“We jump borders. We push into new territory even when we have resources where we are. Other animals don’t do this,” says Svante Pääbo, director of Evolutionary Anthropology at Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, “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 do we keep going? What is it about us as a human race that urges us to go out and explore? Is it simply because we have feet to take us there? Or is it something much deeper - something embedded in our bones - perhaps a trait passed throughout time from our ancestors? Is there something inside of us that urges us to go out and experience the world?
According to a new study, about 20 percent of the human population experiences feelings like the ones listed above. A gene mutation, closely associated with ADHD, just might be the answer to our constant curiosity for the world around us and restlessness when it comes to staying in one place. David Dobbs wrote a National Geographic piece about this gene mutation where he explained, “(this gene) makes people more likely to take risks; explore new places, ideas, foods, relationships, drugs, or sexual opportunities; and generally embrace movement, change, and adventure.”
So what exactly is this gene mutation that makes us adventurers out there practically pee our pants with excitement every time we board a plane?
It is a variant of the gene DRD4, which is a dopamine receptor that sends the brain messages associated with learning and reward. The mutation, DRD4-7R, dubbed the “wanderlust gene,” is said to be linked to one’s thirst for adventure and exploration. 7R was even found to be prevalent in animals, which manifested in a desire for movement and novelty.
A study conducted by Chuansheng Chen of University of California Irvine in 1999, revealed that DRD4-7R is presently found more often in cultures that migrate over the ones that stay put. Chen’s study was then backed by an even larger study done in 2011, which provided additional evidence that this gene is more prevalent in societies that have a long lineage of migration. While neither of these studies have the ancestral evidence that these genes were possessed, the findings do support the idea of the wanderlust gene.
Another study took into account the tribesmen of the present day African tribe, Ariaal. They found that those living in a more nomadic tribe who carry the 7R variation were better fed and physically more fit than those who did not carry the 7R. Conversely, they looked at those 7R’s living in a more stable village and they found that they were less nourished. This suggests that those possessing the DRD4-7R will fade in a stable environment and in relation, so will that gene. This alludes that because the gene mutation thrives among nomad communities, it would then be passed down to children of adventure seekers and we would then see their children follow in the same footsteps as their parents.
While it would be convenient to have an excuse for why some of us have a burning desire to travel, skeptics like Kenneth Kidd, a scientists who played a part in the original discovery of the 7R variant, suggest that this idea of the wanderlust gene is a tad bit too far fetched -- “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 - pressuring us to do so.” Instead, he suggests that aside from possessing a deep motivation to travel, having the means to do so is a much more important part of the puzzle.
The 20 percenters who live to travel, to take risks and to explore beyond the edge of comfort possess a beautiful childlike mentality and primal resourcefulness. While this can play to our advantage, it can also land people in some pretty sticky situations. Because this gene variation resembles that of a Neanderthal, according to Pääbo’s study, it can also be connected to compulsive actions. In no way is this a bad trait, so long as it understood and openly analyzed by the variation holder.
So for all of you fellow wanderlusters out there, know that you are not alone. Know that there is an amass of you looking for the next thrill, a ledge to blindly fly off of, for new corners of the world to explore. Know that this lust is embedded in you as deeply as the color of your eyes - so embrace it. Never forget, as the brilliant Dr. Seuss said, “You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose!”