Jonestown

This is the story of a mythological animal. The animal itself is real, but the myth surrounding it is a species unto itself.

Lemmings are hamster-like rodents which live around the Arctic Circle in North America, Europe and Asia. They’re most notable for their fecundity — a female can produce litters of eight pups every five weeks — and for sustaining every carnivore in the Arctic. They don’t hibernate, but tunnel through the snow in the winter, ensuring that foxes, wolverines, snowy owls, ermines, lynxes, and wolves have a steady supply of food through the white months. Let’s be frank: Lemmings are the Tribbles of the Arctic. They are a fast-multiplying, too-cute food source, the ecological equivalent of tater tots. Sure, the species exists for its own purposes as well. But perhaps my carnivore allegiances are showing when I say that lemmings are a species that exists to be eaten. Without them, the Arctic ecosystem would collapse.

But one thing lemmings don’t do is commit mass suicide by jumping off cliffs. Every four years or so, the local lemming population goes into a sudden decline as the lemmings migrate to new territory in search of food. Along the way, they usually encounter bodies of water, and try to go around them. If they can’t, they’ll try to swim across them, and inevitably many of them drown. But the idea that lemmings are hard-wired to control their own booming populations by throwing themselves into the sea is ridiculous, the stuff of medieval legend. Yet that is the animal we know today, and it’s worth examining the mythological lemming. It teaches us much about ourselves.

The idea of airborne lemmings comes from two sources. Both the Inuit and 15th century European naturalists claimed that lemmings fell from the sky, borne by spontaneous generation. It handily explained why lemmings would show up in profusion every few years. It took none other than Linnaeus to prove that lemmings were not supernatural beings at all, but simply migrated according to overpopulation, like many animals. Still, the myth of raining lemmings persisted. Then came the idea that lemmings, in their mass hysteria, would follow each other blindly off cliffs into the sea. This handily explained why lemmings would disappear from an area every few years. The only problem was that no one had actually witnessed this… they merely extrapolated it from some drowned lemmings in a river or lake. But this was an unscientific age, and the idea was too good to give up.

The idea of suicidal lemmings was solidified in Americans’ minds by one event, the Oscar-winning 1958 Disney nature documentary White Wilderness. In the film, lemmings are clearly shown jumping off a cliff to their doom while a level-voiced narrator expounds on the mysteries of nature. The only problem is that they didn’t jump; they were pushed. White Wilderness was filmed in Alberta, Canada, a province that has neither a shoreline nor lemmings. The director imported lemmings from the Yukon, bought from Inuit children there, and through the use of camera tricks and stock photography, made a few dozen lemmings look like a mass migration and a riverside cliff look like a seaside bluff. A mechanical turnstile pushed the unfortunate rodents off that cliff for the camera’s benefit. The real lemmings drowned, but the mythological lemmings were immortalized.

No matter that the lemmings are clearly hesitating at the cliff’s edge. No matter that the idea of a species willingly committing suicide makes no evolutionary sense. This was an exotic animal few Americans would ever see in a film that won an Academy Award for Best Documentary. People believed it, and taught it to others, so it became true in its way. The term “lemming” became slang for a person who blindly followed the crowd, even to the point of disaster. Even today, we immediately understand the term “lemming mentality” without knowing anything about Arctic zoology. Most people still believe that lemmings jump off cliffs. We know this because other people know this. We’re just following the crowd.

Lemmings don’t commit mass suicide. Logic does.

In other words, the idea of lemmings is itself a “lemming.” Humans are not herd animals, but our ideas are. Psychologists call it the bandwagon effect, and it could be defined thusly: The probability of any individual adopting an idea, belief, or behavior increases with the proportion of people who have already done so. The bandwagon effect explains what we buy and how we act, our religious faiths and our political propaganda. Most people believe that their beliefs have a logical origin, but in truth, we’re just following peer pressure. This swarm mentality is so deep-seeded in our psyches that we will follow each other to our dooms.

Fort Worth, Texas, 2009: 34 people are hospitalized and treated for the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. In actuality, there was no carbon monoxide. Someone reacted negatively to a spritz of perfume, which set off a chain of psychosomatic reactions among guests at a party. Strasbourg, France, 1518: A woman in this famine-ravaged city begins to dance feverishly in the streets. Her dancing spell lasts for over four days. Other townsfolk begin to join her, dancing without stopping. The end result was The Dancing Plague of 1518, in which over 400 people were caught in the mass hysteria, shaking and grooving uncontrollably. The phenomenon lasted over a month, with many of the participants dying of heat stroke, dehydration, exhaustion, and stroke.

These are two examples of conversion syndrome, a condition by which people develop symptoms simply by the power of suggestion. Conversion syndrome is only the medical result of mass hysteria, which can kill with ideas alone. In 2009, India suffered a suicide epidemic among farmers who couldn’t pay their debts; 1,500 perished. In 1997, 34 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves in order to reach the spaceship hiding behind the Hale-Bopp comet. And in 1978, 909 members of the People’s Temple cult took their own lives in Jonestown, Guyana, by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid. They were American citizens. 276 of them were children. They considered it a revolutionary act.

In the animal world, it is primarily eusocial insects like ants and bees that will commit mass suicide for any reason other than reproduction, and usually it is to protect the hive. Only humans commit mass suicide for an idea. Only humans will follow each other off a cliff out of sheer panic. So the lemming myth must have seemed plausible enough to us; we see something of ourselves in those mythological kamikaze lemmings. And our self-destruction always starts with believing a falsehood without question, just because it’s the collective wisdom of our peers. As the purveyor of a few crackpot ideas myself, I implore you to be skeptical and question everything twice. And if the crowd you’re running with is running towards the ocean, have the good sense to wear an inner tube.

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About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

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