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Thread: Understanding our drive to explore

  1. #1
    Senior Contributor
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    09 Oct 10

    Understanding our drive to explore

    This is a very long article, hopefully some of the excerpts will motivate people to read the aricle in its entirety which I have linked at the bottom.

    I have placed this in the ancient, medieval and Early modern ages forum, which may appear on first read, a curious choice, but I hope I make a convincing case at the bottom of the op that it is located in its rightful place.

    The final excerpt discusses a less technical piece of research on pioneers in Canada and makes for a fascinating read into the potential defining nature of a group of people on the forefront of making history, one that may have been repeated again and again across the world.

    In the winter of 1769,*the British explorer Captain James Cook, early into his first voyage across the Pacific, received from a Polynesian priest named Tupaia an astonishing gift—a map, the first that any European had ever encountered showing all the major islands of the South Pacific. Some accounts say Tupaia sketched the map on paper; others that he described it in words. What’s certain is that this map instantly gave Cook a far more complete picture of the South Pacific than any other European possessed. It showed every major island group in an area some 3,000 miles across, from the Marquesas west to Fiji. It matched what Cook had already seen, and showed much he hadn’t.......

    Cook, uniquely among European explorers, understood what Tupaia’s feats meant. The islanders scattered across the South Pacific were one people, who long ago, probably before Britain was Britain, had explored, settled, and mapped this vast ocean*...Two centuries later a global network of geneticists analyzing DNA bread-crumb trails of modern human migration would prove Cook right: Tupaia’s ancestors had colonized the Pacific 2,300 years before. Their improbable migration across the Pacific continued a long eastward march that had begun in Africa 70,000 to 50,000 years earlier. Cook’s journey, meanwhile, continued a westward movement started by his own ancestors, who had left Africa around the same time Tupaia’s ancestors had. In meeting each other, Cook and Tupaia closed the circle, completing a journey their forebears had begun together, so many millennia before....
    “No other mammal moves around like we do,” says Svante Pääbo, a director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, where he uses genetics to study human origins. “We jump borders. We push into new territory even when we have resources where we are. Other animals don’t do this. Other humans either. Neanderthals were around hundreds of thousands of years, but they never spread around the world. In just 50,000 years we covered everything...Yet for those trying to figure out what makes humans tick, our urge to explore is irresistible terrain. What gives rise to this “madness” to explore? What drove us out from Africa and on to the moon and beyond?...

    If an urge to explore*rises in us innately, perhaps its foundation lies within our genome. In fact there is a mutation that pops up frequently in such discussions: a variant of a gene called*DRD4,*which helps control dopamine, a chemical brain messenger important in learning and reward. Researchers have repeatedly tied the variant, known as*DRD4-7R*and carried by roughly 20 percent of all humans, to curiosity and restlessness. Dozens of human studies have found that*7R*makes people more likely to take risks; explore new places...The first large genetic study to do so, led by Chuansheng Chen of the University of California, Irvine in 1999, found*7R*more common in present-day migratory cultures than in settled ones. A larger, more statistically rigorous 2011 study supported this, finding that*7R, along with another variant named*2R, tends to be found more frequently than you would expect by chance in populations whose ancestors migrated longer distances after they moved out of Africa...

    Another recent study backs this up. Among Ariaal tribesmen in Africa, those who carry*7R*tend to be stronger and better fed than their non-7R*peers if they live in nomadic tribes, possibly reflecting better fitness for a nomadic life and perhaps higher status as well. However,*7R*carriers tend to be less well nourished if they live as settled villagers. The variant’s value, then, like that of many genes and traits, may depend on the surroundings. A restless person may thrive in a changeable environment but wither in a stable one; likewise with any genes that help produce the restlessness....
    Kenneth Kidd ...thinks that many of the studies linking*7R*to exploratory traits suffer from mushy methods or math. He notes too that the pile of studies supporting*7R’s link with these traits is countered by another stack contradicting it.

    “You just can’t reduce something as complex as human exploration to a single gene,” he says, laughing. “Genetics doesn’t work that way.”

    Better, Kidd suggests, to consider how groups of genes might lay a foundation for such behavior. On this he and most*7R*advocates agree: Whatever we ultimately conclude about*7R’s role in driving restlessness, no one gene or set of genes can hardwire us for exploration. More likely, different groups of genes contribute to multiple traits, some allowing us to explore, and others,*7R*quite possibly among them, pressing us to do so.
    Alison Gopnik, a child-development psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, says humans also possess another, less obvious advantage that fosters that imaginative capacity: a long childhood in which we can exercise our urge to explore while we’re still dependent on our parents. ..We do less of this as we get older, says Gopnik, and become less willing to explore novel alternatives and more conditioned to stick with familiar ones. “It’s the difference,” she says, “between going to your usual, reliable restaurant versus a new place that might be great or awful.” During childhood we build the brain wiring and cognitive machinery to explore; if we stay alert as adults, this early practice allows us to spot situations in which it pays to shift strategies.*Might there be a Northwest Passage? Could we get to the Pole easier on dogsleds? Maybe, just maybe, we could land a rover on Mars by lowering it from a hovercraft on a cable ...
    In the 1830s in the*deep forests of Quebec, Canada, a restless population of pioneers began a lengthy, risky experiment. Quebec City, built by the French by the St. Lawrence River, was growing fast. To the north, along the Saguenay River, stretched a vast, nearly untouched forest. This rich but brutal country soon attracted loggers and young farming families with a taste for work, risk, and opportunity. Up the valley they went, building one small village after another, creating a wave of settlement moving up the Saguenay. From a biologist’s point of view, such a migratory wave can concentrate not just particular types of people on its frothy front edge; it can also concentrate and aid the expansion of any genes that may encourage those people to migrate...

    But a migratory wave can also allow genes friendly to migration to drive their own selection. A notable, if noxious, example is the South American cane toad. Introduced to northeastern Australia in the 1930s, it now numbers more than 200 million and is advancing across the continent at 30 miles a year. The leading toads hop on legs that are 10 percent longer than those of their 1930s ancestors—and measurably longer than the legs of toads even a mile behind them. How so? Toads that are both restless and long legged move to the front, bringing any restless, long-legged genes with them. There they meet and mate with other restless, long-legged toads to create restless, leggy offspring that move to the front and repeat the cycle.

    Laurent Excoffier, a population geneticist at the University of Bern, thinks something similar occurred with the Quebec loggers. In a 2011 paper Excoffier and some colleagues analyzed centuries of Quebec parish birth, marriage, settlement, and death records and found that the pioneer families behaved and bred in a way that spread both their genes and the traits that drove them to the front. These wave-front couples married and mated sooner than did couples back home, perhaps because they were more impatient folks to begin with and because the frontier gave them access to land and a social atmosphere favorable to starting sooner. This alone produced more children than the “core” families who stayed behind did (9.1 per family versus 7.9, or 15 percent more). And because these children in turn proved likelier to marry early and have more children, each pioneer couple left behind 20 percent more offspring altogether. Twenty percent more offspring produces a huge evolutionary advantage. In this case it rapidly raised the share of these families’ genes and cultures within their own population—and thus within North America’s larger population.

    Excoffier believes that if this “gene surfing,” as some call it, happened often as humans scattered around the globe, it would have selected for multiple genes that favor curiosity, restlessness, innovation, and risk taking. This could, he says, “help explain some of our exploratory behavior.” Exploration may thus create a self-reinforcing loop, amplifying and spreading the genes and traits that drive it.

    The article also discusses the interaction between the biological/genetic underpinnings of our behaviour with that of the more idiosyncratic developments in our history via human culture and technology. Its not that you can truly separate the two forces, but it makes for a more revealing analysis to consider a thought process where the these forces are separate in origin but interact to produce the history of human migration and exploration.

    Understanding the evolutionary and biological elements in our psychology that have influenced human migration is imo, a key element emerging from new fields that when merged with more traditional historical analysis, can provide a new synthesis that provides a more satisfactory and complete account of a period of human history where we explored the unknown too its temporary end.

    Full article
    Restless Genes - Pictures, More From National Geographic Magazine

  2. #2
    Staff Emeritus
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    zraver's Avatar
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    22 Oct 06
    behind me- people I don't like. In front of me- less or no people, or at least people I don't know that I don't like yet. I think the desire t explore is at least population pressure. Some people among us (myself included) do not do well in crowds. We are perhaps more primal or predator by nature than the rest of the more docile herd.

  3. #3
    Senior Contributor Monash's Avatar
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    01 Mar 10
    Curiosity and the urge to explore is closely linked to intelligence. Most mammals express at least a degree of the what humans call 'curiosity' in their behavior at least to the extent that that they will explore new objects in their environment, especially when young. It seems to be both part of the 'learning' process that is distinctly mammalian and also an adaptation that benefits mammals when dealing with changes in the environment or even whole new ecosystems such as when a species migrates to a new continent or is isolated on an island and has to adapt to changed conditions. In general the bigger the brain the more curious the species. Birds also express curiosity - some species more than others, crows are renowned for their curiosity while your average chicken isn't going to win any prizes in that department.
    Last edited by Monash; 28 Jul 14, at 16:09.

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