The Political Animal

Human History as Natural History

House Mice

Freedom and Freedom to Move

Hey baby, it’s cold outside. Here in the northern latitudes, days are dark, nights are long, temperatures are falling, and there’s frost on the ground in the morning. People are hunkering down, and the house mice are moving in.

The effects are remarkably the same. People, like house mice, tend to live in more egalitarian societies when they’re out in the open. But they tend to live in despotisms when they’re locked up, closed off or hemmed in.

As Peter Crowcroft, who wrote the book on house mice, long ago pointed out, when they first move into a house, mice are usually shy. They stay close to the walls and sniff, or they very tentatively explore the open floor. When 2 mice happen to meet, they mutually and immediately draw back. But after they’ve met several times, one mouse holds its ground.

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When the mice that encounter each other are of opposite sex, an "amicable relationship" tends to develop. And when both mice are female, they can peacefully coexist. But when 2 males are involved, they fight "savagely and persistently" until one establishes dominance over the other. Up to half of all males in a group may show evidence of having been bitten around their hindquarters or tails.  Sometimes, they’re bitten to death.

And sometimes, just one mouse is left. “In the absence of physical obstacles chasing and fighting persisted until all contenders except one were either decisively defeated or killed,” the great zoologist summed up. That mouse was the only sire in the house.

Houses are warm, dry and safe places. Some are worth fighting over. But the wild mice that live out in the open field often manage to live better. Their home ranges tend to overlap and shift with the seasons; and their societies often include adults of both sexes. So their litters often have multiple fathers.

Peter Crowcroft studied despotic house mice in England at the request of a British government that was filling up Cold War storehouses with wheat. He lived in a dangerous time. There had been autocrats across Europe before the Cold War began. There had been autocrats across Europe for thousands of years.

Many of them discouraged emigration. And many of them—from Berlin; to Beijing; to Pataliputra on the Ganges; to the Biblical Erech, or Uruk—put up walls.

We live in a better time now. Over the last few centuries, waves of our ancestors across Europe have been able to vote with their feet.

And as a result, many of us are able to vote. I’d take advantage of that.

 

PHOTO CREDIT:

http://bioweb.uwlax.edu/bio203/s2009/smith_meg2/

 

Laura Betzig, Ph.D., is a Darwinian historian at work on her fourth book, The Badge of Lost Innocence: A History of the West.

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