What drives people to explore?

Buzz Aldrin on the moon
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot of the first lunar landing mission, poses for a photograph beside the deployed United States flag during an Apollo 11 Extravehicular Activity (EVA) on the lunar surface.
Photo Courtesy of NASA

Humans, unlike other mammals, are driven to explore the unknown, discover new worlds, push the boundaries of our scientific and technical limits and then push further. What drives humans to explore? Is there something in our genes that can explain it?

We wanted to talk about exploration after a recent article in National Geographic:

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 Paabo, 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?"

James Noonan, assistant professor of genetics and member of the Kavil Institute for Neuroscience and the Yale Cancer Center at Yale University, will join The Daily Circuit Monday, Jan. 7 to talk about the science behind our drive to explore. Michael Barratt, NASA astronaut and senior editor of "Principles of Clinical Medicine for Space Flight," will also join the discussion.

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