Have you ever felt like a mouse running through a maze? It certainly is a common feeling among members of human society at one time or another. In our rodent-like existence, we are often spinning that hamster wheel, trying to win the rat race, or feeling like someone’s guinea pig. There was even a bestseller in 1998 titled, “Who Moved My Cheese?” which used this man/mouse connection to create a self-help allegory for business success. But are we really better if we find the cheddar? We can only hope the cheese in question isn’t bait in a snapping trap.
Of course, this kind of metaphor isn’t surprising when we consider the fact that scientists throughout modern history have been using laboratory rodents to gain insight into the human condition. Early on, they found out that the genetic, biological, and behavioral characteristics of rodents closely resemble those of humans, and their ease of handling and quick breeding made them ideal specimens for most scientific research into the many disorders of mankind.
In the 20th century, however, psychologists began to adore these pink-tailed creatures as test subjects for their studies on one particular subject: human behavior. Today, because of how rodents react to various stimuli in scientific research, the world has adopted a certain view of what makes a human being tick. In fact, many public and private organizations have often implemented policies to guide human activity because of what scientists observed in their precious vermin. So if you feel like a lab rat being manipulated in an absurd experiment, you now know why.
Thing is, though, we might actually learn something about ourselves in the observation of mice.
Calhoun’s Mouse Utopia
Perhaps the most ambitious and well-known behavioral experiment with mice was conducted between 1968 and 1970 by American ethologist John B. Calhoun, who created a massive mouse “utopia” to record the social pathology of living in a structured society. He had been doing such experiments since the 1950s with Norway rats, but this was his biggest attempt yet. He constructed a mouse city called “Universe 25” that had enough square footage for over 3800 albino house mice to live comfortably. The population started with four breeding pairs that were lab-raised and resistant to communicable disease. All their needs were met: food, water, shelter of various kinds, and protection from the elements and predators.
Everything was fine until the population reached less than a quarter of what the enclosure could sustain. After 300 days or so, there was an inexplicable breakdown of societal norms which caused a noticeable slowing in population growth (which eventually peaked at 2200 before plummeting to zero). During the intermediate stage, mice began crowding together in large groups when there was plenty of free space to spread out more efficiently and comfortably. Male mice formed gangs that randomly attacked or killed one another for no apparent reason. Female mice became inattentive mothers, often abandoning or killing their young. In some cases, fetuses died and were simply absorbed into the mother’s body.
As the situation worsened, Calhoun solemnly noted: “Their spirit has died…” Insanity ensued and the population dropped. Pansexualism, cannibalism, and self-focused detachment became the norm. Male mice began obsessively mating with nearby mice of both genders, which was sometimes nothing more than violent sexual assaults. A small faction of younger mice, dubbed “The Beautiful Ones” (because their sleek coats showed no surface trauma), withdrew from all social interaction and spent their isolation eating, sleeping, and grooming themselves. Then, slowly but surely, all the mice in Universe 25 stopped breeding. Within two years from the start of the experiment, they were all dead.
The conclusions reached from the Universe 25 experiment focused on two main points: the environmental stresses of overpopulation, or more specifically, social density; and the appearance of what Calhoun called Behavioral Sink, a collapse in natural mouse activity due to overcrowding. Eventually these two conclusions led to fears of overpopulation and future human extinction, and had considerable influence on behavioral psychology, governmental initiatives, and social engineering for decades to come. Sadly, however, both Calhoun and the others extracted a deficient theory that missed the bigger issue.
The “Behavioral Sink”
In reality, what Calhoun uncovered was the dangers of creating an earthly utopia where one’s labors and duties are no longer necessary, and where God and His will have no place. To his credit, Calhoun did touch upon the spiritual aspect of his experiment with his observance of Behavioral Sink, but he then failed to fully connect it to the prevailing condition of the fallen world. Perhaps this is more the duty of a theologian than a scientist, and yet even the preeminent psychologist Carl Rogers saw the horrific moral implications of Calhoun’s experiment:
“The resemblance to human behavior is frightening,” Rogers wrote. “In humans, we see poor family relationships, the lack of caring, the complete alienation, the magnetic attraction of overcrowding, the lack of involvement, which is so great that it permits people to watch a long drawn-out murder without so much as calling the police” (Some Social Issues Which Concern Me, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 1972).
So at what point does this Behavioral Sink, or moral breakdown, invariably take place? For those laboratory mice, it was soon after they realized they were no longer required to forage for food, build their nests, and raise their young in the image of their purposeful, active parents. By removing the mice’s need to work for their survival, Calhoun disrupted their natural instincts and left a moral vacuum to be filled with unnatural impulses that ultimately destroyed them. As Calhoun rightly concluded but did not pursue further, the confused mice first died a spiritual death, which in turn expedited their eventual physical death.
For men made in the image of God, however, such a two-fold demise is the ultimate spiritual tragedy. The fall into moral chaos is always greater when we lose sight of our God-ordained duty to “work and keep” the earth, which was given to us at the beginning of Creation. God has hard-wired us to be workers and directly connected it to our well-being. When we ignore that sacred obligation to work as commanded by God in the garden of Eden, we soon decline and perish as a society, both spiritually and physically. As Thomas Carlyle wisely saw it, “In idleness there is a perpetual despair.”
Is this not the issue at hand today in human society? Are there not expanding pockets of humanity who are behaving like Calhoun’s mice? Sexual confusion, abortion, violent activity, and rabid self-focus are rampant in America, especially in the younger generations. Gangs of adult children, spoiled by affluence, are throwing savage tantrums against our established society so they can replace God with a governmental regime which will provide for their every need with no personal cost. Idle people in moral despair are withdrawing from their God-given place in order to transform themselves into “Beautiful Ones,” who obsessively groom themselves into perfect fantasy icons that highlight their pet perversions.
This is not a new phenomenon, of course. Nor is it something that hasn’t been addressed in the past by God in His word. The social experiments of mice and men do not have precedence in establishing this truth; they can only confirm what the Bible has already warned us about. In the story of Sodom we surely find our Biblical example concerning the appearance of wickedness (Genesis 13:13). The unnatural crimes which are always associated with the name of Sodom were similar to those found in the downfall of Universe 25. And what were the three causes of Sodom’s moral collapse according to Scripture? “Pride, fullness of bread, and abundance of idleness,” says the prophet (Ezekiel 16:49-50).
If words can paint the perfect picture of the abundance of immoral idleness, then Matthew Henry painted it best: “Standing waters gather filth.”
God’s Imperative For Work
Work, then, is one of the great cures to what ails mankind. It is the godly occupation which gives us little time or thought for temptation or the alternative works of iniquity. It brings us vitality and spiritual contentment in the pursuit and accomplishment of our labors by the sweat of our brow. Above all, it is the moral imperative established by God to bring blessings to men and women, both individually and corporately, and ultimately to bring glory to God as an act of worship. If this were not so, then why are there nearly 900 passages in Scripture that pertain to the issue of ordinary work? Here are just a few highlights that easily reveal the truth without digging much further:
In the first two chapters of the Bible, men and women are given work to do, both caring for and cultivating natural resources given by God (Genesis 1:26-29; Genesis 2:15; Genesis 2:18-20).
God models a seven day pattern of work and rest (six days work, one day rest) that God’s people are called to emulate (Genesis 2:2; Exodus 20:9-11; Mark 2:27). There is also a daily pattern of work and rest (Psalm 104:19-23).
Earning one’s living by honest work is commended (1 Thessalonians 2:9; Psalm 128:2; II Thessalonians 3:7-10).
The Book of Proverbs contains many exhortations to work hard and warnings against idleness (e.g., Proverbs 6:6-11).
Manual work is not to be despised. Even a king works with his hands (1 Samuel 11:5). The prophets denounced the idle rich (e.g., Amos 6:3-6).
The apostle Paul supported himself as a tent-maker to preserve his independence and self-respect, and to provide his converts with an example of diligence and self-reliance. Paul encouraged them to share with others in need (Ephesians 4:28). He saw honest labor as a way of commending the gospel (1 Thessalonians 4:11). He reprimanded those enthusiasts who wanted to give up daily work to get on with what they considered more urgent gospel work, only to end up living off other people (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
Even our Lord Jesus did the work of an artisan (Mark 6:3).
Work is to be approached as an act of worship (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17, 23).
(Source: The Theology Of Work Project).
These are just a few of the Bible’s teachings on the integrity and necessity of work. Not once does God’s word speak to any valid reason to abrogate that essential duty of capable men and women. In fact, the Bible condemns in no uncertain terms those who are unwilling to work or who are slack in earning their own keep. Such people are more like thieves who steal, and by their idleness have aligned themselves with those “who destroy” (Ephesians 4:28; Proverbs 18:9). As the apostle Paul commanded the Church, “If they refuse to work, let them not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
The Failure Of Governments And Utopia-Seekers
This is why it is so spiritually dangerous to seek the establishment of a utopian society, as Calhoun proved with his mice. Such a social construct might seem humane in providing for the weak and disadvantaged, but governments are chiefly set in place by God to institute law and order as cited in New Testament Scripture (1 Peter 2:13-14; Romans 13:1-4), and not to usurp the benevolence of private individuals (or groups) who work so they can share their abundance with those who have need (Ephesians 4:28; Deuteronomy 15:11; II Corinthians 9:7). Individuals on the ground, so to speak, who have the wisdom of intimate social awareness are far better equipped to see where actual needs can be met than a detached, self-serving government.
As economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell emphatically explains, “The government is not out there as the personification of the national interest. They have their own interests… because that’s their jobs and careers and power” (Thomas Sowell on the Myths of Economic Inequality, Hoover Institute).
When governments are installed as the sole distributors of wealth for so-called equality’s sake, they take away the citizen’s incentive (or ability) to acquire their own provisions for spiritual gain and service to God (Matthew 22:21). In fact, the thief and the sluggard will find no reason to work at all. Without promoting healthy, beneficial reasons for work, society will only foster idleness and immorality, which will spread like a cancer. This fact has been proven after more than 50 years of the American liberal welfare state at work: disadvantaged, poverty-prone neighborhoods may have improved economically because of the infusion of government assistance, but self-sufficiency has stagnated, and violent crime and the dissolution of the traditional family unit have skyrocketed in those areas (“The War On Poverty After 50 Years”, Heritage Foundation, 2013). Does this failed experiment with humans sound familiar?
There is no government established on the earth that can ever replace the kingdom of God and our duty as Christians to labor under that spiritual economy. At best, it can be argued, a “free market” republic that recognizes the inalienable rights of people provides a more substantial liberty to follow our conscience to freely serve our God, our families, and our fellow man through the work of our hands and the instruction of God’s word. Within that type of governmental system, Christians are even free to form formal communal bonds with other believers outside of capitalistic principles. It is this kind of balanced administration of law and liberty that has served men best in the annals of history, even under the rule of a constitutional or mixed monarchy. Nevertheless, even these more commendable examples have been subjected to the pressures of a fallen world and have become distracted from their good intentions and corrupted in some way.
Not so historically commendable, however, are those earthly authorities which drift into various levels of totalitarianism to provide for the people’s needs through strict control or to force some artificial equality among the population under the guise of virtue. This misguided attempt to create a perfect society by domination will only make puppets of their subjects, who will labor not with sweat for their God-given purpose, but with fearful tears to please their captors by going through the motions. Such an oppressive environment soon breeds the kind of complacency and spiritual poverty that mimics the destructive elements of idleness and leads to life-killing despair.
To be sure, all forms of government are imperfect, but socialism, in particular, is in the business of utopia-building and is therefore completely predicated on the illusion of perfection. No matter how they tweak it, socialism will always fail to establish its perfect society because the elites in power are philosophically unable to see that we live in a fallen world. They wrongly think they can redeem the world through their self-righteous work instead of by the finished work of Jesus Christ. As English cultural critic and essayist Theodore Dalrymple explains, “Socialism is not only, or even principally, an economic doctrine: It is a revolt against human nature. It refuses to believe that man is a fallen creature and seeks to improve him by making all equal one to another.”
This improvement, of course, can never be accomplished, even by force or coercion, because the rulers who endeavor to control society are fallen creatures themselves. Such a regime is always hostage to the weaknesses and lust for power that lies latent in all men. This truth has been proven every time socialism is built up and then collapses under the weight of moral ambiguity or devolves into a dystopia of tyranny. If the mice of Universe 25 could have suddenly possessed the power of speech like Balaam’s ass, they would have certainly told us of the harm such utopian visions can do.
The Happy Work Of The Christian
The Christian, however, does not put his trust in the world or in any of its governments, but in Jesus Christ who warned us of their doom (Matthew 24:12; Matthew 24:35; I John 2:17). By relying on God’s word to teach them the proper perspective on work, Christians have found the better way of service to God while on earth. This is where men will be notably separated from mice. Believers know that the world in all its wisdom and power can never provide for their needs like Jesus, and so their yoke is light and their burdens are easy. They know that no true work ethic or utopia will ever exist outside of Christ.
As Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer summarized this critical understanding: “History has proven conclusively that man cannot bring in any form of utopia because sin permeates human nature. Selfishness, dishonesty, and distrust make the possibility of any such a golden age impossible. But when Jesus returns, the King of Kings will do what man cannot.”
Nevertheless, until that glorious day, we return to our work in the world, presenting our bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is our reasonable service (Romans 12:1). For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).
In conclusion, if you don’t wish to feel like a mouse in a mindless maze, then heed the words of Jeremy Taylor, the “Shakespeare of Divines,” who wrote way back in the 1600s: “Avoid idleness, and fill up all the spaces of thy time with severe and useful employment; for lust easily creeps in at those emptinesses where the soul is unemployed and the body is at ease; for no easy, healthful, idle person was ever chaste if he could be tempted; but of all employments, bodily labor is the most useful, and of the greatest benefit for driving away the Devil.”