodies, and laid more eggs. The net effect of all of those was a butterfly that could fly less, slower, and while more eggs means larger population, it makes the females even more vulnerable to predation due to the added mass slowing them even more. The population was chosen for the study because there was a large extant wild population (the caterpillar of Pieris brassicae is a common pest) to compare with a population that had been raised in captivity for between 100-150 generations. The implications for captive animal populations are clear: being held captive will change you.

Just how long until we see an effect? Well, in studies done on Drosophila, a common model organism, a doubling in fecundity was seen in only eight generations. Eight. In human terms, using the rough rule of thumb of twenty years to a generation (arguably this could be telescoped further, as I’ll discuss shortly), that’s a mere 160 years. Which means, in genetic terms, that the United States of America has existed for more than long enough to affect the genes of those who are born to it. (Read More…)

The article I quote above is not the first time I had come across Calhoun’s work. I’ve seen it in my studies in both biology classes, and psychology. What’s interesting to me is that, beyond the molecular biology involved in compressed evolution of a captive species, and the lack of predation/disease cycle, mice are not humans. Calhoun brought a strong desire to anthropomorphize into his experiments, which is generally not what a scientist ought to do. However, we’re all human and our biases will creep in.

In psychology classes, you get the part of Universe 25 where overpopulation pressure led to fighting, perversions, and eventually population death. What you don’t get, or at any rate I didn’t in mine, is the sense that Calhoun had managed to stave that off in his various experiments, and had ideas of how to solve it entirely.

Convinced that he had found a real problem, Calhoun quickly began using his mouse models to try and fix it. If mice and humans weren’t afforded enough physical space, he thought, perhaps they could make up for it with conceptual space—creativity, artistry, and the type of community not built around social hierarchies. His later Universes were designed to be spiritually as well as physically utopic, with rodent interactions carefully controlled to maximize happiness (he was particularly fascinated by some early rats who had created an innovative form of tunneling, where they rolled dirt into balls). He extrapolated this, too, to human concerns, becoming an early supporter of environmental design and H.G. Wells’s hypothetical “World Brain,” an international information network that was a clear precursor to the internet. (Read the whole article here…)

Humanity has the genetic diversity to survive, certainly. What we also have, currently, is the internet and challenges to keep us interested and busy. We have hope. We have SpaceX lifting us off this mudball which will lead to imitators following the trail they have broken, which will lead to a diaspora that will affect our genes and while I certainly do not think we will ever see utopia, I think we have a lot more room here, and out there, than Universe 25 had. We also have something the mice didn’t. We have free will, agency, and diversity of thought. We can assess where we are, and make changes. Not social changes. No, I mean small changes to make ourself and those in our immediate circle happier. Will that lead to social change? Who knows?

Me? I’m going to write stories to inspire the imagination. To provide a little escape from the daily rat race. Because unlike the rats in Calhoun’s barns, we have the ability to transport ourselves into fragile worlds woven of words. And in them to find the ineffable desire to keep going on. Hope. We can give hope in our stories, that the monsters can be fought and defeated. That the stars beckon us onward to new frontiers. It’s not utopian. It’s a dream of the possibles. The last gift in Pandora’s box.


  1. Question: How do you prevent an over-populated world?

    Answer: Create fictional visions of dystopias and people kill themselves. [Sarcastic Grin]

      1. Probably in ways like anti-bullying programs give the bullies new tips and tricks, as well as better ways to avoid detection.

        1. Quite possibly — the person who’s truly determined to exit life on their own terms knows what things to avoid saying and doing so they don’t tip off those who would intervene.

          1. The good bullies do it in ways that adults often don’t recognize as “bullying.” Or the would-be bullies discover “Oh, if I do it, then I can get away with it because I’m [sex/color/class] and always a victim! Great!”

          2. I’m not sure that they “escape detection” as much as the schools ignore it (especially when the victims aren’t gays, trans or black).

            IE If you’re a white nerd, you’re fair game for the bullies.

  2. I wonder if the cause is prosperity instead of overpopulation. Unlimited food, no cats, and free health care makes those mice seem rich

  3. “In psychology classes, you get the part of Universe 25 where overpopulation pressure led to fighting, perversions, and eventually population death. What you don’t get, or at any rate I didn’t in mine, is the sense that Calhoun had managed to stave that off in his various experiments, and had ideas of how to solve it entirely.”

    I was compelled to take the Psych 101 in the 1990s at a community college in NY state.

    Wow. What a shit-show. I was protected by being a non-impressionable adult, already having a degree in Anthropology that I got before the SJWs took over, and having seen the world a bit as a grown man. The kids, I felt for them.

    Essentially at the time (and I expect right up to now) College Psych 101 was delivered as if it was still 1965. The rat overpopulation experiments, the Stanford Prison Experiment, all that pop-psych BS was presented as The Way It Is. Like a catechism.

    That view of Human Nature, capital H capital N, is the state-approved religion of the New York/New Jersey area. And you can tell because the basics of it keep cropping up in state laws and regulations. The underlying assumptions about how humans behave are College Psych 101.

    Not coincidentally, more people are -leaving- New York State than any other place in the USA including Taxifornia. (I got out as soon as I could and moved to Arizona.) The Psych 101 model is profoundly wrong, as we have seen lately. The fundamental science is refuted every time it is tested.

    But NYC is ground zero for that belief system, and NYC is where all publishers live. Lately, the last 20 years or so, Science Fiction as a genre has taken those underlying assumptions as given, and hence we get all these dystopias all over the place. They’re enforcing the catechism.

    You look at NK Jemisin’s much ballyhooed Triple Hugo trillogy: it is a mash-up of Psych 101 with some magic and a big spoonful of intersectionalism and average horror tropes.

    Mash-ups can be fun, but they’re not ground-breaking original thought. Jemisin is basically preaching to the choir of NYC publishing and the regional SJW “religious faithful” very successfully.

    I can’t read it because I know the Stanford Prison Experiment was bullshit, and that Mr. Calhoun’s mouse studies were hilariously unscientific. Also that most of the early anthropology theory that worked its way into the public consciousness was -wildly- racist (go read Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa” and convince me she wasn’t looking down on those girls and thinking they were a bunch of sluts. That they all lied outrageously to her and she bought it hook, line and sinker makes it all the funnier.) So when I see Nora’s mash-up with gratuitous torture thrown in as a sauce, it’s a bit nauseating.

    This is not to say that I think Nora Jemisin should stop writing. On the contrary, I say write-on, lady. Be all the preacher you can be. Pull that mask off and show us what you got. Testify! Get -all- the awards.

    But I’m not going to buy it. And I’m not going to join in by writing a dystopia of my own, just because that’s what hot in NYC publishing these days. Personally what I enjoy is people of honor. The kind of guy/gal who will do what’s right, even if it costs them.

    Because that’s how you turn a dystopia into a utopia. Individual. Effort. Heaven and Hell are two ends of the same banquet table. Even an atheist can understand that story.

    1. Psych 101 in 2012 was the same. Stanford Prison Experiment and all. Heck, the smallpox blankets came up in my Cultural Anthro class and I printed out and brought in the paper on how wrong Ward Churchill was. They’ve glommed onto what they want to hear and aren’t about to admit they’re teaching lies.

      1. Sad, eh? The smallpox blankets is the meme that just won’t die, that was proven to be bullshit ages ago.

        I had a great deal of fun refuting the textbooks with current studies whenever there was an assignment. The instructor used to get quite affronted, but then I’d lay about five supporting papers on him and he’d grumble and give me the mark.

        Taunting NY profs with how crappy gun control studies are was epic fun. The best was the woman who taught the “evidence based medicine” course at medial school. For a class project I presented ALL the big gun control studies as examples of papers that aren’t -evidence- they’re just yammering. I grouped them by their fundamental failures to be science, the statistical fails, the sample fails, the evidence doesn’t match conclusion fails etc.

        Educational too, I learned all the different ways that intellectuals lie with charts to support their bogus arguments.

      2. Ma’am, can you point me at any book or online sources about the smallpox blankets thing being false? If you would be so kind, that is. I’ve heard that one so may times over the years that finding the and reading facts would be a delight.

    2. Man, flashbacks to the 80s and 90s when the “Gorillas can speak sign language” experiments were all the rage. Supposedly these Gorillas were swiftly taught sign language and were revealed to be soulful, poetic, deep, and almost definitely quite human!

      ….then you look at what the gorillas actually signed -before- the people running the experiment “interpreted” for them and it’s gibberish that makes a 2 year old look like Shakespeare.

      Still, I recall it was briefly all over SF back in the day. IIRC even some authors who should have known better (Silverberg? I want to say him, but I may be remembering wrong) claimed that humans should obviously accept atheism because the Sign Language Gorillas don’t believe in God.


  4. The first Dystopia in fiction predates Thomas Moore’s Utopia by some 1890 years.
    Plato called it “The Republic”.

    1. Depends on whether or not Plato considered “The Republic”, a good place or a bad place.

      Some have said that he didn’t take it seriously but others believe that he did consider it a good place.

      Personally, I think that the people who think he didn’t take “The Republic” seriously do so only because they can’t believe their Idol Plato considered it a good place.

      1. Well, his fellow acolytes of Socrate were prominent among the Thirty Tyrants during their reign of terror. The notorious gadfly Socrates somehow wasn’t among the (at least) 5% of the population killed for not agreeing enthusiastically enough to the government’s dictates. (There’s a claim by Plato that Socrates would have been, if the reign of the Thirty Tyrants had lasted longer. It’s hearsay, but it might be true. To some extent. If exaggerated. OK, it’s completely self-serving and smells fishier than a sardine shoved up your nose.) Plato himself doesn’t seem to have been inconvenienced much. He claims this was because of his youth, but young men were purged in job lots.
        Plato’s denouncement of the episode focuses on the men implementing the program, rather than the program itself. You could use it as a model for the “real communism has never been tried” argument by just substituting ideologies and atrocities.
        I’ve long said, only half in jest, that the distinction between Left and Right runs through the heart of The Republic. Those on the Left see a Utopia. Those on the Right see a Dystopia.
        If forced to live under the thumb of a man of one book, I’d much prefer The Prince to The Republic.

    2. Its inhabitants probably liked it.

      This is the problem with Utopia: You need Utopians to live in it.

      1. The problem is that More/Utopia translations don’t sound sarcastic/ironic enough. There is also not a lot of annotation of the in jokes about how England’s government stunk, and how he and his friends had gotten a lot of crap for just trying their best.

        1. It just occurred to me that I can read Latin now. The Latin Library site does have the Latin text, too.

          Okay, how does “past the flower of his age” work as anything but sarcasm, when it is translating “vergentis ad senium aetatis”?

          Hythloday was supposed to be a little old geezer who was ready to fall over! I never got that!

          1. I’m a bit jealous. I haven’t been able to read Latin for going on 30 years. It’s one of the reasons I liked Kathrine Kurtz’s Dyrini series so much: I could read the Latin.

            Now I’m learning matrix algebra. I think I’d rather be conjugating verbs than calculating determinants.

            1. Oddly enough, today I looked up degree plans at a local university. I took notes on a class mentioned on a classics curriculum, because I had never heard of Gellius before, and it’d be nice to finish learning Latin. I spent much more time looking at some other programs ( that I wanted to figure out better) and I did pay some attention to which ones looked like they got matrix algebra, and which did not.

              Lots of cool things you can do with matrix algebra. The practice with determinants is probably worth it.

  5. n recent years, it seems writers have been more focused on creating fictional visions of dystopias than they have been in trying to set up utopian societies

    It’s a fun genre, or could be, because in the hands of a superversive writer, or just one with a bit of a confrontational personality, it’s fundamentally about slaying dragons.

    The very best dystopia novels include the winning-and-rebuilding bits.

    Maybe that’s unrealistic, but I get enough reality from reading history and other nonfiction.

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