In general, my family are not the travelling sort. My dad does a bit of travelling for work, he’s been to a fair few places and is open-minded when it comes to choosing a holiday destination. But it’s not high on his list of priorities. That is, unless it’s a scorching hot beach holiday. You get what I mean.
My mum does not like to travel. She knows where she likes to go and will go back to the same place every year. It’s unlikely that she will try anywhere new and, if she does, it certainly won’t have been her idea.
My sister – my twin sister – admitted to me the other day that she hates travel. She hates the hassle involved and thinks it brings too much stress with it. I did get her to book a spur of the moment trip with me to South Africa back in the day but, in her defence, she was very hungover and not in a good way at the time.
I, on the other hand, love to travel. The hassle for me embodies itself as anticipation and the stress is replaced with excitement. I don’t know how it happened or who I got it from but it is well and truly an established part of me.
If someone was to ask me whether I thought the desire to travel was genetic I would immediately say no based on personal experience. I do know people who love to travel and whose parents love to travel, but whether it’s a genetic trait or an environmentally borne characteristic is still very much up for debate in my mind.
So what is it, then, that drives humans to explore the world around them?
If we take a step back from the highly limited family tree and instead take a look at humans as a species that have existed for thousands of years, we might be able to glean some kind of answer.
Where did it begin?
According to research, the human race originates from somewhere in the heart of Africa. Around 60,000 years ago the population began to migrate to the Middle East before some headed west into Europe and others continued east along the south coast of Asia. The reason for this migration is still undecided, although many ideas have been offered.
Some say it was the need for fresh resources, some say that they were driven away, some say it was mere curiosity. All that matters, though, is that it happened. It was the start of 50,000 years of exploration that saw all corners of the earth uncovered by voyaging folk.
I should mention that there is one reason bandied around more often than others, one which highlights the notion of progression; over time, humans would have created new tools and new ways of doing things that would have allowed them to travel further and more easily than before.
Michael Barratt of NASA sums it up well:
“It works this way at every point in human history. A society develops an enabling technology, whether it’s the ability to preserve and carry food or build a ship or launch a rocket. Then you find people passionate enough about getting out there and finding new stuff.”
The 50,000 years of exploration is by no means over. We only have to look at our pursuit to discover Mars through the Curiosity rover. Give us something unexplored and we will find a way to travel there and check it out.
No other species of animal on the planet get around like we do – we push into new territory even when we have ample resources and everything we need right where we are.
This wasn’t always the way though.
Research has shown that our Neanderthal ancestors who live hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of years ago were not so travel-happy. So what has changed?
Some say it’s in our DNA. Not the genes that are so lovingly handed down by our parents, but the genetics of the human race as a whole which has developed through the survival of the fittest over the centuries.
The last few decades saw some pretty ground-breaking research. Scientists discovered the variant of a gene called DRD4 which is linked to our dopamine levels and is important for learning and reward. This variant, called DRD4-7R, is thought to be carried by around 20% of the population and has been linked to an increased sense of curiosity and the need for motion and change.
Essentially, carriers of the gene are more likely to take risks, to explore new places, try new things (be it food, ideas, relationships), and to embrace adventure.
Could this explain why only certain people have the desire to travel?
If only it were that simple.
Whilst there seems to be a solid foundation for this research, many scientists, including those involved with the research, have argued that something as complex as human curiosity and exploration cannot be linked to one single gene.
So, what else is there? Why do people travel?
Our bodies are made for exploration. Look at us: we have excellent mobility, great dexterity and brains that, like no other species, can think imaginatively.
Because this is what it boils down to, really; imagination.
Developmental and evolutionary geneticist Jim Noonan puts it simply:
“Think of a tool. If you can use it well and have imagination, you think of more applications for it.”
When you begin to discover more ways to use the tool, you will automatically begin to imagine more goals that it can help you to accomplish.
We as humans are encouraged to exercise our imagination during our unusually long childhood. Other animals do play but, whilst doing so, they are practicing their basic survival skills. Humans, on the other hand, create hypothetical situations and re-enact them using a vivid and well-rehearsed imagination.
As we get older though, this imaginative play begins to diminish. We often prefer to opt for safer choices; choices we know well and are comfortable with. However, it is those of us that can prolong the spirit of playfulness that is linked with imaginative possibilities that end up being the most likely to explore.
I have covered a number of reasons why we as a human race are seemingly obsessed with exploration and the discovery of new things, but it is essentially different for each individual.
From my experience it is not genetic in the familial sense; why do I like to travel if my twin sister doesn’t, despite us sharing exactly the same genes? Instead, it seems to be an innate drive that needs to be activated or exercised.
I’ve discussed some of the reasons why humans as a species travel, but why do YOU travel?
NB – This post was inspired by an article in the latest National Geographic magazine called Restless Genes.
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About the author: Lizzie is a full time marketing assistant and part-time travel blogger promoting the ways to get the most out of grab-it-when-you-can travel. She spends her time creatively thinking of ways to plan trips around her job and advocating the idea that you don’t have to be ‘homeless’ to enjoy the perks of frequent travel. Aside from this, Lizzie likes questioning why people travel and the psychology behind it, watching crap American TV programmes, and drinking too much tea (cider). You can find out more about Lizzie here (go on – I know you want to see what’s behind the melon…)