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Science Behind the Fiction: How The Dark Crystal's Darkening might be real
There's something amiss in the land of Thra in Netflix's The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. The UrSkeks have long since splintered into their two halves, and the Skeksis rule over the Dark Crystal and the world, siphoning its energies to extend their own lives. But the Crystal is no longer cooperative and the Skeksis' way of life is threatened.
As the Skeksis take frantic action to sustain their unnaturally long life, they discover a new source of power: The very life force of Thra's other creatures, including the noble Gelfling. The Crystal fights back in the only way it can, poisoning a world that is no longer in balance with the Darkening. Deet of the Grottan clan, a subterranean faction of the very Gelfing the Skeksis are taking advantage of, is given a vision of a horrible future, one in which the Darkening takes over all of Thra. She sees all life transformed into a shadow version of itself and a world in which anger and aggression rule.
The obvious allegory to climate change, to a world taking vengeance on forces that throw it out of balance, is readily apparent. And, as our world moves toward seemingly inevitable chaos at the hands of nefarious rulers who only pretend to have our best interests in mind, one can also see an apparent uptick in violence and malevolence. It's broadcast on our screens day in and day out.
One wonders if we might be at the mercy of a Darkening of our own, some environmental force changing each of us for the worse.
THE HISTORY OF HUMAN AGGRESSION
Violence, in some form or another, has been with us since time immemorial. Certainly, the instruments through which we express those angered urges has changed. Technology seems to march forward with few intents so unceasing as how we might more efficiently harm someone, or something, else. But, despite what the nightly news cycle might tell you, we might actually be living in the most peaceful time in human history.
Each of us, surely, has experienced moments of pure anger, that white-hot animosity that comes from someplace deep within us, a moment when all of our higher faculties seemingly fall by the wayside in the face of pure, animal aggression.
It's no surprise aggression, anger, and violence are integral parts of what it means to be human, no matter how much we might pretend otherwise. There is evidence to suggest that these behaviors are of evolutionary benefit. Sussing out why that's the case is a matter of common sense. This is, of course, a world red in tooth and claw. There are moments, unfortunately, when each of us might be called upon to defend the safety of ourselves or our loved ones. In those moments, giving way to primal aggression might mean the difference between survival and death.
This realization has been the source of some contention among philosophers and other thinkers. It seems that human beings are adapted for a world very different from the one we currently inhabit, one in which there was danger around every corner, behind every bush, and over every horizon. In that world it made sense to maintain a certain level of aggression. The warrior, ready to bash any threat over the head or run it through with a spear, was someone to be lauded. Now, however, those very same attributes might result in violence within our communities or, if the person in question acquires a certain degree of power, long-standing war.
Which leaves us to wonder if peace, true peace, is actually attainable. Are we capable of putting aside those animal instincts in the face of our new circumstances, or are we at the mercy of our baser motivations?
It might seem as though violence and war are something we'll have to contend with for the duration of our existence, but a keener look at our history paints a different picture.
Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, wrote a whole book about it entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. In it, he makes the case that the modern age is statistically the safest in our history.
This view of the world is borne out by the data. While there is some argument as to the reason (some stating it's a result of scaling) the numbers seem to show that fewer people today are victims of violence when compared to our less civilized past. This suggests that violence is not necessarily inborn, or at least that there are external forces at work that overwhelm our animal instincts.
But what if those external forces could push us in the other direction? Might there be a real-world Darkening out there, waiting, ready to strike? It turns out, there are external forces that influence just how aggressive we are.
TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY
It should be no surprise to discover that our personalities are determined largely by our brains. Modern neuroscience has more-or-less determined that what makes you you is determined by that few pounds of gelatinous material inside your skull — though that isn't the whole picture, but more on that later.
While it's not uncommon for a person's personality to shift throughout their lifetimes as a result of new experiences, dramatic shifts in personality have been seen as a result of brain injury either via disease or trauma.
Perhaps the most common example of these types of changes is a result of dementia or Alzheimers. These changes in the way the brain behaves often have a corresponding impact on the way a person acts, sometimes in violent ways.
A more dramatic example of personality change in the face of brain injury is that of Phineas Gage. In Cavendish, Vermont, in 1848, Gage was a railroad foreman engaged in the act of excavating rock. In his duties, he was tamping down a drill hole in preparation of a blast when a piece of iron, having met with tamping powder, was shot with force through his left cheek and out the top of his skull.
Despite the injury, Gage remained conscious, ensuring the doctor he was alright. Two days later an infection had taken root in the injury, leaving him in a semi-conscious state for the next month. Thereafter, he regained consciousness but was never again the same.
Gage's acquaintances remarked on the definite change in his attitudes and personality. He was said to have been more aggressive in speech and mannerism, such that he lost his job as a foreman on the railroad. Gage died 11 years later, at the age of 36, from epilepsy most-likely due to his injury, but became one of the most famous examples of emerging neuroscience owing to the evidence he provided as to the relationship between the brain and personality.
Though most of us (hopefully) will never fall victim to a spike through the head, there are likely other forces at work, determining just how aggressive you are.
SOCIETAL AND CULTURAL PRESSURES
While the argument over nature versus nurture is forever ongoing, the common wisdom is that you have an inborn personality from day one. Your experiences may color that personality but some people deal with those experiences very differently than others, and that's because of their innate temperament, right?
There's pretty good evidence that personality is heavily influenced by the culture in which you live. That innate personality might actually be the result of early experiences, not something inborn. And, when you stop to think about it, that might be pretty obvious, though for likely inaccurate reasons.
Most of us have some conception of stereotypes apparent in people from other countries or cultures. People from other places might be said to be more introverted or more acquiescent to authority.
A 2005 study of more than 12,000 college students from 51 cultures set out to determine precisely if these prejudices are true, and the results were something of a mixed bag.
Robert McCrae and colleagues, the purveyors of the study in question, determined there are actually differences in personality that correlate to culture, but they found that those differences don't mesh with our preconceived notions. While this study provides evidence against some of our assumptions, it does show that our personalities can, and are, influenced by external factors.
In terms of aggression, or the lack thereof, this can be seen most clearly in our study of the Indus peoples, which lived in an area spanning 800,000 square kilometers in what is now Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan.
By all accounts, their society thrived for approximately 700 years, from 2600 to 1900 BC, with little to no internal or external conflict. Unlike other ancient cultures, they have little to no signs of fortifications, armor, or military weaponry.
To the best of our knowledge, they existed for centuries without any notable violence. Some researchers believe this is due to their unique environmental position. The location of their civilization was such that they had plenty of natural resources and no enemies within attacking distance. As such, they were able to develop an advanced society, relative to the time, with trade, commerce, and technology, without the need for violent defense.
Of course our picture of their society might change as more information becomes available, but they might provide a view toward another way of living, one that is sustainable, cooperative, and without aggression, at least on a large scale. At the very least, it shows that the degree of aggression a society participates in is not solely determined by human nature, but also by external forces. One need only look at the rest of human history to see how we behave when the situation is reversed.
While adversaries from beyond our borders are an easily identifiable enemy and one which we can all-too-easily justify as enemies, we might be even more at the mercy of invaders from within our own bodies. As was previously mentioned, we have a pretty good understanding of the relationship between the brain and our behavior, but more recent research has shown another important relationship: that between our behavior and our guts.
Giving weight to the oft-repeated notion of the gut feeling, researchers have discovered that the nature of our microbiome, the bacteria in our gut, might have a direct impact on our behavior.
A study from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, sought to answer this question. They set up an experiment wherein they replaced the gut bacteria of anxious mice with that of their more fearless counterparts.
They found that those mice who were previously anxious lost that behavior when the microbiome was changed. And the relationship worked both ways. Those mice who were previously more adventurous became worrisome, all because the bacteria in their gut was swapped out. Moreover, they found that aggressive mice could be calmed by changing their diet or giving them antibiotics.
In short, their personalities were influenced in a very real way, not by their brains, but by the bacteria that lived inside them.
This relationship seems to hold up even in humans. Our bodies hold trillions of bacteria, nearly ten times the number as those of our individual cells. While we outnumber them in terms of sheer mass, when it comes to flat numbers, we're more bacteria than human, and their influence is heavily felt.
Studies have shown a correlation between the dominant bacterial strains in our bodies and behavioral traits.
More and more, we're coming to realize that our personalities aren't our own; they are influenced by all sorts of external forces over which we have little or no control. Who you are, and who you will be throughout the remainder of your life, is and will be determined by cultural and environmental forces that might be entirely invisible to you. And as those cultures and environments change in the face of our actions, the way they impact us will change too.
With that in mind, it's in our best interest to at least attempt to move those forces in a positive direction, lest we find ourselves at the mercy of a Darkening of our own.