Nina Di Cara

I'm a PhD student at the University of Bristol, who likes data science, social work and volunteering.

Why We're Going to Die #1

23 Dec 2018 » blog

Now, I don’t have a particular problem with being told that we’re all going to die, mostly because I’m fairly convinced that is the way we’re headed. However, the level to which, and number of different ways in which we are told we are going to die has started to become both inconceivable and slightly obscene. As such, this is the first in what I anticipate being a series of Why We’re All Going to Die. Welcome to Episode 1.

Today, on Why We’re All Going to Die, the Sun is citing us a study from the 1950’s.

PROFESSORS warn mankind could die out because overcrowding could kill our mood for sex.

What does the research say?

Here, “Professors” is in fact one researcher, Dr John Calhoun, whose experiments with mice in the 1950s – 1970s have collected something of a reputation. The paper in question is “Population Density and Social Pathology” published in 1962 in the Scientific American.

For this study he put 6 different groups of mince into a confined space, and observed them over 16 months, looking to find out the impact of having a ‘dense’ population on the behaviour of those in it. He put them all in an ‘ideal’ environment, with no predators and an abundance of food and water, and then watched them.

Ultimately the stress of the environment causing significant changes to their usual behaviour. There was a high infant mortality rate (80-96%) as mothers forgot to care for their offspring and many of the mice did not reproduce at all.

If you’re interested and are able to access it you can find the paper here. At a thorough one page there is no detailed discussion of the methodology or data, so it’s hard to say much about the techniques used.

What does the tabloid say?

The Sun tries to qualify the headline by stating that one person with a PhD “admitted” it was food for thought. That’s as good as it gets.

The human population is currently using contraception to control our reproduction for a start, which the mice were clearly not. We also have the benefit of research and communication skills on our side so let’s not be too quick to take these results without a canyon full of salt.

The Sun then make a significant leap that links Dr Calhoun’s results to the increase in technology use and a reported decrease in how often people are having sex. There is no suggestion that increased technology use is related to our increasing population. All in all, these two pieces of research are completely unrelated, and have been strung together with invisible string.

Conclusion

There is no credible evidence that humans will die out because overcrowding puts us off sex. Maybe when the mice population takes over the world this will be how they meet their end. Perhaps the Sun could turn their attention to the melting polar icecaps next time.

Citations: Calhoun, JD, (1962) Population Density and Social Pathology, The Scientific American