Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker story about Svante Paabo’s quest to sequence the Neanderthal genome contains a theory about why humans travel and seek the unknown. Kolbert notes that the archeological record shows Neanderthals’ migration stopped “when they reached water or some other significant obstacle,” while “archaic humans” pushed past those barriers, across open water and beyond. Paabo, writes Kolbert, seeks to “identify the basis for this ‘madness’ by comparing Neanderthal and human DNA.”
It’s only modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don’t see land. Part of that is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it. But there is also, I like to think or say, some madness there. You know? How many people must have sailed out and vanished on the Pacific before you found Easter Island? I mean, it’s ridiculous. And why do you do that? Is it for the glory? For immortality? For curiosity? And now we go to Mars. We never stop.
If we one day will know that some freak mutation made the human insanity and exploration thing possible, it will be amazing to think that it was this little inversion on this chromosome that made all this happen and changed the whole ecosystem of the planet and made us dominate everything.
He also tells Kolbert:
We are crazy in some way. What drives it? That I would really like to understand. That would be really, really cool to know.
(Cross-posted at World Hum)