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We are all fascinatingly unique beings. Our individuality not only defines who we are, but also binds us together as a society. Each individual contributes unique talents towards a collaborative pool of human endeavour, in effect, enabling modern civilisation to exist as it does today. We have the strange ability to simultaneously preserve an exclusive sense of self whilst also contributing to the greater good through cooperative effort – loosing a bit of our independence through conformity in the process. But what does this sense of self comprise of? How do we get to be the distinguished being that we are despite the best efforts of conformist group dynamics and how can we apply such insights towards the establishment of a future society that respects individual liberty?

The nature versus nurture debate has raged for decades, with little ground won on either side. Put simply, the schism formed between those whom subscribed to the ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate approach (born with individuality) and those whom believed our uniqueness is a product of the environment in which we live. Like most debates in science, there is no definitive answer. In practice, both variables interact and combine to produce variation in the human condition. Therefore, the original question is no longer valid; it diverges from one of two polarised opposites to one of quantity (how much variation is attibutable to nature/nurture).

Twin and adoption studies have provided the bulk of empirical evidence in this case, and with good reason. Studies involving monozygotic twins allows researchers to control for heritability (nature) of certain behavioural traits. This group can then be compared to other twins reared separately (manipulation of environment) or a group of fraternal twins/adopted siblings (same environment, different genes). Of course, limitations are still introduced whereby an exhaustive list of and exerted control over every environmental variable is impossible. The interaction of genes with environment is another source of confusion, as is the expression of random traits which seem to have no correlation with either nature or nurture.

Can the study of personality offer any additional insight into the essence of individuality? The majority of theories within this paradigm of psychology are purely descriptive in nature. That is, they only serve to summarise a range of observable behaviours and nuances into key factors. The ‘Big Five’ Inventory is one illustrative example. By measuring an individual’s subscription to each area of personality (through responses to predetermined questions), it is thought that variation between people can be psychometrically measured and defined according to scores on five separate dimensions. By utilising mathematical techniques such as factor analysis, a plethora of personality measures have been developed. Each subjective interpretation of the mathematical results combined with cultural differences and experimental variation between samples has produced many similar theories that differ only in the labels applied to the measured core traits.

Other empirical theories attempt to improve on the superficiality of such descriptive scales by introducing biological (nature) fundamentals. One such example is the “BIS/BAS” measure. By attributing personality (specifically behavioural inhibition and activation) to variation in neurological structure and function, this theory expands upon more superficial explanations. Rather than simply summarising and describing dimensions of personality, neuro-biological theories allow causality to be attributed to underlying features of the individual’s physiology. In short, such theories propose that there exists a physical thing to which neuropsychologists can begin to attach the “essence of I”.

Not to be forgotten, enquiries into the effects of nurture, or one’s environment, on personal development have bore many relevant and intriguing fruits. Bronfrenbrenner’s Ecological Systems theory is one such empirical development that attempts to qualify the various influences (and their level of impact) on an individual’s development. The theory is ecological in nature due to the nested arrangement of its various ‘spheres of influence’. Each tier of the model corresponds to an environmental stage that is further removed from the direct experience of the individual. For example, the innermost Microsystem pertains to immediate factors, such as family, friends and neighbourhood. Further out, the Macrosystem defines influences such as culture and political climate; while not exerting a direct effect, these components of society still shape the way we think and behave.

But we seem to be only scratching the surface of what it actually means to be a unique individual. Rene Descartes was one of many philosophers with an opinion on where our sense of self originates. He postulated a particular kind of dualism, whereby the mind and body exist as two separate entities. The mind was though to influence the body (and vice versa) through the pineal gland (a small neurological structure that actually secretes hormones). Mind was also equated with ‘soul’, perhaps to justify the intangible nature of this seat of consciousness. Thus, such philosophies of mind seem to indirectly support the nature argument; humans have a soul, humans are born with souls, souls are intangible aspects of reality, therefore souls cannot be directly influenced by perceived events and experiences. However Descartes seemed to be intuitively aware of this limitation and built in a handy escape clause; the pineal gland. Revolutionary for its time, Descartes changed the way philosophers thought about the sense of self, and went so far as to suggest that the intangible soul operated on a bi-directional system (mind influences body, body influences mind).

The more one discusses self, the deeper and murkier the waters become. Self in the popular sense refers to mental activity distinct from our external reality and the minds of others (I doubt, I think, Therefore I am). However, self comprises a menagerie of summative sub-components, such as; identity, consciousness, free-will, self-actualisation, self-perception (esteem, confidence, body image) and moral identity, to name but a few. Philosophically and empirically, our sense of self has evolved markedly, seemingly following popular trends throughout the ages. Beginning with a very limited and crude sense of self within proto-human tribes, the concept of self has literally exploded to an extension of god’s will (theistic influences) and more recently, a more reductionist and materialist sense where individual expression and definition are a key tenet. Ironically, our sense of self would not have been possible without the existence of other ‘selves’ against which comparisons could be made and intellects clashed.

Inspiration is one of the most effective behavioural motivators. In this day and age it is difficult to ignore society’s pressures to conform. Paradoxically, success in life is often a product of creativity and individuality; some of the wealthiest people are distinctly different from the banality of normality. It seems that modern society encourages the mundane, but I believe this is changing. The Internet has ushered in a new era of self-expression. Social networking sites allow people to share ideas and collaborate with others and produce fantastic results. As the access to information becomes even easier and commonplace, ignorance will no longer be a valid excuse. People will be under increased pressure to diverge from the path of average if they are to be seen and heard. My advice; seek out experiences as if they were gold. Use the individuality of others to mold and shape values, beliefs and knowledge into a worthy framework within which you feel at ease. Find, treasure and respect your “essence of I”; it is a part of everyone of us that can often become lost or confused in this chaotic world within which we live.

The period of 470-1000AD encompassed what is now popularly referred to as the medieval ‘dark age’. During this time, human civilisation in the West saw a stagnation of not only culture but society itself. It was a time of great persecution, societal uncertainty and religious fanaticism. It cannot be helped that similarities seem to arise between this tumultuous period and that which we experience today. Some have even proposed that we stand on the brink of a new era, one that is set to repeat the stagnation of the medieval dark ages albeit with a more modern flavour. Current worldly happenings seem to support such a conclusion. If we are at such a point in the history of modern civilisation, what form would a ‘new dark age’ take? What factors are conspiring against humanity to usher in a period of uncertainty and danger? Do dark ages occur in predictable cycles, and if so, should we embrace rather than fear this possible development? These are the questions I would like to discuss in this article.

Historically, the dark ages were only labelled so in retrospect by scholars reflecting upon the past and embracing humanistic principles. It is with such observations that we cast our aspersions upon the society of today. Even so, humanity struggles for an objective opinion, for it can be argued that every great civilisation wishes to live within a defining period of history. Keeping such a proposition in mind, it is nevertheless convincing to proffer the opinion that we are heading towards a defining societal moment. A great tension seems to be brewing; on the one hand there is the increasing dichotomy between religion and science, with sharply drawn battle lines and an unflinching ideology. On the other we have mounting evidence suggesting that the planet is on the verge of environmental collapse. It may only be a matter of time before these factors destabilise the dynamic system that is modern society past its engineered limits.

Modern society seems to have an unhealthy obsession with routine and predictability. The uncertainty that these potential disasters foster act to challenge this obsession, to the point that we seek reassurance. Problems arise when this reassurance takes the form of fanatical (and untenable) religious, philosophical or empirical belief structures. Such beliefs stand out like a signalling light house, the search beam symbolising stability and certainty in stark contrast to the murky, dangerous waters of modern society. But just as the light house guards from the danger of rocks, so too does the pillar of belief warn against corruption. For it is, sadly, intrinsic human nature to take advantage of every situation (to guarantee the survival of oneself through power and influence), and in combination with personality, (propensity towards exploitation of others) beliefs can be twisted to ensure personal gain or the elimination of opposition. It seems that such a phenomenon could be acting today. Religion provides a suitable system upon which to relieve mental anguish and distress at the state of the world (reassurance that . So too does science, as it proscribes the fallacies of following spiritual belief and a similarly blind ‘faith’ in securing a technological solution to humanity’s problems. In that respect, empiricism and religion are quite similar (much to their mutual chagrin).

In such a system we see that de-stablisation is inevitable; a handful of belief structure emerge from the chaos as dominant and compete for control. Progressively extreme positions are adopted (spurred on by manipulators exploiting for personal gain), which in turn sets up the participants for escalating levels of conflict. Our loyalty to the group that aims to secure its survival, ultimately (and ironically) leads to the demise of all involved. It is our lack of tolerance and subservience to evolutionary mechanisms, coupled with a lack of insight into both our internal nature as a person and social interactions that precipitates such a conclusion.

This brings the article to its midpoint, and the suggestion that three main factors are responsible for the development of a new dark ages.

Human belief systems

As argued above, humans have an intrinsic desire to subscribe to certain world views and spiritual beliefs. Whether due to a more fundamental need for explanation in the face of the unknown (being prepared for the unexpected) or simply the attraction of social groupings and initiation into a new hierarchy, the fact remains that humans like to organise their beliefs according to a certain structure. When other groups are encountered whose beliefs differ in some respect, the inevitable outcome is either submission (of the weaker group) or conflict. Perhaps an appropriate maxim that sums up this phenomenon is ‘if you can’t convert them, kill them’. Thus we see at one level, our beliefs acting as a catalyst for conflict with other groups of people. At a higher level, such beliefs are then modified or interpreted in varying ways so as to justify the acts committed, reassuring the group of its moral standing (the enemy is sub human, ‘infidels’, wartime propaganda etc). Belief is also a tool that is used to create a sense of identity, which is another feature that conscious beings seem to require. Those that are lacking in individuality and guidance take to belief systems in order to perhaps gain stability within their lives. Without identity we are operating at a reduced capacity, nothing more than automatons responding to stimuli, so in this respect, belief can form a useful method for providing motivation and structure to an individual. Problems arise when beliefs become so corrupted or conflict so great that any act can be justified without cause for long-term planning; only the complete destruction of the enemy is a viable outcome. The conflict spirals out of control and precipitates major change; another risk factor for ensuring the New Dark Age is a plausible reality.

Economic/Political Collapse

Numerous socio-economic experiments have been conducted over the few millenia that organised civilisation has existed on this planet, with varying degrees of success. Democracy seems to be the greatest windfall to modern politics, ushering in a new era of liberation and equity. But has its time come to an end? Some would argue that the masses need control if certain standards are to be maintained. While a small proportion of society would be capable of living under such an arrangement, the reality that some large swath of the population cannot co-exist without the need for social management and punitive methods calls into question the ultimate success of our political system. Communism failed spectacularly, most notably for its potential for abuse through corruption and dictatorship. Here we have the unfortunate state of affairs that those who come into power are also those whom lack the qualities that one would expect from a ruler. Islamic states don’t even enter the picture; the main aim of such societal systems is the establishment of a theocratic state that is perhaps even more susceptible to abuse (the combination of corrupted beliefs that justify atrocities and unification of church with state causing conflict with other populations whose beliefs differ).

Is democracy and capitalism running our planet into the ground? Some would point to recent stockmarket collapse and record inflation as a sign that yes, perhaps human greed is allowed too much leeway. Others merely shake their heads and point to the cyclical nature of the economy; “it’s just a small downturn that will soon be corrected” they proclaim. Mounting evidence seems to counter such a proposition, as rising interest rates, property prices and living costs force the population to work more, and own less. Is our present system of political control and economic growth sustainable? Judging by recent world events, perhaps not, thus precipitating another factor that could lead to the establishment of a new dark age.

Ecological Destruction

Tied closely to the policies implemented by modern politics and economic propensities is the phenomenon of ‘global warming’, or more broadly, the lack of respect for our biosphere. It seems almost unbelievable that humanity has turned a blind eye to the mounting problems occurring within our planet. While global warming has arguments both for and against, I doubt that any respectable empiricist, or indeed, responsible citizen, could refute that humanity has implemented some questionable environmental practices in the name of progress. Some may argue that the things we take for granted (even the laptop upon which I type this article) would not have been possible without such practices. But when the fate of the human race hangs in the balance, surely this is a high price to pay in such a high stakes game. Human nature surely plays a part in this oversight; our brains are wired to consider the now, as opposed to the might or could. By focusing on the present in such a way, the immediate survival of the individual (and the group) is ensured. Long term thought is not useful in the context of a tribal society where life is a daily struggle. Again we are hampered by more primitive mechanisms that have exceeded their usefulness. In short, humanity has advanced a sufficiently rapid pace that has since overtaken the ability of our faculties to adapt. Stuck with a game of catchup (that most neglect to see the value or importance of) society is falling short of the skills it needs to deal with the challenges that lay ahead. The destruction of this planet, coupled with our inability to reliably plan and deal with future events could (in combination with previous factors such as deliberate political/economic oversight of the problem) precipitate a new dark age in society.

But is a new dark age all doom and gloom? Certainly it will be a time of mass change and potential for great catastrophe, but an emergence out the other side could herald a new civilisation that is well equipped to deal with and manage the challenges of an uncertain future. Looking towards the future, one can’t help but feel a sense of trepidation. Over population, dwindling resources and an increasing schism between religion and science are all contributing towards a great change in the structure of society. While it would be immoral to condone and encourage such a period in light of the monumental loss of order, perhaps it is ‘part of the grand plan’ so to speak in keeping humanity in check and ensuring that the Earth maintains its capacity of life. In effect, humanity is a parasite that has suitably infected its host, resulting in the eventual collapse of its life-giving organs. Perhaps a new dark age will provide the cleansing of mind and spirit that humanity needs to refocus its efforts on the things that really matter; that being every individual attaining individual perfection and living as the best they can possibly be.

One of the most prevalent themes in science fiction and depictions of future societies is the unshackling of humanity from monetary materialism. Star Trek fans will be all too familiar with this idea, in that this fictional universe sees work as something that is done “for the betterment of mankind”, and that “in the future, money along with war and poverty, do not exist”. Unfortunately we as a society are nowhere near ready to achieve this ideal, neither technologically nor idealistically. Money makes the world go round, as the saying goes. But is this lofty aim achievable or even warranted? Would it eliminate the vices and accentuate the virtues? What sort of political, societal, economical and technological mindsets would be needed? These are the questions I wish to explore in this article.

The first proposition I want to put forward is not only crucial to the argument at hand, but also directly observable in the facets of human behaviour. Materialism seems to be an innate characteristic of our society and of ourselves as individuals. The nub of this character most likely lies in the evolutionary advantage that resource gathering brings. Not only does an excess of material goods improve one’s chances of personal survival, but it also increases the attractiveness of oneself to potential mates (a resourceful mate is more likely to provide for the child and mother, whilst also protecting them from malevolent others). It makes sense, then, that such behaviours would evolve to become second nature. Less fortunate individuals, lacking in such resourceful extravagance for whatever reason (low intelligence, physical handicap, large amounts of competition), would naturally evolve to make the most of the situation and attempt to siphon such resources from the said ‘resourcer’. Now, as a side note, humans are notoriously devious creatures, and social deception has long been our forte (perhaps even providing the evolutionary pressure to evolve larger brains as a way of out-witting our fellow tribes-people). Rather than challenge the dominant individual (at significant risk of physical injury or social ostracism), although this can occur if the individuals are similarly matched in resources – subjectively perceived or otherwise, the challenger will often resort to social subterfuge and gravitate towards servitude. And thus is born the concept of social power. Note that the incarnation of power used here is that which does not include the agent with the stronger muscles, the bigger guns or the tougher resolve (these may be a subsequent condition of wealth) but rather the elevation of an individual to higher social status.

Following this elevation, it is no wonder why we seem to be intrinsically predisposed towards the continual collection of material possessions. The introduction of hard currency and free, global markets as opposed to direct trade of goods and local, village-based economies only encourages the development of this social trend. We wear our possessions on our sleeves, as it were, in that material goods become our avatars, promoting a falsehood to impress others. As such, humanity is at times an unwitting but very willing exhibitionist. This ‘faking rich’ allows those who live off a credit line to lead a life that was otherwise unreachable. Building upon the foundations laid down by our nomadic ancestors, the perpetual scramble for wealth with which to buy only the newest and the latest sets up a fatal cycle. No longer do we buy things for their practicality but rather their (subjective) credibility. Greed for power and influence over social communities fuels the thirst for this retail addiction. But in just the same way that the junkie’s life starts to unravel, so to does the society in which greed motivates social interactions.

Now allow me to take a few steps backwards, the literary imagery is becoming a little to emotionally charged. Let me clarify my position; this is not an attack on free market economies, democracy or anything else to do with our current models of socio-economics. What I am attempting to put across is that I believe the current era of human civilisation is simply a transitional period. Unfortunately we often have to learn the hard way, and survey says that this may be the hardest lesson of all. For the first time in history we are facing a real and imminent danger of destroying ourselves through an unabated and merciless greed for wealth. The planet is teetering on the edge of an environmental catastrophe (yes, I am aware of the counter arguments put forward against global warming) for which we only have ourselves to blame. Controversially, I almost hope that the big crunch does occur, as this may prove to be the catalyst to propel humanity towards the next era of civilisation. But what an expensive lesson to learn! Humanity needs to take a step back and take a long look at itself; extensive changes to mindsets, traditions and other general inefficiencies and nonsensical practices that are stubbornly clung to need to be overhauled. In essence, we need a ‘future shock’ of sorts, a Scroogian-Christmas Carolesque experience that jolts society to its very foundations and makes us sit upright in our seats. Because without it, society can only continue to corrupt and corrode, destroying all we hold morally and ethically dear.

But what about the solution? Its all well and good to proclaim from my ivory tower that the world is full of thoughtless barbarians hell bent on spending their next paycheck. You would say I was a sensationalist, a perpetrator of stereotypes and over-generalist. Well you would be right! However this brings us no closer to the issue at hand. The problem thus defined is ‘humanity’s intrinsic need for resources (brought about through millennia of evolution) appears to be causing the run-away destruction of societal values and serves as a distraction from loftier pursuits worthy of our attention (elimination of poverty, world peace etc)’. The evidence; environmental collapse of this planet, societal trends towards materialism and generation of wealth (observable through record inflation, unaffordable housing prices, collapse of the sharemarket) and a youth culture that seems obsessed with outward-facing, individual interactions rather than introspection and collective collaboration.

Thus the solution has to be multifaceted; it must be in order to deal with the complicated causes that bubble away in the alchemist’s pot. Tipping the balance too much either way leads to a society that is stagnant and frankly, boring. Mindsets, values and ideals need to be modified just rightly so. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a capitalist society, but allowing a runaway effect of degrading values at its expense seems a hefty price to pay. On the other hand we have the history books to guide us. The collapse of communism illuminates the dangers of going too far with socio-economic models. As always, a fusion of ‘the best of both worlds’ is needed. Perhaps the ideals of communism mixed with the liberty of democracy and sprinkled with the spiritual enlightenment of Buddhism baked in the idealogical oven might just do the trick. Although, is such a tasty combination possible?

Fundamental flaws in human nature make such a lofty political ideal seem far-fetched. It will be interesting to see the outcome of communist China’s embracing of the Western economic model (however, this could also be a catastrophe waiting to happen as the full industrial might of China’s population is put to work churning out the goods we take for granted). It seems that even communist nations, priding themselves on foreign policies of Western isolationism and incorruptible ideals (though the latter point couldn’t be further from the truth in actual practice), are unable to resist the power of the ‘dark side’ when it comes to the almighty dollar.

Therefore, the solution needs to remove the motivation of money. Is it possible to simply remove currency? I think not. Not only would the forcible removal of wealth be suicide for any governing body, but the social cataclysm would be phenomenal. The social class system with its rising gap between rich and poor seems to be the only valid target for attack at this point. Rather than removing wealth altogether, the focus should be pinpointed on creating a global middle class; eliminating the need for envy and greed. To this end, a fair distribution of the world’s wealth seems to be the least disruptive path to follow. Perhaps centrally controlled via a world banking conglomerate, wealth would be dished out similarly to all based on time periods or relative need rather than job status or amount of investments. Civilisation would continue as normal, but instead of receiving monetary compensation, the mindset of working simply for the pleasure of doing so would be the sole motivating factor.

All this seems very high and mighty, and seems to grow exponentially in difficulty (in implementation) as we progress. So far my points are thus; to eliminate the problems brought about by materialistic drives, both physical and intangible changes must occur to society. Mindsets need to change; specifically our motivations for compensation and our dependence on wealth to bring happiness (secondary) and power (primary). Vast political, societal and economic changes are needed if this is to occur. Society must simultaneously be careful not to regress back to medieval forms of exchange such as direct goods trade although some features of this model may have their uses.

A ‘global garden’ approach where modern free-markets are supplemented by direct trade of goods at the village level seems to be the only way out of this quandary. Global climate changes will affect society in drastic ways. Soon we will have to reduce our carbon emissions prudently by limiting travel and reducing the industry that brings luxury items. Such goods will still be available under this model, although at much higher costs (to reduce the appeal they attract and to reflect the decreased ability to transport such items). Urban planning will focus on small village models, with self-sustainability becoming the main goal of design. Most trade will be conducted within the village, perhaps each specialising in a particular commodity which they can export to other nearby villages. A global government with reduced bureaucracy will form the symbolic face of future society, with practical day-to-day administration being done autonomously at the village level. In effect, the government of the future acts as more of a protective net rather than an enforcer of laws and taxation. A sense of community will be fostered (bringing in communist principles) where money is not the deciding factor in decisions, rather the wellbeing of society and its members.

Sure its a romantic view of the future, but one that I believe is attainable. If humankind is to advance past the outdated materialism that has been a harsh master (but entirely inappropriate for future society development) big changes need to occur before we all run out of time. Our insatiable greed is driving us deeper and deeper into the hole that has been dug in the name of ‘progress’. People need to start identifying and separating what they want from what they really need. So next time you see that brand new Ipod in the window with its flashy graphics and funky cover, take a moment to think if you really need it. I’m not preaching an Amish lifestyle; people still need luxuries and can appreciate nice things, but not at the expense of their own values and society’s progress as a whole. Don’t just buy something because its cool or in fashion. Buy it because you appreciate the hours that went into designing it, the ideas that sparked its creation, its symbolism of human ingenuity. Use it to inspire your own creations and and fuel your future aspirations.