Big business lobbyists and greedy foreigners are turning Sydney into an overcrowded hell hole, says Clive Hamilton. In Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald Hamilton draws on John Calhoun’s famous rat experiments to argue that Sydney risks becoming a ‘behavioural sink‘ — a city plagued by aggression, social withdrawal and substance abuse.
Back in the 1950s Calhoun wanted to test Thomas Malthus’ theory that "vice and misery impose the ultimate natural limit on the growth of populations." He was particularly interested in vice. In an early experiment Calhoun confined a population of wild rats in a quarter-acre enclosure. With food, shelter and protection from disease and predators, the only real limit on population growth was the rats’ own behaviour. When the population finally stabilised at 150 it wasn’t because of a decline in the birth rate or rising adult mortality — it was due to a breakdown in maternal behaviour. The babies were dying.
Calhoun followed this study with a series of experiments with white lab rats placed in an environment of interconnecting pens each with its own source of food and water. Each time he let the population "increase to approximately twice the number that my experience had indicated could occupy the available space with only moderate stress from social interaction." Again he watched as the vicious Malthusian process unfolded:
The consequences of the behavioral pathology we observed were most apparent among the females. Many were unable to carry pregnancy to full term or to survive delivery of their litters if they did. An even greater number, after successfully giving birth, fell short in their maternal functions. Among the males the behavior disturbances ranged from sexual deviation to cannibalism and from frenetic overactivity to a pathological withdrawal from which individuals would emerge to eat, drink and move about only when other members of the community were asleep.
According to Calhoun, the source of the problem was the rats’ tendency to crowd together into one pen. At feeding times up to 60 or 80 rats would gather in the one place — far too many for them all to be able to eat at once. And most wouldn’t eat unless there were other rats around. Dominant rats would hold their ground while others would withdraw — some passively and others hyperactively probing. Calhoun called these overcrowded areas ‘behavioural sinks.’
Animal behaviour experts disagreed on how to interpret Calhoun’s studies, but social commentators were quick to see parallels with human society. In the 1960s, suburban Americans were all to willing to see overcrowded inner-city neighbourhoods as nests of rats. Commentators thought they saw the same behavioural pathologies in urban tenements filled with blacks and foreign immigrants. Even today newspaper columnists like Colin Wilson of the Times can’t resist the analogy.
When today’s concerned suburbanites gather to fight against high density housing they still urge their politicians to remember the rats. In the United States the eco-friendly advocacy group, 1000 Friends of Oregon confronted these arguments head-on in an article titled ‘The Debate Over Density Do Four-Plexes Cause Cannibalism?‘ As the article explains, "Calhoun’s research, as applied to human settlements, has been largely discredited in the last twenty years."
Since the early 1980s research has shown that Calhoun’s behavioural pathology doesn’t occur among primates like chimpanzees, rhesus macaques and brown capuchin monkeys. Given these findings, it’s a stretch to think that they would apply to human beings. And if crowding really did lead to crime then you would expect crime to be more common in high-density Japan than it is in low-density Australia — but in fact the opposite is true (pdf).
If Hamilton really does think that crowding leads to social pathology, it seems odd that he is protesting against McMansions and car travel. Surely if families move to larger houses with more rooms crowding will decrease. And doesn’t driving to work alone prevent people from crowding together in train stations and on buses? Suburban life seems to be structured to avoid the kind of "excessive social interaction" Hamilton is worried about.
Even when people do crowd together in commuter trains or shopping mall food courts there’s little reason to think that these places are turning into behavioural sinks. The evidence just doesn’t support that idea. No matter how crowed your open plan office becomes your co-workers are unlikely to resort to cannibalism and unwanted mounting behaviour. The urban ‘rat race’ remains a metaphor.
In his SMH piece Hamilton also comes out in favour of increasing Australia’s intake of asylum seekers and political refugees. But strangely he doesn’t cite another of Calhoun’s experiments — one on the effect of forced migration. In 1948 Time Magazine reported:
In the latest Journal of Wildlife Management, Dr. John B. Calhoun, of Johns Hopkins, discusses one such aspect of the rat world: the troubles which refugee rats have to put up with when they emigrate.
Dr. Calhoun took a rat census of several adjoining blocks in Baltimore, and trapped and marked many of the native-son rats. Then he released 112 marked alien rats in the center of the middle block. At once there was social strife. Both native rats and aliens scurried around wildly, invading backyards where none had been seen before. Dogs and humans joined the fray. In the first 18 days there were 31 rat casualties.
Refugee driven race riots? Just wait until Pauline Hanson finds out.