It’s been nearly a decade since I built my first cage.
It was an exceedingly small cage. Physically, and literally, it was about the size of a large computer, though its inhabitants were none the wiser to the fact. To them, it would have appeared as a world entire, a world of rolling plains and giant trees and gentle hummocks in which they could make their burrows. That world wasn’t particularly big either. It didn’t have to be. Not when it hosted consciousnesses that were conditioned by evolution to a home range of less than 50 meters in radius. As far as a rat was concerned, the neighboring hill might as well be a foreign country, and its denizens – instinctual enemies, to be exterminated so that its own clan could survive and propagate.
And so the years passed, passing into decades, and centuries. There evolved subtle differences between rats in different locales: The rats in the ice-bound north, for instance, developed white fur and epicanthic folds to protect against snowblind, while males in the torrid south acquired rich manes to attract females. Many thousands of rat generations appeared and disappeared in the blink of a human eye. Arbitrary eons of blood and breeding, and the profound indifference of a Mother Nature that canceled them out over any long enough period of time.
Then I said, “Let there be grain.” Stalks of wheat sprouted out at the bed of one valley. A moment-millennium later, rice appeared in a second valley, and was followed by flowerings of millet, maize, and sourghum in yet other places.
The rat clans flocked down to the new oases of abundance. Old social structures broke down, for it was no longer possible for the alpha rats to monopolize a given territory and its females; the population density was now too big to treat every interloper as a hostile intruder, to be confronted and chased away. New structures arose in place of the old, in the form of vastly more complex dominance hierarchies that mediated the distribution of mates and resources. The rat population exploded, and though their grain-based diet made them far frailer and more sickly than their ancestors, their numbers soon far eclipsed those of the remaining wild rats in the corners and remote places of the map. No plague born of the filth and crowds checked their numbers for long; no periodic violent shift in the power hierarchy made a noticeable dent in their teeming hordes.
An eye-blink later, and the population was a hundred, a thousand times what it had been at “t” equals zero. The burrows delved dozens of meters underground, and some rats even attempted to build earthen structures into the sky, with grain farms on top. Others took a clue from the squirrels and the otters, and began to settle in the trees and dam off streams and lakes. The zone of grain cultivation overspread the entire surface of the Ratlands, displacing roots, legumes, nuts, berries, and lower-yielding wild cereals. All but the smallest and more elusive insects were devoured into extinction, leaving more of the yearly grain crop for the dominant species. The cleverest rats even realized you could store calories from a surplus year by a skilful application of yeast and time. It would be nice to imagine that those inventors became very famous and snagged all the girls at the parties, but let’s not get too carried away here… they were, after all, just rats.
Despite these efforts, some rats began to grow hungry. Oh, there had always been rats at the margins, runts without muscle, mates, or money; nobody cared for those losers. To the contrary, their fellows of both sexes took pleasure in harassing them and biting at their backsides, as is the way of rats. They died as they lived: In the margins, forlorn and anonymous. But as the years clicked by in rapid succession, the numbers of these marginal rats multiplied, and now they were no longer all outcasts and weaklings. For the population had long outstripped the carrying capacity of the Ratlands, and most rats now lived at the edge of subsistence; crop yields declined, as hungry rats learned to dig into the ground to get at the seed grain. The dominant rats had to resort to increasingly brutal methods to maintain the social hierarchy and their own positions at the top of it. But their late-ditch attempts were to be in vain, for a couple of hard winters tipped the Ratlands over into all-out collapse.
Some of the marginal rats coalesced into all-male bands that began to wreck havoc all across the Ratlands. They would kill off the local dominant alpha rat, gang rape his harem, and scour his territory clean before moving on to ravage the next. Left to themselves, a few territories might have pulled through: Some rat broods had become good at planning ahead, storing grain as reserves, while other broods were resilient by virtue of having avoided overpopulation, or over-dependence on grain monoculture. But marauding bands and starving refugees from the worst affected areas spread outwards in concentric tsunamis of destruction, ensuring that what might have otherwise been a limited set of local collapses would turn into a truly global die off.
Zooming around the map as a spectator, I began to notice discarded rodent skins with bones strewn about them; the victims had been eaten inside out. Countless other rats met less gory but no less tortuous ends, expiring of hunger, disease, or infected wounds. Even as mortality spiked, the fertility rate collapsed, as the all-pervading famine and stress made many of the females unable to bear offspring.
An eyeblink later, the population of the Ratlands had collapsed to a tiny fraction of its peak level.
One might have thought that in the wake of so drastic a culling, rat society might begin to slowly, haltingly recover. This was not to be. For in the decades before the collapse, grains had become the dominant crop, and whatever flora and fauna had escaped earlier encroachments was now picked clean by starving rats in those last, desperate months. Long deprived of nutrients due to the inherent nature of monoculture cultivation, and lacking the deep roots of shrubbery to hold the soil in place, the earth dried up as soon as it was exposed to the sunlight. The few remaining grain stalks dessicated and withered away. The lush verdure that had preceded civilization was followed by the desert, and no insect chirps or avian tweets would ever disturb its eternal silent spring.
The remaining bands ran out of new territories to scour clean, and turned in on themselves in a war of all against all.
The last rat breathed his last.
A melancholy wind blew across the Ratlands, now as deserted as they had once teemed with hustle and bustle. It gusted into the empty warrens beneath the grassy hummocks, failing to dispel the stench of death within, and tipped the lake-waters over the earthen dams that rats had built. The floodwaters, at least, were more effective at cleansing the land, replacing the decay of a civilization no matter how primitive with an entirely more elemental and natural oblivion.
Just a few decades later, there was no indication that the Ratlands had ever hosted their namesake. There was nothing more to be learned, so I switched off the simulation. After all, they were just rats.
This was when I first heard the voice, whispering to me: “Would humans do any better? Are we really all that different from rats?”