Humans are not mice, or rats. I do understand the confusion from time to time, but none-the-less, there are quite substantial differences. Most humans are more complicated, at least socially and mentally. Calhoun’s mouse utopia experiments cannot directly be projected onto humans. The experiment also had some genetic flaws, as it started with a small genetic diversity, and worked with a species known for short lives and a tendency to developing genetic ‘errors’ – which in the wild, die.
For those unfamiliar with the experiment: four pairs of mice were given unlimited food, water, suitable ‘ideal’ shelter and left to their own devices. The only limit was space. If you’re a mouse, that means eating, drinking, breeding and making a nice nest. Not at all human. The rat experiments had, it seems, a bit more fighting. The mouse utopia experiment – initially the population grew rapidly, then slowed down, with atypical behavior happening, and the basic requirement of species survival: successful breeding and rearing of young going to hell in a hand-basket. They never reached the space limits of the provided environment, and eventually died out. The rat experiments somewhat differently structured, and with a better genetic diversity -and not running as many generations, also produced under conditions of plenty (aka a form of rat utopia) where as things got more crowded, produced behaviors which are not normally seen in rats in the wild – ranging from cannibalism to abnormal sexual behaviors. The curious thing – among the rats, was that many rats became used to being crowded, and actually sought out the crowd. While they bred and survived successfully in less-crowded but linked environments, some (not all) voluntarily moved to those crowded environments to interact with the crowd – and to start displaying all the range of behavior which resulted in de facto a failure to thrive in the species sense.
People are more complicated. More socially evolved. We have… instagram. Oh. Wait… That said: there are parallels in human society which are of interest to sf writers, and maybe even people not so afflicted.
Firstly, just in the genetic sense, we’re living in a highly protected environment, in the first world, anyway, and survival of the fittest no longer means what it used to. There are obviously very different selection mechanisms at play, from our quite recent past. Not long ago (biologically speaking) stupidity was punishable by death, in the genetic sense too. (It’s fairly well genetically established that the bottom in the middle ages didn’t make its way up the social ladder. It died. The middle ‘fell down’ and then picked up the standard of living and survival with it.)
Secondly – the densely populated mouse utopia – with lots of food and shelter, started having a slowing birth rate. So did the crowded rat environments. So have all the first world countries, now. We’ll never get to John Brunner’s STAND ON ZANZIBAR. Or a need for soylent green (we may get there, anyway – through the behavior coming out of our crowded cities).
Thirdly, well, whether you like it or not, evolution has spent a lot of generational time, getting this whole survival of the species (any species) thing right. The working norm for breeding and rearing offspring with the best success rate for every species exists, and is in the wild, exceptionally, overwhelmingly common. If it doesn’t, the species stops existing, sometimes fast and sometimes gradually, but always. I don’t give one of the experimental rat’s ass what you personally fancy, but it is a probability game: the further from that norm you deviate, the less likely your genes are to occur, let alone thrive and multiply, in future generations. It’s not impossible (especially with modern science, or even a donor and turkey-baster) but the odds start getting a lot worse. As with the rats and mice, those ‘variations’ in everything from sex to childcare, are a lot more probable in our densely populated cities. They’re not inevitable or confined to there, just more common. It is interesting… from the survival of the species point of view, to not support/discourage/attack the things that we know work, and to encourage those that we know reduce the probability of successful breeding.
Fourthly… well, let’s NOT be rats (but I see it all the time). The country districts and small towns tend to have fairly close to the historical norm of successful reproduction and nurture of offspring… and a lot of those move to where they are less successful. I think as a species we may finally be learning (or at least some of us) that crowding together doesn’t work out too well. We’re a social animal, but that may be possible to achieve in less dense concentrations.
Finally: the common feature of both the rat and mouse experiments were finite (crowded) space and an absence of external ‘threat’ – no “Mouse-police” (AKA cats) to make it ‘survival of the fittest’. If anything, this tells us we need space. Outer space is what is obviously waiting. And we’ll probably get ‘threats’ (Leaders of countries threatening to nuke their own populations – if external threats are hard to come by). Hard times may not be with us right now, but they will come.