In the winter of 1769, the British explorer Captain James Cook, early into his first voyage across the Pacific, received from a Polynesian priest named Tupaia an astonishing gift—a map, the first that any European had ever encountered showing all the major islands of the South Pacific. Better, Kidd suggests, to consider how groups of genes might lay a foundation for such behavior. The genes that build our human limbs and brains, Noonan says, are pretty much the same as those that build the same parts of other hominids and apes. Together, says Noonan, these differences compose a set of traits uniquely suited for creating explorers. This feedback loop, Noonan points out, helped empower the great Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton—and saved him when he and his crew were stranded on Elephant Island in 1916. Noonan makes a good case that our big brain and clever hands build a capacity for imagination.
We do less of this as we get older, says Gopnik, and become less willing to explore novel alternatives and more conditioned to stick with familiar ones.
In the 1830s in the deep forests of Quebec, Canada, a restless population of pioneers began a lengthy, risky experiment. Sometimes a gene rides such a wave passively, more or less by accident—the gene just happens to be common in the leading migrators, so it becomes common in the communities they establish. But a migratory wave can also allow genes friendly to migration to drive their own selection.
Laurent Excoffier, a population geneticist at the University of Bern, thinks something similar occurred with the Quebec loggers. There is another self-reinforcing dynamic operating in exploration—an ongoing conversation between culture and genes, wherein genes shape what sort of culture we create and the culture in turn shapes our genomes. This is culture in a broad sense—shareable knowledge, practices, or technology that people use to adapt to an environment.
With his ships, his compass and sextant, and his mandate from his king, Cook too leveraged his smarts and curiosity to bring home a map of a world previously uncharted.
Their journey began about 60,000 years ago, when one of the first migratory pulses shot from Africa across the Middle East and along Asia’s southern coast. These boats were ships, really: long canoes with sails, outriggers, and far greater speed and range. A proper sailing craft like the ship the Polynesians developed makes a near-perfect metaphor for the larger powers we gain through culture.
Will it be possible to one day bring a woolly mammoth, like this replica in a museum in Vancouver, Canada, back to life?
These are some of the questions explored in science writer Maura Oa€™Connora€™s new book, Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction And The Precarious Future of Wild Things. Traveling the world from Kenya (in search of the white rhino) to a lab in California (where a geneticist is trying to resurrect the extinct passenger pigeon), Oa€™Connor reports on the people and places on the front lines of what has become known as resurrection science. You write, a€?When I was a kid in the 1990s, the world felt like it was on the edge of catastrophe.a€? Wind back the clock for us and explain how those childhood experiences got you interested in the question of extinctions.
Changes are now happening so quickly that they appear to be driving some species towards extinction because they cana€™t adapt fast enough.
One of the problems conservationists face is that therea€™s no clear definition of what a species is.
I wanted to understand how there came to be a small population of panthers living in Florida, north of Miami and south of Disney World. The northern white rhino, like this one in San Diego Zoo Safari Park, is one of the rarest creatures on Earth. He was the person who went out in the early a€™70s with the World Wildlife Fund and rediscovered this population that no one was sure even existed. The reason McBride strikes some as an odd person to be involved with this rescue operation is that he was formerly hired by the U.S. Before the Endangered Species Act extended protection, the government was actively involved in hunting down predators that were deemed to pose a risk to businesses landowners.
Roy McBride was a very successful tracker and hunter of both mountain lions and the Mexican grey wolf. Passenger pigeons went extinct in about one-thousandth of a percent of the time they were on Earth. Novaka€™s work mapping the genome of this bird has shown theya€™re at least 22 million years old. What Novak and his team at the University of California, Santa Cruz, hope to do is use the genetic material of its nearest living relative, the band-tailed pigeon. Once theya€™ve been able to genetically modify a band-tailed pigeon, they hope to incubate that genetic material in other band-tailed pigeons to produce passenger pigeons.
If everything progresses as Novak hopes, we might have a passenger pigeon again in ten years. When I started writing the chapter on northern white rhinos, there were seven left in the world.
His thought was that if we wanted to create greater genetic diversity within the human population, one way to do that might be to bring back Neanderthals through genetic engineering and then incubation in a surrogate.
At the end of the book, you say, a€?I have heard few cases for de-extinction that present a clear and compelling argument that justify the risks.a€? How did writing this book change your perspective? My feeling about de-extinction has changed because the people I met and talked to are brilliant and passionate and had wonderful motives for wanting to bring back species that became extinct because of our ignorance and behavior. But in many of the de-extinctions being proposed, they dona€™t address the problems that caused the extinctions in the first place.
SPENCER WELLS: By looking at your particular pattern of genetic markers, we can place you onto a branch of the human family tree, if you will, a branch that unites you and other people that have that same set of genetic markers that you inherited from a common ancestor. SW: Essentially everybody around the world can be broken down into nine ancestral components, and everyone is a mix of those components through the migration paths of our ancestors. CSM: When I compare my percentages of these nine ancestral components (three of which I have), I notice that I'm most similar to modern people from Spain, Greece, Italy, and Great Britain. SW: You know, the typical Puerto Rican has got about 25 percent African, about 11 percent Native American, the rest is European, in terms of those components. CSM: And that makes perfect sense, because as I did a little more digging, I learned that my ancestors were only in Puerto Rico a short time. SW: As modern humans were leaving Africa around 60,000 years ago, we seem to have encountered them and we admixed--we interbred with them to a small degree--so non-Africans today are carrying a very small percentage of their genome that traces back to these other hominid species that were already out there. Soon after that, the Polynesian wowed the crew by navigating to an island unknown to Cook, some 300 miles south, without ever consulting compass, chart, clock, or sextant. The islanders scattered across the South Pacific were one people, who long ago, probably before Britain was Britain, had explored, settled, and mapped this vast ocean without any of the navigational tools that Cook found essential—and had carried the map solely in their heads ever since. Their improbable migration across the Pacific continued a long eastward march that had begun in Africa 70,000 to 50,000 years earlier. Barratt consciously sees himself extending the journey Cook and Tupaia took in the Pacific. In fact there is a mutation that pops up frequently in such discussions: a variant of a gene called DRD4, which helps control dopamine, a chemical brain messenger important in learning and reward.
The first large genetic study to do so, led by Chuansheng Chen of the University of California, Irvine in 1999, found 7R more common in present-day migratory cultures than in settled ones.
Among Ariaal tribesmen in Africa, those who carry 7R tend to be stronger and better fed than their non-7R peers if they live in nomadic tribes, possibly reflecting better fitness for a nomadic life and perhaps higher status as well. Yale University evolutionary and population geneticist Kenneth Kidd thinks that overstates its role.

Each species’ limbs and brains end up different largely because the construction projects directed by these developmental genes start and stop at different times. After polar ice crushed their ship, Shackleton, 800 miles from anywhere with 27 exhausted men, little food, and three small open boats, conceived an insanely ambitious sea voyage. Yet while other animals play mainly by practicing basic skills such as fighting and hunting, human children play by creating hypothetical scenarios with artificial rules that test hypotheses.
For instance, if genes for curly hair had been especially common in the Europeans who first started spreading across North America, curly hair would have become more common in North America as those settlers spread across the continent.
In a 2011 paper Excoffier and some colleagues analyzed centuries of Quebec parish birth, marriage, settlement, and death records and found that the pioneer families behaved and bred in a way that spread both their genes and the traits that drove them to the front. These things exist only because our genetic traits evolved to the point where we could create them, and we reshape them constantly.
The first time a human ancestor used a rock to smack open a nut, she opened the way to a culture that may have increasingly selected for the genes studied by Jim Noonan that underlie dexterity and imagination. His genes and culture, it seems, took a more puzzling path to their meeting with their British counterparts.
Ana Duggan, telling me of these boats in Leipzig, confessed she was by nature not the sailing type. The early a€™90s was also a time when the idea that we need to save species at risk because of habitat destruction, pollution, and deforestation, was making news. The reason I wanted it as the title for the book is that in the next decades we could be bringing back species from the dead, so to speak. How can we use our scientific and technological mastery to do something wea€™d have thought miraculous not that long ago? What we dona€™t necessarily think about is that by changing habitats and environments, wea€™re influencing the forces that act upon evolution. The birds went extinct in North America in 1914, but a geneticist in California now hopes to bring them back.
Before the 19th century, people believed a species was divinely created and had fixed identities.
Genetic sequencing compounds the problem because we can now look into the genetic makeup of an animal and see how closelya€”or nota€”ita€™s related to a distant relative.
When I started speaking to folks involved in the conservation effort, it became clear that McBride had played a central role. In the early a€™90s, he then brought mountain lions from Texas to Florida in order to do a a€?genetic rescuea€? of the Florida panther population, which had become very inbred and was suffering as a result. I wasna€™t convinced that it was a necessary or appropriate response to some extinction crises.
The first colonial settlers described seeing an incomprehensible abundance of them in American skies and forests. But therea€™s a whole other process of trying to figure out how you teach this animal to be a passenger pigeon. Kes and her husband, Frasier, have spent more than two decades trying to protect the last population in Garamba National Park.
There are dozens of species thought to have gone extinct, which were then sighted sometimes many decades after the last sighting.
The press loves this story because ita€™s almost like the idea of time travel, and thata€™s endlessly fascinating for us to think about.
That is something for us all to think about, particularly in regard to our relationship with nature and what kind of world we want to be living in.
We may be able to create woolly mammoths, which would be Asian elephants genetically engineered to survive in the Arctic. In fact, it's more of a branching tree, telling the story of our origins in Africa and our migrations throughout the world. It's called the Genographic Project, sponsored by National Geographic, and over half a million people have participated so far. Through this powerful tool, I can look back at where my particular ancestors lived and when.
And so looking at your result, for instance, you have three of those components, Mediterranean, northern European, and southwest Asian, and this is very typical of, you know, in people of European descent. And looking at the ratio of Mediterranean and northern European it’s mostly from, you know, Southern Europe, from the Mediterranean region, so you know, Spain and Italy, which makes sense given what we know about the historical migration patterns. In fact, my mother's mother's mother's mother (I think) came there from the Canary Islands, so she was of Spanish descent. What’s certain is that this map instantly gave Cook a far more complete picture of the South Pacific than any other European possessed. In the weeks that followed, as he helped guide the Endeavour from one archipelago to another, Tupaia amazed the sailors by pointing on request, at any time, day or night, cloudy or clear, precisely toward Tahiti. Yes, we explore to find a better place to live or acquire a larger territory or make a fortune.
Researchers have repeatedly tied the variant, known as DRD4-7R and carried by roughly 20 percent of all humans, to curiosity and restlessness. A larger, more statistically rigorous 2011 study supported this, finding that 7R, along with another variant named 2R, tends to be found more frequently than you would expect by chance in populations whose ancestors migrated longer distances after they moved out of Africa. Kidd speaks with special authority here, as he was part of the team that discovered the 7R variant 20 years ago.
More likely, different groups of genes contribute to multiple traits, some allowing us to explore, and others, 7R quite possibly among them, pressing us to do so. Using a handful of basic tools to modify a 22-foot lifeboat, the James Caird (another tool), for a task absurdly beyond its original design, he gathered his navigational instruments and five of his men and executed a trip that few would dare imagine. We stop nursing roughly a year and a half sooner than gorillas and chimps, and then take a far slower path to puberty—about a decade, compared with the three to five years typical for gorillas and chimps.
Introduced to northeastern Australia in the 1930s, it now numbers more than 200 million and is advancing across the continent at 30 miles a year.
These wave-front couples married and mated sooner than did couples back home, perhaps because they were more impatient folks to begin with and because the frontier gave them access to land and a social atmosphere favorable to starting sooner. But this changing culture can likewise shape our genetic evolution, sometimes in stunningly quick and direct ways.
In fact the Polynesians’ spread across the Pacific represents one of the oddest of the movements that took modern Homo sapiens out of the African homeland and around the globe. For another 10,000 years these people spread through this island region, sometimes called Near Oceania, until they reached the curved chains of the Bismarck and Solomon Islands. When I was 14, I read Douglas Adamsa€™s amazing book, Last Chance to See, which made a huge impression on me.
By trying to de-extinct species, wea€™re bringing together two very different things: mythology and science.
What biologists have learned studying them is that evolution occurs much faster than Darwin believed, and faster even than biologists believed 30 years ago.
Thata€™s why it matters for conservationists to have an accepted definition of what a species is and is not.
By using genetic editing tools theya€™ll alter the DNA of a band-tailed pigeon to passenger pigeon DNA. When I started speaking to people about the history of the northern white rhino, Kes Hillman Smitha€™s name kept coming up. It was discussed because of a book by George Church, of Harvard Medical School, whoa€™s involved with some of these de-extinction initiatives.

National Geographic's not-for-profit Genographic Project aims to trace and connect each of our individuals branches to answer questions about how human beings became so genetically diverse.
In fact, DNA analysis can reveal specific markers that tell the rich story of our ancestral migration patters. Apparently, members of my direct lineage were the first people to ever leave Africa and venture north around 60,000 years ago.
So you can define people on the basis of those percentages, but not everybody who’s Puerto Rican is going to have that exact mix as you found out.
It's enthralling to look at all the reference populations that have been compiled so far and learn about their individual stories. Want to participate in this global citizen science project and learn about your own journey along the way? It showed every major island group in an area some 3,000 miles across, from the Marquesas west to Fiji. In meeting each other, Cook and Tupaia closed the circle, completing a journey their forebears had begun together, so many millennia before. The variant’s value, then, like that of many genes and traits, may depend on the surroundings. Like other skeptics, he thinks that many of the studies linking 7R to exploratory traits suffer from mushy methods or math.
It helps, in short, to think not just of the urge to explore but of the ability, not just the motivation but the means. This triad separates us from other apes and, in small but vital developmental details, from other hominids.
The leading toads hop on legs that are 10 percent longer than those of their 1930s ancestors—and measurably longer than the legs of toads even a mile behind them.
It began as the first and one of the fastest, slowed to a halt, and then finished in a record sprint.
Over the next few centuries this meshing of genes and cultures created a new people called the Lapita.
The excitement the ships created, traceable today in the Polynesian culture and the longevity of its marine vocabulary, would have conferred great status.
To the Lapita looking out from the eastern tip of the Solomons, a vast ocean before them, such a boat would offer something like a new set of legs.
You can see species like the White Sands pupfish changing in response to their environment in a couple of decades. Hea€™s a very passionate young man in his 20s whoa€™s completely in love with passenger pigeons and has dedicated his young life to try and bring them back to the forests of the northeast United States. And the fact that they went extinct in about one-thousandth of a percent of the time they were on Earth is truly incredible. And it certainly doesna€™t solve the problem of why wea€™re experiencing an era of rapid climate change. All of the people alive on the planet today exist as teeny tiny terminal branches on a rich and beautiful tree--the tree of humanity. And in doing so, you can contribute to a wealth of information that's constantly being updated, contributing to the story of all of us. Back in the lab, my DNA was sequenced and compared to the analyses of all the other participants in this global project. Then they moved east, living for some time in the Nile basin and continuing on to other regions of western Asia.
You can see that people from island cultures like Papua New Guinea have very little genetic variation, while Mexican Americans are incredibly diverse, genetically speaking. With the NASA rover Curiosity now stirring us all as it explores Mars, the United States, along with other countries and several private companies, is preparing to send humans to the red planet as well. Yet for those trying to figure out what makes humans tick, our urge to explore is irresistible terrain.
Studies in animals simulating 7R’s actions suggest it increases their taste for both movement and novelty.
A restless person may thrive in a changeable environment but wither in a stable one; likewise with any genes that help produce the restlessness. He notes too that the pile of studies supporting 7R’s link with these traits is countered by another stack contradicting it. Before you can act on the urge, you need the tools or traits that make exploration possible. How will this schoolhouse game change if I’m the teacher and my big brother is the student? Maybe, just maybe, we could land a rover on Mars by lowering it from a hovercraft on a cable. This rich but brutal country soon attracted loggers and young farming families with a taste for work, risk, and opportunity. And because these children in turn proved likelier to marry early and have more children, each pioneer couple left behind 20 percent more offspring altogether. Tiller in hand and new isles in their minds, they could press on in their journey around the globe. Thata€™s pretty spectacular and scientists are becoming aware that this kind of rapid evolution is occurring in other species, like Chinook salmon or soapberry bugs.
And ita€™s far from clear that scientists understand how they could bring back those types of relationships. And if you trace those branches backward, you'll find that at our roots, we are all Africans. Later, about 15,000 years ago, after the glaciers that made much of the north uninhabitable melted, they migrated into western Europe. But I have to tell you, the thing I was most fascinated to learn was that 1.7 percent of my DNA is of Neanderthal origin. Such play effectively makes children explorers of landscapes filled with competing possibilities. Up the valley they went, building one small village after another, creating a wave of settlement moving up the Saguenay.
Toads that are both restless and long legged move to the front, bringing any restless, long-legged genes with them. Like today’s astronauts, the Pacific Island boatbuilders and sailors would have enjoyed a social cachet that enhanced mating opportunities, commanded social and economic support, and created a motivating force that might coddle any number of restless genes.
He's a geneticist, anthropologist, and Explorer-in-Residence at the National Geographic Society. There they meet and mate with other restless, long-legged toads to create restless, leggy offspring that move to the front and repeat the cycle. This advantage rapidly spread the gene throughout Europe, even as it remained rare most other places. Culture and genes started selecting for each other: A new culture made a gene more valuable, and as the gene spread through the population, it made dairy-farming culture more important.

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