The reason for all the craziness in our world: the work of John B. Calhoun

This is an extract from my book, From Depression to Contentment: A self-therapy guide.

Population pressure

Depression is a rapidly increasing epidemic. Understanding the reasons will allow you the choice of refusing to buy into the craziness, and I hope, turn you into a campaigner for a sane global culture.

The first thing is to learn about the work of John B. Calhoun. He spent a lifetime understanding the effects of population pressure on rodents. His early work was to construct naturalistic rat or mouse colonies, supply them with unlimited food and water, and watch them breed so their habitat became increasingly crowded. The colonies died out, although always supplied with plenty of food. There was a sequence of symptoms.

First came increases in what we consider stress-related diseases: cancer, asthma, eczema, digestive ulcers, high blood pressure with its complications of stroke and heart attacks. Not every rat suffered, but many did, their numbers rising with population pressure.

The next development was that some females were neglectful in raising their young. Rat behavior is largely learned, and many in the next generation didn’t know how to be normal rats. This is like “personality disorders” in humans.

Finally came two patterns: aggression and apathy. Some adult rats became very territorial. Both females and males killed babies. Some males attacked anyone entering their space, even their mates. Groups of males fought wars to the death. This got so bad in some colonies that infant mortality became 96%.

A great many rats, particularly males, reacted by withdrawal. They sank into what in humans could only be described as major depression.

However, there is encouraging information here as well. At each level, there were unaffected rats, who chose to react in normal, rational ways to their circumstances.

Later in his life, Calhoun worked on looking for solutions to dealing with population pressure. This was less successful.

Calhoun became a social activist, and his research was taken up by people who wanted to change society. The academic response was to dismiss his work. Writers like Ramsden and Adams approved of his scientific research, but almost ridiculed its extension to implications for humans. But… look around at our world. There is an epidemic of stress-related physical disorders, including cancers. There is a more serious, unacknowledged problem with so-called personality disorders: culture is disintegrating. But most important, there are two frightening trends exactly predicted by Calhoun’s work:

1. Insane violence. Endless wars, genocide, the nuclear posturings of Trump and Kim, terrorism, police shootings, domestic violence, many people fantasizing about killing strangers for no reason (and a few actually doing it), on and on… You’d be surprised at how many teenagers of both sexes I’ve helped out of urges to kill. They hate this, the idea revolts them, but it won’t leave them alone. I have posted a page to my website that lists links to 20 such questions-and-answers.

2. Giving up. Depression is increasing globally, and is likely to overtake other sources of disability in a few years. Addictions of many kinds are also a way of giving up, as are head-in-the sand denial, and retail therapy. These are also growing epidemics.

For rats, crowding is the other rats they can smell, see and hear. For humans, it’s other people who have negative impacts on us. When a car worker in Detroit or a call center person in New York becomes unemployed because of outsourcing, then the millions in Asia provide crowd pressure. When a Californian knows that terrible droughts and wildfires are nature’s response to increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, that’s crowding. When we hate and fear people a little different from us, wars and terrorism and cruelty are crowding.

Some rats didn’t seem affected, until the very last. Some humans also choose to stay rational, and compassionate, and decent. As I’ll show you, deliberately making the choice of treating all other humans as our brothers and sisters is one of the major defenses against depression.

It is interesting that warfare as we know it started with humans forming concentrated groups. Hunter-gatherers necessarily live in small groups that meet from time to time. When animals were domesticated, a nomadic lifestyle meant that a large area was used by a group that could be much more numerous. They needed to be aggressive in order to defend their territory for the use of their animals. This is crowding, despite the apparently open spaces. Agriculture produced much more food, leading to villages, towns, cities ⎯ and organized warfare.

The difference is clear when you compare hostilities among traditional people in the New Guinea highlands with Australian Aborigines. The Papuans in New Guinea live in villages, and, according to Tim Flannery, have possibly been farming for longer than anywhere else in the world. Ongoing “payback” is an inherent part of the culture. People from one village raid the neighboring one, killing someone as vengeance for a past act of aggression. Then, the victim village hits back in the same way, on and on. I suppose this can be considered as a population control mechanism, but not one I approve of.

In contrast, Australian Aborigines were hunter-gatherers until very recent times. Each cultural group considered themselves to be carers for, and inherent parts of, a particular area of land, which even today they think of as their mother and their being. Other people could only enter their land with their permission. Conflicts did occur. For example, one Queensland nation had the custom of raiding neighbors. But “warfare” consisted of the two groups shouting insults at each other, then a few spears were thrown. Typically, someone was speared in a leg, and that was the end of it.

We can’t go back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, but we can learn from the attitudes that went with it.

Our society induces aggression, discrimination, genocide on the one hand, and depression, retail therapy, anxiety, gambling, substance abuse on the other, because we are experiencing the Calhoun effect. I think John B. Calhoun should get a posthumous Nobel Prize.

About Dr Bob Rich

I am a professional grandfather. My main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which my grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. This means reversing environmental idiocy that's now threatening us with extinction, and replacing culture of greed and conflict with one of compassion and cooperation.
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6 Responses to The reason for all the craziness in our world: the work of John B. Calhoun

  1. Jessie says:

    Dr. Bob, I’m so glad you kindly dropped by my site yesterday, because it reminded me that I had been meaning to come back here. There’s so much wisdom in your site, and it’s influencing my own work in the same way that John Calhoun has influenced you and others. Thank you for keeping this conversation going.

    I couldn’t comment on one of your old fashioned HTML pages (that’s not a complaint; I see pages like that and I think “golden age of the Internet!” 😉 so I will do so here: I thought your bio page at was intriguing. You clearly fit in the group of “multipotentialites” and “abstract-intensives” that I talk about in my blog, so it is really a gift to someone like me to see your life path written out now that you are a grandfather and have been through so many careers. It helps younger people like me go forward. I also am a writer who just has to write…and I want to do things about these problems.

    Now on to this post: what you say about depression truly resonates. The good news is that more people are recognizing this, that we have an epidemic of depression, anxiety, and the like because of the world we’ve created, not because something just happens to be innately wrong with the given depressed person. And that this is where things like the anger fueling the alt-right, etc., are coming from.

    It is a huge problem, but the way to solve it is by addressing it holistically. I think maybe it takes the rare person with a wide range of interests to lead this…but we have to figure out for ourselves how to do it. And that’s another steep learning curve. So we have to compare notes.

    I’d very much like to read your book when it’s finished. And I’ll continue perusing what you have here on your site.


    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      Jessie, thank you. I am encouraged that an increasing number of young people are choosing the path of light, and reject the greed, aggression and territoriality of the global culture.
      In the 1970s, Edward Goldsmith said that a leader is someone who runs in front of a crowd, shouting, “Follow me!” If the crowd turns in a different direction, the leader either needs to change, too, or become a loner.
      So we, you and I, and the survivors from that terrible school shooting, and the Women’s marchers, and all those people who put love before fear and hate, CAN change the world.
      I would love to have your opinion on my coming “Depression: A user’s guide.” It’s about 3/4 finished.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dr Bob Rich says:

    Lovely to have you visit again, “Pendantry.” It is about half-written, but am happy to have a beta reading from you when I am ready for that.


  3. pendantry says:

    I look forward to being able to secure a copy of your new book ‘Depression: A user’s guide’. Do you have a release date yet?


  4. mybooknks1 says:

    A compelling insight. But, wherein lays the solution?
    World resources are not finite. I’d suggest that we are barely able to sustain the world’s population with what is currently being produced; and, that population grows unchecked without any obvious commitment to either meaningfully reduce or contain it… and without even a notional international acceptance that action is long overdue for humankind to benefit..
    I’ve long thought along the same lines as John Calhoun, the impact being more and more (disappointingly) obvious to me as I observe the decline in ethics, relationships etc. My daughter does not always see what I see and my grandchildren appear to see even less and for some reason seem content with what goes on around them. That’s depressing. But is that what my parents also observed of my generation?
    Entrenched religion beliefs and gender equality need to be re-evaluated and overhauled to contain the world’s population growth… but, who has the courage to drive those necessary changes?
    Madagascar is a classic case. To survive, the populace are (by necessity?) destroying their forests to make charcoal to cook their food. There is minimal future prospects for most of their current youth who have known nothing but poverty (as did their predecessors for the generations since the French abandoned Madagascar). Their poverty leads to anger, then depression and then crime… just to survive; against a backdrop of an ever increasing population. This is as crazy as it is unacceptable.

    Trevor Tucker.


    • Dr Bob Rich says:

      I fully agree, Trevor. We have long passed the tipping points.
      I live in two states of being:
      1. I use Buddhist thought processes and philosophy to live in contentment, despite the misery I see like what you’ve described, and the way it is exponentially increasing;
      2. I slip into anticipatory grief for the life facing all the young people on the planet. (I am old, and have lived a good life. They deserve one, too, but are not going to have one.)

      “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world.”

      I am not a Christian, but the Serenity Prayer speaks to me.

      Liked by 2 people

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