Dr. Calhoun's Mousery

The Strange Tale of a Celebrated Scientist, a Rodent Dystopia, and the Future of Humanity

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Pub Date Oct 03 2024 | Archive Date Sep 01 2024

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Description

A bizarre and compelling biography of a scientist and his work, using rodent cities to question the potential catastrophes of human overpopulation.
 
It was the strangest of experiments. What began as a utopian environment, where mice had sumptuous accommodations, had all the food and water they could want, and were free from disease and predators, turned into a mouse hell. Science writer and animal behaviorist Lee Alan Dugatkin introduces readers to the peculiar work of rodent researcher John Bumpass Calhoun. In this enthralling tale, Dugatkin shows how an ecologist-turned-psychologist-turned-futurist became a science rock star embedded in the culture of the 1960s and 1970s. As interest grew in his rodent cities, Calhoun was courted by city planners and his work was reflected in everything from Tom Wolfe’s hard-hitting writing to the children’s book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. He was invited to meetings with the Royal Society and the pope and taken seriously when he proposed a worldwide cybernetic brain—a decade before others made the internet a reality.

Readers see how Calhoun’s experiments—rodent apartment complexes like “Mouse Universe 25”—led to his concept of “behavioral sinks” with real effects on public policy discussions. Overpopulation in Calhoun’s mouse (and rat) complexes led to the loss of sex drive, the absence of maternal care, and a class of automatons that included “the beautiful ones,” who spent their time grooming themselves while shunning socialization. Calhoun—and those who followed his work—saw the collapse of this mouse population as a harbinger of the ill effects of an overpopulated human world.

Drawing on previously unpublished archival research and interviews with Calhoun’s family and former colleagues, Dugatkin offers a riveting account of an intriguing scientific figure. Considering Dr. Calhoun’s experiments, he explores the changing nature of scientific research and delves into what the study of animal behavior can teach us about ourselves.
A bizarre and compelling biography of a scientist and his work, using rodent cities to question the potential catastrophes of human overpopulation.
 
It was the strangest of experiments. What began...

Advance Praise

“William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand. John Calhoun saw it in a mousery—a utopian apartment complex built for mice! Dugatkin’s brilliant, fast-paced account of Calhoun's research takes us on a whirlwind tour with stops along the way at the Royal Society in London, the Vatican, and Washington, DC. Dugatkin is both learned and lively, and his book is irresistible.” -- Edward Dolnick, author of "The Clockwork Universe" and "The Writing of the Gods"

“William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand. John Calhoun saw it in a mousery—a utopian apartment complex built for mice! Dugatkin’s brilliant, fast-paced account of Calhoun's research takes us...


Available Editions

EDITION Other Format
ISBN 9780226827858
PRICE $27.50 (USD)
PAGES 240

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Featured Reviews

Dr. Calhoun's Mousery tells the fascinating story of Dr. John Calhoun's life with an emphasis on the brilliant experiments that he conducted on rodent behavior in community settings. I really enjoyed the first part of the book that talked about Dr. Calhoun's career and went into detail on the experimental design of his projects and the results. The second half of the book was a little slow and discussed publications that cited Dr. Calhoun's work.

In modern times, Dr. Calhoun's work is not largely cited and the book provides some explanations on the reason for this. As a scientist I really enjoyed this book, especially the first half. Dr. Calhoun was a brilliant experimentalist. I think that it is challenging to try to extrapolate the results in controlled rodent colonies to real human life. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.

Thank you to NetGalley and University of Chicago Press for an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Calhoun’s Universe 25 was a mouse utopia where there is no shortage of food, no predators, no sickness. It’s also where the Beautiful Ones are born, mice (and rats) who lose the ability and even the need for their fellows. They groom themselves, they eat … but they do not reach out. They do not socialize, they do not breed. And in the end, they die.

While Universe 25, with its Beautiful Ones, is a fascinating and alarming experiment, I was more caught by Universe 34B (which I’ve never heard of), in which Calhoun arranged it so that the rats living there would be required to coorperate in ways nature wouldn’t force. Making male and female rats work together to get water, rats of different statuses had to perform certain tasks in certain groups to get food which lead to more cooperation. It was in some ways a healthier society, though — like Universe 25 — it came with some unintended side effects.

But Calhoun is more than just the man with the mousery and universes of rats. He also wrote numerous papers, worked on a book, edited anthologies. He studied the wingspans of sparrows and the nesting habits of swifts. He taught, gave lectures, and worried for the future of humanity. His work has been cited all over the world, been a source of inspiration for numerous researchers, and is both fascinating and horrifying.

I’m surprised at how much I really enjoyed this book, considering that I don’t often wander into the non-fiction section of the literary world. But Universe 25 — how it came about, and what was learned from it — is interesting, and thought provoking, and I’m left with an appreciation for the imagination and curiosity of Calhoun and those who worked with him. I’m also left with an appreciation for the author who wrote in such a way that I was able to easily understand even the larger and more complex findings.

It took a day to read this book … and I might have read it quicker if I hadn’t stopped every other chapter to breathlessly repeat to some unwitting family member one of the neater bits of information I’d just learned, like the rat (from an early experiment) who climbed over the dividing wall to punish a rat that wasn’t behaving the way it was supposed to; or the birds who learned to pluck foil lids off milk bottles so they could get a drink or two in. If you’re interested in animals and their behavior, scientists and their behavior, or Universe 25, I highly recommend this book.

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This was a interesting concept for a biography book, I enjoyed getting to learn about this story and the scientific element that was going on in this book. Lee Alan Dugatkin has a great writing style and it kept me wanting to read more and enjoyed learning about this.

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I read a lot of nonfiction, but this is still a book I probably wouldn't have thought to pick up on my own. But I'm glad I did! I'm also from rural Tennessee and, even though I've been to most of the places he studied birds and wildlife at, I'd never heard of Dr. Calhoun before this book! This book is technically a biography that goes through Calhoun's life and education (as well as WWII) leading up to the rat experiment. It was super interesting though and easy to read while still being well written and informative. I surprisingly really enjoyed this!

Thanks to netgalley for a copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Dr. Calhoun's Mousery: The Strange Tale of a Celebrated Scientist, a Rodent Dystopia, and the Future of Humanity was such an interesting book! As a scientist who works with mice, I heard about Dr. Calhoun studies during every stages of my education. What a model of perseverance! I loved learning about how he designed his experiments trough his career. I think Lee Alan Dugatkin did a great job reporting Dr. Calhoun life. Thank you NetGalley and University of Chicago Press for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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