Space travel and the explorer gene

By: Richard Osbaldiston, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology for EKU Online

You have probably heard about some of the attempts that are being made to explore space.  Google started the XPrize, a $30 million competition to land a robot on the moon.  Elon Musk (of PayPal fame) had a successful launch and return of a rocket that sent satellites into space.  And Richard Branson (of Virgin airlines) is trying to develop the world’s first commercial “spaceline.”  What drives these people?  Are they nuts?  Is there something wrong with their brains?

Exploring is not a new thing.  Tens of thousands of years ago—like 50,000 years ago—early humans wandered out of Africa and settled onto new continents.  The Vikings left Scandinavia, the Polynesians explored the South Pacific, and even the Europeans went to the New World.  And as you know, in the 1960’s, we put a man on the moon. 

What drives us to explore?  Or more importantly, what drives us to engage in risky behaviors, where the risks are potentially great and the rewards are uncertain?  When it comes to psychology, there are many possible answers, but interestingly, scientists are narrowing in on a gene that has been nicknamed “the explorer gene.”

The explorer gene is a variant of DRD4, and the variant is called DRD4-7R.  This variant is present in about 10-20% of people.  Not everyone is wired to be an explorer.  And that’s probably a good thing.  As a species, we need people who will go explore, but we also need people who will take care of the homefront and engage in safe and productive activities. 

And how do we know 7R drives people to explore?  There is some interesting science being done on this, but the results are still inconclusive.  For example, 7R is more present in people who live in present-day migratory cultures than in settled cultures.  And among tribespeople in Africa, those with 7R tend to thrive if they live in nomadic tribes, but they tend to be weaker and less healthy if they live in settled villages. 

Although the uber-wealthy can buy their way into space, modern American society does not really offer many opportunities for people to just get up and go to another island or continent.  So how do people who are high in this gene variant express themselves?  While this is preliminary science, there seems to be some evidence that DRD4-7R seems to be linked to drug cravings, sensation seeking, and ADHD symptoms.  If you can’t go to the New World, you gotta go somewhere, and maybe that is on a drug trip, a hang gliding trip, or at least a trip out of your seat in the classroom.

Genes are part of the answer to the question, “What drives our behavior?” In the decades to come, as advances are made in space travel, it’s likely that DRD4-7R is partly responsible.

Published on August 01, 2016