The Wandering Gene

According to an article in The New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert (15&22 Aug 2011):

. . . By about 45,000 years ago, modern humans had already reached Australia, a journey that, even mid-ice age, meant crossing open water.  Archaic humans like Homo erectus “spread like many other mammals in the Old World,” [Svante] Paabo [head of the department of evolutionary genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany] told me.  “They never came to Madagascar, never to Australia.  Neither did Neanderthals.  It’s only fully 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 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 glory?  For immortality?  For curiosity?  And now we go to Mars.  We never stop.”  If the defining characteristic of the modern humans is this sort of Faustian restlessness, then, by Paabo’s account, there must be some sort of Faustian gene.  Several times, he told me that he thought it should be possible to identify the basis for this “madness” by comparing Neanderthal and human DNA.

Ironically, in the same issue, there is a discussion of the same subject from a different perspective.  According to James Wood, writing a review of the book The Joy of Secularism:  11 Essays for How We Live Now:

Secular explanations of the world (modern physics, astronomy, evolution) have not made the world less wondrous, and have not undermined the validity or authority of our wonderment . . .   The contemporary discourses that trouble [Charles] Taylor seek to explain not the world but our minds.  What happens when, say, neuroscience “explains” that our wonderment is merely an evolutionarily determined product of certain processes of our brain? . .  But where are we left when evolutionary biology tries to reduce the strong evaluation we make about altruism by claiming that, like all animal behavior, it is just a contrivance that benefits our selfish genes?

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4 Responses to The Wandering Gene

  1. dor says:

    Hmm. What is this penchant for drawing a species distinction between ourselves and our early ancestors? According to a PhysOrg article from August 17, 2011 (, there is evidence of stone tools made by Homo erectuson Crete, an island. This implies that this pre-sapien “species” did, in fact, travel by sea.
    That part of the human psyche endeavors to reach beyond its limits, to seek to find the boundary of what is known, is quite possible. It is the the part of us that is perhaps “made in the image of God”, always seeking for the possible, the potetial for a better world. To divorce ourselves from our ancients (whether homo erectus or the Boblical ancients) is to assume that an increase in intelligence is the same as a transformation of soul. We and they are one, just as we and whatever comes next will also be one. To think otherwise is to believe the illusion of ego.

  2. dor says:

    Oh, so sorry for the typos. A little to exuberant and not patient enough to proof-read. Please forgive me.

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