Mysteries & Paranormal /


Rats, Hope, and Despair at The End of the World

Everyone keeps saying it’s the end of the world, but when I look outside the sky’s not falling, the sun’s not imploding, nukes aren’t launching, aliens aren’t invading, and comets aren’t in the forecast — but it really does seem like it could happen at any moment. Maybe my problem is that I thought it’d be more cinematic. But it’s just memes and twitter threads; sidewalk doom prophets and TV fear porn — not to mention the mass psychosis that’s gripped everyone who thinks leaning into despotism will somehow cure our dystopia.

I think it’s fair to say the world we used to know has ended. I don’t know if that means the world itself is ending, but our lives have been fundamentally mutilated and there’s no coming back from it. We can’t even agree on what the end of the world even looks like. Some say climate change. Some say authoritarianism. Some say plague. Some say the destruction of the family. The death of God or the spread of disinformation. Social Media or overpopulation. Democrats. Republicans. Drugs. Terrorism. The apocalypse has become a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-type of game that we all play now. Some people go outside and prepare as if it’s the last day on Earth — and others go outside like it’s just any other day.

You wouldn’t know the world was ending if you were standing here with me behind the tall manicured hedges and palm trees of this gated community in South Florida. I’m here for a funeral and staying with a family friend who happens to have the kind of money one needs to live in a place that gives off the illusion of immortality. Nothing seems to age, nothing seems to die. Even our friend, who is in his 70s, somehow looks 30. He looks better than me, and I’m actually in my 30s. Even if Ponce de León never found his Fountain of Youth, these people have found a way to manufacture something close to it. Even the sky looks like it’s been injected with Botox.

This is why I’ve decided to walk around the community wearing a shirt that says: THE END IS NEAR. I’ve been wearing it a lot lately, and this place seemed like it needed a reminder. But no one wants to talk to me about the end of the world in this maze of culs-de-sac and Spanish style houses. I can’t tell if everyone here is hiding from me, or if they just can’t walk out into the sun without bursting into dust.

Right as I think to knock on some doors, a security guard slowly drives past. SECURING YOUR WORLD is written across the side of the truck. It makes it seem like this is the only world there is. There is nothing beyond this world ­­— and I must look like something that’s somehow snuck in from that nothingness.

The Beautiful Ones

I can’t help but think that this place is the human version of The Rat Utopia. In 1958, John Calhoun, an ethologist, started to build his Rat Utopia with the help of the National Institute of Mental Health. They purchased property in Maryland for Calhoun to turn into his experimental rat heaven.

Calhoun would drop rats into a pre-fab world where food and water and shelter was always available. He’d keep them free from disease and watch the population grow. He noticed behavioral patterns emerge as the population increased, and as the “overcrowding” persisted he came up with the idea of the “behavioral sink.” This meant that at a certain point, due to population density, a civilization would collapse under its own weight.

“Behavioral sink,” I think, is just another way of saying the end of the world as we know it. By the late 1960s, Calhoun eventually turned his rat heavens into mouse heavens. The peak of these utopia universes became what he called Universe 25. He would drop eight mice — four males, four females — into one of his “universes.” Once again, these universes would be free of any need and any disease. The mice would be allowed to live a life unconcerned with the savagery of the wild world. The only limitation that these mice would eventually be confronted with was that of space. The population would double in size every 55 days.

After 600 days of uninterrupted breeding, the civilization, which had reached over 2,000 mice, would begin to collapse. Calhoun observed mothers abandoning their young. The young would be routinely attacked. Mice turned violent on one another. Male mice attempted to mate with other male mice.

One reoccurring theme throughout modernity is the fear of overpopulation. What happens if and when the Earth becomes too crowded? For some, Calhoun’s universes of rats and mice became an indicator of the effects of overpopulation.

“The conclusions drawn from this experiment were that when all available space is taken and all social roles filled, competition and the stresses experienced by the individuals will result in a total breakdown in complex social behaviors, ultimately resulting in the demise of the population,” Calhoun said of his rat and mouse universes.

Even though this gated community in South Florida seems like it’s been constructed by the same type of architect who built a mouse paradise, it doesn’t necessarily make me think of overpopulation. It makes me think of a type of mouse that would emerge in Calhoun’s universe; a behavior that would spread throughout the population and would signify the equilibrium and the inevitable “die off phase” of the civilization.

Calhoun called them “the beautiful ones.” The beautiful ones would do nothing other than eat and groom themselves. They would reject all need for sex. They would isolate themselves and clean their fur so much that they’d grow lush, pristine coats. The world would shrink around them. Even as their civilization was on the brink of total collapse, they were unconcerned. They ate and they drank and they made themselves beautiful.

A Lighthouse in the Abyss

Over the last year, I think it’s safe to say the world has mutated into a large-scale laboratory experimenting with survival-sciences at an accelerated rate. We might not all be thinking of overpopulation, but there is a frightening amount of people worried about coming into close contact with another human out of fear of death and disease. There is also a great number of people who have uploaded their entire identities onto the digital landscape. They are able to use apps to morph them into the most beautiful versions of themselves. Blemishes can be erased. Misfortune can be curated outside of the perfect showroom of social media feeds. On the Internet we are all, more or less, the beautiful ones. The vanity is numbing and, I think, it removes us entirely from the implications of the cruelty of the real world. (Even if we might see the cruelty on the news, there is a distance between us and the cruelty that tricks us into thinking we’re safe.)

New reports also claim that our birth rates are dropping. Crime is spiking. Just this week, while here in Florida, I’ve talked to four women — each one in their late 20s and or early 30s, none of which have any desire to have children.

And I think it’s kind of funny that 2020 happened to be the Year of the Rat.

As I make my way around the community, the sun starts to feel like an artificial heat lamp, and I get the sense a hand might reach down from the sky and pull one of us out of here for inspection.

I wondered what an evolutionary biologist would have to say about hope, despair, rat experiments, and the end of humanity, so I reached out to Bret Weinstein. (Weinstein and his wife Heather Heying have a forthcoming book called A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century: Evolution and the Challenges of Modern Life.)

“Do you think rats in a lab can simulate human psychology and societal collapse? Are studies like Calhoun’s beneficial?” I asked Weinstein.

“I’m quite concerned that the mice and rats that we use for experiments have been so thoroughly compromised by their history of captive breeding that they don’t make good models for many things,” he said. “Yeah, they may be useful in terms of understanding how their physiology works. But cognitively, they’ve been crippled by inbreeding. They’ve had their life histories substantially altered. I think it’s important not to over-extrapolate from them. I also know from my own history, looking at such animals in the lab, and then watching their counterparts in the wild, that there’s really no comparison, that a wild mouse is quite a dynamic, fascinating creature and is capable of a great deal of cleverness … The fact is a wild mouse is a normal mammal, and it picks up a certain amount of information from its mother. And in colonies, we break that side of the dynamic because mostly what we’re interested in is having a physical, physiological model … that coupled with the negative impact of inbreeding makes for a creature that is unlikely to be able to fend for itself. So, to take a creature that is unlikely to be able to fend for itself, and use it as a model of behavior is a mistake.”

I asked him, then, if mice or rats can offer us any positive insights — even if they’ve been compromised by generational captive breeding.

“If you wanted to look at an individual pathway inside of a mouse cell, it’s a decent model,” Weinstein said. “If you want to look at the process of embryological development, it’s probably a good model. It’s not going to be a perfect model for humans. But if you want to know how development works in a mammal, obviously, it works well enough … If you want to talk about the animal’s psychology, behavior, social organization, the ability to fend off disease, none of these things are likely to be very good.”

I start to think that even I might be closer to a mouse born in captivity than a mouse born in the wild. I have had consistent shelter and access to food and water. And it forces me to question the nature of my own reality. At the beginning of the COVID lockdowns, I remember telling my friends that we were robbed of our reality. And everything felt strange because of this. However, as the world continued to descend into absurdity, I realized that I was wrong. I realized that what I had thought of as reality was just the illusion of living in “the wild.” In fact, as I witnessed people and society fracturing, I understood that this was the way reality always was for humans — long before a system of law and science had been installed. We were always grasping for meaning.

“There is a reversal of primacy,” Weinstein said. “If your job is boring, and your school sucks, and there’s nothing really interesting happening for you in your physical life, and the vibrant, cool stuff, you occasionally go viral on social media, you get a lot of likes for posting some picture of yourself, whatever … It tends to feel like that’s the place where the profit happens. So that begins to feel real. And I think, that for young people, there’s a sense that the online world is real. And that’s part of why people are so confused because the rules of the online world are postmodern. There is this set of rules that applies to [the Internet] that has nothing to do with the physical world. And the failure is in recognizing that the real world is the real world, no matter what we do about it.”

The digital world has become the real world, but I also think it’s not just young ones who are guilty of this dual existence — on and offline. I know plenty of people my age who operate primarily out of the digital space where they can curate what seems like a perfect life.

So, are we the beautiful ones? Meaning, really: are we at a point in our civilization where we care more about vanity than we do the future of our species?

“A person … is a member of a lineage and a lineage has interests that extend well beyond the individual,” Weinstein said. “And sometimes an individual is more of a harm to their lineage than help, at which point it is actually not irrational for a person to remove themselves from a lineage equation, which I have always thought is certain to be the reason that suicide is an impulse in humans. But that said, the data that most people have about whether or not they are a positive contributor to their family’s well being is cruddy. The question for us is, are we in a situation where there is simply a mismatch between our tools and our environment? That it is causing us to short circuit psychologically?”

Humans, most definitely, have created many great things that, unfortunately, also inhibit our evolutionary purposes. The Internet, for one, has become the shelter for our digital identity, and many today find that place to be the safest place from all risk. But risk and pain, as horrible as they are, I’d argue, are functions of a species that intends to persevere through the savage world. At the height of COVID hysteria, I kept telling myself that humans have endured much worse for much longer amounts of time. The thought became a kind of lighthouse in the abyss.

“Pain is there for a reason,” Weinstein said. “Either because you’re doing yourself damage, and you need to stop or you’re in danger and you need to prevent damage from being harmed, and you need to repair. Pain is there as a warning.”

What about hope, then? I asked.

“Hope is there to keep you doing stuff. And hope actually doesn’t match your actual prospects. It is a distortion designed to get you to move in the most useful direction. Despair is the name of the circuit that we have when the useful direction to go is not apparent to us … What human beings do is they have a second place where information evolves, and is transmitted. And so we do that through culture. What your ancestors learned is in you, but it’s not in the nucleus of your cells, it’s in your mind, and it got there largely by things that you learned. Because they were conveyed to you, or because you were induced to engage in exercises that would lead you to discover them. It’s a whole second mode of transmission for inheritable information.”

I share with Weinstein the differences I’ve noted in myself and my own friends. I happened to grow up quite close with my maternal grandparents whose parents escaped immediate death in the Pogroms of Russia. Men with axes stormed their village and sough to murder them for being Jewish. On top of that, I was raised in a religion that spends a lot of time talking about surviving one disaster after another. I think, in some way, this planted the idea of perseverance in my brain. I had proximity to personal accounts of survival, as well as, what Weinstein calls the information transmitted to me through culture and story.

The Hope Experiment

When I try to look at humanity as a whole, it seems like becoming a risk averse species will be our downfall. We must be able to mitigate risk and fear with hope and culture in order to send the next generation into the chaos of existence.

But none of that really matters if a majority of us have become, or are becoming, the beautiful ones. Weinstein points to birth control as an invention that might be something that’s led to what Calhoun would’ve called the “equilibrium.” But Weinstein also notes that no one wants to be the person who says anything negative about birth control and says that “it liberated women, in a way, and that needed to happen.” Plus, he added, “You’ll sound like a prude, [but] 100 years ago men moved mountains to impress high quality mates, because it was the only way to get a sexual relationship. I’m not arguing that we should go back there. I am arguing that we failed to replace it with something that made sense. And that is a tremendous mistake.”

This, I believe, does connect to Calhoun’s Utopias because you take something like birth control and it does — whether you care to admit it or not — relieve us of some amount of responsibility. And if you don’t have to worry about responsibility, especially when it comes to procreation, that could lead to meaninglessness — a broader existential crisis that extends through an entire modern civilization. Our decline in birth rates suggests this to be true — but we can’t point primarily to birth control as the problem. A lot of people can’t afford their own homes, and feel like they can’t afford a child. A lot of people feel like they can hardly afford themselves. (This is only anecdotal, but my wife and I left the hospital with our firstborn with only $200 in the bank and, somehow, we survived.)

I tell Weinstein I’ve been thinking a lot about hope and despair, also, in terms of the individual. And that I’ve been measuring those feelings against society at large because both the individual and society seem overwhelmingly hopeless. And, since some scientists clearly seem to see rats and mice as a good study for human psychology, I point Weinstein to another rat study – Curt Richter’s Drowning Rat Experiment. Unlike Calhoun’s Rat Utopia, which observed the collapse of a civilization, Richter observed the spiritual death of an individual rat dropped into a hopeless state.

Richter started by dropping a rat into a tube of water. These were glass cylinders — 36 inches deep, 8 inches wide, and 30 inches in depth.

He would have three rats and three tubes. He’d place the rat vertically into their tube and observe them frantically swim. It should be said that these first rats used were lab rats. Bred in captivity. After about fifteen minutes, the rats would give up and drown. They would be consumed by the crisis and, after seeing no way out, succumb to the fear.

Next, he would drop three more rats into three more tubes. This time, he would lift each one out of their tube just before they were about to give up and drown. Then, soon after, he would drop the rats back into their tubes. These rats would swim for a surprising amount of time — sixty hours. This is why the experiment is also known as “the hope experiment.” Richter concluded that since the rats had experienced being rescued from the tubes of water, they would swim for much longer knowing that a hand might lift them out of their doom again.

I’ve heard some people connect this idea to the fact that more lockdowns are coming. That most of the world has been plucked out of the water and about to be dunked back in. (Think of Australia.)

Weinstein connects it all back to whether or not a species has “the toolkit” to survive any given situation.

Instead of metaphorically dropping me into a tube of water, Weinstein metaphorically shoots me into outer space as a way to prove that if you drop any animal into an environment without first giving them the proper “toolkit,” they would be doomed.

“If I was to teleport you into outer space, in a space suit, you can deduce that you probably have a few hours of oxygen. Psychologically, what happens to you next? What we discovered is that if we rob you of every conceivable tool, your thought process will be chaotic and incoherent. Now let’s take it to its logical extreme. Even if somehow, the Earth is going to survive the explosion of the sun, or the collision of our galaxy with the neighboring one, even if we’re going to escape and become some kind of interstellar intergalactic beings that can keep hopping from place to place, eventually the universe fails. And if that’s true, that means nothing we do could possibly matter, in the ultimate ultimate. And that can either paralyze you, or it can make you free.”

A lot of this feeling of despair has something to do, I’d say, with the idea that there is also an overwhelming distrust in our institutions. Homeschool rates are going up. Trust in corporate media and government is going down. I think people have defaulted to trust these institutions, as unreliable as they might be, because their critical thinking has collapsed under fear. But even if there seems to be an outsized distrust of institutions, I still know a lot of people who have turned the government and corporate media into their own kind of surrogate parents.

I give Weinstein a personal example of this that happens to involve both of us.

“Last summer, you were on Joe Rogan’s podcast talking about the lab leak hypothesis. That next weekend, I told friends of mine about you and your thoughts on the theory, and they dismissed it all as conspiracy. About six months go by and you and Heather go on Maher’s show and repeat the Lab Leak theory. My friends also happen to be staunch Bill Maher fans. That next morning, my same friends text me: ‘Have you heard of this guy, Bret Weinstein?’ They thought you were great and made sense and wanted to share you and your ideas with me. I’m like, ‘Guys, I told you all this last year, but you thought it was all wacky ideas on the fringes of society.’ I say this all because I think it’s proof that a lot of very smart people still need the approval of their institutions to even think things. The information has to be fed through something they trust in order for them to take it seriously. I think one of the biggest problems is that we’re risk averse. No one wants to take a risk in anything.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what,” Weinstein said. “I think our hope needs to be decoupled from the actual evidence that there’s a positive ending to all this.”

He is of the mind that people need to know when and how to opt out of the system that’s in place. Rebuild communities from the ground up instead of looking at a way to save society at large from things like the institutional rot.

When I ask him if there are any studies that he can look at that might give us better insight into the future, he says he’d rather look at “predictors.” He’s most interested in people that have their finger on the pulse of our culture and who can gauge to a degree of success what is happening. That, he said, can be a source of hope.

“People find their way out [of darkness] all the time. You and a small group of people can opt out of this bullshit and you can write some rules for yourselves and you can be much better,” he said. “I despair for people who’ve been going through this without a partner that they really deeply understand and care for.”

The End is Always Near

When I walk outside the gated community and back into the “real world” in my The End Is Near shirt, some people actually approach me and want to talk about doom. It’s strange to think that talking about doom has become a rather nonchalant thing that happens in public now. I didn’t buy the shirt for this purpose. I just liked the way it looked. But almost every time I wear it, I’ve become a kind of sidewalk doom prophet — but instead of me trying to initiate conversations, people come up to me to spill their guts about doom.

Once I find my seat on the plane back home, our flight attendant tells us that it is OK to remove our facemasks should we experience an emergency and need to use oxygen masks. I laugh because it seems like a completely ridiculous thing to have to tell us. But everyone else on the plane listens intently — or at least they pretend to out of politeness. Meanwhile, I look around to see if anyone seems disturbed by how absurd everything seems these days.

I heard Elton John’s Rocket Man at the airport bar and now it’s stuck in my head for takeoff. Seems fitting:

I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight

As we lift up into the sky, I see one gated community below, then another, until we reach a few thousand feet up and the landscape becomes a labyrinth of culs-de-sac, loops upon loops of pink and white, and South Florida starts to look like a flattened human brain.

Everyone connects to the Wi-Fi or watches a movie on the small screen on the back of every headrest. And I’m just trying not to think about doom — but I see it everywhere. I’m trying not to, but I do. I’d say this could be a symptom of the funeral I had to attend, but it’s beyond that. I’ve felt this way for years, even before COVID. COVID was just, in a way, a kind of confirmation bias that humanity is always spiraling toward disaster.

As far as I can tell, I’m one of the only people with an open window screen on the plane. Evidence of humanity in Florida disappears when I’m looking down from 15,000 feet. Everything below is green and blue. And I’m reminded that Florida, the land itself, is eventually going to swallow back everything humans have borrowed.

Every generation thinks they’re going to be the last generation. It’s almost a type of generation-sized narcissism to think that we might actually be the beautiful ones to destroy the world. But human history is riddled with “beautiful ones.” I’m not sure that elicits hope or not, but, in a way, it does for me. As far as I know, humans aren’t rodents in some grand experiment. We might be closer to a captive species now more than ever, but we still have a hunger for art, hope, liberty, and love. (Well, I’d like to think most of us do.) And I try to remind myself of that even in the face of what seems like absolute despair. The end might be near, but the end is also always near.

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