How humans evolved to explore

Boldly going where nobody's gone before. In a lot of ways, that idea kind of defines our whole species. We travel. We're curious. We poke our noses around the planet to find new places to live. We're compelled to explore places few people would ever actually want to live. We push ourselves into space.

This behavior isn't totally unique. But it is remarkable. So we have to ask, is there a genetic, evolution-driven, cause behind the restlessness of humanity?

At National Geographic, David Dobbs has an amazing long read digging into that idea. The story is fascinating, stretching from Polynesian sailors to Quebecois settlers. And it's very, very good science writing. Dobbs resists the urge to go for easy "here is the gene that does this" answers. Instead, he helps us see the complex web of genetics and culture that influences and encourages certain behaviors at certain times. It's a great read.

Not all of us ache to ride a rocket or sail the infinite sea. Yet as a species we’re curious enough, and intrigued enough by the prospect, to help pay for the trip and cheer at the voyagers’ return. Yes, we explore to find a better place to live or acquire a larger territory or make a fortune. But we also explore simply to discover what’s there.

“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. There’s a kind of madness to it. Sailing out into the ocean, you have no idea what’s on the other side. And now we go to Mars. We never stop. Why?”

Why indeed? Pääbo and other scientists pondering this question are themselves explorers, walking new ground. They know that they might have to backtrack and regroup at any time. They know that any notion about why we explore might soon face revision as their young disciplines—anthropology, genetics, developmental neuropsychology—turn up new fundamentals. 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?

Read the full story


  1. My theory has been that our restlessness came of trying to get the hell away from each other.  ‘I vant to be alone’.

    Oh… and Happy Holidays, ya’ll.

    1. That’s pretty close to my hypothesis, once I noticed that anatomically modern humans spread across the globe as fast as they could walk. That h. sap. saps. can’t stand each other. That as soon as you get about a dozen families in one place, half of them can no longer stand the other half and have to leave to get away from them.

      1.  Even the humble Australopithecines colonized all of Eurasia about as fast as they could walk.  I’m not sure there’s anything special about homo sapiens here.

      2. I think there is a small percentage of us born to wander, who must constantly test themselves physically and mentally, and it often coincides with a detachment or apathy toward people, or an outright distrust or dislike for their fellow man.   

        Most successful explorers, whether they acknowledge the contributions of others, are almost always ‘team players’.  How are these same histories of famous wanderers written of in the history books of the East?  It’s we in the West who applaude the seeming individualists.

      3. Seasonal movement is a factor as well I think. Many groups of Aboriginal people migrate hundreds of kilometres from season to season. Once you do that it makes sense to pick a different direction from time to time. Either because you want to see what is there or because natural barriers make your normal route unusable.

      4. Well, and wandering off to find your own place is just *easier* than starting a war. Especially when you’re a hunter-gatherer.

  2. I don’t think it is specifically exploring that is the key but people have a built in curiosity and need for stimulation.  This encourages people to seek out new sources of food, try new things, seek better environments, etc.  Obviously this has succeeded more than it has failed since we are thriving today.

    The downside to this is that we become bored easily, we get used to things quickly and accept them (e.g. crappy jobs), we are prone to addictive behaviors, etc.

  3. ‘Why?  Don’t you know?!  He’s been a pain in the ass for years, won’t lift a finger, and to be frank, I could do with the break!’

  4. Erik the Red was exiled from Iceland for three years for killing some people. In his exile, he went and explored a land covered in crappy soil and ice, and called it Greenland to convince gullible Norsemen to settle there.

    So, being an ass. Don’t neglect “being an ass” as a reason to go exploring.

  5. What differentiates h. spaiens from other homo species is that we went places we couldn’t walk, but also to places we couldn’t even see, sailing to lands beyond the visible horizon, beyond the knowable.

  6. Hmm, well, considering that every “explorer” within written history “discovered” other people in the lands they were “exploring” it’s a bit of a moot concept.  As for Neanderthals not exploring, then why do we continue finding new evidence of them in various places?  Same with any other hominid ancestors.  In almost all cases of large migrations in history, the reason was that “new” people invaded and pushed the “old peoples” out.  So…there’s that.

    1. I like penguins, but it still seems a little generous to call them people. What you’re saying is more true about settlers than explorers.

  7. For what it is worth I think our distant ancestors explored their planet much earlier than is shown in the archaeological record. A single motivated person could have seen the whole planet 200000 years ago. I think it is unlikely that nobody gave it a go.

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