This is an extract from my coming book, Depression: A user’s guide.
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.