Of mice and humans

Live from Saipan By Zaldy Dandan

Saipan — Lawrence W. Reed, president emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education, says national and state parks all over the U.S. display signs that tell visitors, “Please Don’t Feed the Animals.” In an essay posted a year ago, he says the National Park Service’s website for Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan explains why: feeding animals transforms them “into habitual beggars. Studies have shown that panhandling animals have a shorter lifespan.”

Because he is a free-market economist, Reed asks the following question: “What would happen if animals in the wild could count on human sources for their diet and never have to hunt or scrounge? What if, in other words, we humans imposed a generous welfare state on our furry friends? Would the resulting experience offer any lessons for humans who might be subjected to similar conditions? Not having to work for food and shelter sounds appealing and compassionate, doesn’t it?”

Ethology is the scientific study of animal behavior, and Reed says one of the more famous ethologists in recent decades was John B. Calhoun (1917-1995).

When he worked for the National Institute for Mental Health in the 1960s, Calhoun conducted mouse experiments for which he became well-known in the scientific community.

In one of his experiments, Reed says, “Calhoun enclosed four pairs of mice in a 9 x 4.5 foot metal pen complete with water dispensers, tunnels, food bins and nesting boxes. He provided all the food and water they needed and ensured that no predator could gain access. It was a mouse utopia.”

The mice, at first, did well, and their numbers doubled every 55 days. However, Reed says, “After 600 days, with enough space to accommodate as many as another 1,600 rodents, the population peaked at 2,200 and began to decline precipitously — straight down to the extinction of the entire colony — in spite of their material needs being met with no effort required on the part of any mouse.”

On Day 315, Reed says, Calhoun observed the first signs of a breakdown in social norms and structure. “Aberrations included the following: females abandoning their young; males no longer defending their territory; and both sexes becoming more violent and aggressive. Deviant behavior, sexual and social, mounted with each passing day. The last thousand mice to be born tended to avoid stressful activity and focused their attention increasingly on themselves.”

These mice remind me of the Western world’s underclass as described by the British prison psychiatrist and physician, Anthony Malcolm Daniels a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple, in his outstanding collection of essays published in 2010, “Life at the Bottom.”

“This underclass,” he says, “is not poor, at least by the standards that have prevailed throughout the great majority of human history. It exists, to a varying degree, in all Western societies. Like every other social class, it has benefited enormously from the vast general increase in wealth of the pa