In the 1960’s, a psychologist in Chicago did an experiment in population density. It was to determine how populations react to increasing density with no material stresses and under ideal living conditions. Famously, within two years, the mice in the study abandoned their young, fought each other regularly, and stopped procreating. Eventually, all of the mice, despite the ideal conditions, died. According to the designer of the experiment, it was an omen of societal collapse for humans if we kept urbanizing and increasing in population. However, that sounds like a view based as much on pop culture stereotypes of urban dereliction rather than actual science at a time when cities were in decay. Having lived through decades of urban renewal with the crime rate generally decreasing, his theory doesn’t hold up. He even predicted the date of societal collapse. Perhaps to add to the cartoonish nature of his alarmism, no other year than the 1984. He was widely criticized for his conclusions but his experiment does actually apply to humanity, just not in the way he imagined.
The first question to ask about Universe 25 is why, evolutionarily, the mice would have adapted to do that? Probably, that evolved to avert a Malthusian crisis. In the wild, unlike in a laboratory, there is no endless source of nutrition and any abundance is temporary therefore the mice likely stopped procreating and started killing each other as an evolutionarily means of culling excess population since if that occurred at the point of starvation then the whole population would be weaker and less likely to survive as a whole.
What that means for humans is there is likely an inherent fear of a Malthusian crisis in our psychology. In the debates about abortion and euthanasia, if one puts the ethical questions of life aside, there is a gnawing fear in everyone’s minds of anyone being an unproductive member of society and the need to cull the population. It’s why in Special Ed, the foremost emotion we were regarded with was fear. Not a fear of us being dangerous but a fear of us being an embarrassment and a liability because the authorities were in fear of their resources being in jeopardy due to any scandal.
(Universe 25- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5m7X-1V9nOs)
Closer to the actual experiment, though, is the question of how Malthusian thinking affects urban policy. A phenomenon that is most troubling to urban reformers and activists and one which prevents change on many issues is that of NIMBYs. NIMBYs arise on a plethora of fronts in municipal politics but the common theme among most NIMBY movements is that they want lower density, less urbanism, fewer public spaces, and less interactions with other people. My hypothesis is that they want these things out of a gnawing, subconscious, Malthusian fear that evolved in the African wilderness of our hominid forefathers. I am an advocate for Jane Jacob’s-style TNDs and New Urbanism but the vast swarms of folk yearn for a homeostasis of the Robert Moses-style, misanthropic, anti-environmental, automobile-centric human landscape. Ironically, their ideal environment makes them more miserable and statistically more suicidal. It’s awesomely poetic, the very thing they animalistically lust for is a poison that makes them miserable and ultimately kills them, spiritually and literally. Yet, to the very end, they will desperately clamor for it.
Also ironically, what Universe 25 tells us about human psychology does hint at a potential societal collapse but for the exact opposite reasons as the experimenter thought. Rather than too much density creating the collapse, the psychological reasons for the mice society collapsing cause humans to oppose density and thus threaten the global climate and the environment. Robert Moses-style suburbia is among the absolute most environmentally toxic advents in human history.
Hurricanes and ocean rising may well cause society to collapse. Liberalism’s decline, as well, is largely attributable to the fear of density. The very suburbia and alienation that they yearn for, makes them utterly miserable and destroys the very community and institutions that gave their lives meaning which leads to them joining nationalist movements, becoming populists, and more. It is partially the more abstract decline in religion and disenchantment of social institutions but it is also the inability for the remaining community institutions to compensate for their loss by being made physically impossible.
Perhaps, just claiming it makes them miserable, suicidal, and poisons the environment isn’t enough. It may have another effect destructive to the human soul. That is Peter Singer’s “expanding circle”, or rather the inverse of it, and the inverse of contact theory. That the less diverse and smaller an environment is, the less empathetic the residents of that environment are. Heterogeneity is an unnatural state for a species that has spent the majority of its three hundred thousand year existence as hunter-gatherers living in small kin groups.
The advent of car-centric suburbia is an attempt by the human id to return to its natural state of being a tribal band on the African savanna and escape the human family of civilization. For the first time in human history since we left the wild, humans can return to the same level of density per square mile in terms of who they interact with. For the first time in human history since we left the wild are humans unable to tangibly see the interdependence of human life and may live in the illusion that humans don’t need each other and that they don’t owe other people for their own welfare.
Reversing the expanding circle may be why social programs became less popular after the expansion of suburbia. People, no longer seeing themselves as family of their more powerless neighbors, were unwilling to sacrifice for them and didn’t see them as fully human. I have conservative friends and I am not arguing that there weren’t fiscal arguments for austerity measures but that a lack of empathy was the reason for much of the support behind them in the general public. It’s why in many contexts people are more personally cruel today than they had been. (also, in many contexts people are kinder, ironically) The anonymity of the internet is one explanation of the increase in that type of cruelty but even anonymously many of the people who engage in that barbarism are influenced by factors other than the anonymity.
Those factors including the tribalization of people and the dehumanization of strangers caused by alienation and lower density which reverses the expanding circle and that is ultimately caused by an urban design meant to satisfy subconscious Malthusian fears of people. The fact that grudges and hatred in other contexts, like with exes, used to usually last for less time now last a lifetime is because of that alienation. People don’t see the need to mend relationships and make-up, they can abandon the person forever and never relinquish their hatred because they’re not family anymore, they’re not even human.
One of the great advantages to being autistic, and specifically, being of the extroverted sort, is that I lack the inhibitions other people have to engage with people everywhere I go. I am not bound by clique or kinship in terms of who I see as being in my family and in my community. I informally talk to strangers as much as I can so whatever physical or social geography I’m in, my circle always stays expansive. I am not immune to the Malthusian thinking but being an extroverted autistic person, my expansive circle mitigates the effect. That Malthusian thinking keeps people from loving each other. Our species should consciously abandon most of its Malthusian psychology which is anathema to love.
From the environment, to liberalism, to human happiness and the lack thereof, the inherent desire for a lack of density is dangerous and is an instinct we should strive to counteract.